Something that all addicts share is a hi-tech toolbox filled with psychological denial. This includes drawers for rationalization, slots for excuses and various compartments for blame projection.
So, were I to maintain that my approach to alcohol and its associated ‘ism’ since Intoxicology Report launched in 2011, overloaded with flippancy and snorts, can be blamed on the fact that I used to write for humor magazines, you might assume that it is my addiction speaking.
But like all addicts, I’d rather you gave me the benefit of the doubt.
I do my best to write honestly—I have spoken about my past, occasionally chronic drug use, including heroin, with candor and some confessed embarrassment. Still, by rote and predilection, I tend to make light of subjects that I do not necessarily find to be light subjects.
It’s a coping mechanism more than a defense mechanism, and in that, I firmly believe.
So yesterday, when I visited my daughter Caitlin at a court-ordered rehab center, it was not the irony of the situation—feeling the pain of a parent watching a beloved child struggling with the very substance he writes about, jokes about and in many ways reveres—it was the obligation of the situation.
Caitlin’s ordeal—self-ordained, of course; most of the shit-piles drunks land in are—began with back-to-back stints in two county jails, the last of which involved sharing digs with Donna Scrivo who was awaiting trial for dismembering her son and distributing the pieces around rural St. Clair County.
Scared straight? Not particularly: “She is the sweetest woman you could imagine,” Caitlin says. “But she smiles constantly, no matter what—that’s weird.”
Otherwise, her cellmates were the usual spread of armed robbers, meth dealers, child abusers, psychopaths and unmedicated bipolar Jane Does.
Not that it makes a difference, but you couldn’t imagine someone who less fits the Central Casting jailbird image than my white, blond, suburban speck of a daughter, Caitlin Grace: She’s 4’11”, which means she missed legitimate Little People status by an inch. She hasn’t seen three figures on the bathroom scale… ever. People, of course, shouldn’t dodge bullets based on looking like a miniature Ashley Tisdale in a cheerleader movie, but let’s be frank—they often do. In any case, the people with whom she wound up incarcerated were pretty universally non-suburban, non-petite and non-white.
That’s the system; that’s the way the ugly works—I’ve told every one of my kids that falling into the shark-maw of that ravenous, cold-blooded beast is the worst career move you can make. Once it sets its teeth, it does not gladly let go.
That said, learning the beast’s rules is fairly easy, although playing the beast’s game is often—for myriad reasons—infinitely hard. Parental mentorship only goes so far. We can’t, alas, cover all contingencies, prepare them for every challenge. For example, we don’t specifically say, “Avoid chopping Junior into chunks and tossing him out the window along I-94”, and in Caitlin’s case, I never said, “Don’t get drunk and break into your ex-boyfriend’s house and steal things, even if they’re yours.”
Both can be found under the generic advice category of “Don’t be a douchebag.”
Likewise, the theory that you shouldn’t get drunk and forget you have a court date goes along with, “You shouldn’t get so scared you missed your court date you can’t mentally prepare for the next one, so you get drunk and miss that one too.”
Because more times than not, that will lead to me driving to some state-sanctioned rehabilitation dump in Flint, Michigan—a city so dark and depressing that it makes edge-city Detroit look like Seville in the springtime.
They Tried To Make Her Go To Rehab; I said, ‘Go, Go, Go’
Three months at New Paths, a prison-alternative drug treatment center for non-violent offenders (after they’ve served some portion of their sentence) is the get-out-jail-free option Caitlin Kassel was offered, although ‘free’ is a misnomer as it will cost me, it will cost her, and as taxpayers, it will cost you. The ‘sobering facility’—their terminology—was established in 1979, primarily to separate girls who can’t handle Saturday night and a paycheck from women like Scrivo who can’t handle children and a Ginsu knife.
As for its effectiveness in treating addicts, that’s pretty much a nudge-and-wink joke going in, isn’t it? These joints are pretty much rule-factories run by authoritarian cretins who are paid minimally to exercise control maximally, and if that’s not a prescription for failure among tough, self-centered, take-no-shit junkies, I’m not sure what is.
A cursory glance at the New Path staff roster shows two therapists, one named ‘Star’ and one named ‘Ebony’ and neither with letters after her name to indicate qualifications.
According to Caitlin, they spend four hours a day in ‘group sessions’, which is essentially a bunch of fucked-up women sharing stories about how badly they fucked up after getting fucked up and counting the hours until they can get fucked up again. This is, of course, about the same way they’d be passing their personal time if there were no therapy sessions at all. After that, they are confined to a dreary day room where they do little but watch a prehistoric Memorex tv and wait for hourly breaks where they stand in a fenced-in parking lot and smoke cigarettes. Smoking (for the record) killed more people in a single day in 2014 than methamphetamine—the reason most of them are there—did all year.
If you grew up in relative affluence like Caitlin did, the place seems a museum diorama of how you don’t want your life to unfold: Shoddy, used-up and appointed with cheap, brutal, banal, bureaucratic bullshit.
But if you grew up like most of her fellow New Pathers did, this is no set piece—this is the universe yesterday, today and likely tomorrow.
I walk into a bathroom-sized reception area to confront a hefty woman in purple sweats eating ribs and fries from a styrofoam container; she tells me I’ll have to wait until she’s done eating despite the fact that all she has to do is glance at my driver’s license and despite the fact that I am right on time for the visit. I mean, ghetto is one thing, but this woman is the entire ghetto concept distilled into a single pissed-off, pencil-pushing, pork-pounding pogue.
So I wait, along with a bunch of weary-looking people and hyperkinetic kids—it’s Mother’s Day, and every resident over the age of fourteen, of course, has children. In time I’m hustled down some stairs into an open space that passes for a recreation/exercise/dining room. Think of the worst hangover you’ve ever had and suppose you could make furniture out of it; this would be it. Basically, you can find couches and tables in better condition cruising any neighborhood on trash day.
So be it; dignity is clearly not the purpose here, unless it is sheer fatalistic dignity: The walls are bargain-bin wood panel filled with kicked-in frustration holes, the drop ceiling is missing yards of tile; there is a window rod and a full curtain with no window behind it, not even a bricked-up window—no door, no egress, nothing but more wall. There’s an omnipresent stench of industrial cleaner against decades of dirt that can never be excised, there are two Santa figures left over from Christmas, one Caucasian and one African-American (or maybe African-North Polean).
Overseeing all is a tattered magazine cutout of ‘The Serenity Prayer’, which, you’ll recall, says in part, ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…’
Or, in prison-ese: ‘This is it, bitch. Deal with it.’
But what do you do? How hard it is to accept the things you cannot change? Bitch-up and deal with it? Sometimes, despite your best efforts, your kids will grow up with a blend of entitlement and insecurity, arrogance and timidity, potency and debilitating weakness and do silly, naughty, mean-spirited things. There’s only so many times I can ask myself how much a column minimizing the degradation that alcohol can cause while glorifying drinking as an art form has to do with it. Ask if it is genetic, or if not, how much my casual attitude toward drugs as a sort of ‘freedom to choose’ lifestyle-decision influenced her—someone who can clearly not handle that lifestyle without ending up in a dungeon being ordered around by some skanky-looking tyrant in Geri curls and a plate of carryout ribs.
Most of these questions are not easy to ask, nor are the answers easy to come by, but thankfully, a more basic one is:
There is no love that can be compared to the love you feel for your children. If you are doing it right, it is unconditional in the purest version of the conceit and it pales in comparison to anything you’ve ever felt for your parents, your spouse, your lover. I have a son who is ten months younger than Caitlin who has been on the Dean’s list for three straight years at University of Michigan School of Engineering and I have not the slightest doubt of the validity of my emotions: I hold both them equally dear, equally precious, equally irreplaceable in the flow of my life.
In the end, they are not obligated to be the kind of kids you can love; you are obligated to love the kind of kids they are.
That’s what I use for my Serenity Prayer, and if it doesn’t always help, I can guarantee you that it never, ever hurts.