Rehab on Sea
In the run-up to rehab (prehab), I began to make some headway with my counsellor, talking more honestly about my sight-condition, and abuse experienced in my early teens. I even managed to get a few months clean, but one slip led to another, and another, until, one morning, travel-warrant in pocket, I was leaving Paddington station with a celebratory cappuccino on the flop-down ledge before me - destination, the coastal town they forgot to close down. By now, my dreams felt so on hold I’d almost forgotten what they were. Slough, Reading, Bristol Templemeads, are just a few of the noteworthy stations I passed through, and then, waiting to get off, standing on that bit where carriages meet, a woman asked me if I was down for a holiday. From what I could tell, she was pretty nice-looking, chestnutty hair, possibly cascading, about my age, and sounded kind of local, fun, without instilling instant fear. I couldn’t tell what blather to give her – she was out of bounds before we’d even met. I supplied some gaucherie about being down for a conference, trying to sound both worth bothering with, and not worth bothering with, in one easy reply. The phrasebook of failure’s full of words you’d like to say, wouldn’t dare say, and those you only dance around, hoping someone will catch your meaning. The train began to slow, my station was announced - I got off, a stooped apology with swollen shoulder-bag, she stayed on, no doubt to bless some little town down the line with her wit and chestnutty ways. And that was the end of that, a one-minute, and possibly one-sided, romance.
There was a taxi-rank outside. I lumbered up to the front, in accordance with protocol, and told the driver the address I wanted to go to, wondering if he knew it was a rehab. Just in case he didn’t, I made out I was a writer, down to visit friends, which was kind of true.
The rehab was on a sloping road with a church across the way, and looked for all the world like a generic guesthouse from a generic seaside resort, with a touch of Cockleshell Bay about it. It consisted of two four-storey antique terraces, knocked into one labyrinthine wonderhouse, perfect for Cluedo, nook-ridden, meaningless landings, and, high in the workings, stretches of carpet that hadn’t been trodden on for months.
Having rung the generic doorbell, I waited on the doorstep for maybe a minute. Then, noting how soft the sea-air was on the nose, a few times, I heard a rustling, an unbolting, and the heavy door before me swung open. A skeletal cockney beamed before me like Canning Town’s answer to Jeeves. His welcome was like I was joining a club, and he ushered me earnestly into the office, presumably to be initiated.
There were the therapists, congregated in conference, between morning group and lunch. One of them, a bushy-haired woman in maroon and beige, asked me into an inner-office, for a bit of a welcome and general going-over. We chatted away, and I hoped, as I got an impression of her, that she wouldn’t be my designated counsellor. As was apparently customary, she then took a Polaroid portrait of me, with which I’d be compared on departure. She handed me the snap, and a puffy-faced, stubbly bandit came into view, an expression of both defeat and defiance etched into a salami-complexion.
After lunch, in which I witnessed the clatter of poorly adjusted, but improving personalities, I sat in on the afternoon therapy group, although no pressure was put on me to contribute, which I was grateful for, because I found it all pretty underwhelming and embarrassing, like I’d done this one before, just with different net-curtains. After a break, in which everyone went outside for a cigarette, including the counsellors, it was time for a welcoming-committee in the living-room, where we all introduced ourselves and the terms of engagement were read - things like what time we were to get up, what time we were to go to bed, what we were allowed to eat, or not eat, between meals, and obviously that we weren’t allowed to drink or take drugs or have sexual relations whilst a resident. I didn’t want to be there, but I couldn’t think of anywhere else to be. I rang my mum to let her know I’d arrived, the only call I’d be allowed for a couple of weeks, and I was shown my room.
I would be sharing with a recently converted Christian from Cornwall, who, apart from putting on CDs of happy-clappy hymns, was welcoming and supportive. At night, I listened to England playing New Zealand at cricket. The place felt like a cross between a boarding-school, hospital, hotel, prison, and the Big Brother house. There was a screen between our beds, for discretion, and I lay there in the dark, no traffic accompaniment to lull me that night, and eventually drifted away to the sound of Test Match Special. In the morning, we were knocked up at seven-thirty by whichever support-worker was on duty, and it was time for breakfast…cereal, boiled egg, toast, tea or coffee, and a dozen drowsy and disconsolate faces, some of them quaffing back their caffeine and hacking the tops of their eggs like ravenous dragons, others toying resentfully with their toast, which they were on a contract to eat, because they were anorexics, or bulimics, or a combination of the two.
The average day consisted of a morning therapy group, and an afternoon of discussion, writing, drawing, even a bit of drama therapy. One day a week would be taken up by a resident’s life-history, which they would read in the morning, and receive feedback on in the afternoon, first from the counsellors, and then from other peers. There were three therapists, each of whom looked after three or four of us on an individual basis. A few days in, I was assigned mine, the zigzag-haired woman who’d assessed me.
I sat there in my first one-to-one, hoping to continue where I’d left off with my counsellor back in London. ‘What kind of things do you want to talk about?’ she asked, in a way I feared seemed a little precious and patronising. ‘Well, I’ve found it helpful talking about my sight condition,’ I said, no doubt seeking affirmation for going to one of the sources of my stress, disconnection, and low self-esteem. After what seemed like a considered pause, she said, ‘Sometimes the thing you think is bothering you isn’t actually the thing that’s bothering you at all.’ A wave of rage rose up through my body, pure heat, like I hadn’t felt since childhood. Had I done all that work at the drug service, apparently with the support of my counsellor, only to have my feelings put aside by someone who’d only just met me? ‘I also want to talk about the abuse I experienced in my teens,’ I said. ‘We can look at that in the weeks ahead,’ she replied. I felt like I’d thrown a seal a fish.
Nevertheless, a few weeks in, I was asked to write something about my illness and sight-loss, which I read out in a morning therapy group, receiving feedback from counsellors and peers alike. I already felt like a therapeutic stuck record, but I went through the motions anyway. I said how the illness, Stevens Johnson Syndrome, had taken me from feeling very much the equal of my friends, boys and girls alike, a mini alpha-male perhaps, to feeling different, deformed, disconnected, and, in short, damaged goods, certainly no longer worthy of a girl’s attention, let alone affection. I described the physical trauma of the initial illness, my time in isolation, skin peeling off, sight fading, temperature soaring, to mention a few of the symptoms, and how this was the precipice from which I’d been attempting to climb for the ensuing thirty years.
The counsellors said their pieces, as did my peers, the general message being how traumatic that must have been, but how confident I now seemed. The words were well meant, but barely made an impression on how I felt about myself – in fact, if anything, their contributions made me feel pressurised to continue the charade, because I didn’t feel confident at all.
I’d had to come off antidepressants to qualify to get into the place, and within a few weeks my spirits were consistently low, almost to the point of torpor, during which time I was writing my life-history, to be read out halfway through my stay. I’d heard the story so many times by now that I felt I was etching it even deeper into myself, rather than exorcising any ghosts it harboured. In it, I gave an account of the abuse I experienced, trying to be as honest as possible, in the hope there’d be some light on the other side. One woman took what she heard as proof that I was a, her word, ‘pervert’. This was, at least on the face of it, because I’d admitted to feeling sexually aroused. I was only just pubescent, and, as is common with abuse, the body can respond in a sexual way, even if the situation is one of exploitation and cruelty. Another woman, already bullying in her ways, joined in, and for two or three weeks I was blanked by them both, and not even the therapists could get sense out of them. Meanwhile, I spent my days feeling confused and ashamed, and wondered if there was ever going to be an end to this string of emotional roadblocks my life had become.
Also, fairly or not, I’d come to see my counsellor as a crass, patronising, authoritarian. One afternoon, she stopped me in the hall. I hadn’t shaved that day, even though we were asked to do so every morning. My skin got sore, so I thought perhaps I might be allowed one day’s grace. ‘Ben, have you shaved today?’ she asked, reminiscent of a Grange Hill supply-teacher. My answer was hesitant. ‘Answer me, Ben,’ she pressed. ‘Well, no I haven’t, because my skin can get sore,’ I floundered. ‘Because you know what I’d ask you, don’t you Ben?’ I didn’t know. She told me. ‘I’d ask “What’s going on for you, Ben?”.’ I was faintly flabbergasted at the level she seemed to be operating on. I pictured Arthur Fowler from Eastenders, all stubbly and furtive, when he’d stolen the Christmas kitty and couldn’t replace the money. True, stubble is trouble in heavily signposted drama, but not necessarily in real life (if rehab is real life). Many therapists have more issues than their clients, and even a solid training with supervision from a senior practitioner, isn’t always enough to make them effective. As our weekly encounters ticked over, I felt increasingly I was in the presence of a bit of a bully, with issues of her own that came out in our encounters. I didn’t feel I could be myself around her, so resorted to what I thought would appear to be a plausible client, with plausible problems, on a plausible path to recovery, whatever that meant.
In a one-to-one shortly after this, by which time I was a ‘senior peer’ and, at least on the face of it, fairly sorted, I mentioned that my mum had told me that my birth, fourteen years after my brother and sister, had ‘really put their noses out of joint’. It seemed reasonable that two teenagers might begrudge the arrival of an attention-hungry baby. My mother had said this in a humorous way, and I’d received it accordingly. I was actually quite pleased to hear the news. My counsellor, not quite with a gasp, said, ‘What a thing for a mother to say to a child.’ Again, I felt like I’d thrown a seal a fish. But by this time, I had no faith in her approach, whatever her approach was. It seemed that anything that fell under the family heading was fair game for our mutual, and futile, explorations.
My dad had died a few years earlier, and shortly before I left, I was asked to write a goodbye letter to him, to be read out in the morning therapy group, followed by feedback, of course. Obviously, because I’d been using around the time of his death, it meant that my feelings needed unearthing and exposing for the betterment of my recovery, but by now I was just going through the motions. I nodded receptively at the feedback, but I pretty much knew what they were going to say, and that it would make almost no impression on me. And it didn’t.
One day, off the back of these feelings, about two weeks before completion, I signed out and went wandering around the backstreets, in search of relapse. There were other addicts in town, often to be seen outside the cheap coffee-shop near the peer (not on the peer, because we weren’t allowed on there, due to fruit-machines and other mechanised means of gambling). There were numerous other rehabs and dry-houses dotted about, and a feeling of recovery or relapse would waft off passers-by like Lynx Addict on a sea-breeze. As we’d linger outside a local café, we’d spot the bulging boys from the twelve-step rehab round the corner, black-t-shirted, shaven-headed, all conforming nicely to their mutual notion that gym’s better than junk, forearms thickening almost visibly. Then there’d be one or two who’d been at our place, but got chucked out for shagging, to find themselves couch-surfing on the coast, and looking sheepish when waved at hanging around the amusement arcade. One might encounter a daytrip from the psychiatric rehab, where psychological medicines were permitted. A gaggle might be spotted on the crazy golf course, keyworker gently herding them from windmill to helter-skelter, putter clutched by the peer deemed least likely to use it as a club. Rehab was a bit like customs, and we’d sit there with our cappuccinos staring at our counterparts, as Estonians might at Latvians, having got as far as Oxford Circus Starbucks, a new life possibly ahead, with or without stubble.