My brother Scott spent this Christmas in rehab thousands of miles away from home. In my book I share what it's like to be his sister and to witness his struggle with bipolar disorder and addiction. Scott just got home yesterday, so I asked him about Christmas in rehab, in search of answers to why he decided to check himself into rehab during the "happiest" time of the year.
What was the rehab center in Costa Rica like?
The rehab was a large, six-bedroom, five-bath residence a mile away from the American Embassy. It had a capacity of 15 residents and one cat.
What was the typical day like?
After walking to a nearby gym for exercise at 5:30am, we got into a van and drove from the recovery house to a halfway house in a converted motel. Classes would break for lunch, then we would attend NA or AA meetings, followed by more classes.
What kind of support was available?
We were expected to meet with sponsors in person once a week or twice a week and telephone them daily. We also met with a drug counselor and a psychological counselor once a week.
Why did you decide to go?
Most people who decide to enter rehab are struggling with "active" addiction (currently abusing drugs including alcohol). I checked myself into to rehab before my addiction became active because I was struggling ... struggling to remain sober and struggling with a co-occurring brain disease called bipolar disorder. Having a clearer mind in the first few days of rehab allowed me to attend classes fully engaged, alert and present. Other people had to endure the experience of a painful detox period before attending class. My sobriety gave me the opportunity to learn more in a few weeks than I had in months of individual study.
What are the top five things you learned in rehab that you'll be taking with you into 2015?
First, surrender requires an attitude adjustment. Without the "gift of desperation" brought on by negative consequences of active addiction, I had to reach within to surrender. Entering an institution, even such a nice one in Costa Rica with delicious home-cooked meals, required surrender of things such as my cell phone, wallet and medicines to the control of the house manager. I also had to surrender certain privileges such as being free to come and go out of the rehab or get on a computer. For me, real surrender means giving up your insistence that you are in charge of your life.
Second, trust that others know better. When you need medical attention you trust your doctor, when you need psychological help, you trust your counselor. But who do you trust when you realize your paradigm of living is incorrect? If you are using drugs (including alcohol) to deaden your pain or achieve excitement, then it may seem like there is no one to turn to for help. I found that overcoming my somewhat grandiose prejudice that I know how to live my life required trusting others.
Third, substances are a symptom of a larger disorder. It's obvious that people go to rehab because of problems with drugs (including alcohol), but it's surprising that once abstinence from mood-changing substances begins, then real recovery can start. Recovery is a multi-directional path towards a healthier life and away from the larger disorder that underlies addiction. Of course, we all have things "wrong" with us, besides abuse of our substance of choice, but the realization that this abuse overlays or even masks a pathology with common elements surprises nearly all of us.
Fourth, the disease of ego and being self-centered requires a program of change. At the heart of the problem of self-centeredness is an insistence that the external world conform to our personal view of ourselves as the center of our universe. I cannot imagine a day going by where I don't spend some time thinking the world owes me gratification and respite from negative consequences, at least for part of the day. Figuring out that my ego is not the center of the universe and should not even be the driving force in my life requires a program of change. One of the best programs of change has been outlined in the traditional 12 steps.
Fifth, define core values and overcome all ego driven resistance to following them. My final thought is that having core values can prevent a lot of pain. If I am honest, then I don't have to remember what lies I told to who. If I don't use mind-altering substances no matter what, then I can achieve another day of sobriety. The hardest part is resisting the daily retreat to a "me"-centered universe, and this requires constant vigilance.
You are amazing. Tell me one more thing: Who's someone you met in rehab that you'll never forget?
Oh, man. I met another patient who was tough. I would like to tell you about him, but I have to respect his privacy. What I can tell you is that one day when we went to yoga, he changed into someone at one with the yoga positions compared to us beginners. Despite his pretty horrific life, he admitted he had been doing yoga for 10 years.
I'm so grateful to you, Scott, for your openness to sharing your story and breaking the silence about mental illness. Let's hope that 2015 is a year for making positive steps in the prevention, early detection, treatment and recovery of addictions and mental illness.