5 Surprising Realities of Working in a Drug Rehab Program

The first step toward recovery is admitting you have a problem. But then you actually have to do something about it. That's theoretically what detoxification programs are for -- they're safe, clean, welcoming environments where people can escape whatever bullshit caused them to hit rock bottom, sober up, and start up a long-term recovery plan that works for them.

But programs need money to survive, and without it, you'd stand a better chance at recovery by binge-watching The Flintstones Kids -- Just Say No video until it's literally the only thing running through your brain. I know this because I spent two years working at a state-run detox that the state had completely given up on because there were other, more important things to spend its money on. It had already fallen apart by the time I got there, and it only got worse. It was so bad that spending years toiling in convenience stores actually became a better action plan for my life.

So what happens when a recovery program goes to Hell? Well ...

#5. Only the Simple Bare Necessities Remain (and That Isn't Enough)

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When your detox has no money and no way to get money, one of two things must happen: either the bosses take pay cuts to fund the thing, or the thing gets whittled away to virtually nothing. You'll never guess, in a hundred trillion years, which option my company chose.

Give up? So did the company. The few scraps of state funding that didn't go into management's pockets were allocated to keeping the detox program alive, but only in the strictest "persistent vegetative state" kind of way. The patients had hard beds that we probably only had because the local prison was overstocked, scratchy pajamas that at least guaranteed nobody tried to take them home, plastic chairs that made for only slightly better seating arrangements than the milk crates they replaced, and ... that's it. The rec room had a whiteboard. Our break room had white bread and peanut butter for the workers. And pens. Sometimes.

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Choosy moms choose Jif. Choosy cheapwads choose store brand on clearance.

Forget about recovering and working on your future in a comfortable, supportive, well-lit, pleasant-smelling environment. Shit, forget about spending your recovery time somewhere with carpets, wallpaper, and more than one window. At best, the place looked like a barless medium-security prison. At its worst, it was one murderous clown shy of being Arkham Asylum.

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At least that place had laughter.

This hardtack-and-tap-water approach took its toll on the workers as well, because as it turns out, we don't like depressing surroundings either. Nobody enjoyed their job or found any meaning in it, as evidenced by the one former user who abruptly quit to go back on the streets and use, the one old guy who openly admitted he did the job because it was easy and nobody expected him to do anything, and the one kid who suffered a nervous breakdown, took medical leave to recover, never returned, and was me.

#4. Everyone Abuses the System (and Nobody Cares)

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Those who truly needed help and wanted to recover clearly had no faith in a neglected, unfunded detox system, because they almost never showed up. In their place were hordes of people who weren't quitting, had absolutely no desire to quit, and who snipped and snapped at us if we even suggested quitting. So why were they there? Because free jail bed, that's why.

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Now with 50 percent less jail!

Good luck getting funds-slashing politicians elected for their ability to verbally masturbate themselves in public to admit this, but just about everybody who came in crying about wanting to turn their lives around actually loved their lives, and merely desired a quick break from hustling, chugging, snorting, and shooting up. They'd come in, "admit" they had a problem, get their three free meals plus free snacks, lounge on their free bed, and chill in the free rec room with people they knew from the streets and almost certainly drugged with every day. Depending on their mood, they'd either finish detoxing and go right back to using, or leave early against medical advice and go right back to using.

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"This is all the medicine you'll ever need. Until tomorrow."

Their abuse of the system could not have been more blatant if they had announced it to our faces ... and several did, not that I could do anything about it. If I told management, they would simply shrug it off, arguing that these people might actually want help next time and we didn't want to lose their trust. That's awfully noble, but it was pretty clear we never had their trust to begin with. Or their respect. We were mere Kindergarten gym class obstacles in their way of free everything.

The worst punishment anyone ever got was a disappointed look from a kid rapidly realizing what a mistake he'd made not majoring in Ancient Greek Sexuality. Even when somebody did something so egregious that we had to kick them out for safety's sake, they didn't actually get banned, and would often come right back first chance they got. And if there was a bed available, we always gave it to them. Just in case. Of course, "just in case" almost never happened, but as long as the bosses got just enough dollars to cover their salaries and keep us rolling in white bread, they remained conveniently optimistic.

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"Man, what are you doing here?"

And speaking of those whose rebel yell has been replaced with a rebel slur ...

#3. You Become a Glorified Babysitter (for Terrible Children)

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At the end of my second day, I went to my car and noticed some clown had broken in and made off with all my CDs, presumably as punishment for being old and creaky and still listening to CDs. This really should have tipped me off as to what I was getting into, and would have cut my misery down by about 728 days.

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At least all evidence that I ever owned a Sugar Ray album is gone forever. No one must know.

When you work in a program where just about every patient openly games the system and turns it into an extension of their druggie/drinky lifestyle, you quickly become far less a psychologist or counselor and way more an ineffective babysitter forced to handle the worst kids in the neighborhood, night after night. They would sneak in nips, deal and use drugs in the bathroom, prostitute one another despite an entire 20 feet of apathetic nurses separating the men and women, and throw angry tantrums laced with violent threats if we refused their requests to go outside and smoke any time they wanted, day or night, with no workers around to make sure they didn't bolt to the other side of town and Giles Corey themselves with a giant bag of rocks.

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It's the only way to associate crack with "more weight."

Regarding the in-house drugs -- their way of covering up what they were doing involved gathering in the bathroom and shaving each others' heads, every day. Naturally, they used razor heads, because it's awful hard to chop your breakfast on a mirror afterwards with a Gillette Mach 3. We knew full well what they were really up to, and would constantly attempt to break up the head-shaving party, but unless we literally caught them using the razors to snort something (which we rarely did), we couldn't do much other than ask that they disperse and find something else to do, pretty please with booger sugar on top. And even when we did catch them, like kids denying they hit the kid they just hit, they would plead innocence from the moment we told them to leave to the second security shoved them out the door.

But don't think fruitless attempts at minimal control of the situation were all we did. Not that any other part of our job had anything to do with recovery, but at least they offered variety. Pointless, pointless variety ...

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Jason Iannone

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