Putting Broken Lives Together Again
by Dr. Drew Pinsky
The headlines snap me back to reality. I read the Los Angeles Times sports section, sip coffee between box scores, and enjoy the quiet. Soon my wife, Susan, joins me, followed by the triplets, age ten, who gobble down breakfast, give us kisses, and go off to summer camp.
Outside, the sun begins its climb into a clear blue sky, and I know it's going to be, in the words of Randy Newman, "another perfect day" in L.A.
Perfect for some, perhaps. But not for my patients in the chemical dependency unit at Las Encinas Hospital, a no-frills, twenty-two-bed facility popularly known as "rehab." The truth? For many who occupy those beds, it's their last chance before death. To me, it encompasses everything from desperation to the miracle of giving someone a second or third chance at life, at a better life, actually, than they ever dreamed of being able to have.
From the time I back out of my driveway, it takes me twenty minutes to get there. Once I enter the unit, the warm sun is replaced by the low-voltage hum of fluorescent lights. The perfect L.A. day disappears like a song fading from the radio. I step on linoleum, not grass. And when I look up, instead of endless blue sky, I see Ernesto from Operations staring back down at me from inside the ceiling, where he's fixing the air conditioning.
"Good morning, Dr. Pinsky," he says warmly.
"How's it going?" I wave. Then, as I do at the start of each day, I grab my stethoscope, get an opthalmoscope from under the med cart, and pick up the list of patients I need to see.
Today's list is topped by Mark Mitchell, a good-looking thirty-five-year-old in his third day of detox. Mark has been in and out of our care numerous times. His father is a former pro football player turned car dealer, a local celebrity who shows up in gossip columns, has his photographs hanging in restaurants, and seems like a great guy. The truth? He couldn't give a shit about his son. Mark's been hospitalized here at least five times — I can't remember exactly — but he's familiar enough that we've nicknamed him "Mitch." Each time he comes in he looks older, his face creased, grayer beneath his eyes, moving slower.
At the moment, fortunately for me, Mitch isn't as bad as when he was brought in — smelling of vomit and urine, and barely conscious.
But he's still a wreck. Sprawled on his bed — imagine the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle before it's put together — he's tremulous, paranoid, and disorganized. It's normal, all part of the withdrawal from alcohol. The early shift, which admitted Mitch, has already put him on heavy-duty medication to prevent his withdrawal from turning into the DTs, a potentially fatal syndrome where the outflow from the central nervous system is so disorganized that breathing, blood pressure, and other vital functions fail.
Good morning — yeah, right.
Not for Mitch. I stand there for a moment, observing his condition. It takes him several moments to notice I have entered the room. Once he sees me, Mitch jumps to his feet and grabs a piece of paper from the top of his dresser, shoving it toward me as if it were a weapon. "I'm pissed off," he says angrily, jabbing his finger at a paragraph. "What's this?"
"Wait a minute," I say. "Calm down and let me read."
He's showing me the treatment contract every patient signs on admission. I know what it says without reading it. These are the rules every patient agrees to follow. They include not using drugs, not selling drugs, attending daily group therapy sessions, submitting to urine tests, using the phone only during prescribed hours, and so on. Standard material for someone getting sober. I wrote the contract years ago, and have amended it many times since then. It's nonthreatening to anyone, except those who fear relinquishing control.
Like Mitch. He doesn't know what the hell he's doing or saying. He's out of his mind. His brain is screaming at him to get drunk. Biologically, he craves alcohol more than he wants to breathe. It's driving him crazy. It's hard for him to pay attention to anything else but the urge, and that urge is translated into a scream:
"This is bogus! This is bullshit! You know it. My cousin is a lawyer, and I know it'll never hold up."
At this rate, I think, neither will he.
I take a deep breath and think of what to say. I could ask if he would like a drink — a vodka tonic? A Heineken? God, that's twisted — though Mitch wouldn't think so. I could try to reason with him, but there's no reasoning with someone this sick. I could call his cousin and threaten to countersue. (Good thing I'm not a lawyer.) I could slap him across the face, the way they used to do in Three Stooges movies, and hope it startles him into sanity. Or I could just listen and nod.
Actually, my fantasy would be to zap him with something — a laying-on of hands, a magic shot or electric shock — and have him all better, sober, clean, with no desire to drink again...
The foregoing is excerpted from The Epidemic by Robert Shaw. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022
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