The idea of making a New Year’s resolution is probably as old as the tradition of New Year’s itself. But, as we all know, resolutions are more easily made than kept. For people struggling with substance abuse, it’s not only the addiction that stands in the way, but also a fear of the unknown—especially the unknown of treatment.
If you (or a loved one) are thinking about seeking treatment for a drug or alcohol addiction but are daunted by the fear of the unknown, here’s a glimpse into what you might expect. Every program is different—even within Phoenix House—and there are a variety of services we offer, from outpatient to residential, and adolescent to adult; we have some programs that offer “detox” on-site, and some that refer you to detoxification facilities where, if necessary, you can comfortably and safely discontinue your drug use before you start our program (which is the case at the programs I direct). But this post will give a general idea of what life is like at the Phoenix House Residential Program at Santa Ana.
Your first day of treatment
After you’re admitted, you’ll be assigned a “big brother” or “big sister” to help you adjust to your surroundings. This person is someone who’s still in treatment but has made significant progress and is ready to give back to others. He or she will show you the ropes by introducing you to staff, giving you a tour of the facility, and explaining the rules. He or she will also introduce you to fellow residents, and you’ll be given a chance to get to know them, too.
Your next five days
The goal at this stage is to learn to restructure and reframe your time—and, by extension, your life. You’re going to have to prepare for a life after treatment that entails getting up in time for work or school, being productive, and dealing with your emotions. To that end, we have a set schedule that begins with an early wake-up, followed by breakfast and a brief morning meeting, during which clients express a positive thought from within themselves (such as what they believe they will accomplish that day). Then begins dorm cleanup and chores (examples include kitchen duty and outside yard maintenance). After a 10-minute break is the first group meeting (usually referred to simply as “group”). Each group revolves around a particular theme, such as relationships, taking time out for yourself, and relapse prevention.
The rest of the day follows in much the same way. You can expect about five groups per day, meals at assigned times, and an individual counseling session once a week (though you can always see your counselor when you need to—just ask). During the first five days, your individual session will focus on developing a tailored treatment plan for the rest of your stay.
What you may be feeling
That’s the nuts and bolts of it. But what can you expect to be going through emotionally? Everyone is different, of course, and no two people will have exactly the same feelings. But it’s been my experience that there are some general categories:
• Panic. You’re still getting used to the idea of treatment, and life without drugs. During your first five days, you may find yourself thinking, “Oh my God, I don’t have the drugs to help me deal with the feelings that I don’t want to feel.” It’s like everything inside starts to wake up, and you may feel like you can’t stand being in your own skin. That’s why these five days—and often the next five—are a critical time in treatment. This is when many clients want to leave because the emotions are overwhelming. That is why so much of group meetings focus on helping you handle your feelings in a positive way. It can be done!
• Loneliness. Being in a strange place among strangers is often a recipe for loneliness—and getting to know the people around you is always a good way to beat it. So get to know your big sibling and the other clients. You have a lot to offer each other (more on that later). Though cell phones are not permitted during the first ten days, you may call family members using a staff member’s phone.
• Rebellion. You may think you made a mistake by coming to treatment, that you don’t need it and can handle your addiction on your own. You may begin to resist the rules or refuse to do your chores. This is not uncommon, and it’s okay to feel that way. As long as you stick it out and don’t leave, you can make progress despite these feelings.
• Hopelessness. It’s also common to experience what I call the I-can’t-get-out-of-bed feeling. Again, it’s normal to feel that way, and we will get you out of that bed no matter how hopeless you feel.
• The honeymoon feeling. Some people have the opposite reaction: They are overjoyed to be turning their lives around. If you feel that way, that’s great! Just be aware that no one—whether struggling with addiction or not—can feel positive all the time. If that honeymoon feeling transforms into what-am-I-doing-here thoughts in a couple of weeks, don’t be too hard on yourself. Realize that it’s part of the process, and that part of treatment is helping you deal with all sorts of emotions—without relying on drugs to numb them.
Tips to get you through the days
I won’t lie: Treatment is hard work, and the first five days may be the hardest. Here are some tips on surviving them:
• Ask your big sibling lots of questions. Your big brother or sister wants to help you and is like a treasure trove of useful information. Ask him or her everything you can think of, from the practical (Is coffee allowed?) to the personal (How did you get through your first five days here?). Having a one-on-one conversation with someone who’s been in your shoes can cut down on your anxiety and make you feel less alone.
• Get to know the other clients. Ask them questions, too, even if they’ve been in treatment only slightly longer than you. Any person who’s been there even one day longer has something to offer. And don’t forget: You’ll soon have advice to give, too, and it feels good to give back.
• Trust that things will get better. Part of the challenge during this period is finding a balance—your balance. Once you do, things will get easier little by little, moment by moment, one day at a time.
• Keep an open mind. You may be skeptical about treatment and may think certain parts of it are not going to work. Give them a try anyway and see where they lead.
• Don’t leave—no matter what. People are most tempted to leave when things are toughest. But every time you work through those moments, you emerge stronger. We can’t help you if you’re not here, but as long as you are here, we will do everything we can to help you through whatever challenges you face.
• Remember why you’re here. At the end of the day, only you know your own reasons. Keep them in mind, and never forget that every journey begins with a single step.
Director of Phoenix House Orange County Adult Services