I wrote this for an addiction/recovery support website, The Fix, in 2015. Enjoy!
As the Detox Turns
Working as an addiction nurse has given me many life insights. A lot are good but there is a handful that most would consider unsavory. First and foremost, people are much more deviously clever than they look. Secondly, drama and entitlement will follow a person even into the depths of a sweaty detox. Hence, the title.
When a person calls the admission office of a detox unit, center or facility, rarely do they ask “Will I be able to carry on my torrid affair there?” or “Are my meals served on a special rolling cart, served by a personal servant?”. Then why, when they arrive, do these ridiculous occurrences play out? We all know (or maybe we don’t), that gaining sobriety is a personal journey of accountability among many other things. Why distract yourself with frivolous nonsense such as ordering the latest Jordan’s from Amazon, then get fighting mad when the hospital mail room doesn’t deliver them within 24 hours? The answer is: it’s so much easier to worry yourself with these easily manipulated outcomes than to take on the overwhelming task of ripping yourself open and picking out the tiny tumors that have haunted you for so long.
Many things have happened at my particular detox center that would make anyone laugh, cry or scratch their head and ask “What the hell?”. Many of our patients are served divorce papers while they’re hospitalized. Though this is no doubt, mentally debilitating…. Detox, I would say, is the best place to receive such news. You’re in a safe environment, surrounded by resources, peers and trained professionals. That is, of course, if you don’t sign yourself out AMA (against medical advice) to try to go “salvage your marriage”. As if your partner is going to take you leaving detox as a sign you should stay together. Chances are, it’s too late. They’ve discovered all your booze hiding places. They’ve discovered the empty Listerine bottles filling your unused luggage and boxes in the attic (why you saved them, I’ll never know). They’ve discovered your three other cell phones, all filled with unanswered texts from your dealer (or buyers). They’ve started to think clearly with you gone the past week and realized it’s so much easier not having to pick you up from the local police station or take your car in for yet another repair due to driving a little “tipsy”. The drama is gone and they’ve suddenly equated it to your absence.
We’ve had many patients diagnosed with cirrhosis (duh) and late stage lung cancer while on our detox floor. When you’re too busy swimming in your addiction, rarely does a person see their doc regarding this pesky cough they’ve had for over a year or why they’re eyes and skin have been turning a charming shade of yellow. I’ve heard “Well, I guess I never realized how yellow I had become”. Cough, denial, cough. Then, there’s that rare breed of person who tries to turn the diagnosis around into a second chance. They approach this as a gift of time with the family they’ve neglected for so long. Six months to live is turned into six clean months to foster the last days of a relationship with your daughter. Leave a few good memories for them to remember and share after you’re gone. These patients are the patients that make a detox nurse cry.
As for the lovers’ trysts, I could write a novel on the stories and events we’ve witnessed unfold. The nurses always joke about “As the detox turns….” But, it’s a legitimate situation. HIPPA has really put us in a bind as far as accommodating patients and their lovers. If a husband comes to visit, and we are under strict order from the patient to “keep quiet” about her boyfriend, obviously we keep our traps shut. It’s even more of a moral dilemma when the husband comes to visit and the boyfriend has just finished visiting; plus, we caught them both in the bathroom… him in the shower naked and her pretending to use the toilet. “What? He had to shower?” We’ve walked in on patients with each other, bumping and grinding as if it was one of the twelve steps. It’s awkward. Everyone yells, turns red and apologizes (mostly the patients because they know they’re about to be kicked out). We’ve all also had the unfortunate experience of walking in on a patient loving themselves with their laptop propped at the end of their bed, standing witness to the self abuse.
We’ve had several patients dragged away by the long arm of the law. From being court marshaled to a good old-fashioned country arrest, we’ve seen some tussles. One patient had a warrant out for his arrest for putting his wife in the hospital for no reason other than he’s an abusive asshole. The cops managed to find him on our beloved floor and it was so satisfying watching him attempt to run from them and getting smeared on the floor.
My least favorite type of patient is the entitled, Queen of England, type. I’m sure even the queen herself wouldn’t treat people the way these patients do. They don’t need groups or the 12-steps (which is ok, but at least have some sort of back up plan) and they sure as hell don’t need a lecture. All they need, or want rather, is their meals delivered on a rolling cart covered by a linen tablecloth. Just make sure you answer their call bell within ten seconds. Forget about that patient seizing down the hall! Their coffee has gone cold and is much more imperative than some fool’s neurological well being! I’m not sure what purpose this all serves, but I’ll tell you right now: it doesn’t matter your yearly salary… everyone shits the bed. Detox is the great equalizer.
Now, all this isn’t to discount the severe emotionally taxing situations people encounter during detox and\or rehab. We’ve had everything from people finding out their wife miscarried for the third time to their husband has probably given them syphilis. Some situations are so deeply screwed up, us nurses excuse ourselves to go cry in the break room. Of course, we also serve a large military population. How could we not? These men and women defend our nation by defusing bombs, picking up body parts and sniping people from miles away. How could they not develop some unhealthy coping mechanisms? Especially, in the military where you’re not a soldier if you’re not drinking in your spare time.
Our patients seem to be magnets for obstacles, drama and mishaps. My theory is it’s because they feel everything so deeply, whether or not they show it on the outside. They care, they love, they hurt… all very deeply. Not everyone has this blessing and some would consider it a curse. Addicts are some of the most beautiful people a nurse could ever want to care for. They are also some of the most ugly and difficult. We get cursed at, slapped at and our lives threatened. We’ve found knives, uncapped needles and even a gun in patients’ bags. We risk our lives so they can save theirs because they’re so worth it. When they heal and have that long-term sobriety that they’ve ached for, everything is suddenly worth it. But, there are also the failures we read about in the obituaries. We shed a tear, remember them fondly (or not so fondly, depending) and hang the clipping in the break room to remind us of the purpose of our job.