(Trigger Warning: Suicide)
I had just completed the necessary intake proceedings to begin my third inpatient treatment for alcohol and drug addiction.
Mark, the intake counselor at the place, was leading me up the stairs to what was to be my room for the foreseeable future.
“Pete doesn’t wash dishes! Pete doesn’t do kitchens!” someone yelled from what I could only guess must have been the kitchen area.
“Great,” I mumbled, as I dragged my duffle bag up the last few steps.
“Don’t worry about him,” Mark said, looking back toward me as we walked down the hall. “He’s harmless.”
I nodded in reply to his reassurance as we arrived at my room.
“Pete will scrub toilets!” the voice from down stairs continued, becoming louder.
“Pete will shovel shit,” he continued, having reached the top of the stairs.
“Pete will do anything but work in the kitchen!” he finished just in time to reach the doorway of my new residence.
“What’s up, Mark?” Pete asked, half out of breath from the combination of scaling steps and reading the riot act to some poor soul downstairs.
“Hey, Pete, this is your new roommate,” Mark said.
Pete raised an eye brow, shrugged his shoulders, and slid between us to enter our room.
“Welcome to rehab, this place sucks,” he said, flopping onto his bed.
I looked at Pete, gave the room a quick look, and turned to glare at Mark.
Mark smiled. “You’ll get used to it. Welcome. If you need anything, I’m around,” he said as he turned and walked back down the hall.
“Great,” I mumbled as I entered our room.
Inpatient treatment isn’t so bad once a person comes to grips with the reality of it all.
Leaving one’s life for 21 or 28 days, or for what would turn out to be almost 150 days in my case, is tough. It’s a tall order to leave one’s life, no matter what that life is like, and by the time one agrees to inpatient treatment, life’s usually fairly crappy. Leaving what one is used to, good or bad, is a shock to the system. Completing a four or five day detox stay prior to that doesn’t seem to make things any easier. It never did in my case, anyway.
This was to be my first experience in a residential inpatient setting, after having been a guest at two medically-based settings before hand. The hospital-based treatment was just that. It felt, looked and smelled like a hospital. There was an around-the-clock staffed nurse, and they did their own medically-supervised detox on site. They also offered outpatient services, like groups and individual counseling. I entered detox there once again prior to moving on to the center to become Pete’s roommate.
“Why are you here?” Pete asked, arms folded behind his head and feet crossed on his twin bed.
“What do you mean?” I asked as I bent down to unzip the duffle bag that lay on my new bed.
“You know. Drugs? Alcohol?”
“Both. You?” I started to unpack.
“Pete’s here to make Mommy happy,” he said, with no hint of sarcasm.
“Good for you,” I said, continuing to unpack my stuff.
Pete sat up on his bed. “You don’t believe me. It’s the truth.”
“Look, I just want to unpack. That’s great that you love your mom,” I said, not really interested in the banter.
“Actually, I was committed, by my mom,” Pete shared, laying down again on his bed.
I stopped putting my clothes in the little chest by my bed. “So, you don’t love your mom?”
Pete started laughing. “You’re going to do alright here,” he said, rolling over to face the wall. “Wake me up at five, it’s pizza night.”
“Great,” I mumbled, as I finished putting away my clothes.
Five minutes to dinner…
I woke Pete so he wouldn’t miss pizza, and we talked some more after he introduced me to the other people at the center. As one might guess, the twelve of us represented quite a sample of age groups, professions, drugs-of-choice, and back stories. As they say, addiction doesn’t discriminate.
As time wore on, through days filled with groups and counseling sessions, urine tests and Twelve Step meetings, I got to know Pete a little more.
After all, we were roommates, and, often purely due to familiarity and shared space, roommates tend to talk. They talk when they wake, they talk before lights-out, they talk whenever. I was always a little put off by his habit of referring to himself by name, but it just became a part of who Pete was.
Before arriving at rehab, Pete spent some time in what used to be called a psych ward, or what is known more today as a “secured behavioral health unit,” at a local hospital. It was indeed true, that his mother had called emergency services, which set the whole process in motion.
Pete really only shared snap shots, a flash in group, a flash in the kitchen, a flash outside while shooting baskets, a flash before lights-out, and usually the story was told within the third-person framework, never in any order.
Pete was a 28 year old single male at the time. He had moved back home to live with his mother in his childhood home after losing his apartment, after losing his girlfriend, after losing his job, after losing control of his alcohol use. Pete’s father had passed away several months before it all happened, which may, or may not have been the catalyst for the chain of events that led him to treatment.
Pete never spoke of his mother negatively, but he never really spoke of her positively, either. In fact, he spoke of her as if he had to, as if she were mentioned only because she was a necessary part of the tiny bits of the story he did share. The only time I remember him mentioning his father was to say that he had died.
The best I’d ever able to put things together concerning how he had gotten to rehab via the psych ward, Pete had been literally out of his mind on alcohol and whatever else when he engaged in what became a heated argument with his mother, the subject of which he never mentioned. After the argument escalated and spiraled out of control, Pete threatened to hang himself in the garage, going so far as to fashion a noose out of an old swing set chain. Police arrived, an ambulance arrived, his mother cried, and they took him away because he was deemed a danger to himself and everyone else.
“My counselor’s full of shit and I’m not going to take it anymore.”
“I’m out of this damn place,” Pete said one afternoon, busting into the room after slamming the door open against the wall.
“What happened?” I asked him.
Pete sat on his chair with a thud and threw his assignment folder at his night stand, knocking over the lamp that had been, up to that point, standing there peacefully.
“What’s going on?”
“That bitch doesn’t think I’m taking responsibility for my actions. I’m here, ain’t I?” he said, opening his arms and gesturing to our room. “This is bullshit.”
Pete leaned forward off the chair and crawled to his bed, reaching under it for his bags.
I closed the book I had been reading and sat up on my bed.
“What are you doing?” I asked. “You’re not going to leave.”
“The hell I’m not,” he replied. “Pete’s had enough of this shit.”
“What did she say?”
“She said the same shit they said at the nut farm. She said the same thing my mother said. Bullshit. All of it,” Pete said, dragging his bags from under the bed.
“You can’t go, I don’t want another roommate. It’s taken me two weeks to get used to you,” I said, mixing humor with honesty.
“Look,” I said, “You can’t leave. Just do what you have to do.”
Pete stood up and walked over to the lamp that was laying on the floor. He picked it up, popped the dent out of the shade, and returned it to its place on the night stand.
“I don’t want to do what I have to do. I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t,” he said, collecting the sheets of paper that had scattered from his assignment folder when they collided with the lamp.
“Why not?” I asked, an answer I had been curious about for the entire two weeks I had been there.
“I just don’t. Pete don’t. Both of us, none of us. I want to stop drinking. I’ll do that. They can kiss my ass about the rest of it,” he said, extending a middle finger in the general direction of the office area of the center.
I thought about it for a while, staring at the floor, as Pete continued to salute the counseling wing.
The autobiography is a staple of many an inpatient treatment center.
It’s basically a rite of passage, an initiation, if you will. One writes, as much as they choose, information about their family, their friends, their use and their part in it. Then, they read, or present, it to the group. Some of them are really long, and some are fairly short, but length isn’t always a good indicator of quality.
Some people use their autobiographies to cast blame on others and other’s roles in why their lives are a mess. Others use it as an opportunity to impress other residents by recalling some of their more outlandish and excessive history, including consumption, outlaw behavior and sexual exploits. But in my experience, most autobiographies are just that; they are highlight stories of people’s lives. For whatever reason, Pete didn’t want to share much, if anything, about his life.
“Just do it, Pete,” I said, after weighing the pros and cons of the autobiography question.
“Hell no,” he said.
“Just skim it. Don’t tell your deepest, darkest-“
“Stop it,” Pete warned, pointing at me. “It’s not going to happen. You write your shit. Tell them everything if you want to. I don’t need to tell them anything.”
“I’ll do mine,” I told him.
“Yeah? Well, Mister ‘I’ve been to treatment more than once,’ you know how to do it, don’t you? At least you should, anyway, right? What good did it ever do you? We’re in the same fucking place, if you haven’t noticed,” Pete snapped, again throwing his folder, this time the folder and its contents coming to rest safely on his desk.
“You won’t leave. They’ll take you back to the nut farm,” I said as I left the room.
“Nut farm, Pete ain’t going back to no nut farm, and Pete ain’t writing his autobiography, neither!” Pete yelled as I walked down the hall. He continued as I walked down the stairs.
“Great,” escaped a familiar mumble as I headed toward the group room.
A week later, after much begging and pleading from staff and peers, and after what could be interpreted as an ultimatum from his counselor, Pete was finally scheduled to give his autobiography one morning during group time.
We were all interested in hearing what Pete had made such a fuss about the entire time he’d been at the center. We had all shared at least some of the less than flattering events in our lives, and we, or at least I, wondered what could be that bad or sad or scary. He didn’t even want to talk about talking about it.
Then it happened. He took out handwritten papers from his folder and read. And he read. And read. And then he read some more, without feeling and without hesitation.
As he read, the random fragments Pete had released at different times during treatment came together to make a clear picture, all in a third-person format, as if he were reading a story about someone else.
“And when Pete was seven,” he read. “Then, when Pete was around twelve,” he would continue. And on it went.
When he finished, we sat silently around our circle in the little room.
Most of us stared either at the floor or shifted our focus from the counselor back to Pete. No one knew if they should, or how they would, break the silence that filled the room after Pete finished his autobiography.
“Be careful what you wish for,” Pete said, placing his papers back in the sleeve and closing the folder.
After what felt like hours of silence again after Pete’s comment, the counselor finally spoke.
“Pete,” she said, adjusting herself in her chair, “I admire the strength and courage it took you to share your story. However, it needs to be done in the first person. We can’t heal if we can’t own our lives.”
“Fuck you,” Pete said quietly, staring at nothing. Pete stood up slowly and said, “I quit.”
Pete left the circle, opened the door, left the room and closed the door behind him.
What happened next, really, was a misdirected, all-out attack on that counselor by most of the participants of our group that day.
There were a lot of things we didn’t understand about Pete, at least until that 30 minutes in group, and for her to seemingly condemn him after forcing him to be vulnerable, was unacceptable at the time. We didn’t understand why the third-person thing was such a big deal. Third-person, sixth-person, whatever. He told his story, all of it. The abuse, the trauma, the fear, the significance of the garage, the chain, the stool, everything. Then she just shit on him, or so we thought.
We made our way up to the room after our collective bashing of the counselor had concluded, and after her futile attempts to explain therapeutic protocol to a bunch of addicts who weren’t ready to hear it, only to find that Pete had already left. We couldn’t have been in there ten minutes after he left group, and he was gone.
I tried calling Pete at the number he gave me when I had phone time, the number apparently to his mom’s house. All I ever got was an answering machine with a woman’s voice, and I never even learned what Pete’s mother’s name was.
I left a few messages, saying something like, “Hey, it’s your roommate. Call me back to let me know you’re alright.” I never heard back. Other guys had tried to call, too. Nothing.
A week or two after Pete left, I moved on at the center, from inpatient to more of what they used to call a “half-way house” setting. During that time, there were more opportunities to leave the center to do things. It was a transitional period where people can do things like, look for work, attend outside meetings, and gain overnight passes, all with the safety net of returning to the center.
One afternoon, as I returned to the center, I was told by the lady at the desk that I was supposed to see my counselor after I checked back in.
On my way back to the offices, I heard chatter, sniffles and sobs from the Commons area of the center. I turned around and walked toward the sounds, more interested in them, rather than whatever my counselor wanted.
As I reached the Commons, there were people standing in a close group.
“Pete’s dead,” said one of the other residents. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay,” is all I can remember saying. “It’s okay.” It wasn’t okay.
I didn’t attend the visitation, because I didn’t know anyone.
I didn’t know his mother or any of his family or friends. All I knew was that Pete’s mother was alive. That was it. I knew nothing about his family, his ex-girlfriend, his friends, or whether he even had any.
I do remember attending the funeral. The church itself was a beautiful place. The service was quiet and almost surreal. Afterward, I met Pete’s mother. She was gracious and even a little upbeat, which was the thing I remember most about that day. I’ve always guessed that either she was still in shock over her unfathomable loss, or it hadn’t all begun to sink in at that time. I can still remember her face after all this time. I remember her kind eyes and smile. I remember her hand on my forearm, as if I were the one who needed comforting. Her son had just died a sad, tragic death, and somehow she had the strength and grace to comfort someone she didn’t even know. I could never quite wrap my head around that.
Not long after Pete’s funeral, I learned that the reason I never received a return phone call was because no one was there. Pete’s mom had taken a trip to visit family, believing that her son was safe in a treatment center.
Pete didn’t answer the phone because he didn’t return to his mother’s house until the day he died.
After he left the center, he talked his ex-girlfriend into staying at her place in a sort of reconciliation attempt. It didn’t last long.
In the end, Pete couldn’t outrun his past, a past that included repeated childhood trauma and abuse at the hands of people who were supposed to protect and care for him. To get some relief, he turned to what was familiar, and starting drinking again. Not long after, he engaged in an argument with his girlfriend. The argument spiraled out of control at whatever point things spiral out of control, and he left.
Not long after that argument, Pete returned to the garage of his childhood home. He grabbed the swing set chain he had been abused with as a child, secured one end to an overhead rafter, placed the other end around his neck, and stepped off the stool he was often punished on as a child.
Later that afternoon, his girlfriend found him.
Sometimes, there is no good end to a story.
Sometimes, obstacles are too much for the hero of a story to overcome. Unaddressed trauma, in Pete’s story, was that obstacle.
I believe that Pete tried everything he could to deal with his trauma the best way he knew how, even going so far as to use third-person narration in his own life. It’s not uncommon for victims of abuse to try to separate themselves from those events in a variety of healthy and unhealthy ways, in order to best cope with, and to try to make sense of events that are often impossible to make sense of. Maybe that was Pete’s way of trying to protect himself from that pain, and maybe we could have done a better job of trying to understand it.
All too often, those who suffer abuse are victimized twice.
Once by their abuser, and then again by stigma and ignorance, or by family members or friends who don’t believe them (or want to keep the abuse quiet), and by the fear, guilt and shame the person who was victimized often carry with them.
Pete’s fight ended nearly thirty years ago, as I write this. Yet, he is a kind of consistent companion as I walk along my path. I’ve come to realize that there are some things there will never be a good enough answer for, and this will always be one of those things.
In memory of my old roommate, “Pete.”