Updated: Jan 12
"God help me!"
My first few days in detox were frightening. I felt terribly out of place. I was locked up with drunks dragged out from under a bush, junkies from off the streets, prostitutes in short skirts, and one little old lady, dressed in white doilies, who liked to tipple sweet wine in the dark. My craving for cocaine was always at the front of my mind. All I wanted to do was go home and get stoned.
In my first group session, we sat in a circle and introduced ourselves.
“My name’s Joe,” said the first. “I’m an alcoholic.”
“I’m Elsie,” said the second. “Junkie. Crystal meth.”
It was my turn. I swallowed my pride and admitted to the world what I had become.
“I…I’m an addict,” I said as softly as I could.
“Now I want each of you to share your plans for when you leave detox,” said Ralph, the counselor.
“I’m Billy,” said a young pale man who was almost blind. “I don’t know how I’m gonna stay clean. There’ll be at least two dope dealers sitting on my front porch when I get home.”
Ethel, a large black woman, spoke next. “I’m going to a halfway house, so I don’t have to turn tricks no more.”
After the session, Ralph pulled me aside. “You probably have no idea what’s going on here, do you?” he asked.
“Not really,” I said. Addiction wasn’t covered in medical school and I knew nothing about it, and even less about how to treat it. I just knew that I had it and I was scared unto death.
“Usually,” he said, “a client stays here three or four days to let the poisons drain out of their body, then they head out to a halfway house or something like that. In your case, you being a doctor and all, they got something special planned for you. Only a few places in the country know how to treat guys like you—doctors on the skids. Impaired physicians. The nearest is in Atlanta and I just made your reservation. You’ll be on the plane tomorrow morning. Told them I’m sending them a bat-shit crazy oncologist.”
I must have looked like a deer caught in the headlights.
“You’re dying and you know it,” said Ralph. “If you don’t go to Atlanta, not only will you lose your license, but you’ll be dead in no time. And you know I’m right.”
That night, my brain was still swimming in a sea of drugs and booze, so my thinking was not at its very best. I knew I was supposed to fly to Atlanta the next morning, but the craving for cocaine was still raging inside me. My mind kept telling me that if I went to rehab for three or four months, I would have no practice left to come home to. Just saying ‘to hell with it’ and going home sounded really good. My heart, on the other hand, knew that my only hope for survival was getting on that plane.
I knelt in front of my bed like when I was four years old, folded my hands, and said simply, God help me. The next morning, I packed my bag, took a taxi to the airport, and got on the plane. When we were in the sky, I remembered my prayer from the night before, but in the light of day I couldn’t believe the prayer had worked for me.
But, as the stewardess rolled by with the drink cart, I did remember something Billy said. “You don’t know how bad your disease is, but one day you’ll give your old lady to the dope man for a bag of dope.” Then he looked me square in the eye, and without flinching, he said, “And you’ll kill him for half a bag."
An excerpt from "A Spiritual Pathway to Recovery from Addiction, A Physician's Journey of Discovery," available now.