Douglas Coupland’s rehab notepad 

‘If you want to know what the superpower of invisibility feels like, try being a 55-year-old guy in rehab’

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It was a spring that had yet to appear.

The plants of the surrounding second-growth rainforest were at least a month late. Food sources were out of sync, the birds were confused, scavenging for scraps when they should have been building nests. I walked around with empty pockets as phones are forbidden, as are laptops or money or keys. On Monday, a group of us was driven into the village for blood work in identity-free white vans that even the youngest users read as “culty” or “Moonie” looking.

Outside the clinic, behind the next-door bakery, lay 48 freshly baked loaves of bread on a rack, glowing in the sun as though lit from within — and there was no way to capture it in a photo and stick it on Instagram, which actually felt freeing. Whatever you see in rehab can only ever be a memory. Beside the clinic was a café and I wanted to get a coffee but I had no money and, in any event, there was no time to get it as we had to re-enter the van.

Digital detox is a big part of this. No phones or WiFi or landline connections or radio or TV or anything else. What little communication with the outer world there is is confined to small time windows twice daily in the afternoon. It’s like being on a 2,000-hour flight to New Zealand, except you’re on the ground.

© James Joyce

There are two main fears in life post-rehab:

1) Relapsing and

2) Being alone inside a structureless life.

***

In art therapy class we — meaning myself and six other males — were given pastels and told to draw what we feel. There was an expected “I can’t draw” backlash, but the instructor said, “If you can’t think of anything, draw a tree.”

I got to thinking about rehab and how everything revolves around meals, and I got to thinking about the main eating area at the residences, which have a permanent odour of pancake syrup and bacon. But the bacon isn’t rashered Canadian strip bacon — it’s a sort of plywood bacon in which meat chunks are interspersed within a . . . polycarbonate resin? Bacon from China? So I drew a close-up of a 1lb pack of bacon, from memory, which is actually hard to do. I looked out of the room’s windows at yet another storm blowing through hemlocks and firs on which the first bright green spring candles had barely emerged, and I realised I was staring at the trees I could have drawn from life, and I realised I felt like bacon trapped inside thick plastic wrapping. Look but don’t taste. You’re in no way a prisoner here but leaving involves a complex set of procedural and moral tasks not performed lightly.

***

…Nasal tissue boxes on every flat surface.

…The buzz of four-digit-pin-number electric locks emanating from all directions at any time.

…Puck-shaped green and white emergency buttons the size and shape of ant traps.

…Half-drunk glasses of water filled with lemon wedges everywhere.

…Colouring books.

***

The sun came out for three hours and everyone donned short-sleeved shirts and inside people’s elbows you could see the bruised remains of Monday’s blood work.

***

There’s non-stop pen-on-paper diarising and Step Work. The younger people use only non-cursive script. We discuss penmanship and they ask to see my handwriting, which is good, and when they see me do it I feel like David Blaine emerging from a buried coffin. “You can actually do that?” I’m 25 years older than all but three people.

***

Friends my age are going through very bad times.

***

I wonder if my brain is erasing itself.

***

I think data consumption has replaced organic experience as the measure by which our bodies perceive the passing of time.

***

Who is going to relapse and who isn’t? Who among us are the dogs sitting with smiling faces outside the Safeway leashed to the shopping cart bay, eagerly awaiting a master who will never return? I worry most about the opioid users who got hooked innocently enough after accidents or surgeries but who only ever got harder and harder core. How do you get off that stuff? It becomes a part of your body. It rewrites your molecules.

The hardcore drug users — the freebasers and ex-dealers — have a sense of peace about them, almost a sense of holiness. They’re trying to become better people and the odds are so stacked against them. They make you proud to be human. And then you see the recidivism rate. Life is rough.

***

“Nothing changes if nothing changes.”

***

“Take a Q-tip, lick one end, dip it in baking soda and then shove it into your nose and start chiselling away.”

***

The gentle air-conditioning system hums into motion, sounding like a church choir holding a single D-sharp note.

***

Someone says, “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it”, by Edith Wharton, and I was suitably impressed and then it turns out the quote was sourced from Ivanka Trump’s new self-help book.

***

In a world without any media whatsoever, everyday news becomes the stuff of lore. They say Sidney Crosby’s in a coma. They say it’s going to be 67 degrees tomorrow. They say... They say... They say... It makes you really wonder just who it is we mean when we say “they”. And is “they” somehow related to the “it” we say when we say “it’s raining”?

Someone found part of the arts section of the Globe and Mail newspaper beneath a table. It was four days out of date, and we got into a debate as to whether being four days old was enough to discount it as being a valid media source and whether it needed to be removed. The answer was yes; the young people said they didn’t care if it was one hour old — it was still old, so why would you want to read it?

***

Everyone smokes except for me and three others. The smokers are barnacled on to an outdoor 12ft x 12ft smoking platform that lies beneath a clear plexi ceiling. As it’s almost always raining, they huddle together and must surely feel and smell like pemmican when they go to bed at night. From inside the main room’s clerestory windows you can see the sky in the smoking area turn milky blue within seconds after a presentation or discussion ends. I kind of wanted little Bert and Ernie puppets to appear in the windows and light up.

***

Angel Soft™ tissues

 Professional series

GP Georgia-Pacific

professionals

***

“Have you ever tried Propofol?”

“What’s that?”

“The Michael Jackson death drug.”

“You can get that shit on the street?”

“No. You have to be Michael Jackson.”

***

We all want a new life

We all want to quit tomorrow

We all want to fall in love.

***

Music therapy was slated for 11am and I was dreading it as it meant something along the lines of Enya + crystals + crumpled linen tie-dyed outfits and when it began I wasn’t very wrong. But then the seminar began and we were told to write the name of someone or something that we needed to say goodbye to — and so I wondered who or what to write down, and then the music started and I wrote down the name of someone I thought I’d said goodbye to in my head, but who I really hadn’t said goodbye to. And then I suddenly found myself, right there, saying goodbye to one of the most important people I’ll ever know — and it wiped me out and I had to leave the room and hide by the (locked) doors to Admin and wondered how I could have been so delusional as to think I’d said goodbye. Which is all to say, I prejudge things that merit more credence, and I vow to be more open to life.

***

If you want to know what the magic superpower of invisibility feels like, try being a 55-year-old guy in rehab. You don’t exist. It’s not like in real life where, at least when the dinner tab comes around to be signed, you briefly become visible until your pin number clears and the little machine goes beep. In rehab you’re a ghost. And you hear these people tell everyone else with astonishing candour the things they’ve ingested into their bodies and it’s kind of humbling, and you look at your own life and wonder if you’re just being a wuss. It really levels you.

***

“All unhappiness stems from want.”

***

“That was fun but I don’t do that any more.”

***

Everyone here ends up saying, at some point, “How the f*** did I end up here?” It’s a necessary milestone, one of so many, and it’s weird to see how clichéd and reductive human nature is.

***

There’s always that angel-on-one-shoulder, devil-on-the-other back and forth dialogue that goes on inside the heads of users. Do it! / Don’t do it! But what are those voices — who are they and where are they coming from? We all know the feeling, and we all know the voices, so it obviously doesn’t indicate schizophrenia, so what are these opposing voices all about? Is it one part of the brain speaking to another? Is it the brain’s “crave” centre speaking with the brain’s “bourgeois self-control centre”? If you’re an individual human being, shouldn’t you have one single voice inside your head? How did your “self” get split into two opposing factions?

But then that’s morality in general — forget theology — shouldn’t we all be investigating these voices? And it’s not just about using this substance or abusing that one. It’s about the binary moral decisions we make in all walks of life. It’s about locating the roots of immanence and the sacred. Maybe that’s why recovery literature is so focused on the Higher Power: the imperative of locating the sacred within the profanity of freebasing, Everclear, carfentanyl, halfway houses and all of those relatives who have given up on you not once, but dozens of times.

***

The rain continues. There’s a gate outside the main room that leads to the parking lot, and anyone is free to go at any time they want to.

‘Bit Rot’, Douglas Coupland’s new collection of stories and essays, is published by William Heinemann (£20). @dougcoupland

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