A Month at NIH
From June 14th through July 11th 2023, I participated in an inpatient research study at the National Institute of Health (NIH).
The study was focused on the causes and effects of alcoholism. To which I was fortunate (or not) to fit the criteria.
Written below is the long story of what I consider to be one of the most influential chapters of my life. I tried to account for all of the details to the best of my ability. It was rather difficult to keep it concise, especially given the vulnerable nature of this material. But I did what I could to keep my thoughts in as linear of a fashion as possible.
My hope is that this recollection can be of some help to anyone who may be interested in finding support on their road to recovery. As well as to shed some light on the stigma of alcoholism and mental health as a whole. These are both areas that I've struggled with over the years, and I think it's important to share these experiences and resources to let others know that you're not alone. Help is out there, and I'm still left in awe of the abundance in which I've received. I honestly never thought I'd find myself in this position, and at the end of it all I remain extremely grateful that I was able to participate in such an experience.
For the sake of accessibility, I thought it best to compile this recollection into one large post instead of scattering it throughout separate entries.
The sections of this post are as follows:
The Phone Call
Life on the Unit
Therapy and Resources
Studies in Detail
Takeaways and Closing
For the sake of confidentiality and mutual respect, I’ve refrained from telling too many personal accounts of my fellow patients and the nurse staff. A large portion of treatment at NIH consisted of group therapy, in which we shared a lot of personal stories and struggles. The stories of others are simply not mine to tell, but I do hope that my peers get the chance to share their stories on their own accord. There was no shortage of inspiring moments during our month of treatment, and a lot of them were due to the conversations and camaraderie that we shared in wanting a change for the better.
Most of the names mentioned in this piece have also been changed to further protect the privacy of these individuals. Not that anything bad happened. But I do hope that folks would do the same for me had I not been able to give proper consent.
Lastly, the experiences and opinions mentioned in this post are strictly my own. There are some things that you may or may not agree with, and that's fine. I'm not looking to debate or argue this subject. I'm simply just laying out my takeaways and thoughts from my own personal experience. However, I do encourage further discussion of these topics. So I invite you to drop me a line, either in the comment section or in private, if you feel so inclined.
With all of that being said, whatever it is that is bringing you to this post, I hope it finds you well, and I thank you in advance for your interest in reading through this integral part of my journey.
It was a sunny day in June when my father gave me the number to call.
“What are my options again?” I asked
This, this was my option.
There was no room for compromise, my parents were insistent that I get help, and that bothered me to a large degree.
At the time I felt incredibly misunderstood. And quite frankly, I just wanted to be left alone. I didn't feel like any of this was necessary. But given the circumstance, there was nothing else I could do but to go along with what my family thought was best. I will put on the record that I really didn't feel like my opinions held much weight in this situation, yet assured me again and again that this was all of coming out of a place of genuine love and concern.
Just the day before, my Dad came and picked me up from my apartment in Richmond Virginia. I don’t remember all of the details that led up to this exactly... It all kind of unfolded in a blurry daze...
From what I do remember:
I woke up around 6am to a collins glass of pineapple seltzer and vodka. Something to ease my headspace from the previous night, before heading off to work.
It was a Tuesday?
I remember sitting by my windowsill, chain smoking cigarettes and scrolling through social media while dreading the work day ahead of me.
Something struck a chord with me that morning, I don’t remember what it was exactly. But to be fair I had not been in the best state of mind over the past few months. a lot of pretty drastic changes had been going on in my life leading up to this point. So I thought it best to reach out to my team and give the heads up that I’d be arriving late that morning.
The reply I received did nothing but increase my anxiety about the situation. I understand how frequent tardiness is not a good practice. But given the circumstance, I really don't think I was asking for all that much.
You see, recently my workload had increased by a lot. My supervisor was recently laid off, which left me up to the gills in a flood of new challenges and responsibilities. At that time I was not only doing my job, but also navigating how to do his as well. With this sudden change also came a vague "promotion" that never actually got fleshed out. On the day to day I was taking on way more than I ever had for that company. It was very stressful to say the least, and caused me to dread going in. Especially without a firm confirmation of a new pay grade, or even a better job title for that matter.
With all of this going on I felt slighted, to say the least, at this inconsiderate reply. All I was asking for was some extra time to get to work, and I was asking this to a company that prided themselves in "looking out for the physical and mental well being of their employees".
So I ended up expressing to them that I’d pretty much had it. I didn't think it was fair that I was taking all of this on while still working my same rate of $16 an hour. I truly believed that I could be much happier doing something that I actually enjoyed, while also making “much more”.
I don't remember everything that was said exactly, but I do remember starting my short and concise rant with "is this my resignation?" and finishing it off by stating that I wouldn't be coming in that day due to my frustration. They ended up booting me off of their Slack team soon after, and that was that.
I've still yet to hear any word from them, other than a letter from our insurance company stating that my coverage had been terminated.
What caring and transparent individuals indeed...
Anyways, that was quite a rush. As it typically is when you finally get the guts to stand up to your boss. So much of a rush that I pounded back a couple more vodka seltzers to try and calm me down. This left me in a buzzed and traumatized state, in which I ended up making some phone calls to my family. These phone calls I do not remember much of, but they were enough to cause concern. I was caught in a shit storm of emotions, and I'm sure I didn't reflect that in the most positive manner.
For that, I sincerely apologize.
I was in a deep place of hurt, and hurt mixed with alcohol tends to lead to destructive behaviors. This is something I’ve unfortunately learned from experience, time and time again.
The rest of that afternoon remains a blur. I don’t remember much of what happened as I was blacked out in my buzzed and blinded rage. The heavy music I was spinning that day was the only thing I really paid attention to at the time. Along with the cigarettes I continued to burn from end to end.
Later that afternoon/early evening I heard a knock on my door, and was genuinely surprised to see my Dad standing there. That was a very sobering moment.
Supposedly he let me know he was coming, but I honestly do not recall the mention.
We talked for a good long while, keeping things light for the most part, and then took a walk to grab some dinner. I had this feeling that this was the last time I'd be sitting down to a nice meal for awhile... and I was right about that.
After getting back to my place the real conversation began. I knew it was coming, and I did my best to explain myself. But to no avail. His intention was to take me home that night, whether I wanted to or not.
As a desperate and final attempt, I took the half-full handle of vodka that was tucked away in my freezer and poured it down the drain right in front of him. Taking the very last swig from the bottle before tossing it in the recycling.
He was not amused.
There was no way of talking my way out of this one. He was taking me back home that night, and that was that.
I had no idea how long i'd be gone for, and frankly I didn't care at that point. I was mad, I was passive, and I just wanted to get it over with.
Before hitting the road we walked down the street to GWAR Bar so I could get a fresh pack of cigarettes. He waited outside as I stepped to the bar. I ordered my smokes along with my last happy meal. There I stood, pounding back my PBR and whiskey as my Dad watched disapprovingly through the front window. While I was standing there my ex just happened to come up and say hi to me. Needless to say I was not in the mood for conversation. We had broken up a few months ago, but were still on speaking terms at that time. I had enough on my mind for the night, and I think she caught the feeling and had the courtesy not to linger. I quickly finished my beer and left.
The next thing I know we were bound for Northern Virginia. All I brought with me were the clothes on my back, phone, keys, wallet, and my trusty magic knife. I had a glimmer of hope that I'd be returning back to Richmond sooner than later to continue my work. But lord knows, I had no clue what was about to happen.
The car ride was spent mostly in silence. Sometimes It's best to not say anything at all, and just listen to the music play. I played some songs that I hoped would change my Dad's mind. A lot of heavier stuff with some shock value, to show how tame I was in comparison. That didn’t seem to have much effect, so eventually I just settled on a Grateful Dead Set.
Before I knew it we were back at home. I was exhausted, and laid down to take my rest.
Trauma is a tricky beast. Sure, the vodka I had that morning was a contributing factor. But I couldn't blame it on that alone. I was unhappy, and I honestly think that the alcohol was the little kick I needed in order to stand up for myself. A hectic kick, sure. But more often than not, drastic change calls for drastic measures. In my mind this was a long time coming, but I can understand how this seemingly came out of the blue from an outsider's perspective. All in all, i've always had a deep love and respect for my family, and although I begrudgingly went along with their charade, I couldn't help but feel as though they had some sort of plan for a positive change in the works. The ball was in their court, and I did what I could to play along as respectfully as I felt able.
2. The Phone Call:
Leading up to this point, I cannot stress enough how everything felt so rushed and thrown together. For instance, we never really came up with any kind of plan, just all of a sudden I’m given this phone number and am expected to call it.
About a month before, my Mom staged a virtual "intervention" where she pretty much just sat there on Facetime and yelled at me to get back on my medication.
There was no real conversation being had, other than her screaming
"YOU NEED TO GET BACK ON YOUR MEDS"
I did not take that well.
My father was present during all of this and fed into her demands, to a degree.
Though deep down I think he could tell that something wasn't right about this.
There was a tremendous lack of care and understanding, and let's be honest, neither of them are professionals on this subject.
So no, I did not go back on my meds.
Instead I sat in silence and took a bath.
I was mad, I was hurt, and at that point I knew my words would do nothing to remedy what had just transpired.
In due time things began to calm down, and I grabbed some dinner with my Dad.
We had a great chat, and he left the next day.
Now here we are again a month later, but this time in the custody of my father's home.
"whom am I calling exactly?" I asked
“NIH, the National Institute of Health” he responds
I think it's worth mentioning, that the last time I was a similar situation my parents landed me in a mental hospital.
This was back in 2016.
I don't remember which hospital it was exactly, somewhere in Fairfax?
I spent 4 or 5 days on the psych ward, and I'll spare the details for another post. Trust me, It’s a mouthful.
But doing my best to keep it short, here are some key takeaways from the visit that I think will benefit the nature of this post:
I did not choose to go to the hospital to begin with.
That was the decision of my parents, and I had no say on that matter whatsoever.
I was given two options from the staff psychiatrist before getting wheeled off to the ward: "Voluntary, or Involuntary"
Those words still haunt me to this day.
During my stay they diagnosed me with Bipolar, and the only way that they would let me leave was by putting me on a regimen of Lithium and Risperdal.
I remained on those two medications for almost 7 years following this "treatment"
I then spent another week at an outpatient facility in Merrifield. That was actually kind of enjoyable in it's own right.
Due to this "voluntary" hospitalization I ended up missing two full weeks of my senior year of college, and upon my return I was left in shambles. The stigma of being admitted into a mental facility are very real, and I was struggling to get by on a daily basis.
I was doing the best I could to get it together enough just to graduate.
I don't even want to mention the other troubles I was facing at that time.
It was a lot to manage, and I can say with utmost confidence that this was the lowest point of my life. Given my newly founded diagnosis, alongside my collegiate workload. I found myself unable to work a job. So in turn, I amassed a fair amount of debt. To which still burdens me to this day. Given the circumstances, what else could I do? Fortunately, even through all of this, I held it together enough to graduate on time. To this day, I'm surprised at myself for making that happen.
After almost 7 years of being on these medications I eventually decided to wean off of them, and I did so over the course of 8 months while under the supervision of my psychiatrist's assistant. This act of getting off meds caused a big stir amongst my close family and friends, and I think this was a big factor in leading me to this next hospitalization.
The entirety of my first hospitalization experience left a very bad impression with me, and the last thing I wanted was to find myself back on any kind of ward. Especially while things finally seemed to be going my way for once. So needless to say, I had some pretty big reservations before starting this trip all over again.
My Dad had already tried calling NIH to set me up in their program. But obviously, with me being a grown (28 year old) adult, I had to make the call myself.
I had little to no knowledge of NIH at this time. So before making the call I did a quick google search to see what I could find, not that it really made a difference.
It soon dawned on me just how prestigious of an institution this was, and I was left with a good enough impression to at least provide some comfort before making the call.
So finally, after taking all of this into consideration, I dial the number.
I allowed my Dad to sit in the room with me as the receptionist answered the phone.
She asked some simple questions regarding why I was calling, and I answered them as cordially as I could. Overall, I was very pleased with her gentle tone of understanding.
She was very deliberate and quick to get me to the right department, and did so in a very polite and timely manner. She took down some information, gave me a case number, and then explained what would happen next.
I don't remember if I then called another number or if they gave me a call back? it doesn't really matter. But my foot was in the door and that's what was important.
The next call was when things really started to get in motion.
I was led through an interview, this time with a different lady.
Again, I allowed my father to sit with me as I went through the interview process.
I had her on speaker phone as we were sitting out on the back porch.
The interview lasted about 20 minutes, and I answered all of the questions to the best of my ability. She started to dive in to my drinking and drug history, and at this point I began to light my cigarettes.
Now, I know my Dad knew a fair amount of my drug and alcohol use. I'm pretty open about that topic to those who are interested. But I will say that it was pretty refreshing to just lay it all out in front of him like that. Like, now I don't really have anything to hide. Plus, I certainly wasn’t going to lie to this lady, that would be counterintuitive to the goal at hand. So in many ways I hope my Dad found some comfort that I never really dived into anything super heavy (like heroin, crack, meth, etc). Also, since being put on Lithium, I stopped most of my drug use all together. Lithium does not play nice with anything, other than alcohol for some reason. So naturally, alcohol and tobacco became my inherent vices while I was medicated.
In addition to my drinking and drug history we also talked a little about my experience of being diagnosed with Bipolar. I gave a brief overview of my first hospitalization and the impressions that had left on me going forward.
Lastly, she had some questions about metals in my body or anything that may prevent me from having an MRI. This was a first for me. I mentioned I had a nose ring, but that it could be easily removed if needed.
Before I knew it, the interview was over. She had everything she needed, and let me know that I'd be receiving a call either later that night or around the same time the next day.
She also informed me that if I was in fact accepted into the study, I'd be spending 28 days inpatient at the NIH headquarters in Bethesda Maryland.
28 days?! Inpatient?! Daaaaaang...
That was not what I wanted to hear.
But wait, it gets better.
Upon receiving this news she also informed me that this is a government funded study, which meant no cost to me whatsoever. They don't even accept insurance. In fact, I would receive compensation for my time, upon completion of the study.
So let me get this straight.
I spend 28 days in one of the nations top hospitals, no cost to me, and I get paid?
There's got to be a catch, right?
There was no need for me to ask that question, for she was very clear and concise in her explanations. I could easily tell that she'd been through this many times before. She also had this earnest tone in her voice that set the impression that we were conversing in a very safe space. To this regard, she wrapped up the conversation by mentioning that the study is strictly volunteer based. Meaning that I had the freedom to leave at any time if I felt it necessary.
She reiterated that I'd be receiving a call either later that evening, or sometime the next day, with the decision of whether or not I'd been accepted into study. In the case that I was not accepted, they would still call to provide me with some additional resources to where I could seek further help. That was very comforting in it's own right, and it really felt like something good was coming together. All of a sudden I was flooded with a deep sense of gratitude.
I thanked her kindly for her time, and that was the end of our conversation.
Now we wait...
The next day I was out walking the dog. I had a pen and paper with me, as I was waiting in anticipation. Sure enough, my phone rings.
It was the same lady from the day before. I was honestly thrilled to hear her voice, and immediately felt a huge sense of relief when she said I fit the criteria. They could have me in as soon as the following Wednesday. I accepted the offer without hesitation, and from that point on I was committed to the study. She said all I needed to bring was a weeks worth of clothes and that I was also allowed my electronic devices. However, any cables longer than 6 inches needed to stay behind the nurses station as a safety precaution. Lastly, the hospital was still under a strict COVID protocol, meaning any visitors along with myself would have to mask up in the common areas of the unit. This was all fine by me, I thanked her once more, and that was that.
My Dad happened to be in view as I received the call, I turned to him with a big thumbs up in the air. Happy tears were shed, and it was a very touching moment to say the least. Now I just had to figure out what to do for the rest of the week...
I had already spent a good deal of time reaching out to close friends and family to fill them in on the gist of what was happening. I didn't want everyone to feel like I just disappeared without a trace. I had a lot going on back in Richmond at the time. For instance, I was supposed to play a gig with the band I was in, and unfortunately I had to cancel. That really bummed me out. But they were super considerate and understanding given the situation, and I really appreciated that. It was a great comfort that everyone seemed to be very encouraging and excited about this decision.
My folks put in a great effort to keep me somewhat busy. My parents are divorced, so I had options as to where to stay and how to spend the handful of days I had to kill in my hometown. I don't want to get too deep into these personal matters out of respect for my loved ones. But I will say that I kicked my Dad's ass at backgammon.
In a lot of ways I felt like a child again. Being chaperoned from place to place. Though, me being me, I found ways to escape without anybody noticing. I know that town like the back of my hand, and found it amusing to see how much had changed during the decade of my absence. Most of these secretive escapes were to stock up on cigarettes. During which, I spent a lot of time taking long walks through familiar parks and areas in which I used to spend a lot of time as a youth.
Here’s a little story that I haven’t told anyone yet.
During this week of limbo, my parents obviously did a good job at keeping alcohol out of the house to lessen the temptation for me. Even though I didn’t have much of an urge to drink for the most part. I knew I had to be on my best behavior… gag
But I'd be lying to say I had nothing to drink over the course of that week.
I was able to sneak a couple of beers out of my Dad's fridge while I was home alone, only drinking two of them during my week long stay.
Two evenings, one for each of those evenings, before taking a shower. Mmmmm shower beer…
Anyway, it was my last full day before going to NIH. I had the habit of getting up at 5am at that time. I went out for my cig run, and when I arrived at 7/11 I immediately grabbed a large Slurpee cup and a 24 oz. Miller Lite. I go to the counter to get my smokes and settle up. The cashier seemed a little weirded out that I was purchasing an empty cup, but he was kind enough to not say anything.
I walk out and find this pleasant little ally way, complete with some comfy chairs and a can for cigarette butts. The town of Vienna is bougie like that.
I dumped my Miller Lite into the Slurpee cup and capped it off with the lid and straw. This dude saw me in the process of doing so, but he just went about his business.
It was 7am on a Tuesday… I’m sure he had better things to do than to call the cops for a rando drinking in public. But then again, Fairfax PD legit have nothing better to do…
So I quickly disposed of the can and made my way.
Boy was that a nice walk. It was a beautiful morning, and there I was just basking in all of it. Drinking my favorite cheap beer through a straw, and smoking to my heart's content.
I was a bit surprised with how quickly I was able to finish the beer, and was a bit disappointed by this, for I still had a little ways to go. But hey, I’ll take that moment for what it was. To this day, that was my last beer. However, that was not my last lick of alcohol…
Later that evening my Dad went out for his nightly walk with the dog.
While he was away I peeked into his liquor cabinet and was pleased to find an opened bottle of some small batch Jack Daniels. Perfect. I opened it up and took a very small, but delightful sip of the bourbon. It was enough to warm me up a bit, but not enough to burn. A perfect farewell in its own right. I put the bottle back where I found it, and that was that. Leaving not a trace of my debauchery, until I arrived at NIH the next morning… But I’ll save that for the next section.
This week of placidness was super refreshing and much needed in it's own right. But even with this break, I was constantly being weighed down by the thoughts of what was to come. I hate hospitals, but I tried my best to keep these feelings subdued. No sense in worrying over something I could no longer control. Whatever will come will come. But there were definitely some restless nights where I stayed up and pondered what I was about to get myself in to.
The morning finally came. Intake was at 8am, but they recommended arriving closer to 7:30.
The lady on the phone mentioned something about "solitary" and that stirred up some worry in me, for I didn't know what that meant exactly. Honestly, I didn't really want to know. I was already imagining myself in a padded room and straight jacket for 72 hours.
So I just let it be.
We arrived at the patient/guest entrance, and as she mentioned, it was very similar to TSA. Including a full search of our car. We made it through without any issue and they gave us our visitor badges.
I will never forget those first impressions of arriving on campus. As we were driving through, there were all of these old buildings placed on very well manicured lawns. There was also this giant metal art sculpture that stood at the base of the clinical center.
I felt like I was gonna be sick. It all just felt so lifeless at the time. This feeling became more prevalent as we stepped into the main building, which I would be calling home for the next 28 days. Immediately I could feel the sterile air hit my skin. It was all so clean, so grand, so... bleh. It reminded me very much of the outpatient center I attended after my first hospitalization. The grandeur was very "state of the art" in an early 2000's kind of way. The smirk on my Dad's face didn't help. I just wanted to curl up in a ball and disappear. This is not where I wanted to be by any means.
We make our way to the welcome desk and the nice gentleman gave us directions to the intake department. The one thing that lifted my spirits as we made our way deeper into the building, was noticing the large fish tanks that lined the hallways.
"Groovy" I thought. Something peaceful to look at.
At least this place had some kind of character.
Check in went by very smoothly. The nice lady at the desk was very quick at signing me in, and gave us directions of where to go to next.
We walked up to the big locked door that contained 1-SE. The entrance to the unit was right off from the atrium, just a short distance from the Starbucks Cafe.
Oooh the chill. I was getting flashbacks from being on the psych ward. no no no. I really didn't want to do this. Crazy socks are comfy and all, but at this point it was really starting to sink in. That feeling of being locked away in a box.
We get buzzed into the unit and I make my first steps down the single hallway. The floors were a slick, almost wood-like vinyl. The walls were this creamy orange color. There were paintings, printed on vinyl, adhered to the walls. Depicting various flowers and landscapes of DC and the surrounding areas. I kept my attention straight ahead. Trying my best to not even think about making eye contact with anybody.
We walked up to the nurses station, where we were greeted by Fran, my nurse for the day.
A lot happened from this point on, and I’ll do my best to keep it in order.
She shows us to my room, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was a single hospital bed. The room was originally built for two, which i'm assuming is pretty standard in most hospitals, but coming to find that I had a room to myself was suuuuper nice.
There was a very large window that looked out to one of the courtyards. I had a rather large desk area which was fitted with some overhead lights. I actually really liked the lighting options in the room. There was even one directly over my bed which I used very often as a reading light. There were also some tastefully fitted shelves to place my clothes. Other than that, the room didn't really have much character, but what could I expect? It took some time, but after a few days of getting situated, it really started to feel like home. The biggest perk of the whole get up was that I had my own bathroom, which included a shower. Score. During my stay at the psych ward they only had public showers, in which you had to be accompanied by a nurse. So obviously, I did not take a shower during that stay. I totally understand that it was all for the sake of safety. but still… I wasn't about that.
At the time everything still felt very sterile and depressing. Fran left us alone for a little while to gather some forms and alert the doctors of my arrival. My Dad and I just kinda sat there in silence for a little bit. I then noticed the constant ticking of the clock hanging on the wall. I said something along the lines of “that ticking is going to fucking bother me”
Fran returns and starts running me through some introductory questions. Name, date of birth, that kind of stuff. she also asks when my last drink was. I was thrilled to say it was that last sip of whiskey from my Dad’s liquor cabinet. He was a bit taken aback by this, and what could I do but laugh. He still had no idea about the beer I had earlier that same morning (lol) so I was honest and ended up covering my tracks to boot. Win-win, what a funny coincidence.
She finishes up her questions and asks my Dad if there was any further reason for him being there. Now don't get me wrong, I love my father, but I found it very amusing to see him getting shooed away by a higher authority. We say our goodbyes. I didn't know when I'd see him next, but we knew that visitors were allowed on weekends. So I was sure he'd be back to check in before too long.
Now the real work begins. I could only guess what was about to happen. I was now fully in the hands of NIH, vulnerable and unprotected.
The remainder of the day was filled with a full gamut of various testing and questioning. It was all so methodical, so organized, so thorough, and to that regard I quickly felt a deep sense of comfort that I haven’t felt in years. Although I was utterly alone, I felt that I was placed in good hands. I went about the rest of the day with a deep sense of respect and gratitude for the services that were being offered to me.
Again, this all happened so fast, and I’m probably going to rearrange the order of what happened. But I remember one of the first orders of business, aside from filling out my first food menu (I'll touch more on that in the "Life on the Unit" section), was to go through my things and search for sharps. I knew that they’d be taking my charging cables, and I already had them all labeled and ready for confiscation. I was suuuuper bummed to find out that I couldn’t keep my spiraled journals, as the wiring itself posed a threat. So they had to be kept behind the nurses station. Other than that, all else was in order. I placed the items that I could keep on my desk, and she took away the rest. She then came back with a detailed list of what they were keeping in custody, which we double checked, and signed off on.
A little while later she came back with two of the most helpful items that aided me during my stay. The first was a charger with a short enough cable that I was allowed to keep in my room. It was frayed at the end with three different kinds of charging ports. She also came back with a yoga mat! What a relief that was. I had plenty of space in my room to continue my practice, and I was super grateful for that. These were just a couple of the many reasons why Fran was the absolute best nurse on staff, and this was an opinion that was shared amongst many of the other patients.
It was around this time when I met one of the heads of the study. For the purpose of this post I'm going to refer to her as Ann, for she reminded me a good deal of Aung San Suu Kyi. Not only because she has also dedicated her life to helping others, but she was also super kind, personable, genuine, thorough, and fashionable to boot.
Anyways, Ann comes to introduce herself and brings with her a stack of consent forms. She did a great job of explaining some of the finer details of the studies. Along with their confidentiality practices, compensation, and all of that good stuff. I took a bit of time to read through the paperwork. I knew I was going to sign it anyway. But it's always good to at least glance over the fine print before signing your name away. She also went into the details of what I was going to be experiencing for the remainder of the day. In addition to testing my blood for genealogy, they were also going to get a full baseline of my physical and mental well being. This included a full STI/STD panel, EKG, chest X-ray, COVID test, and physical.
You name it, they did it.
I couldn't even remember the last time I had such a thorough examination. It was a lot to take in. But again, I was comforted to know that I was in good hands, so I just let them take the lead in good faith.
Once Ann was done with the formalities, it was time to get down to it. Fran comes back and leads me to a closed off examination room where she begins to enter my details into a computer, and prints out my wristband. The wristband itself was actually pretty tasteful. It was branded “Zebra”, and was made out of a very thin plastic that she loosely applied to my wrist. It wasn’t cumbersome in the slightest, although it did have the tendency to uncomfortably stick to my arm in the mornings... but I could deal.
We then headed off of the unit to attend my first rounds of testing. Everywhere I went from this point on required a scan of my wristband, as well as a recitation of my name and date of birth. I did my first ever EKG and Chest X-ray. Zzzzap. I’d never seen such machinery in person before. It was pretty darn cool to see it all in action, and in each of these rooms the operators were super kind and clearly well experienced in their respected fields. I was also surprised that there wasn’t much waiting for these tests. I’m assuming that this study had some kind of priority to move things along rather quickly.
We get back to the examination room where we were accompanied by a nurse in training. It was at this time that I got my first stick… no no no.
I hate drawing blood. Absolutely hate it. I don’t mind getting scrapped up while falling off of a bike, or spending time outdoors. But something about seeing tubes filling up with my vital juices brings extreme discomfort to me. I used to have the tendency to faint because of this. But luckily I was laying down, and these nurses were very well practiced. Although, it didn’t help when they started commenting on how beautiful my veins were…
I guess they weren't very accustomed to having younger patients on the ward… and this turned out to be true. I later learned from one of the nurses that I was the second youngest person that he'd seen on the unit during his 5 year tenure.
They drew what they needed without any issue, and I was glad it was over. I don't remember how much they took exactly, but it was definitely more than I'd been used to. So I was a bit proud of myself for making it through without passing out.
Fran then asked if I had experienced any kind of withdrawal symptoms. She seemed a bit curious that I didn't appear to be showing any. I mentioned that I spent the past week at my Dad's place, and during that time I had very little to drink. Though I did go through some mild withdrawal symptoms. Nothing more than some subtle shakes, and a pretty tolerable migraine. I have definitely had it worse in the past.
Shortly after all of that was finished I had my first meeting with the head Psychiatrist, Dr. George. He walks into the room and takes a seat across from me, introducing himself and asking if I was comfortable with some of the nursing students sitting in for educational purposes. I obliged of course, and he quickly cuts to the chase.
As a precursor:
Dr. George has been working in this line of study for close to 40 years. He is very knowledgeable in his field, and that was made clear from the get go. Not in a pretentious way by any means. None of this was brought to my attention up front. But the way he carried himself, and the way the staff reacted to his presence, definitely demanded courtesy and upmost respect. With that being said. As soon as he started talking, I could tell without a doubt, that he was just as friendly and caring as the rest of the staff that I’d encountered thus far.
He began our interview with something I will not soon forget.
He set the stage by laying out, first and foremost, that in this study "I" (meaning me, David Eaton) was the teacher. And that I was brought there to NIH so that they could learn from my experiences. In hopes to gain further insights about contributing factors to alcoholism.
That was truly something I was not expecting to hear. I already had full intentions of being open and honest. But hearing him say that definitely provided an extra layer of mutual respect and understanding.
I couldn't tell you how long that interview had lasted exactly. It could've been 15 minutes or it could have been an hour and a half. Time has the tendency to fly during therapeutic sessions such as this. We covered a very wide range of factors that contributed to my drinking habits. Scratching the surface on a lot of past trauma and experiences. As well as family histories and things of that nature. He had a natural talent of picking my brain, and asking the harder questions in ways that felt effortless. Obviously these topics of conversation had been stewing on my mind for a handful of years. Now that it was all out in the open, I felt a huge sense of relief. Especially after talking about them under the guidance of an experienced professional.
As the session came to an end, I could definitely feel a sense of genuine shock in the room. I unpacked a lot of emotional baggage, and I don't think anyone was quite prepared to hear all of that in such detail. Especially given my seemingly cheerful and positive demeanor.
During the session, he jotted down over two full pages of notes. I don't know if that's a little or a lot. But at the time it definitely felt as though he was just as puzzled as I was. As well as genuinely concerned with all that I was able to share during our first session.
After the interview was over, the nursing students left to give us some privacy. Dr. George then conducted a brief physical examination. The cold stethoscope, the tapping of the knees. That kind of thing. They were even interested in seeing my tattoos. Everything seemed to be in order, and nothing was physically wrong with me as far as they could tell. I said my most sincere thank you's as we wrapped up our visit, and that was pretty much it for the day. As far as testing and examinations are concerned.
I returned to the sanctions of my room. At some point, Fran directed my attention to a large stack of various folders, which contained a full reams worth of paper handouts. Funnnnn. Little did I know that was just the beginning of a very large paper trail that I was about to accumulate during my stay. So i took some time to start going through it. They provided a good deal of information that got me more acquainted with the unit, and definitely sparked some inspiration as to some of the resources that NIH had to offer.
Ann came back to check on me at some point. She was delighted to share that my COVID test came back negative, which meant I was now free to go about the common areas of the unit. She also mentioned that I was welcome to attend my first evening group, which started at 6:45pm. Our last order of business was to go through a simple MRI screening. She went down a long list of questions, relating to any kind of metal that may have found its way into my body. Pacemakers, titanium plates, that kind of stuff. Most of these things I had never even heard of. So we quickly made our way through the list, until towards the bottom she asks: “ever been shot with a BB gun?”
I paused and laughed a bit.
“Actually, yes I have”
This look of genuine worry immediately struck her face.
“What happened?” She asked.
I tell a story from back in 4th grade I think it was. When one of my closest friends “accidentally” shot me in the neck with his Red Ryder BB gun while we were hanging out in his backyard one night. It was an honest mistake, I’m sure. But Damn did that hurt, and boy
did he get a kick out of that story when he came to visit later that weekend.
She went ahead and scheduled another X-ray for me, just to be sure there wasn’t any kind of shrapnel left over from the incident. Fortunately none was found, and now I have this sick X-ray as a momento
That concluded our business for the evening, and I was left to my solitude once again. After spending some time to myself, I decided to get up and check out what the common room had to offer.
There really wasn't much to it. It was a pretty small area with tables, chairs, and couches. There was a TV on a mobile cart which was equipped with a DVD/VCR player, XBOX 360, and Nintendo Wii. On the other end, we had a fish tank of our own. Which contained Killer, the goldfish. He preferred to have the tank to himself, for he didn't play nice with others. Hence his name. But he was always so excited to great us when we came by, and really enjoyed playing the game of hide and seek. There were also some tall cabinets, which contained a variety of board games, puzzles, and simple art supplies. I was delighted to find that the games actually contained all of the pieces to play. This was definitely not the case in the psych ward, which drove me insane in it's own right.
We also had access to a laundry room and full kitchenette. Which included a fridge, toaster, microwave and even a full stove top oven (though I wasn't surprised to find that it wasn't actually plugged into anything). The kitchenette was also stocked with many leftover condiments and snacks, that were tucked away in the overhead cabinets. Those definitely came in handy from time to time.
Later that evening, I attended my first group, and met with my fellow patients. I made a very brief introduction, and mostly just sat there for the hour. Soaking it in and getting a feel for what to expect for the remainder of my stay. Everyone seemed super nice from what I could gather, and thankfully that remained true.
The last detail I’d like to add, is that it was rather difficult to get to sleep that night. Which is pretty common whenever I find myself in a new environment. I came to realize that the last time I’ve ever spent this long away from home was back in 2012, when I attended Governor School. It was a weird comparison to make, and left me contemplating the ways in which these two experiences were actually pretty similar. I also came to realize how loud the sounds echoed throughout the hallway. It was pretty common for some of the patients to stay up until midnight or so, watching their movies and shows in the common room. the AC also made some loud creaking noises, and don’t get me started about that damn clock.
I got used to all of this over time. I even got pretty used to the nurses opening and closing my door as they made their rounds every hour. Eventually I found comfort, but that still didn’t turn off the little part of my brain that likes to question everything. Many a restless night were spent in that bed, but my work was done for the day. Eventually, I drifted off into a comfortable sleep.
5. Life on the Unit
It took about a week to really settle into the daily routine of inpatient life. But once I got into the rhythm, the days started to pass by rather quickly. Regardless of the fact that I was tallying them down, one by one, in anticipation of getting back home.
It was certainly refreshing to not have many pressing matters to attend to. I was fortunate to have my finances somewhat in order at the time, so I wasn’t stressing too hard about money. To this regard, I still didn't know how much I would be getting paid for these studies, nor what I'd be doing for work after returning home. But I did my best to relax on these matters, and redirect my focus on immersing myself in what the program had to offer. Chances like these don't often come around in a lifetime, if at all. So with that in mind, I really wanted to make the most of my time at NIH while given the opportunity.
On a typical day I’d wake up around 6:30 or 7am. First things first I’d do my yoga. I had my routine close to memorized, so I was glad to continue making progress with my practice. Even though I was in the absence of my teacher, we still maintained close communication while I was away. He was also super kind to send along some recordings of our opening and closing mantras. These provided me with a strong sense of community, which I was missing greatly.
Breakfast usually came around 7:30 am, and the nurses would typically start to make their rounds around 8 to check our vitals.
Vitals were taken three times a day, without fail. 8am, 2pm, and any time between 8pm - 1am, as the last thing we would do before going to bed.
The nurses were pretty flexible, they’d come to our rooms wheeling with them their monitoring system. I was given my own blood pressure cuff, which I kept on the corner of my desk. They’d fasten the cuff, along with the little finger clip, and recorded our blood pressure, oxygen levels, and heart rate. Lastly, they would administer a breathalyzer, and I'm happy to say that I blew straight zeros throughout my stay.
In the mornings they'd typically do a mood screening, which was a simple questionnaire. Rating my general mood over the course of the week, along with depression and anxiety levels. They'd also ask about any kind of pain that I may have been experiencing, If I had thoughts of harming myself, etc. They also did similar scales regarding alcohol cravings about once a week.
In all honesty I found these vital checks to be very soothing. Something about the squeeze of the blood pressure cuff was the closest thing I had to a hug on a day to day basis. It was also a good opportunity to get better acquainted with the nursing staff. They always seemed super cheery to come in and check on me. I’m sure they were just as friendly with everyone else as well. But even if I wasn’t feeling 100% on a given day, vitals always seemed to cheer me up a bit. It was nice to know that I was actively being taken care of.
On this line of thought, I’d like to mention that I tried my absolute best to be easy to work with. I’ve always had utmost respect for healthcare professionals. Especially those doing the groundwork. So I tried to cause as little inconvenience for them as possible, and be as compliant as I could. After a few days on the unit, I think that respect became very mutual on all fronts.
Along with vitals also came medications. Upon entering NIH I was not actively on any medications, and during the course of my stay I was only put on a regimen of vitamins (vitamin B12, thiamine, a multivitamin, and folic acid). They were extremely transparent with what they were giving me, and I had every right to deny vitamins if I felt the need. Eventually, I decided to get put on Chantix as well, as an aid to help quit smoking. I’ll touch more on that in a little bit.
After receiving the results from the tests that they took on intake day, I was super relieved to hear that I was in good health. Everything came back with good results across the board, with nothing out of the ordinary. Their only real concern was that I was underweight. I came in weighing around 128 lbs with a BMI of 13. Along with that, I was also pretty low on my Vitamin B levels. As it turns out, chronic alcohol use makes it rather difficult for the body to properly absorb B vitamins. So to remedy this, I was given three thiamine injections during the first three nights of my stay. Man did those hurt, but they gave me fair warning before hand. At least I wasn't in need of a full IV treatment, as I noticed some of the other patients requiring.
So in a big way, a main focus of my recovery was to eat a lot of food and get back to a healthy weight. I gladly maxed out all of my daily menus, and was happy to find that they had a large variety of things to choose from. My favorites being: caffeinated coffee, strawberry ice cream, and the huevos rancheros. In addition the to the main meals, I also loaded up on a lot of packaged items. Things like chips, peanuts, and blueberry muffins. To snack on later, in the case I wasn't hungry. Eventually, I had a ginormous stash of snacks stockpiled on my desk. Which definitely came in handy during late movie nights in the common room.
In no time at all, I became very well acquainted with my fellow patients. We all got along very well, and truly enjoyed each others company. I've found that in situations such as this, it gets pretty easy to get to know one another rather quickly. Especially after spilling our guts in our daily therapy sessions. There were 7 of us total, and every Wednesday someone would finish up their time, and in turn be replaced by a new patient. We all came from a variety of different backgrounds, which provided for some really great discussions. At the end of the day, no matter who we were or where we came from, we all had the commonality of alcohol abuse. That factor alone united us in many ways, and created a strong foundation for us to grow from.
Outside of the therapy sessions, we would all find time to hang out in the common area. The TV would always be on, but we would also enjoy playing cards or chess. To this regard, I got very good at my solitaire game over the course of the month. Over time, we found many ways to joke around with one another and share funny stories about our personal lives. I found this to be especially true in the smoking section.
Now for the record I came to NIH with the full intention of kicking my smoking habit. I figured I might as well while having the resources available. I assumed that the campus was tobacco free, as most hospitals are. So I arrived without any smokes on me, and I made it a solid 4 or 5 days smoke free, and without much craving. That is, until I discovered the patient smoking section…
Directly down the end of the hallway and passed the locked door (we had to get buzzed out) there was a fenced in smoking section for patients and staff alike. It included a covered bench as well as a lighter that was fixed to the wall. Apparently those were also pretty common in prison yards back in the day, from what I’ve been told. I didn’t want to be that guy that always bummed cigs when I first arrived, so I held off on utilizing this area until my buddy came to visit.
As it so happened, one of my oldest friends was in town to attend a wedding. I too was planning to attend, but unfortunately had to change my RSVP at the last minute given the circumstance. It was a bummer for sure, especially since he was our first close friend to tie the knot. But they were all very understanding and assured me that my filet minion did not go to waste... So as a favor I asked him to pick me up a couple packs of cigarettes, to which he responded "of course! no problem". As the true friend he is, he stocked me up with four packs of Marlboro lights to get me through my stay. What a guy!
I originally intended on rationing them, but ended up blowing through them within the better part of a week. I mean, Smoke em if you got em.
That’s all I really needed honestly. I got my kicks and decided to call it at that.
The nurses obviously encouraged everyone to quit, but they were respectful about our decisions and didn’t give us a hard time. They made it very well known that we had options for aid. Nicotine patches, and Chantix being the most popular. So as I was blowing through my last pack I decided to give the Chantix a shot. I was honestly super impressed with how effective it was, and I ended up going about the rest of my stay with little to no cravings what so ever.
As you may have gathered by reading this far, we had a lot of down time on the unit. With it being the peak of summer, we had a couple of long weekends where we legitimately had nothing planned on our schedule. In addition, a lot of the doctors happened to be going on vacation around this time as well. So I felt like the schedule was a bit looser than it would typically be during the busier months of the year.
During all of this downtime I got super fixated on reading and writing. I finally had the time to read a large stack of books that have been on my list for awhile. Some of my favorites being: Dharma Bums, Queer, a really great translation of the Bhagavad Gita, and the beginnings of the Timothy Leary Project.
As a side note:
I ended up putting Leary down about half way through… I didn’t feel like the material was very appropriate to be reading during this point of my recovery. But, I did learn a cool tidbit of info before putting it away. Bill Wilson, the main founder of AA, was actually a huge benefactor in supporting the use of LSD as a treatment for alcoholism... Who woulda thunk it ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Out of all of the books, the one that truly struck me the most was a biography on Audrey Hepburn. I found this book during a visit to the library and immediately grabbed for it. I’ve always been a great admirer of Audrey, and learning more about her life's journey was incredibly inspiring.
Another big perk of this program in particular, was that they had different patient levels. I was fortunate to have been made a level 3 rather quickly. Meaning I was allowed to check myself out of the unit and freely roam around the campus in hour long intervals. The nurse that granted me this level strongly encouraged me to make use of it and explore. This new level also meant that I was now able to take myself to my various testing appointments without the accompaniment of a nurse. Which was rather dignifying in its own right.
So with this freedom, I did a lot of exploring around the campus, which was much larger than I had originally thought. The clinical center was large enough to get lost in for a full month on its own. But once I was able to take a step out and wander, I quickly realized that there was no way I would even be able to scratch the surface on everything that was taking place here. Still, it was extremely refreshing to go out and get some fresh air and exercise. Those were two things that I never got to experience on the psych ward.
NIH is a very happening place, especially during the work week. Always bustling with all kinds of doctors, nurses, patients, and visitors alike. The hallways were also lined with a wealth of history and memorabilia. Many portraits and photographs of doctors past, renovation milestones, christmas parties, and presidential visits. It didn’t really hit me, how prestigious this facility was, until I realized that this is where Dr. Fauci did most of his work. That really put a lot into perspective, especially with the height of COVID only being a few years ago. As cool as it was to see the facility in full swing, I really preferred walking around at night or during the weekends when no one else was around. It felt like that movie “Night at the Museum” and I greatly enjoyed acting a fool and running around the halls, pretending that I was a patient on the loose or something lol.
The majority of my time off of the unit was spent in one of the courtyards. Where I'd be found journaling, reading, or sketching. One day, before I was granted my level 3 status, I set myself up in the common room and wrote in my journal for almost 8 hours straight. Banging out over 30 pages. I was mainly catching up on a lot of stories, that I didn't have the time to jot down, in my somewhat frantic course of life leading up to my hospitalization. I realized that day, that I had a lot more writing to do. For I barely even scratched the surface of what I'd experienced at NIH thus far. I found it cumbersome to have to check out my journals from the nursing station, along with having to wear a mask in the common room. So I made it a priority at the start of the week to stop by the bookstore and pick up a fresh journal.
Over the course of my stay I wrote over 140 pages in my various journals. I found it to be one of the most therapeutic practices during my stay, and I continue to write almost daily. In a lot of ways journaling has saved my life, and I plan on touching more on that in a separate entry.
If there's one thing you probably already know about me, it's that I'm almost constantly listening to music. This was especially true while I was on the unit. I wore my headphones around so often that the nurses and patients felt as though I was naked if I didn't have them on me.
It was also such a luxury to have been able to keep my electronics. Naturally, I spent a lot of time keeping up on social media, watching movies, playing puzzle games, and having lengthy phone calls with my friends and family.
One of my favorite days on the unit was the Fourth of July. Obviously I didn’t have any plans to cookout with friends, but they did end up having a special lunch menu for the occasion. Including BBQ ribs and cornbread. The meal itself wasn’t much to write home about, but the comfort it provided was a nice touch, and it’s the thought that counts really…
Anyway, I got a good tip from my nurse the night before. He said that if I had the chance, there was actually a pretty good view of the surrounding fireworks from the upper levels of the hospital. So I took him up on that.
I left the Unit around 9pm and made my way to the top floor of the atrium. I sat around for awhile, but didn’t really notice any other people gathering around. So i wandered a bit further, eventually finding another set of elevators that led to the higher levels of the hospital. I was surprised to see that the highest floor available was the 13th, I do consider myself to be pretty superstitious, but up I went. I was delighted to find a small group of patients and nurses all gathered around the windows in anticipation for the evenings display. It wasn’t much longer until the whole skyline began to ignite in colorful bursts. The entire horizon was filled with explosions as far as the eye could see. I’m a bit of a sucker for that kind of thing, and needless to say it all swept me away into an emotional state of introspection. Never in my life could I have imagined that this is where I’d end up at that point in time. It was also my first time seeing the DC fireworks in person since I was a little kid. That especially brought back a big wave of nostalgia and memories passed. I was fortunate to eventually get my own little window to myself, and I just stood there and watched in silence. Enjoying the sad country music I was listening to on my headphones. It was perfect in every way, and i remember going to bed very easily that night.
6. Therapy and Resources
A great deal of our time at NIH was spent in a variety of group therapy sessions and activities. In some cases we had conflicting testing, or other aspects of the study to attend to. But more often than not I was in attendance to every session that I could make. Though, I will admit that there was a time or two where I accidentally overslept.
It really felt as though the group therapy sessions were the true cornerstone of our treatment. Most of these sessions took place in person, in one of the two conference rooms that we had available on the unit. We also had a few virtual groups, for which they issued us Ipads to keep during our stay. I found the Ipad to be most helpful for logging in and viewing test results via the NIH patient portal.
Our rotating schedule began at 10am, giving us plenty of time in the morning to eat breakfast and get ready for the day. All of these sessions were optional to attend, but strongly encouraged.
We'd usually begin with a generic therapy group, led by either a psychiatrist or member of the nursing staff. The structure of this initial group was usually pretty loose, and we'd typically just talk about whatever came to mind under the gentle guidance of whomever was leading. We would occasionally have guest leaders, who worked in other areas of the hospital. I felt as though this block served as a good training opportunity for staff who wanted to expand into other areas. I found these sessions to be a great way to ease into the day, as well as kind of gauge how everyone was feeling.
After one of these guest speaker sessions, the speaker actually came to visit me in my room. She heard from a staff member that I was a musician, and wanted to pick my brain about it. As it turns out, she was in the middle of putting together a lesson which revolved around music therapy. So we ended up conversing on the subject for an hour or so, and came up with a variety of exercises. The conversation was so natural, and it really got some gears turning about possibly pursuing this as a career. I've still got plenty of work ahead of me, but we'll see.
After our morning group, we would then transition over to the main activity for the day. Activities included Art Therapy, General Wellness Classes, Physical Therapy, Nutrition courses, and Social Working.
Art therapy was one of my favorites of course. Unfortunately we only had one hour-long session a week. But we were also fortunate to have a bunch of art materials available in the common area. Our instructor was a super kind and gentle soul. She led us in some fairly simple exercises that were generally focused on visualizing our personal growth. My favorite project was a collaging activity. She did a great job at finding and printing out photos of various animals and majestic landscapes for us to cut out and glue together. She always had something positive to say, and she also picked the most soothing music to help ease us into to the creative process. My only complaint is that the sessions were only an hour long. I really would have enjoyed having more time to work on these projects. As well as experiment with more of the materials that they had available in the art room.
The General Wellness classes where kind of like an ice-breaking session. We talked a lot about activities and ways that we could spend our regained free time upon leaving NIH. Since most of us filled our free time with alcohol and substance abuse, before seeking treatment. It was nice to talk about things that we enjoyed doing before our addictions got the best of us. For a couple of these sessions we simply just sat around and played some simple games, like Yahtzee and Taboo. It brought me back to a much simpler time, and reminded me a lot of having down time during choir in high school. Another day we just spent an hour focusing on how we'd like to craft our daily schedule upon returning home. We used colored pencils to fill out a visual chart on what our days would look like. In a lot of ways these sessions felt very elementary, but it was nice to take a step back and focus on the basics.
Physical Therapy felt a little pointless, and this was at no fault to our instructors. They were very knowledge and super nice people. It's just that our protocol was fairly restricting. For instance, we weren't even allowed to take the stairs. The gym was fully stocked with weightlifting and cross-training equipment. But due to our protocol, we were restricted to only being able to use the treadmills and stationary bikes. In addition, I usually had a liver scan scheduled on physical therapy days. These scans required me to fast in the mornings, so even if I wanted to go hit the treadmill, they were obligated to not allow me to do so without having eaten. With all of these restrictions aside, the instructors were still really good at offering us some great resources and discussions. Helping to spark some ideas on ways to remain active once we got home from treatment.
I think it's safe to say that the nutrition classes were the crowd favorite. We loved talking about food, and our instructor was extremely passionate about her work. During these sessions she led us through a lot of meal planning ideas, in which we all really enjoyed sharing various recipes and ideas on how to spice up our cooking lives at home. As mentioned previously, we were very well fed at NIH, but hospital food does get old after a few weeks. I think it's pretty safe to say that we were all greatly looking forward to getting back to a home cooked meal.
Lastly, I cannot stress enough how much I appreciated our social workers. not only did they lead some very well rounded and informative lessons, they were also very effective at checking in with all of us on an individual basis. They made it well known that they were available around the clock to help provide assistance. They offered services like finding employment and health care coverage, as well as lining up post treatment opportunities. I consider myself very fortunate to not have needed much of their assistance, but I know for a fact that they were a huge help with some of the other patients. It's also comforting to still have their contacts in the case that I would need their services going forward.
In addition to these group sessions, there was also a wide array of individualized therapies, depending on our specific needs. For instance, one of the patients was experiencing difficulty hearing, so they were referred to the hearing specialist. I'm sure there were plenty of other individualized treatments going on that I was not aware of. Privacy was very important in this study of course.
In my case, I had been experiencing chronic neck pain, so I was recommend Acupuncture therapy.
I had never received acupuncture before, and I was a little nervous before my first treatment. I'm not a big fan of needles, tattoos aside. When it comes to deeper penetration of the skin I get a little weary. But I'd heard many accounts of the wonders of acupuncture. In fact, Jerry Garcia was a big advocate of the practice. So I was excited to give it a shot, or a stick for that matter 😉
The staff acupuncturist was the sweetest lady. She has been perfecting her craft for over 27 years. She would come visit me in my room twice a week, bringing with her a basket of assorted needles. Over the course of the month we became pretty close. Before long we began talking about our friends and family, as well as what we liked to do on our days off. I always looked forward to our sessions. Each of which only lasted about 15 minutes.
I never got to see what she was doing exactly. But I will never forget the feeling.
She started by gently massaging my neck and shoulders, feeling for the points of tension. After finding the right spots she would then position her needle, one at a time, and insert them with a precise tap. She continued to massage the area, it felt as though she was working the needle deeper into position while doing so. As she worked the needle, especially in the vertebrae in my neck, I'd feel these small popping sensations *pop pop pop* and felt as though the muscles in these areas immediately unlocked. Despite the metallic feeling of the thin metal penetrating my skin. The popping sensations, and the immediate relief, were deeply relaxing and provided an extreme sense of comfort. In addition to her expertise, she was also such a personable soul. She had an agelessness about her. As if she could've been thousands of years old, but still have the looks of a middle aged woman. I think it's safe to say, that out of all the incredible members on the staff, I think i'll miss her the most.
Amongst all of these activities, our head psychiatrist Dr. George, would also find time to meet with us individually. These meetings were never really planned, though I'm sure he was well aware of everyone's schedule (It's not like we were going anywhere). He was typically around the unit during the day, and we'd just run into each other or he would drop by my room and ask if I had time for a chat. These sessions felt fairly informal compared to our initial visit. But he still had that way of getting straight to the matter at hand, and getting to the hard questions rather quickly. More often than not I would be left in a deep state of introspection, and I would take a fair amount of time to journal about it and really chew on what he was trying to get at. I will admit, I felt like we had a bit of lack of understanding at certain points, and I don't mean that in a bad way. If anything that really pushed me to flesh out how I was feeling, so that I would be better equipped to talk with him about it during our next encounter.
Our typical weekday ended with an online AA meeting via zoom. These meetings began promptly at 5:30pm, and we were all strongly encouraged to attend on a daily basis. These were the only sessions that I did not attend regularly. After attending a few of these meetings, I came to the conclusion that AA just isn't for me. Now don't get me wrong, I have some tremendous respect for the program. Especially in regards to the amount of positive impact that it has had in helping millions of people recover from alcohol abuse. In this regard, many of the patients would attended multiple online AA meetings a day, on their own accord, and I think that's great. I'll talk about this a little further in the "Takeaways and Closing" section.
Our last session of the day was a Wholistic Recovery group, led by one of our evening nurses. I'm going to call him Max, for he had a real talent for helping us find ways to "Max out" our full potential.
I had mad respect for Max. He had a very stern approach, but could also shift gears to a more tender side when need be. I will admit that he rubbed me the wrong way, especially in the first week, for he was very adamant in his belief that we had a disease. He would get really passionate and heated in his lectures. Saying things like "YOU ABSOLUTELY CANNOT DRINK! YOU ARE A SPECIAL GROUP OF PEOPLE! YOU HAVE A DISEASE!" and then continue to point out some specific step of the AA program that was hanging on the wall. As mentioned earlier, this approach never really worked for me. But I could see where he was coming from, and I respected his enthusiasm. If i could imagine tough love as a person, it would be Max.
On the other side of the coin, Max was also very versatile in his teachings, and led us through many other exercises and avenues that didn't involve AA. For instance, he introduced us to SMART Recovery, which is a recovery group similar to AA, but their approach is more based on scientific research rather than a higher power. This idea resonated a lot with certain members of our group, myself included, and I wish we spent more time exploring this method. But it was nice to know that it was available, and he provided us with a good packet of information to take home and review on our own time.
The biggest aspect of this wholistic group was for each of us to put together our own sobriety plan. He provided us with an array of various packets to complete on our own schedules. I found them very similar to homework assignments that I would often receive in grade school. Coming from the Fairfax County Public School system, I found this approach to be all too familiar, and was able to breeze through them without much difficulty. It's incredible to realize just how deeply we were conditioned as youth growing up in that area. With that being said, many of the other patients found these packets to be rather daunting. So we spent a great deal of time working through this subject matter in smaller sections, while opening up discussions to help spark ideas in finding ways towards recovery.
Towards the end of our respected stays, we then presented our plans to the group. If we felt comfortable doing so. To those who volunteered to share, we invited a collaborative discussion focusing on ways we may be able to better round out these plans. These presentations and discussions were definitely big milestones in all of our respected journeys. There was a true sincerity during these conversations, and we all took them very seriously.
We all liked to have fun as well. After all, laughter is one of the greatest forms of medicine. As much as a lot of what we discussed dealt with some very heavy topics, we were pretty good at finding constructive humor in how to take a lot of these lessons. We all knew that these were very serious matters, and we did not take them lightly. Being that we were all in varying stages of recovery, we definitely took the proper time to gauge where everyone was at, and crafted our responses appropriately. We all had our faults, and were very accepting in knowing that none of us are perfect. We knew when to laugh, and when to take in the reigns. I'm very grateful to have taken part with such a light hearted group. I think we all found a great comfort, rather quickly, in being able to talk with one another about our experiences in such a nurturing and nonjudgmental environment.
I took the time to write everyone a letter on the day of their discharge. Just as a little token of gratitude for everyone sharing what made them unique. It's really incredible to notice the radiating effects of such small acts of kindness. For instance, I was fortunate to catch one of the patients as they were leaving. I gave him his letter and said my goodbyes. To my surprise, he ends up coming back about an hour later with a beautiful bouquet of flowers and assorted chocolates for the nurse staff. As he gifts them these tokens of appreciation he turns to me with a smile and says "David gets some of those chocolates too". That really made my day.
In addition to these group settings, NIH also had no shortage of resources to utilize on an individual basis. Aside from all of their top tier medical equipment, they also had a wealth of services put in place specifically to make patients feel more at home. The two I frequented most often, not including the Starbucks, was the Library and the Chapel.
Their Library was a little on the small side, but it was very well stocked and curated. Filled to the brim, not only with fascinating books, magazines, and graphic novels. But also a massive selection of DVDs, video games, puzzle books, and even musical instruments.
One of my first orders of business was to get my hands on a guitar, and I was thrilled when they handed me a Washburn that was in excellent condition. In addition to guitars, they also had some keyboards, and hand drums. I was also super stoked when I realized that their DVD collection wasn’t nearly as strict as the one they had on the psych ward. We spent many a night binge watching the Sopranos, as well as many R-rated films that would never be allowed in a mental hospital. For about a week we got really deep into some classic westerns, and that was really fun. In addition to the materials they provided, they would also host events, like therapy dog visits, especially on weekends. All of these aspects created an overall comforting environment that libraries tend to have. On top of all of that the librarians were super friendly and offered some excellent recommendations.
In addition to the instruments you could rent from the library, they also had a couple of pianos scattered about the building. The first one I noticed was a full Steinway Grand that was sitting covered in the atrium. It was not to be touched unless given permission, so I never played it. But I was fortunate to catch a recital that was given one afternoon by a dentist from the area. He played some really great jazz standards, as well as some jazzy interpretations of some more well known tunes. It was a really nice way to spend an hour or so.
The other piano was located close to the chapel and was free to use during the hours of 5-8pm on weekdays. Had I known there was a piano I would've come better prepared with some sheet music to practice. But it was nice to know it was there, and there were a couple of nights where some patients and I went to play on it for awhile.
On the topic of music, I had a very nice surprise one day.
It was the Fourth of July, and I was about to head outside to get some reading done. As I was passing through the common area I ran into a visitor. One of the patients mentioned earlier that his friend was coming to visit, and I'm glad I happened to run into him. We get to talking and as it turns out he was a fellow musician. He also happened to be a patient in the same program about a decade ago.
We get to talking about everything under the sun, starting with our struggles with sobriety, and then landing back to music. He asked if I'd had the chance to get a guitar from the Library. As it turned out, I had already returned it a day or two before. He just so happened to only live a couple of miles away, and quickly offered to go and grab one of his guitars for me to borrow. How could I say no? I graciously accepted his offer and off he went.
He comes back about an hour later with a guitar case and hands it to me. I opened it up and began to play, quickly noticing that it was missing the high E string. I didn't mind, but he was insistent to go and grab his other guitar, which he was sure had all of the strings. He told me to keep practicing in the meantime. So I did, noodling for an hour or so while also watching Wimbledon on the TV.
Another hour passes by, and sure enough he returns with his other guitar. This one fully equipped with all six strings. I play around for awhile as we continued our conversation. He mentioned that he too was a songwriter, and that he was about to head to the national mall to meet up with some friends, who were performing that afternoon for the big 4th of July celebration. That seemed like a lot of fun. In the spur of the moment I offered to play them a song that I'd written, and they accepted the invitation with enthusiasm.
I play for them "Come to", which I thought was appropriate given our previous conversation about struggle and recovery. They loved it. The acoustics in the common room were actually really nice and resonant.
He had to get going shortly after I finished my song. But he was insistent on letting me keep the guitar to practice with during my last couple of weeks. I wasn't really in any position to say no, so I graciously accepted the gesture. In addition to the guitar he also provided a lot of insights of his experience at NIH back in 2014. COVID obviously wasn't a thing yet, so at that time NIH used to shuttle the patients around to activities off of the campus. They'd attend AA meetings in person, as well as go out bowling at a nearby Naval Base. All of that sounded really swell, and I did hear talks of them reincorporating those kinds of activities again. Now that the pandemic has calmed down. So hopefully that will be the case for future patients, it's always nice to have a change of scenery.
We were not allowed to play guitars in our room due to the strings posing a safety risk. So one of the nurses printed out this sign while the guitar remained locked in a separate room when it wasn't in use.
That was pretty much it for my musical endeavors on the Unit. I surely enjoyed diddling around on the guitar, like I do, and we shared some really great sing along moments. I did my best to take some requests as well, but my mind was going off in so many directions, and I felt as though I had more important matters to attend to. Still, I'm very grateful for all of these opportunities to play.
The last resource I'd like to mention, and likely the most important, was the religious services offered at the hospital. I’ll save the details on the topic of religion and spirituality for a different post. But while I was at NIH i did attend church every Sunday, which is not very typical of me. But hey, I figured it wouldn't hurt. They held a non-denominational Christian service at 10am on Sundays, in addition to a large variety of other services offered throughout the week. Which included a guided meditation on Wednesdays, but I never found myself attending due to conflicts in my schedule. During one of these Sunday services they mentioned that they had staff Chaplains available to talk with in private. So I took them up on the opportunity, and was very fortunate to be paired with one during the last week of my stay.
Now, I really had no idea what to expect. But I was elated when I was paired with a top tier spiritual advisor who was well versed in a wide variety of religious studies. I'll delve deeper into our conversation in a separate entry. But for the purposes of this post I would like to mention a few short details.
Miss D came to visit me one evening, and we talked for about 2 hours straight. Towards the end I was genuinely shocked to see how much time had passed. In all honesty it felt like we had only been talking for about 10 minutes. The conversation that we shared remains to be one of the biggest highlights of my stay. She was an expert in guiding me through many of the spiritual revelations that I had been experiencing at the time. It was clear that she had a wealth of personal experience, especially when it came to non-secular practices. So a big thank you to Miss D for helping me along in my journey.
I touched on this a little bit in the "Life on the Unit" section, but I think it's worth mentioning again that the building itself was an incredible resource. There were plenty of museum like displays scattered about, and it was super fascinating to read about some of the advancements that were discovered on those very grounds. The building had gone through so many renovations and advancements throughout the years, and in a sense felt like a time capsule. There was one hallway in particular that was crafted in this very tasteful art deco grandeur. Including pay phones, with telephone books chained to the booths. It was really cool to come to an understanding of how my own history was now becoming entwined in all of this. Hanging up in the main atrium was a selection of photos from presidential visits, going all the way back to the Truman presidency. THAT was cool. It was also fun to see little reminders of Dr. Fauci here and there, he was definitely the main celebrity at this point in time, and it was super humbling to know that I was roaming the same halls as he once had. Obviously his work was much more impactful, but it was still very inspiring to say the least.
7. Studies in Detail
I took part in a handful of research studies during my time at NIH.
Most of them didn’t require much more than drawing a few tubes of blood. Which are now probably locked up in a freezer somewhere awaiting to be tested, or simply stored in safe keeping for future studies.
Before taking part in any of these studies I had one on one meetings with either Ann or a similar doctor, where they did an excellent job at explaining the studies in as much detail as they could provide. They were also very transparent about their confidentiality practices, as well as compensation. After going through these formalities, I then signed various consent forms, and that was it until it came time for the studies to take place.
Most of these studies were conducted during my last couple of weeks on the unit. It felt like I was given the first two weeks to settle into patient life, and then they hit me with the tests after getting acclimated. The tests themselves were all very simple and didn't require much in terms of effort. I'll pick them apart in a little bit. But before I get into the details, I would like to mention that even with these concise explanations I have a tendency to assume the worst. I quickly realized once the studies began that I had nothing to worry about. All of those scary and irrational thoughts quickly dissolved as I soon discovered the simplicity of these tests, and what was required of me.
Anyway, In no particular order, here are the details of the studies that I participated in:
MRI The most interesting study involved a three and a half hour MRI session. In a lot of ways this was also the study that I was most nervous about. I guess my main concern was that they would stumble across something irregular. Like a tumor, or some other off putting sign that something was seriously wrong with me. Rest assured this was not the case, and yet another figment of my wild imagination.
On the day of the study I was greeted by the researchers' assistant, who again walked me through what was about to happen. Essentially all I had to do was lay still in the MRI scanner for three and a half hours. They would start by running some basic clinical scans to get a baseline of my brain activity. Then proceed with a series of games for me to play, as well as some visual stimuli for me to look at, all while monitoring my brain activity. The assistant came prepared with a laptop, so that I was able to practice these games before we headed down to the MRI scanner.
The games were all very simple
The first one was a reaction style game, where all that showed up on the screen was either a left or a right arrow. To which I pressed either the left or the right arrow in correspondence. I was instructed to react as quickly as I could. Every now and again, an up arrow would suddenly flash on the screen. When this happened I was instructed to not press anything at all.
There was then a couple of sequenced style games, where a continuation of letters would come up on the screen. I was supposed to press a button whenever I noticed a duplicate. It started out very simple. Notice two letters in a row and press the button. Then it started to go further down the line, noticing the same letter appearing two or three previous positions in the sequence, and so forth.
There were a couple of randomized strategy games that offered compensation for choosing the right item. Essentially I was given two options. One was a safe bet that always offered me the same amount of money, 25 cents or something like that. While the other option varied in what it provided, sometimes giving me $5, sometimes subtracting $5, sometimes giving nothing at all etc.
The last game I remember was another reaction game, but this time instead of arrows flashing on the screen they were a series of different shapes. Each shape was assigned a monetary value, and the goal was to react as quickly as you could no matter what the shape offered you. I didn't really understand the principles behind that one, but I will say I found it rather difficult to press the button in time. The shapes appeared rather quickly.
After having the chance to give these games a practice run, I felt very excited to give them a go in the actual test. The last order of business before heading down to the basement was to remove the stud in my nose. That was a bit of an ordeal in itself, being the first time I’ve ever taking it out since getting it pierced just a few months prior. It was a little bit of a struggle, but fortunately I was able to get it out without much difficulty. This was all thanks to the help of Amy Ganders over in Falls Church. Who not only showed me how the snapping studs worked, but also gave me an unused tapering tool to help assist with putting it back in. Thank you Amy.
Despite my subtle claustrophobia, I had no issues with laying still in the MRI scanner for that long. The specialist was very good at getting me comfortable and situated. She provided me with a blanket and proper ear plugs, as well as a specialized gaming controller to hold on to. I'd been in a MRI scanner before, but that was way back when I was in 2nd grade. Although it was so long ago I remembered being somewhat comforted by the experience. Something about the sounds that the scanner produced. Being back in this position definitely provoked some of those inner childhood memories, and I was excited to relive this experience with a more cognitive perspective.
I felt like I was in some kind of a sci-fi submarine. They slid this face shield in front of me that looked out through a periscope, which was aimed behind me. It was a bit disorienting, as I was looking through the tube that I was slowly entering in to. As I was sliding into place I couldn't help but feel like I was in a scene from 2001 A Space Odyssey.
After getting settled into place, they began the clinical scans. For about an hour and a half I just laid there. I was able to converse with the operator through a built in microphone/speaker system. Sometimes she would instruct me to keep my eyes open or closed as the machine erupted into all sorts of deeply rhythmic hums. I felt like I was inside of some crazy synthesizer, and was soon lulled into a meditative, almost hypnotic state. As the machine was doing its thing, I was doing my best to familiarize myself with the noises it was making. I found them to be very inspiring.
Once the clinical scans were complete, we then moved on to the series of images and games that I mentioned previously. During each of these sessions they continued running the scans as I completed these tasks.
For the first exercise they presented various images of alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages. I was instructed to either bring the images closer or further away from me using the video game controller.
We then played through all of the games that I listed earlier.
The final session was the one that I found most interesting. They mentioned that they were going to show me some more groups of images. All I had to do was observe them, and then rate my mood and craving for alcohol once the series were finished. Before the study began, they gave me a fair warning that some of these images may be distressing to look at. Now, I've seen some pretty messed up stuff. Especially growing up with the birth of the internet, as I'm sure many of my fellow millennials can relate. So I was pretty interested to see what NIH considered to be distressing.
They begin the session, and the images start appearing on the screen. I began to notice a lot of the same photos of alcoholic drinks, followed by more neutral photos. Things like basic household objects, clocks, fruit bowls, a glass of cold milk. The photos themselves had this vintage quality to them, and were very soothing to look at. Like flipping through old magazines.
As the study progressed the images began to get more unhinged. Images of war and hostility began to arise, again with this vintage-like quality. There were a couple of photos that I found to be quite unsettling, but not in a way that I expected them to be. I can definitely say that I'd seen much more graphic images in my day. But something about the quality and subject matter of these photographs stirred up some deeper feelings in my subconscious. It was all very Kubrickesque, and I couldn't help but feel a bit like Alex in A Clockwork Orange. Thankfully in my case they weren't trying to completely hijack my brain. At least not that I'm aware of...
This next study is what I found to be the most beneficial component of my stay. I participated in a series of three interviews, which were conducted in two hour segments over the course of a few weeks. These interviews were virtual, and I think that being in the privacy of my own room provided a lot of comfort. Especially as we started diving into the details of my past.
These interviews were very similar to the initial conversation I had with Dr. George on intake day. But in these sessions we dove into all of the finer details of my past trauma, as well as specific experiences that likely contributed to my drinking habits.
The process was very structured. piecing together my full history of alcohol and drug use, while also gathering insights as to what was happening in my life during these points in time. She was extremely methodical in entering all of my answers into a finely detailed document. In this sense, I would not consider these therapy sessions. Although I found the results to be very therapeutic, the main purpose, for the sake of the study, was to get my detailed history on record.
My interviewer was very sympathetic and supportive on an emotional level. She was great at furthering along the harder questions in a way that made me feel safe. Even though we touched on some pretty heavy topics, she was very empathetic and gave me the space I needed to express how some of these instances had a detrimental effect on my life.
The first interview was the hardest, and I was left feeling incredibly vulnerable in a giant wave of mixed emotions. We covered a lot in those first two hours, and by the end of it I think we both were a little shocked at how much more we had left to uncover. Before ending the session, she was extremely considerate, and told me to take it easy for the rest of the day. So I took a solid hour to sit and reflect on these feelings. I did my best to write them down, and was able to get out some good thoughts. It was just so much, and I was incredibly grateful to finally get a lot of that off of my chest. Never had I felt so incredibly validated, and I think that's a big piece of the puzzle that I'd been missing for a long time.
The remaining interviews went by much easier. We still had more trauma to unpack. But after laying down the groundwork during that first session I genuinely felt like the heavy lifting was over. These interviews helped me understand, and come to terms with, a lot of my past. It remains difficult to express in words how much of a help that was for me.
So from the bottom of my heart, Thank You
Of all the aspects of my stay, these tests were probably the most boring lol. With that being said they were incredibly important in their own right. Again, these sessions were split into three, two hour sessions. But for the purposes of these tests I was placed in a conference room with a testing administrator.
These sessions reminded me of that scene in Ghostbusters where Bill Murray was participating in ESP trials.
The first order of business was to go through a calendar of the past three months and enter how many drinks I had for each individual day. This was by far the most difficult task I encountered. I'm not sure about you, but I don't typically keep track of how much I drink on any given day. Especially once I get past 4 or 5... So I did my best to jog my memory, and I filled it out as best as I could remember.
I was then led through a series of basic intelligence tests, including the WASI-II, which I found to be kind of fun in it's own right. The questions involved a lot of simple word associations and pattern recognitions. I remember taking similar tests in 2nd grade, before getting placed into the GT program and switching schools. I guess this trip to the hospital really brought back a lot of childhood memories in more ways than I could've imagined.
The tests also involved a long series of emotional scales, as well as similar games that I played during the MRI sessions. There was one in particular that I remembered playing in middle school, where I pretended to pass a ball between two other virtual characters. By the end of it all I was super impressed with how much data they were able to collect in such a small period of time.
Further Clinical Testing
A couple of other tests that were pretty quick and simple included an ultrasound, mainly of my liver, along with other surrounding organs. As well as a series of three fibroscans, which is a clinical scan that measures the stiffness and fattiness of your liver.
I found the ultrasound to be pretty relaxing honestly, I'd never experienced one before. The operator had a very soothing presence, as he ran the gooey scanner over my abdomen and led me through some simple breathing exercises.
The fibroscans weren't nearly as relaxing, the machine had an uncomfortable kick to it that I found bothersome. But it was tolerable enough to make it through the sessions without any issue. I was also very fortunate to have such an insightful specialist. Fortunately all of these tests came back just fine. But she was kind to add some further insights about some of my results. She also let me know that I could drink all the coffee I wanted, as long as I go easy on the cream and sugar. I've been drinking a lot of coffee ever since.
I'd like to end this section with a little story. As I mentioned earlier I'm a bit of a wimp when it comes to drawing blood, and unfortunately I ended up having to give a lot more than I had initially hoped.
Luckily, they had a service where a lab technician would come into my room first thing in the morning. They would come in around 5am and take what they needed, while I remained in the comfort of my own bed. I was totally cool with this. As much as I dreaded thinking about it the nights before, it was nice to just get it over with and go immediately back to sleep. But it was just my luck that some of the other patients weren't happy with the early wake up call. So they ended up changing the procedure to where we went to the lab on our own accord, giving us more time to get settled into the morning. Oh was I bummed by this news...
So the next time I needed blood drawn, I sucked it up and went. The nurse handed me a bag of tubes that I was to return to them... filled with my blood... bleh. She continued to inform me that those where just a couple of the samples they were about to take, and that they'd be taking a good bit more... To her defense, no one knew about my phobia. But that was absolutely the last thing I wanted to hear before heading over to the lab.
I was glad to run into one of my friends who was also waiting to get their lab work done. We joked around for awhile, and I was also happy to discover that there was a little cart set up with some coffee and breakfast items. I was greatly looking forward to getting my coffee fix once this was all over.
My number gets called, and I take my seat in the rigid drawing chair. It was all too familiar. The small, office like room. The chair with the padded swinging arm rest. I knew I should've said something then and there, as it was all starting to flood in. The uneasiness... But I did what I could to keep my mind off of it. She had some family photos posted up by her computer, and that offered me some comfort. She comes in and we get down to it. The stick was quick and painless, she's obviously done this for a long time. I know better than to look, so i did my best to draw my attention elsewhere, but something about the clicking of the tubes started getting to me.
It's all I could think about, and the time was just passing by so slowly. Then all of a sudden.
"ooooohhh noooooo, I'm sorry but I'm starting to get a little woozy"
She did her best to draw my attention to something else, and quickly got into action by grabbing an ice pack to place on the back of my neck.
But, sure enough, next thing I know *BAM* everything went black.
*where am I?
Who are these people touching me?
Did I die?
Oh no, I really did it this time, where the fuck am I?
Ohhhh.... I passed out didn't I?*
"I'm so sorry..."
I come to and there's an entire team of doctors in white lab coats surrounding me. They kept their hands on me to make sure I was stabilized. I was still seated in the chair, but in the process of fainting I guess I slammed down hard enough that the needle popped out of my arm. Fortunately she was able to get all of the blood that she needed, and I'm very thankful for that. Another stick in that state would've really done me in for the day. But all was well, they just told me to take it easy and that they've already sent for a wheelchair to get me back to the unit.
I have no idea how long I was out for. I'm not sure if y'all have ever had fainting spells, but they are very disorienting. So there I sat, embarrassed and all, but feeling better by the minute. They get me situated in the wheelchair, and return to me the samples to bring back to the unit. Gee thanks lol.
I was a good sport about it tho, and even told the nurse that was one of the most painless sticks i've ever had. She really appreciated the comment, returning the compliment with a very friendly smile as well as a thank you. I apologized once more as I got wheeled back to the unit.
Sure enough my friend was waiting for me at the breakfast station, they did not expect to see me in a wheelchair tho. So I skipped out on the breakfast cart, unfortunately, and as I got wheeled back to the unit I was greeted with some concern from the nurse staff. I got back to my room and nourished myself with the breakfast that was waiting for me. It's been years since I last fainted, and that put a strange airiness to the remainder of the day.
So, Needless to say, they continued to take my blood at my bedside going forward. I much preferred it that way. I'm sure it's somewhat inconvenient for the morning tech staff, but at least they don't have to worry about a fainting patient.
Lastly, what I told the tech about that being the best stick I've ever had was very true at the time. But I will say that she got beat by the very last stick of my stay. The tech that administered it had a true talent, and I'm so so so grateful to have ended it on that note. While in the comfort of my own bed, and in my sleepy state. It was very touching in such a very bizarre way. Almost as if it occurred in a dream...
I was discharged from the program on July 11th, or as some would refer to as: Slurpee Day. In all of the excitement, I never did get that Slurpee... Oh well.
I woke up to the day with a great deal of anticipation. I'd literally been counting down the hours, and with that came a good bit of restlessness to finally get out of there. During my last week I started to get rather annoyed by the constant check ins from the nurses. I know they all meant well, and I did my best to be as cheerful as I could, but I was so ready to get a move on.
I was expecting to be out of there at 8am sharp, and I did my best to get up a little earlier to start gathering my things. I was a little disappointed that it took a little longer than expected to get everything in order. On the couple of days leading up to discharge I had my final appointments with my psychiatrists. As mentioned, there were a few changes due to vacation schedules, and with it being summer and all. In a lot of ways this turned out to be a blessing in disguise I think. It allowed me to get the perspectives from a wealth of other medical professionals, and I think gathering as many opinions and perspectives as you can is extremely important. Especially when dealing with something as touchy as mental health and addiction.
So I was a bit irked that morning when my meds weren't ready, even though I had it all cleared by my doctors the day before. But whatever, I can't really complain, especially after receiving the quality of care that I was given on the government's dime. As far as prescriptions, all I was leaving with was a multivitamin, and a full treatment of Chantix. The script took about an hour to fill, so that left me hanging around for a little longer than I'd anticipated.
I was moving a mile a minute. Constantly checking, and double checking that I had everything in order. The time finally came when my nurse came by with my discharge paperwork. A very short and simple form explaining my vitamin regimen, and what they recommended I do going forward. Which was mainly to continue to stay active with my exercise. They also left me with Dr. George's personal cell number, and I was instructed to give him a call every week just to check in.
Once that was all gone over and signed, she then returned with my sharps, and we checked once more to make sure I hadn't forgotten anything. I grabbed my things and headed out without saying any goodbyes.
It was one of those rare moments in life. Like getting on a train and never looking back. My work there was done, and a new chapter was waiting for me beyond the gates of the campus. My Dad was there to pick me up, and aside from the little bit of difficulty we had finding our way out of the parking deck, we were on our way once again.
I didn't really know what was going to happen next, and in a lot of ways I still don't. But I knew my first order of business was to take a long walk. So I did just that.
9. Post Treatment
As mentioned during intake, there was a high probability that I’d be recommended to an outpatient facility for further treatment. However, I think I made it pretty clear during my stay that I was looking forward to getting back home. Where I'm very fortunate to have a wealth of resources in my community to help further my road to recovery.
I would like to mention that the majority of my fellow patients were placed into other facilities. I don’t know the specifics, but they did have options as to where they decided to go, and they made those decisions on their own accord. a lot of these centers were 3 month long programs which included various oxford houses and treatment centers. Alcoholism is a hard battle, and especially as you get older it can take much longer than a month to kick the habit. Especially if it’s something that you’ve been struggling with for decades. I consider myself extremely fortunate that this month was enough for me to curb my addiction. I’m also super happy that my peers were able to find the help that they needed in order to further their commitments to sobriety.
Now that I’m back in Richmond, my only outpatient procedure has been weekly calls to my head psychiatrist, Dr. George, and most of these phone calls only last a handful of minutes. I’ve also been enrolled into outpatient surveys, which will be conducted over the course of two years. these are paid surveys, ranging from $5-$25 depending on their length. the first survey was an hour long phone interview which was mainly concerned with how COVID affected my drinking habits.
In addition to these interviews, I’ve also enrolled myself into NIH’s registry of healthy patients. Which means that I get updates when new studies come up. I think it’s safe to say I won’t be returning for a good while. But I find it interesting to see what else they’re up to, and who knows? maybe I’ll be back if something really peaks my interest.
10. Takeaways and Closing
In all honesty, I didn't know what I was doing in that program from the get go, and I think the doctors were also a little puzzled as to why I was there in the beginning. I felt like somewhat of an imposter, like I didn't have it nearly as bad as most of the other patients. To a large degree, that was very true. I'm very fortunate to not have hit as deep of a bottom as some of the other patients had, but that does not invalidate the struggles that I've dealt with to any degree.
I knew I've struggled with alcohol abuse in the past, and I knew for an absolute fact that this was not my lowest point. I had a lot of time to think about what led me to this hospitalization, and aided with countless therapy sessions and psychiatrist visits, to help me piece together everything that has happened thus far.
I still think that a large contributing factor was that I was diagnosed with bipolar, and wrongfully so. At the time, many people got put into that camp because frankly, it's a quick and easy fix to a much more complex issue. So when I got off of my meds I think people legitimately thought that I was losing it. When in reality, at least the way that I perceive it, I think I'd just had enough and started to stand up and get back to myself. I've been fortunate to have met a lot of friends who have been going through similar circumstances, and they were kind enough to equip me with some pretty solid pieces of advice.
The two pieces that I really took to heart were: "take care of yourself, and the rest will work itself out just fine" and "the truth will set you free, It's going to get a little weird at first, but stick with it and you'll see"
I think these two pieces of wisdom go hand in hand. In order to take care of yourself, you also need to remain true to yourself. Which is something I was not the best at doing, and I will admit that without fault. But to my defense, I think that we have been conditioned in a society that is backwards in a lot of ways. In many ways it feels that in order to succeed, you must do what you're told, and conform to the mold.
This is something that I've always combated growing up. But especially after getting put on lithium, which is a very serious drug, I felt like everything I once held as a virtue was a lie. In a big sense, I truly felt that I lost at life in general. Not only losing everything that I was working towards up to that point, but also losing a huge part of my inner self in the process. I hung up a lot of my previous endeavours in order to fit what society deems as "successful". In a lot of ways that made me very resentful, but most of all just really sad. I stopped playing music, I stopped creating art. Most of my time was spent going to work and doing my best to fit into a "normie" life, with hopes that I would eventually climb the ladder of success. Sure there were some great moments, and I was considered by many to be successful to a degree. But I just couldn't do it anymore. I'm lucky that I caught my spark again just in time, and I knew that wayyyy deep inside I was doing the right thing. I was doing what was making me happy again, and that's something that absolutely no one will be able to take away from me a second time.
Now that I've tended to this flame a bit more, I can say that I feel reborn in a sense. Not in that born again christian kind of way, I was never too big of a fan of organized religion. But in a lot of ways I feel as though the worst is over, and that no matter where I find myself going forward, there will always be something to remind me of why I'm here and doing what I do. Audrey Hepburn said something similar as she recounted a time where she was hiding from the nazis in Holland, and that really shook me. I truly didn't expect to be crying while reading the first few chapters of her biography. So thanks for that Audrey.
During my stay, the patients and nurses alike were really curious about how I was so confident about maintaining sobriety after treatment. They all saw me as this rock n' roller who hung out at bars and partied after shows and what not. To this regard, I don't think a lot of folks realize just how much time and effort goes into putting on these shows. Especially in the DIY scene, there's hardly any time for all that nonsense. With all of the planning, plus load in/out and making sure your gear doesn't get stolen in the process, there's a lot of labor of love that goes into doing what we do. Sure, on the surface it may all seem like fun and games, dare I say glamorous. But the truth is that there is a lot of hard work being done behind the scenes, and anytime you see a band letting loose after a gig it's typically a rare occasion.
Before even coming to NIH I already had somewhat of a sobriety plan put into place. There are plenty of groups and resources in the Richmond area that are committed to helping folks in recovery. But even with all of these resources in place, I felt as though there was a sense of doubt that I wouldn't be able to follow through without the assistance of AA.
So, to get this straight, I've never been a big fan of AA. Personally It's just not for me, and from what I've gathered, a lot of my peers feel the same way. I think it's a generational thing in many ways, modern times call for modern solutions. I think the way that AA emphasizes finding a higher power turns a lot of folks away, as it certainly has in my case. In this day and age with more scientific research and resources than ever, i think it's safe to say that there are plenty of other avenues in finding ways to stay sober that do not require a religious context. With this being said, I'd like to clarify that I have much respect for the program, and have no doubts about how beneficial it has been for millions of people, since it's foundation back in 1935.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with a patient one afternoon. We became really close over the few weeks that we were together, and he gave me a really good rundown of the program and what worked for him specifically. He was equipped with the big book that was given to him by his mother. It was filled with many notes and highlighted quotes that really resonated with him. He essentially gave me an in depth history of the program over the span of an hour, and that alone was one of my biggest takeaways during my time at NIH. Just hearing a personal account of how much that program not only affected his life, but also how the practices have been passed down over generations. In addition, the principles of AA where some of the biggest topics of conversation throughout our therapy sessions. Although these lessons didn't particularly resonate with me, I can still agree to the validity of a lot of its basic principles and practices.
Something that I did find very resonant was also brought up during one of our wholistic sessions. Instead of talking about AA and the twelve steps, Max decided to shift gears and talk about some ancient forms of eastern medicine. It was the first time I'd ever learned about Chakras in an educational setting, and that alone was extremely intriguing as well as validating. Now, he was no expert on the subject. But it was really cool to get the ball rolling on the basics of these ideologies, and the significance that they have in other parts of the world. This ties into my acupuncture regimen. Acupuncture has been the most beneficial form of physical therapy that I have found to date. The practice itself is very rich in history, and dives deeply into a culmination of thousands of years of study. I've since researched further into more of these studies. Mainly on the topic of various yoga and meditation, and I've found that these practices remain to be the greatest pillars in maintaining my sobriety.
To be honest, I originally had no intention on maintaining sobriety after discharge. Obviously I found all of the research and materials that we covered to be very inspirational. But quite frankly, I rather enjoy drinking. I'd also built so much of my life around alcohol, both socially and as my main source of income in various regards.
It was during or last group psychiatrist session when my perspective truly shifted. It was my only session with this psychiatrist, for she too was away on vacation leading up to this visit. But it was during this session when things just clicked. I don't know what it was about her approach exactly, but she just seemed to ask all of the right questions. I came to the realization that yes, I'm going to maintain sobriety. Not because of the health benefits, nor because it's going to make me a more functioning member of society. no no no, I don't really care much for all of that. I decided that my true motivation for staying sober was purely out of spite and resentment. You see, these were two of the main reasons that I drank in the first place. So instead of wasting my time drinking about it, why not use these darker sides of myself for the common good? Flip the script, and share my story. I honestly don't remember her name, but I thank her greatly for hearing me out on that front. I plan on discussing this further in my next post "Sobriety out of Spite".
I'm not the first to say this, and I certainly won't be the last. But the biggest takeaways from treatments such as this are from hearing and learning from the struggles of fellow participants. You gain a lot of perspectives and insights that you wouldn't have gained otherwise, and it's very important to understand that you're never alone. We all go through hell and back in our own ways, and while this study was mainly centered around alcohol abuse, I heard many of other stories that delved into topics like crack addiction, violence, and losing legitimately everything to drug and alcohol abuse. It's important to take all of the contributing factors into account. More often than not, addiction stems from much more than the substance itself.
I'm genuinely optimistic that we are making progress on this issue as a society. I'm unfortunate to have lost a solid handful of friends to addiction, and in a lot of ways I find myself extremely lucky to still be here today. I think it's safe to say that a lot of my peers in the program felt the same way. The small amount of time that we were able to share with one another was truly unique, and for that I will forever be grateful.
I'm happy to say that I've passed 70 days of sobriety as of writing this post, and I have no intent on stopping this streak any time soon.
Coming back from such a profound experience has come along with its challenges. But I have faith that I'll get back into the swing of things before too long. My biggest priority after returning home, other than maintaining my sobriety, was to get these recollections on paper while they were still fresh. Now that it's finished i guess it's time to focus on other things.
With that being said, I am actively looking for some meaningful work. Although I did receive some compensation for my month at the hospital. The total amount was still significantly less than a month of my living expenses, which have decreased significantly now that alcohol is out of the equation. So any leads would be much appreciated at this point in time, I'm always happy to be of some help. As always, I still have my hands in a lot of personal projects, but a steady source of income would be a huge help to push these dreams into fruition.
We are in the day and age of subscriptions and paywalls, and I prefer to keep my content easy to access and Ad Free. Which means that everything you see here comes directly out of my pocket, as I do not rely on the support of any sponsors or benefactors. So if you feel so inclined, I invite you to check out my online print store. All sales go directly to me, and I'll be happy to ship you a piece of my original artwork.
If prints aren't your thing, but you'd still like to make a contribution; my album is available for sale with a "name your own price" option. So not only can you pay what you want, but you'll also receive a download of my full album, which you can enjoy for lifetimes to come. Check out the link below for more details ⬇️
As always, thank you so much for taking the time to read. Especially through this brick of a post. I have a handful of other topics that I plan to touch on further, along with plenty more music and artwork to come.
Take care of yourself, and the rest turn out just fine.
If not better than you could have ever imagined.