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The Song of the Canary . . .

When it all fell apart the first time around, Susan’s father carted her off to rehab heavily strung out and half insane, while I ended up getting a grant from a foundation that helped addicted artists get into drug treatment. It was a bad time all around. We had lost the apartment and were reduced to sleeping in our car. When the car was gone we checked into a scummy hotel on Wilcox Avenue called the Mark Twain. When we couldn’t pay rent there anymore, and the dealers wouldn’t front us any more drugs, we threw our hands up and gave in to Susan’s parents. He had to get clean.

My wife ended up in a nice rehab, one of those country club places where the sons and daughters of Hollywood’s elite to go dry out, while I was stuck out in Pasadena in a place that didn’t take any shit from junkies, and had us scrubbing the toilets with toothbrushes if we got too uppity. Once the councellors made a girl walk around all day with a toilet seat hung around her neck that had the word “PRIDE” painted on it, reputedly because she wouldn’t admit she was an alcoholic in addition to being a crack head. I thought then – and I still think now – that 99% of what goes on in drug treatment is total bullshit. All of the self-help nonsense that they promote in there: letting go and letting God, taking it one day at a time, surrendering. It all sounded like a bunch of religion to me, just a cynical attempt to convert people while they were at their lowest ebb. Honestly what most of the guys I met in there needed was detoxification, a holiday somewhere warm, and maybe a blowjob.

I visited Susan’s rehab once, on a day trip from my own place. I’d assumed that all rehabs were pretty much the same. Mine was full of Mexican gang kids, junkies, jailbird meth freaks, and boozers. The men and women were strictly segregated and even saying hello to a member of the opposite sex was an infraction that could result in your getting thrown out. They took it very seriously. I once held a door open for a female and she smiled “thank you” as she passed. Someone snitched, and we both had to clean the toilets on our respective floors instead of eating lunch. By the time I got down to eat, there were just some ratty hot dogs left. No girls ever said ‘thank you’ to me after that.

But since a lot of the guys were fresh out of prison on my floor, they didn’t really care if they fucked a girl or a guy. Guys having sex with each other was strictly verboten as well, but it was harder for them to clamp down on that. The older guys were expected to form bonds with the newer guys, lead them through the twelve steps, mentor them, etc. So there was a lot of ass fucking going on after lights out. But if you were straight it was frustrating because despite the fact that all of the fruits were getting some, a guy simply saying hello to a girl could lead to his cleaning shit stained toilets and eating cold hot dogs.

We had 2 Narcotics Anonymous meetings a day. And on top of that meetings with caseworkers, shrinks, relapse prevention experts, the works. And cleaning duties. Emptying out the overflowing ashtrays. Scrubbing toilets. Scraping the mould from shower stalls. Kitchen duty was the worst because of the smell of the decomposing food. And out the back of the kitchen there was a McDonalds across the road where some local crack dealers operated from. Throwing all of that rotting food into the big garbage cans out there, you’d see drug deals going on under the tables through the windows. It became a running joke with all of the guys. We talked about the idea of running across the street and copping some rocks as “going for a Happy Meal.” We never did it though. They were on top of all that shit, everybody was a potential snitch, and they tested your piss so much that it would be virtually impossible. Most guys had more to lose than me. A lot of them were facing serious jail time if they fucked up their treatment.

So it was that kind of rehab. Hard work. There were fun things, mostly stupid shit we did to entertain ourselves . . . stealing of the old meth freaks false teeth and hiding them about the place, coming up with vindictive nick names for the councellors, passing notes with lewd sexual suggestions on them to the female patients, childish shit like that. Mostly though, it was work. They kept you so busy that you didn’t have time to think about getting high, except when you were in your dorm at the end of the day listening to three other junkies snoring in unison, with the big neon clown from the liquor store across the road blinking on, then off, then on again.

So after a couple of weeks of prayers and meetings and cleaning detail, I earned a day pass. On a day pass you had to do something recovery orientated, and take one of the long-term inmates with you to watch over you. So I decided to visit Susan in her rehab. My companion was a junkie trombone player called Jock who had been clean for almost a year and was practically a staff member at this point. Jock was OK though. Some of them turned into uptight motherfuckers as soon as they made trustee. Bestow a bit of meaningless, symbolic power of 99% of the assholes in this world and they will turn into Stalin. Things are no different in rehab. Guys who were laughing and joking with you about wanting to cut out and sneak some dope into the place a few weeks ago suddenly would report you for suggesting such a thing, resulting in piss tests, a ripped apart dorm - and if you were really unlucky - a hand up your ass. Jock somehow had retained his soul despite his position of authority. He was a good guy.

So we drove up to Susan’s rehab and the first thing I noticed was all of the green. Trees. Grass. A lot different from the utilitarian sand, steel and concrete of my place. We signed in, got searched, and then were directed to Susan’s room.

She was in a beautiful log cabin, in the middle of this great big field. I came upon her sitting in a circle with some guys. One of them was playing a guitar, like the cliché of a west-coast hippie wannabe. He was singing some terrible song about the scars on his heart, and when I caught the lyrics I prickled with embarressment for him. Birds were tweeting, and the air was cool. I felt like at any moment some prick in a tuxedo was gonna walk past with a tray full of Mohito's. Guys and girls could talk. Meetings were not compulsory. It seemed like the biggest con of all time, and I was immediately jealous.

But Susan, true to form, was still bitching about the place. She claimed to have a back problem, and complained that the doctors wouldn’t give her painkillers, just Valium. Back in my place a girl had gotten kicked out because she had a gallstone, went to the hospital, and accepted a shot of pethidine. Apparently, the routine was that you had to call ahead to the rehab before accepting treatment and get it cleared with the higher ups. She didn’t, and was on a bus back to a California women’s prison by sundown. Susan had wangled a spot in this place because her father was a doctor and pretty well connected. My father was a bus driver back in the UK, so I suppose that’s why I ended up where I was.

We had to be careful when I called her from my institution because all phone calls were monitored. So when I called over to see how she was doing we’d talk in generalities, how the food was, what the other inmates were like, that kind of shit. When we were face to face, while the fool played his acoustic guitar, I finally asked her:

“So what do you think of all of this?”

Susan sighed and sucked on a cigarette, exhaling out of the corner of her mouth. She had gained weight in the weeks she had been here. She must have been up to a hundred pounds at least.

“Well, it’s all a pile of shit, obviously.”

“Yup. Do you go to meetings?”

“When I feel like it. Over here they feel that us just hanging out like this is a productive part of our recovery.”

“Lucky you. I wake up saying the fucking serenity prayer sometimes. I feel like I’m being brainwashed.”

“You are. You think we’ll get high when we get out of here?”

“Probably. I think we might die if we do, though.”


Jock pulled me aside as said that if I wanted to sneak off to have sex with Susan he wouldn’t blow my cover. I laughed and told him no thanks. He looked puzzled, so I whispered: “I’ve seen that girl stick needles into her tits trying to find a working vein. That kinda takes all of the romance out of it, you know?”

And then it was over, and I was driven back to my rehab in time for supper and a final meeting. There were some real cranks in there. One guy was a little meth head called Peter who I thought was OK because he looked like a weasel and put me in mind of a junkie I used to shoplift with in Hollywood. I met Peter when I first got out of the detox wards, and I was still sleep deprived and loaded with anti-anxiety tablets and dope sickness. Peter decided he wanted to take me under his wing. He would bring his tray over to me and sit with me at lunchtime, talking about sobriety. He had been in this place for 6 months in all. I asked him if he wanted to leave.

“Oh sure,” he said, “All of the time.”

“So why don’t you? 6 months is a long time! You could make it now, baby…”

“Well my caseworker says I can’t.”

“Who is your caseworker?”

He nodded over to the staff table and said “Maria.”

Then I understood. Maria was one of the longest serving staff members here, a huge, motherly castrating bitch. You could glean that information from just looking at her. She looked like a mean, pinched face, church going sort of a cunt, and consequently I didn’t trust her as far as I could throw her fat ass. The first time I came across her was when we were all assembled in the dining room for morning prayers. I thought that she was just a regular inmate. One of the head guys was due to come in and lead us in prayers and he was late. We sat there, as was protocol, in total silence for at least ten minutes. Nobody walked through the door. Then people started looking at each other, raising eyebrows, shrugging. It was my 3rd day in the place. I turned to a guy I knew from the detox ward, a motor-mouthed Boston-Irish crack fiend called Billy and said: “Godot will be here soon”, and Billy started to crack up. I laughed too, and suddenly Maria was on her feet and striding over to me on her thick legs, pointing an accusing finger and incandescent with rage.

“YOU!” she screamed, “WHY are you TALKING? You know that we have RULES and REGULATIONS here, do you not?”

“Sure.” I said. I didn’t like he way she was looking down her long nose at me. So I smirked at her. It always worked on my wife when I wanted to provoke a situation, and predictably it worked on Maria.

“You sit here and wait IN SILENCE! I’ll bet when you called the dope man and he said he’d be RIGHT THERE and he was LATE you SAT YOUR ASS DOWN and WAITED, RIGHT?”

“Right.” I conceded.

“And when the LIQUOR STORE wasn’t open yet, you SAT YOUR ASS DOWN and WAITED for it to OPEN, RIGHT?”

I shrugged. I was never much of a boozer, but in 3 days I had had this argument no less than 5 times with my caseworker and I knew I wouldn’t win. For all intents and purposes, while I was in this place, I was an alcoholic.

“So while you are waiting for the man whose job it is to SAVE YOUR SORRY ASS, you can SHUT THE FUCK UP and WAIT, RIGHT?”

“I am waiting. But when I was waiting for my guy to bring me dope, I didn’t have to act as if I was in fucking church.”

She slammed a pudgy hand on the table, and her entire top half wobbled with fury.

“That attitude,” she hissed, “will leave you back out there in the goddamned gutter with a needle sticking out of you. You understand me?”

“Loud and clear.”

So it all made sense with Peter. I could see it now. Twice a week he’d have a meeting with Maria and in the meantime he would work himself up enough to tell her that he felt strong enough to go home, go back to work, and stop living in this fantasyland of prayer meetings, urine tests, and day passes. And twice a week Maria would tell him that he was a weak man, and that he would relapse as soon as he left this place of sanctuary. And despite how ridiculous life in rehab was, for a lot of people when compared to life on the needle or the pipe, it was actually preferable. Human beings are easily manipulated animals. All they really want is 3 square meals a day, a roof over their heads, and a bed that doesn’t have lice in it. As shitty as rehab was, for a lot of us it seemed like Disneyworld compared to where we came from. So giving in was easy, and Peter was defeated until the next time. And when the pettiness of life in the place finally got to him, when he couldn’t piss in a bottle on command any more, or eat stale slices of pizza, or hold hands and say the lords prayer without smirking, or read the motherfucking Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, and all he really wanted to do was grab a beer, watch some TV and maybe get some pussy, he would storm into her office again full of determination and fire. And for the past six months, he eventually walked out with his meth-head tail between his legs. I pitied Peter a little, but I also feared for my own immortal soul the longer I stayed here.

I finished my dealings with Peter after I was walking around the yard with him on a break one day and I confided in him that I was thinking about leaving.

“But w-w-why?” he stammered.”I don’t like all of this AA stuff. And I spoke to Susan, and she’s ready to leave her rehab too. She called her sister up in San Francisco, and she said we could go up there and stay at her place for a month or so. Maybe all we need is a change of scenery. A cocktail. Just a little space, you know?

“You’re crazy! You’ll he high before you get on the plane! You’ll both die!”

“Jesus Peter,” I told him, “You’re starting to sound like that crazy bitch of a caseworker!”

“Maria isn’t a bitch!” he protested, “She has my best interests at hear!”

“Oh yeah,” I laughed, “and Hitler loved the Jews. She’s castrating you, Peter! She may want you off drugs, but she’s prepared to amputate your soul in the process!”

“Soul, soul, soul! You’re always talking about your soul! You need to stop worrying about your soul and start worrying about your ass!”

And right there, right in the middle of the exercise yard, in front of at least 2-dozen junkies, juicers and ex-cons, he fell to his knees and grabbed my hand. I tried to shake free, but his grip was too tight.

“Kneel with me!” he implored.

“Fuck off! You bugging out or something?”

“Dear Lord,” he started, “please protect your lost child in his hour of need, and watch over his wife Susan…”

“Oh fucking hell!”

People were circling around us watching with detached amusement. Somebody was always flipping out in this place. Today was Peter’s turn, and I was right there with him, holding his hand like we were fucking high school sweethearts.

“Please intervene and keep them in this place of safety. Please help him to turn away from the darkness of addiction and into the eternal light of your love…”


Michael, one of the new trustee inmates came over and asked what all the commotion was about. Peter looked up and told him: “He wants to leave and go to San Francisco.”

“Shut your fucking mouth!” I pleaded.

And with that I shook free of Peter. But it was too late. That evening I was called in for an extra counseling session. I had the eyes of the entire facility on me. I was put into the high-risk category and so I had to endure a bright-eyed fucking pep talk from every trustee and staff member I bumped into. I never confided in Peter again.

Across the road from the rehab until was a liquor store called Circus Liquor. The places claim to fame was the 20-foot neon clown signage the place had, with a flashing neon red smile. The window of my dorm room looked right over to it, and it blinked on and off all fucking night. Sometimes my roommates and I would stare at it for an hour or more. One of my roommates was an old sex change called Marty whose teeth had fallen out, and whose implanted breasts had been removed, leaving him with two saggy pieces of skin where his tits used to be. Marty was cool. His taste in music left something to be desired though. I had pawned all of my CD’s for junk prior to checking in, and so I had to rely on my roommates for music. The first guy claimed not to like music, and owned nothing. Marty had 2 CD’s – A Moody Blues greatest hits, and a terrible dance CD with a name like “Mega Hits 47” or some such shit. Marty was quite insane, and seemingly immune from all of the nonsense that went on in the counseling rooms. He was the only person in the place who never once tried to talk recovery with me. He talked exclusively in non-sequiters after 20 plus years of IV meth use.

“That fucking clown is taunting us…” Marty muttered, as the neon reflected on his shrunken up old face, “he saying ‘hey boys… come have a gin and tonic boys… with ice…’”

Our other roommate, David, yelled over: “Shut the fuck up!” He was reading the Big Book again. They banned books that weren’t recovery orientated, and indeed 12-step orientated. Other methods such as Rational Recovery, which was in vogue at the time, were as off-limits as an illicit copy of Playboy or Naked Lunch.

“Oh shut the fuck up, mary!” Marty retorted.

“That’s alcoholic thinking Marty! That will land you in trouble!”

“Marty isn’t an alcoholic. He’s a speed freak! Right Marty?”

“He is so an alcoholic! You’re talking a lot of shit! We’re all alcoholics or we wouldn’t be here!”

“Bullshit! I could have a beer right now and I’d be OK!”

“You’re a fool to yourself, man. Why don’t you open your ears and your mind a little? You might learn something that will save your life…”

The booze thing was total bullshit as far as I could see. I had never had a drinking problem. I thought at first they were joking when they asked me to admit I was an alcoholic. When you check in you have to do an inventory of every intoxicant you have ever done, and list the first time you did it, how much, etc etc. Mine was a couple of pages long. It started at 14 years old when I had my first drink. This was perfectly normal for all of my childhood friends. There’s not much else to do in Blackburn, Lancashire. Everyone I knew back then managed to get booze somehow - through an older brother or a parent’s liquor cabinet - and get drunk at least once a week. My caseworker seized upon this as proof of my alcoholic tendencies.

“Well if that’s the case,” I told him, “Everybody I grew up with is also an alcoholic. By that logic, my father is an alcoholic!”

“Well,” he told me perfectly seriously, “It does run in the family you know. There is irrefutable scientific proof that alcoholism is a genetic disease!”

I have my own theory about booze and addiction. As long as I’m still drinking, I know I’m OK. When I started doing coke, I used to snort it socially and still drink. I was doing OK then. When I smoke weed, I drink as well. But when I started smoking crack and injecting heroin, I stopped drinking altogether, because the high from booze lost all of its appeal to me. I mean, why fuck around drinking a beer when you have a needle full of cocaine and heroin? If I ever get so into a drug that I stop drinking, then I know I’m in trouble. In a way, the booze is an indicator that things are good, like the song of the canary that they used to send down mineshafts looking for gas leaks. When I told my caseworker this, he looked horrified. He had the same look of his face that I suppose I get when people tell me that they love the president, go to church, or give money police charities. Complete fucking astonishment.

“We are going to have to do a lot of work with you…” he warned me, opening his notebook.

Despite her rehab being free and easy, Susan eventually checked out against doctor’s orders, and moved into an apartment she had found through a guy she met in there. My funding from the artists on the skids foundation ran out, and I was turfed out too. The rehab was trying to look into getting my stay extended via Medicaid, but at that point I just wanted to get the hell out of there. Susan’s sister wired us enough money to get up plane tickets. Unfortunately, our connection was still operating on the same street corner, so we blew ticket money on crack and dope.

Peter was kicked out the day before I left. They discovered that his brother had mailed him an American Express card and he failed to tell the staff about it. He owned up to the card in a counseling session with Maria. She told him to hand it over. He refused and said that he would like to do it in his own time. She told him that the card represented his next relapse, and by holding onto the card he was holding onto his old behaviors. Peter refused, and Maria went to the higher ups. Peter was turfed out that evening. We said a stiff goodbye, before he walked out to his fate.

I still think 99% of what goes on in rehab is bullshit, but I have used the other 1% to my advantage, I’m typing this pleasantly high, but not strung out. I don’t have a higher power, but I do have a daughter and a wife who keep me from sticking needles in my arms. I never heard from Peter again, despite giving him my phone number. I heard that Billy got drunk and hung himself. Christ knows what happened to Marty. The last time I saw Susan she was in London, living with a junkie we both knew. She was walking with a cane and holding onto him for support, both of them phantoms on the fog bound platform of Queens Park Underground station.

And I still worry about my immortal soul every single day.

Tony O'Neill © 2006.

Tony O’Neill is the author of “Digging The Vein” (out in the UK on Wrecking Ball press in June), “Seizure Wet Dreams: Poems and Short Stories” (Social Disease), and the upcoming poetry collection “Songs From The Shooting Gallery” (Burning Shore Press). He lives in New York. He will be featured in the following anthologies: “Brutalism #1”, “Falling From The Sky” (Another Sky Press), “Danger City 2” (Contemporary Press) and “Writing From The Edge”. Please visit to send hate mail, or for more info.


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