I parted with my mother with a brief hug in the parking lot of a gas station in Albert Lea, Minnesota, a farm town at the intersection of Interstate 90 and a number of county roads that lead to vast expanses of cornfields and ranches. I was the sole passenger of the treatment center’s driver, a retired public school principal who found the job to occupy his time. We made the 200-mile journey across the wind-swept fields, admiring the wind farms and occasionally chatting about the treatment center: “How’s the food there?” I asked. He told me that people can gain weight in treatment, but I should expect “cafeteria” style food.
We arrived at Keystone Treatment Center, which looks like the kind of nursing home you end up in if you don’t save anything for retirement and no one in your life cares about you. Staff wanded me with a metal detector and picked through my bags wearing blue rubber gloves. They checked every pocket, flipped through every book, and scrutinized each of several photos I keep in the back pocket of one of my journals. One of them didn’t make the cut. It was a photo I took of a table of friends and colleagues at the Landfall restaurant in Woods Hole, Mass. this past summer after we had a successful research cruise across the North Atlantic sea. Other items that they placed in the contraband pile included a small LED flashlight and a USB cable.
The next stop was the nurses room, where the took my vitals and interviewed me about risk factors for substance abuse, including my job and marital status, my relationship with my siblings and parents, whether or not I was physically and emotionally abused as a kid, and whether or not I have any good friends. I smiled at that last one. I had more than one friend offer to help me blog prison style — via U.S. Post, so I know I have true friends. The LPN seemed pleased that my blood pressure was 129/79 and resting pulse 54. Entering this facility having had 15 days of uninterrupted sobriety is apparently unusual.
Staff then led me down the greenish-beige cinder block hallway of double men’s rooms. Lots of guys with tattoos and gold fillings milled about; a couple of them extended their red, leathery hands to me and introduced themselves. To myself, I thanked God for an upbringing so nice that I’ve never had a single cavity or ever touched a single cigarette. Constantly comparing myself to my colleague friends, many of whom work at prestigious publications and regularly travel internationally makes me sick at times. Seeing this socioeconomic cross section of the U.S. rural Midwest is eye opening, and rejuvenates my sense of purpose as a medical journalist. I hope someday someone values me.
As I waited in line for the dinner du jour — pork chop slices and boiled asparagus — one of my fellow patient inmates explained the policy on women. “Don’t even talk to them,” he told me. “You can get in trouble for fraternization.” He said a guy was recently caught in bed with a female patient and kicked out. I sat silently, pouring Tabasco sauce on the bland meal to make it edible and listened to the men around me share the latest gossip.
Later that night, a guest speaker with over 20 years of sobriety gave a talk about what it was like to work with high-voltage electric lines as a utility worker in the day when he was constantly hungover, and had to have a cooler of beer in his car so he could take a drink the second he got off work. One day he energized a circuit too soon and nearly fried one of his co-workers to death.
I hope tomorrow is a better day. Today a wave of sadness and regret for destroying my life washed over me as I lay on my bed staring at the ceiling. I’m stuck in a place where I can’t relate to anyone, and I sorely miss my talented peers and friends. The written word is my only asset. I’m grateful for anyone who reads this, and especially for my new friend Cassie, who is helping me maintain this blog. Her compassion for those who suffer from the disease of addiction rivals that of any counselor or doctor I’ve ever met.
Editor’s Note: The following post was handwritten by Kirk Klocke at Keystone Treatment Center in Canton, S.D. and transcribed, edited, and published by Cassie Rodenberg, an independent journalist in New York City who covers addiction, poverty, and other dark things happening in rough urban neighborhoods. Ms. Rodenberg publishes “The White Noise,” a Scientific American blog that focuses on the scientific, medical and social implications of addiction. Follow her: @cassierodenberg