Twelve hours later, I arrived at the rehabilitation clinic, totally drunk after consuming a third of a bottle of bourbon while putting away my sailboat for the winter. Edgehill Center was a complex of new brick buildings on a lovely estate overlooking dramatic Newport Harbor, which I knew so well from years of sailing into it. It never occurred to me that I'd see it this way: dressed in a hospital gown, stripped of all clothing, my belongings searched for alcohol, drugs, and weapons. I acknowledged what I had drunk that evening to the admitting nurse; she just nodded and muttered "typical." I walked out into the starry night, looked down at the twinkling lights of Newport, and began to cry until there were no more tears, just aching gasps.
I was assigned to a floor housing some twenty alcohol addicts, and the rugged process of rehabilitation began. Two professional therapists were attached to each unit, supplemented by other trained personnel who watched over us all at night. The group consisted of a crosscut of society: a teacher, a dentist, an investment banker, a few older students, a housewife, a retired man, a construction worker, an environmental code specialist, a carpenter. At age forty-seven, I was in the middle of the group ranging from late teens to late sixties.
The initial briefing was clear-cut—we would be kicked out of Edgehill for infractions such as drinking or drugs, leaving the walled property, acting in violent ways. We had a "serious disease" and we were to undergo the only process that would make us "recovering alcoholics" (one never says "recovered"). We learned the twelve-step program in elaborate detail and I began my sessions by saying "Hi, I'm Bob. I'm an alcoholic." The day consisted of rigorous group- and individual-therapy sessions from morning to night, interspersed with times for art therapy and physical exercise. Everything was controlled; one couldn't even get aspirin without going to the medical office, and caffeinated drinks were prohibited. Only smoking was allowed, but I decided to use the occasion to quit smoking as well as drinking.
At first, I was aloof from the group. I felt I didn't belong at Edgehill. I wasn't a regular drunk; I was a special drunk, a high-achiever drunk. I was like the famous people who came to Edgehill: the wife of a major politician, a world-renowned movie actor. When it came time for me to tell my history to the group, I decided to be honest and let it all hang out. It was the kiss of death. My various accomplishments didn't impress most colleagues at all; it just made me look like I was some elitist braggart. And my admissions of other disorders, especially bulimia, made me the source of special mockery. To some, I was seen as the most sick of all—I was called "Barfing Bob," in the words of one detractor. There was little way to express my frustration. One day, in art-therapy class, I made a clay sculpture of a seagull with outstretched wings that looked a bit like Christ's arms on the cross. The art teacher said, "Hey, that's beautiful." I looked at the seagull, smashed it flat with my hand, and ran from the room.