DFW Reviews a Halfway House

Many believe this to be an anonymous letter, really written by Wallace, about his stays in the Boston-area Granada House.

An Ex-Resident’s Story

I was referred to Granada House in November 1989. “Referred” is a very polite way to put it. I was a patient in a rehab attached to a well-known mental hospital in Boston, and a psychiatrist in this rehab had established some credibility with me, and he opined that (1) unless I signed up for long-term treatment someplace, I wasn’t going to be able to stay off drugs and alcohol; and that (2) if I couldn’t find a way to stay off drugs and alcohol, I was going to be dead by 30. I was 27. This was not my first in-patient rehab, nor was it my first mental hospital.


Because certain myths about both addiction and halfway houses die hard, I’ll give you a little bio. I was raised in a solid, loving, two-parent family. None of my close relatives have substance problems. I have never been in jail or arrested–I’ve never even had a speeding ticket. In 1989, I already had a BA and one graduate degree and was in Boston to get another. And I was, at age 27, a late-stage alcoholic and drug addict. I had been in detoxes and rehabs; I had been in locked wards in psych facilities; I had had at least one serious suicide attempt, a course of ECT, and so on. The diagnosis of my family, friends, and teachers was that I was bright and talented but had “emotional problems.” I alone knew how deeply these problems were connected to alcohol and drugs, which I’d been using heavily since age fifteen. Every single one of my mental health crises had followed a period of heavy bingeing on marijuana, tranquilizers, and alcohol. I had first vowed to quit at age nineteen; the longest I’d ever gone without any sort of substance was three months. I was convinced that this was because I was weak, or because I really did have intractable mental problems which only drugs and alcohol gave me any relief from.


I therefore spent most of the 1980s on the horns of a dilemma that many addicts and alcoholics understand very well. On the one hand, I knew that drugs and alcohol controlled me, ran my life, and were killing me. On the other, I loved them–I mean really loved them, as in the sort of love where you’ll do anything, tell yourself any sort of lie to keep from having to let the beloved go. For most of the late 80s, my method for “quitting” drugs was to switch for a period from just drugs to just alcohol. Then I’d switch back to drugs in order to “quit” drinking. The idea of months or* *years without any chemicals at all was unimaginable. This was my basic situation. I both wanted help and didn’t. And I made it hard for anyone to help me: I could go to a psychiatrist one day in tears and desperation and then two days later be fencing with her over the fine points of Jungian theory; I could argue with drug counselors over the difference between a crass pragmatic lie and an “aesthetic” lie told for its beauty alone; I could flummox 12-Step sponsors over certain obvious paradoxes inherent in the concept of denial. And so forth.


Six months in Granada House helped me immeasurably. I still wince at some of the hyperbole and melodrama that are used in recovery-speak, but the fact of the matter is that my experience at Granada House helped me, starting with the fact that the staff admitted me despite the obnoxious condescension with which I spoke of them, the House, and the l2-Step programs of recovery they tried to enable. They were patient, but they were not pushovers. They enforced a structure and discipline about recovery that I was not capable of on my own: mandatory counseling, mandatory AA or NA meetings, mandatory employment, curfew, chores, etc. Not to mention required reading of AA/NA literature whether I found it literarily distinguished or not. Granada House also provided my first experience of an actual recovering community: there were over twenty newly recovering residents, and the paid staff–almost all of whom were in recovery–and the unpaid volunteers, and the dozens of House alumni who seemed always to be around in the kitchen and living room and offices. I made friends, and enemies, and enemies who then became friends. I was, for six months, literally immersed in recovery. At the time, it seemed crowded and claustrophobic and loud, and I resented the lack of “privacy,” just as I resented the radical simplicity of l2-Step programs’ advice to newcomers: go to a l2-Step meeting every day, make one such meeting your home group, get a sponsor and tell him the truth, get active with some kind of job in your home group, pray for help whether you believe in God or not, etc. The whole thing seemed uncomfortable and undignified and dumb. Now, from the perspective of almost fourteen years sober, it looks like precisely what I needed. In Granada House, I was surrounded by recovering human beings in all their variety and sameness and neurosis and compassion, and I was kept busy, and I was made bluntly and continually aware of the fact that I had a potentially fatal disease that could be arrested only by doing some very simple, strange-looking things. I was denied the chance to sit chain-smoking in private and drive myself crazy with abstract questions about stuff that didn’t matter nearly as much as simply not putting chemicals into my body.


This is not to say that the staff and volunteers at Granada House didn’t listen. The House was structured and disciplined, but it was not authoritarian. One of the kindest and most helpful things the House staff did for me was to sit down and listen–to complaints, cravings, questions, confessions, rants, resentments, terrors, and insights both real and imagined–because a lot of my early recovery consisted of learning to say aloud the stuff about drugs and alcohol and recovery I was thinking, instead of keeping it twisting and writhing around inside my head. People at Granada House listened to me for hours, and did so with neither the clinical disinterest of doctors nor the hand-wringing credulity of relatives. They listened because, in the last analysis, they really understood me: they had been on the fence of both wanting to get sober and not, of loving the very thing that was killing you, of being able to imagine life neither with drugs and alcohol nor without them. They also recognized bullshit, and manipulation, and meaningless intellectualization as a way of evading terrible truths–and on many days the most helpful thing they did was to laugh at me and make fun of my dodges (which were, I realize now, pathetically easy for a fellow addict to spot), and to advise me just not to use chemicals today because tomorrow might very well look different. Advice like this sounds too simplistic to be helpful, but it was crucial: I had gotten through a great many days sober before I realized that one day is all I really had to get through.


Finally, because all the staff and ex-residents were members of AA and NA, my relationships with them helped ease me into active membership in 12-Step fellowships, which is pretty much the only proven method for maintaining long-term sobriety. Now, in 2003, I no longer live in Boston, but I am an active, committed member of AA in my new community.


I am also a productive member of that community. Citizens or government agencies that are considering financial support of Granada House might be interested in the following breakdown. From 1983 to 1989 I paid almost no taxes, cost two different health insurance companies almost $100,000 in treatments, institutionalizations, and psychiatric care, cost myself and my parents another $70,000-$80,000 when insurance ran out, and cost two different states thousands of dollars when my own support ran out and I had to declare myself indigent. In 1990 and 1991, I paid no real taxes but also didn’t cost anyone anything. From 1992 to present, I have cost family, government, and charitable institutions nothing, have paid well over $325,000 in federal, state, and municipal taxes, and have donated a least another $100,000 to various charities. I don’t know what it cost to put me through Granada House for six months (I myself paid $20 a week in rent, though this was sliding-scale because I was broke), but by even the coldest type of cost-accounting, it appears to me that it was worth it for everyone.

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