Rehab: The Overdoser – Tom Scanlon

The first time I saw CF, he was in bed. It was shortly after my 3 p.m. swing shift start, and the com log notes warned me that this new guy was having severe withdrawal symptoms. I popped my head into the room, briefly introduced myself and asked how he was doing. “I’m sick,” he said with a groan. I told him I wouldn’t bother him and hoped he felt better. He turned over and pulled the blanket over his head as I closed the door.  

A couple hours later, he was up, getting ready to have dinner with the other six guys in the house. He’s a small guy, about 5-foot-5 and maybe 130 pounds, so I was glad to see he was eating. I was going to pull him aside and ask if he felt good enough to go to the AA meeting off-site later, then thought better of it. I just made a general announcement about when we would leave for the meeting and what to expect. I snuck a few peaks at CF, and was glad that he didn’t protest.  

At 7:20, the departure time, he was ready to go – and even sat in the front seat of the van. He had a baseball cap on backwards over his black hair, which made his face seem all the paler. I was simply happy that he was along for the ride, but was soon surprised to find him in a very chatty mood.  

With little encouragement from me, he gave me his story: From St. Louis, here “because I overdosed twice in two days.” I knew he had been in our program before and AMA-ed, as a couple of guys in a house I worked the night before told me to say hi to him. After leaving our program, he went straight back to heavy using. “The first time, I was in the bathroom, cooking up the heroin and getting my shot ready. I noticed it was kind of white – heroin’s black, but if ithas fentanyl, it’s lighter.”  

I asked him if that’s the elephant tranquilizer stuff dealers cut heroin with. “Yeah. But I used to do it on purpose, because heroin wasn’t strong enough for me. But I hadn’t done any for a while, so when it came up light, I was like, ‘that might not be heroin.’ But then I was like, ‘Fuck it, I’m doing it.’ Next thing I know, I’m falling and my head hits the sink …  

“My dad had to break down the door.”  

I asked if his dad heard him falling.  

“Yeah, and then when he started calling my name he heard the death gurgle in my throat – how you sound when you’re dying. So he called the paramedics and broke down the door and gave me CPR.”  

I told him his dad saved his life.  

He didn’t enthusiastically agree, but he didn’t disagree. He said: “My chest hurt for like three days because of the compressions.”  

I was so wrapped up in his story that I missed a turn, had to get my focus back on driving so the rest of the van wouldn’t realize what a fool I was. I think CF talked about overdosing a second time in the hospital, but I missed the part about how he got the stuff if that was the case, and soon enough I was pulling into the parking lot for the AA meeting …    

The next day, I had the swing shift again. CF was again crashed in bed when I got there, but he had at least been to the morning meetings. Apparently, the new meds he had started that day made him tired. I didn’t wake him up, but a couple hours later it was time for another AA meeting, this time the smaller one, where the Knuckleheads group brings a guest speaker or two over to the house.  

A few minutes before it was about to start, I knocked on CF’s door, stuck my head in and called him awake. The AA meeting’s about to start, I said. Be great if you could join in …  

He didn’t say anything one way or another, so I left the door open a little and walked away. A few minutes later, I saw him shuffling down the hall, head down, looking half-asleep – or half- alive. He plopped down on the open spot on one of the comfortable, deep leather couches.  

I snuck a few peaks as the AA business stuff launched the meeting, and saw CF giving a few lion-yawns. But he stayed awake, as the speaker talked about how many times he had relapsed, but how the guy who brought him to the meeting stuck with him, every time. The difference this time, he said, was that he got into the “acceptance” phase. He stayed in rehab as long as he could, rather than doing the minimum and rushing away.  

“The most important advice I have,” he said, “is surround yourself with sober people.”  

This was the first time he had been a featured speaker, and he was a little uncomfortable – unlike the veteran speakers who told rapturous tales of their crazy days and nights of drinking and drugging, drawing laughs from the group with tales of comic ineptitude, then sometimes breaking down and crying in the “people I’ve hurt phase.” This speaker just kept the focus on what he was doing in the present to try to maintain his tenuous hold on sobriety.  

When he was finished with his brief talk, the other guy prompted him to pick a topic for the group to discuss. He picked gratitude.  

CF was the first resident in the circle to talk. After introducing himself, “I’m C, and I’m an addict,” he paused, then said: “After overdosing twice in a week, I’m just grateful that I’m alive. I’m grateful that I have a family that loves me. I’m grateful that I have two nieces who want me to get better. They don’t know why I’m here, they just want me to get better.  

“I’m grateful that I have a second chance at life. And with that, I’ll pass.”

Tom Scanlon is a recovering journalist (Seattle Times, San Jose Mercury News) and lapsed playwright (‘The Superhumans’) who went behind-the-scenes of the drug/alcohol recovery center. These are the tales of his time as a ‘tech.’