It was my senior year of high school, two Thursdays before Thanksgiving. I was slouched in the rear bucket seat of my mother’s red Camaro, headed to my second rehab in two months. Nine hours and an entire pack of cigarettes got me to Nashville, to Last Chance. I had just finished thirty days in Jefferson Hall, a rehab center; one of those places that was owned by a behemoth healthcare corporation, and relapsed immediately. Last Chance was different. It was not a typical medical-model rehab. It was a mom-and-pop operation, run by Reverend and Mrs. Donnelly, an Irish pastor and his wife. It was also unapologetically Christian, which was one of its main selling points. One of the Donnellys’ sons had attended a similar program and successfully stayed clean; this was the motivation for them to open their own center. Last Chance started with a group of five local teens. By the time I was enrolled, that number had grown to around one hundred. Desperate parents from all over the country dragged their drug-addled teenagers to Last Chance to be saved from addiction by Jesus. The business of adolescent Christian rehab was thriving.
Last Chance was modeled after the Straight program, a controversial model of rehabilitation that had started in the mid-70s, in Florida. Straight had been shut down in numerous states for violations of rights and child abuse including brainwashing, physical restraint, denial of bathroom breaks, and sleep, food, and water deprivation. They were also cited for not allowing clients to attend high school; Straight believed that attending school was a privilege, not a right. They justified their unorthodox practices by claiming to have a phenomenally low relapse rate after treatment. The major difference between Last Chance and Straight, as far as I could tell, was that Last Chance was Christian. I also learned that some of the more physically brutal methods of brainwashing and deprivation had been removed or softened in Last Chance. Last Chance itself claimed that 86 percent of its graduates remained clean and sober for at least one year post-treatment; that was the detail that sold my parents on the place.
I had no idea what I was heading for that bland fall day. If I had, I would have hurled myself out of the car window, right there on the highway. I lit another cigarette, enjoying the privilege of being able to smoke as much as I wanted in front of my parents during the drive. I reflected on the circumstances leading to my ricochet from one rehab to another, as I took a drag off my cigarette. My parents had caught me sneaking back into the house at 5 a.m. on a school night, just the week prior. I had left in secret, hours before, to meet a cute guy from school. We had driven around back-country roads, drinking beer and listening to loud music. We stopped in a newly-constructed subdivision, a ghost town of houses in various states of completion, where we had drunken sex in the back seat of my car. This same scenario had occurred multiple times throughout high school, though the details differed slightly. In desperation, my parents had finally nailed the first-floor windows shut, but they couldn’t bar the doors. This latest debauch was the final act that initiated my parents to enroll me in Last Chance. I left my first rehab, Jefferson Hall, a few weeks before. My mother declared that if I didn’t stay clean, I would be sent away for a long time. Her threats were never hollow, but long-term rehab was such an extreme consequence; one I wasn’t sure she’d actually carry out. I was wrong.
We arrived in Nashville at dusk and stayed the night with friends. The next morning bloomed dull and gray, a perfect foreshadowing of what was to come. As we wove our way through jammed streets to an industrial area of the city, I smoked one cigarette after another, nervous energy playing at the edges of my awareness, making my breath shallow and more rapid. I tried to prepare myself for what I imagined I’d encounter that first day. My only reference point was my recent experience at the rehab I’d just left. It had not been so bad there; my stay had been a welcome vacation from school and the daily business of trying to hide my drug use from my overbearing parents. I got hourly smoke breaks and gourmet meals, along with therapy and AA meetings. I snapped back to present, heartbeat accelerating, as we turned into a warehouse complex. Huge warehouse buildings squatted evenly spaced, and my dad drove to one towards the rear. We parked. I flicked my cigarette across the parking lot and stepped out of the car, not knowing it would be my last free breath and autonomous movement for a long time.
We went inside to a waiting area wallpapered in pastels, and sat among sterile plastic plants. I sat opposite a poster with a picture of Jesus’ pious face and a Bible verse: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage. Galatians 5:1.” My mother filled out the intake paperwork. After turning it in to the receptionist, she came and stood over me. I looked up. “Give me a hug.” Her face was tight and tired. I said nothing as I rose and draped my arms around her for a brief moment, suddenly feeling my growing anxiety shift. I was now angry at her for following through on her threat of long-term treatment. “Bye,” my sullen response reflected my resentment. “Goodbye, honey, we’ll see you soon,” my dad whispered into my hair as we embraced. I rested a moment, enjoying the cocoon of his arms, until he pulled away, tears in his eyes that elicited tears in my own. I blinked them away. I wanted to cling to him, like I did when I was small and he had to go away on a business trip. But I wasn’t seven anymore. I was seventeen, almost an adult. I had to wake up to this reality I had created that no one was going to rescue me from. I felt alone, like I was being abandoned, although I could only blame myself. They both turned and left, resignation reflected in their hunched shoulders. My parents knew what I didn’t; that it would be months before I would speak to them in normal conversation again. I watched them drive away as I sat back down, trying to settle myself and the emotions that already threatened to engulf me. I was facing a six-month stay, minimum. I expected another spa-like vacation from reality like my first rehab, but I could already sense that my bubble of fantasy was about to burst.
Mrs. McInnis, a senior staff member, entered the waiting room. Her thick coke-bottle glasses magnified her gray eyes and dominated her face. “Natalie?” I stood and followed her to an office in the back. We entered, and she shut the door on my freedom, and my old life.
A preppily-dressed teenage girl sat in a chair by the window, framed by the overcast sky. Mrs. McInnis gestured for me to sit in a vacant chair. The girl didn’t smile. Her straight, light-brown hair was pulled back in a severe ponytail that emphasized her long, oval face. I glanced over at her, expecting some kind of greeting. All I got was her trenchant gaze. I felt awkward, as I compared her crisp blouse, tailored pants, and loafers to my pot-head uniform: a plaid shirt over a Grateful Dead t-shirt, ripped jeans, and combat boots.
“Natalie, this is Jenna, one of our clients currently in treatment,” Mrs. McInnis said as she sat down. “Jenna has been in Last Chance nine months and is a stellar example of a straight young woman. She is also a faithful Christian.” Jenna smiled at Mrs. McInnis and then finally acknowledged me with a nod. Mrs. McInnis got a stack of papers in order. “We have a lot to go over with you, so pay attention. Jenna, please start with the Twelve Steps.”
Jenna cleared her throat and began to read. I had been recently exposed to the Twelve Steps in Jefferson Hall, but these steps were different. The words Jesus Christ were used instead of Higher Power. After each step, Jenna read an accompanying Bible verse. Then she recited Last Chance’s slogans. “Think, think, think: ‘Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment. Romans 12:3.’”
“Thank you. Now please read the rules.” Mrs. McInnis glanced at me. “There are seventy-one, and you are required to memorize them all.” My eyes widened as I did my best to stay calm, and not show any reaction. I began to feel uncomfortable in my chair; my pants felt too tight. I shifted my legs.
Jenna continued reading in a pragmatic voice. “One. Honesty is the first and most important rule. Two. No newcomers talking to newcomers. Three. Pay attention to the person who is talking.” As she read, anger rose in my chest. I felt overwhelmed, drowning in a sea of twelve steps, seventy-one rules, and countless Bible verses. I wished for escape; I wished I was stoned. As Jenna continued reading, I imagined tackling her with superhuman force and using her body as a shield to break the window and escape to freedom. My fantasy of exodus evaporated as I looked from Jenna to Mrs. McInnis, suddenly seeing them as they were in truth, my jailors. In an instant, I felt small, vulnerable, and trapped. Everything in the room seemed to grow larger: Jenna, Mrs. McInnis, the wooden desk along the wall; yet I felt like I was shrinking, down, down, as my chair grew and grew.
Mrs. McInnis then rose from her seat. “Okay, now it’s time to bring you into group.” As they stood, so did I. But Jenna shoved me back into my seat with a heavy hand on my shoulder. Mrs. McInnis explained, “You have lost all of your privileges as a consequence of your actions. You are no longer allowed to stand or walk unaided.” I sat there, hot fury again stabbing my chest. “What? What do you mean?” I didn’t understand. I couldn’t walk on my own? It made no sense.
“Jenna?” Mrs. McInnis ignored my question, gesturing to Jenna. In a single movement, Jenna looped her fingers and thumb through the back belt loop of my jeans. As she did, she whispered loudly, “This is the Hand of Friendship, because I know it’s hard to trust yourself right now.” She pulled me to my feet with her fist; it was manacled to my pants. Mrs. McInnis opened the door. “Welcome to Last Chance.”
Mrs. McInnis led us down a hall and through a room with long tables, peppered with chairs. She opened the door into what I would later learn was the main group room. It was very large. On a raised platform at the far end were rows of teenagers in church pews. They were divided: girls on one side, boys on the other. Everyone was looking at an elder in front of the group, but as we entered, all attention turned toward us. “Group, listen up!” Mrs. McInnis asserted. “This is Natalie. She is from South Carolina and she is seventeen years old. She has used alcohol, marijuana, nicotine, LSD, over-the-counters, prescriptions, inhalants, trash drugs, and things around the house. What do you have to say to Natalie?” The group shouted in unison, “Love ya, Natalie!” Then they erupted into what looked like convulsions. Everyone sat on the edge of the pews waving their arms in the air, some so violently that the pews thumped the stage. Jenna led me to the girls’ side of the group and sat me between two girls who appeared to be having particularly violent seizures. She took her place in another row behind me.
As I sat in a sea of thrashing arms and bouncing church pews, I concluded that this had to be a mistake. That feeling had been building once I entered the intake office, but now I knew it in my bones. I was in a place for mentally handicapped people. This could not be a drug rehab. But then I noticed the signs on the walls: the Christianized Twelve Steps, Bible verses, and slogans. I tried to make sense of what was happening, but I couldn’t seem to land where my body was sitting. I went from feeling defiance to being swallowed by a complete disconnect with the scene in front of me: a hundred teenagers flapping their arms and saying they loved me when I entered the room. Finally, the group leader called out someone’s name and the mass seizing stopped. A girl named Nicole stood up in the row in front of me and everyone turned to face her. She had thick black hair, cut short in an unfortunate look reminiscent of a bulbous mushroom cap. Her dark hair made her white skin look even paler. She had a round nose and chin, and deep-set eyes. “May I talk about a past situation when I used alcohol and got in trouble with the police?” She spoke through her nose, instantly annoying me.
“Yes. Please share with the group,” prompted the group leader. I later learned that all of the staff members, aside from senior staff like Mrs. McInnis, were graduates of Last Chance; as products of the system they were perfectly suited to it. The girl leading our group, Jennifer, was beautiful. She had dark chestnut hair and a matching complexion, which made her green eyes shine. She looked like she could be head cheerleader, class president, and homecoming queen. She also had an irresistible amalgam of innocence and naughtiness. Sitting there in the pew, I caught myself in fantasy, imagining Jennifer in her pre-Last Chance days. I saw her drinking the football team under the table, going home with the star quarterback, and fucking him all night long. This fantasy distracted me from my traumatic reality just enough to provide a moment’s relief.
Nicole continued. “A druggie friend asked me to go out with him and his friends one Friday. We didn’t really have anywhere to go, but they had alcohol. They picked me up and we drove around and drank. I drank it really fast; it was good.” She paused and glanced at Jennifer after she said that, realizing that she was confessing to liking something about drinking. I would find out that this was called glamorizing and was a guarantee to get confronted in group. Nicole quickly continued after she saw Jennifer’s lack of reaction. She added more drama to her voice. “After I drank a few, I started feeling dizzy. Everyone else was having fun and laughing. But I felt like I had to throw up.” She seemed over-dramatic about it, like she was auditioning for a part in an after-school special warning about the dangers of drinking. As I listened, I started to settle; the adrenaline surge that had begun in the intake office dissipated. I suddenly felt as weary as a ninety-year old woman, exhaustion in my bones. I had only been in Last Chance an hour or so, and yet I felt like I’d been there for a month. I was too tired to do anything but absorb what was happening. I noted the details of the room, the oppressive fluorescent lighting, the row of staff observing in the back of the room that I hadn’t noticed before. I looked around and wondered where the other group members were from and what led their parents to enroll them in Last Chance.
Nicole’s voice rose, drawing me back to reality, as she built suspense in her drinking story. “I told my friends I was going to be sick, and to stop the car. They pulled over in a school parking lot where it was dark. I opened the door and started throwing up.”
“Get in touch with your feelings.” Jennifer spoke with encouragement.
“I felt ashamed. I felt stupid because I was the only girl and the only one getting sick.” A few hands began to rise from the group as she spoke. “I don’t know how long we were there; all I could do was lean out the door. The world was spinning. Then the police drove up behind us with their lights on.” Nicole’s monologue built, her voice quivering and tears dotting the corners of her eyes. “I threw up again as the cop—” When she mentioned the word cop, several more hands shot up. Jennifer told the group to put their hands down so Nicole could finish.
“The policeman came up to the car, but I couldn’t even sit up! All I remember was his boots and trying not to puke on them. I was scared because I knew I would be in huge trouble.” Nicole let a wave of tears overtake her. Her shoulders shook. Jennifer pointed at a boy with his arm up. “Tim?” Tim stood with a blank expression. “May I challenge Nicole and hold her accountable?” Jennifer nodded as Tim turned to address Nicole. “Nicole, I want to challenge you. I don’t feel comfortable with you right now. I don’t think you’re really sorry for what you did. I don’t feel your feelings and I think you’re faking and trying to please the group. Also, I want to hold you accountable for using druggie slang. Love ya.” He sat down. Something clicked into place for me. All the hands shot up when she said “cop” because we weren’t allowed to say that word. I felt the now-familiar resistance return as I realized how childish this was. We couldn’t even say the word “cop”? I slouched down and put my foot on the back of the pew in front of me as a show of insolence. The group sang out, “Love ya, Tim!” as he sat down. Nicole’s tears had evaporated as Tim was speaking, proving her shallow feelings.
Jennifer addressed her. “Nicole, don’t forget to say ten Gee-Golly-Goshes when you get home, since you used druggie slang. As far as your share, I also want to challenge your authenticity. I think you’re being fake, and in self-pity. I feel like you’re trying to say the right thing just to get by here. I don’t believe you’re regretful. I don’t believe that you think you have an alcohol problem. I think if you left here today, you would go straight back to drinking. That is not the plan Jesus has for you. He wants you to live victoriously in redemption and has led you here to repent for your old ways.
“You have been here over two months, and have made minimal progress. You will continue to sit and stagnate until you internalize the First Step and your powerlessness over alcohol and drugs. You’re a druggie. You did bad things and now you have to pay the price. And you can’t fake your way through here. It doesn’t work. Many kids have tried, and not progressed, being on the belt loop for months and months. Do you enjoy living away from home? Don’t you miss being able to talk to your parents? It’s time to decide if you’re ready to get honest and get real. Group, please check in later with Nicole to see if she has shifted. You may be seated.” Nicole looked defeated, yet relieved, as she sat.
Jennifer told the group that it was time for lunch. “Love ya, Jennifer!” the group shouted, signaling the end of what I later learned was Morning Rap. “What song should we sing?” The group erupted into its mass convulsions as Jennifer yelled, “Bobby!” Bobby answered, “If I Had A Hammer!” “No, we’re going to lunch! Chandler!” Chandler cried out as the arm-flailing continued, “I Love Jesus Better Than Ice Cream!” Jennifer consented, and the group stopped their arm waving and began to sing. “I love Jesus better than ice cream, and ice cream is very good…” They made hand movements, acting out the words of the song as they sung. It reminded me of being in Vacation Bible School as a kid. I sat motionless and watched as everyone participated in the childish singing and gestures.
What the fuck was this crazy kindergarten drug rehab? As my first day wore on, I knew that my parents had no idea what kind of a place they put me in. There was no way in hell that they knew what went on here. What kind of parents would voluntarily place their child into a facility like this? I bet they thought it was like Jefferson Hall, just Christian and longer-term. That place was laughable, a country-club cakewalk compared to this. I desperately remembered my experiences there as I closed my eyes; thinking that if I wished hard enough, I’d open them and be back there, or home, or anywhere but where I was. I couldn’t wait to call and tell my parents, tell them what went on here. I knew that they would take me out, and let me come home. I imagined bargaining with them: saying that I would comply with their rules, that I would stay clean, that I would attend therapy, that I’d do whatever they wanted. I didn’t yet know that it would be sixty-three days before I would have another conversation with them.
I felt like I was cresting another wave of opposition and rage as I stood for lunch, and was forcibly pushed back into my seat by the girl next to me. As she grabbed my pants by the back belt loop, she whispered the same thing that Jenna had when she belt-looped me, “This is the Hand of Friendship, because I know it’s hard to trust yourself right now.” The girl pulled up on my pants, moving me to standing. As I started to walk, she stopped me, controlling me like a jockey on a horse. I understood that she was showing me that she was in control as her knuckles dug into my back. Once I stopped moving, she propelled me forward as we joined the line of girls ahead of me. There was no disorder as we filed silently into the lunchroom I had passed through earlier, which seemed like eons ago. I noticed that most everyone was paired like I was, either leading or being led. I felt kinship with the others who were on the receiving end of the belt loop and relieved that I wasn’t the only one trapped in this bizarre role of utter powerlessness, feeling like a dog on a leash.
I’m thankful that I didn’t have the ability to see into the future of the next eleven months of my life at Last Chance. I imagine that if I’d had a crystal ball that day, allowing me to see all that transpired, I would have withered and crumbled, disintegrating into nothingness. Or maybe I’d have melted into a puddle consumed by the earth, like the Wicked Witch of the West, leaving behind only a telltale pile of early-nineties grunge clothes.
But I survived it all: the breaking of my spirit, the dissemination and rebuilding of my personality, the brainwashing, and the reprogramming. Twenty-eight years to the day have now passed, my mind permanently tattooed with the memories of Last Chance. I’ve been clean and sober the last twenty-two, without Jesus, and despite my experiences in Last Chance.