From “My Exploding Workshop”
“He conquers who endures.” ~ Perseus
Watsonville is a little after-thought of a town midway between Salinas and Santa Cruz along the central California coast. Purely agricultural, it boasts a billion dollars a year in strawberry exports (including some very good locally made pies). It’s a nice place to live, and I did for a few years, just me and my dog Baxter.
One day in early autumn I got a request to do a “transport.” Transports are their own adventure more often than not. They straddle the line between helping an addict who is willing to go to treatment and having to stage a full-blown intervention. They are done when a person is willing to go to treatment but for whatever reason, needs to be accompanied.
The person I am to accompany, a thirty five year old female, had just been released from jail. She had been charged with alcohol related felony child neglect. According to her aunt, she would be waiting for me in the parking lot at the Auburn jail where she had been held. Her family in Arizona is wealthy and willing to pay to have a professional transport her. Auburn is two hundred miles northeast in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. So, I pile some supplies and a happy little Baxter into my car head northeast on Highway 80. About four hours later I arrive in Auburn.
I pull up at the jail house about 6 pm. The place is deserted except for a fairly attractive, tall blond woman dressed in jeans and blazer, standing all alone in the parking lot, sipping something from a small commuter cup. When I gave her a questioning look, she mumbled, “I need this coffee.”
Introductions were brief: her name is Sherrie, mine name is Steve, this is Baxter. I’m holding Baxter in my arms; he’s glad to have the extra company. Sherrie is indifferent, looking at neither of us and says in the unmistakable tone of the privileged, “Okay, so you’re my driver. Let’s go.”
She ungraciously gets into the car, and accepts Baxter on her lap without comment or emotion. He is flowing cuteness exponentially in her direction with obvious expectations of an affectionate rubdown in return. It never comes. Sherrie stares blankly out the window, sipping her beverage. She chain smokes and fiddles with the stereo between sips. After a few minutes the unmistakable, sweet smell of vodka cuts through the smoke. The fact that I can identify it at all means that she must have been drinking it straight. Her eyes are now half closed and she is bobbing back and forth in the seat.
FUCK. Fucking Great. She must have walked to the liquor store and then back to the jail parking lot.
I never tire of moments I myself am swindled, having swindled those around me for so long. They are few and far between but they happen. Handling them is what is important.
I pull over to get a better look at her and call my contact in at the program to update him. I am sure they will not accept her in this condition since there is no on-site detox.
“Get the booze away from her. Feed her. Slow down… Enjoy the scenery. You have a long drive ahead of you anyway, so give her time to sober up.” No shit I thought. Why did I even call? I could have given him a thousand other excuses. Fucking great.
There’s no scenery by now. The road is just a road, every mile like the last. Darkness surrounds us. I cut way back on the accelerator. Sherrie stops complaining about me taking her coffee mug and starts to complain about the reduction in speed. Eventually she falls asleep, her head wobbling against the window. After a while she starts thrashing around, in and out of consciousness.
She was sober when I picked her up so I figured she wasn’t in any immediate danger other than the possibility of puking all over my dashboard, so I roll onward. Baxter finally gets fed up and leaves her lap for more stable accommodations in the back seat.
After about two hours of meandering down the dark, semingly deserted country highway we arrive in Roseville, a good distance from where we have to end up. Sherrie startles awake, slurs at me with some urgency that she has to pee, so I pull into the parking lot of a Walgreen’s drug store. Fortunately – at this hour the store is deserted. No one but a curious cashier and I are there to watch her stumble down the aisle to the bathroom.
She emerges from the bathroom a few minutes later. She stands silently, trying to locate her balance as she slowly sways back and forth. Then, with obvious effort she looks around in a myopic gaze, and falls straight backward. She fell as if she’d been shot in the head point blank. Her reaction time could have been measured in hours. I heard a “SMACK!” as the back of her head hit the linoleum floor. Blood started pooling onto the floor around her head by the time I reached her side. “FUCK!,” I exclaimed. No one heard me. Lifting her, I saw a gash on the back of her head with hair clumped around it. I grabbed some bandages off the shelf, tore them out of the packaging and started staunching the flow.
“Is she okay?” asks the clerk, appearing suddenly behind me.
“Can you please just ring up the bandages?” Sherrie is semi-conscious as I throw down some dollars on the counter and make our way out to the car. I can see Baxter, paws on the rear window, watching us with avid interest, his little head cocked to one side. Once Sherrie is buckled into the front seat I start to call 911. Sherrie – suddenly coherent – grabs me with both hands and tries to yell but manages a raspy squeal instead, “No, Steve, please! No hospitals! No cops!”
“Look,” I said, matter-of-factly. “You cut your head, you have to go to a hospital.”
Her eyes open and for the first time, he looks directly into mine. She pleads softly with me, “Steve, Steve, I do not want to go to the hospital. I do not want to go to the cops.” Real fear has made her alert and coherent. My choices? Drag her to the hospital where she will probably bolt, get arrested again for violating terms of her probation (in which case she’d never get to see her children again), or I could handle this myself, accepting the liability involved and get her to the program where there would be a nurse, and a team instead of just me. “Alright…” I chose my next words carefully. “If you pass out again, I am taking you to a hospital, with or without your permission.”
“I want some coffee. That will help.”
“No Sherrie, it won’t. No coffee. And do NOT fall asleep.” At that point I decide to get off the road to give Sherrie a chance to get cleaned up, and for me to regroup, take inventory and make sure the remainder of our trip is as uneventful as possible.
I pull into a hotel and get a room. A small knot has formed at the back of Sherrie’s head. The gash isn’t that big, but has bled profusely as head wounds tend to do. I clean it up and bandage it as best I can. She tells me she needs clothes and make up. Her clothing is rancid with alcoholic sweat, the blazer streaked with blood. New stuff would do a lot for her morale.
I run a bath for her, and while she is cleaning up, I step outside and call her aunt. She gives me the okay to spend a few hundred dollars on whatever Sherrie needs. When I go back into the room, there’s a handwritten list waiting for me on the bed. Sherrie wants me to buy bras, underwear, dresses, a tracksuit… and makeup. I spend a few moments ruminating over the benefits of a career change before deciding to comply with everything on her list. I make an executive decision to leave her on her own in the hotel room. There was absolutely nowhere for her to go, and even if she were willing to come with me, I had no confidence in her level of sobriety.
Sherrie was walking a thin line, but I figured the least destructive route was to give her some time and space, and handle the shopping myself. I waited for her to finish her bath, made sure she was awake, that her head had stopped bleeding completely, then made my way down the street.
Thanksgiving is days away, so the stores at the local mall are open late. I head into Macy’s and lean heavily on the sales staff to do my shopping for me. When one of them finds out what I’m doing she treats me like a VIP with a million dollars to spend.
When I get back the bathroom door is closed, but I can hear her shuffling around inside. I lay the purchases out on the bed.
I talk to the door, “Look, Sherrie, we have to go. I am going to go outside. Get dressed, ok?” She mumbles that she’s heard.
A long fifteen minutes go by before I go back into the hotel room. Some of the clothes and the makeup kit are gone, and the bathroom door is shut. Great, I thought, almost home free. I lie down on the bed and start reading Gideon’s Bible while waiting for her to emerge from the bathroom. Sherrie did emerge, completely naked. What? Oooh man. She launched herself on top of me, wrapped her legs around mine, and began kissing my neck with considerable enthusiasm.
I would like to note here that Sherrie is a thirty four year old blond, who weighs about 120 pounds. What can I say? We live in hedonistic times. Man-Steve and Interventionist-Steve waged a brief but mighty and silent philosophical war before I pushed her gently aside.
I was fully aware of the fact that she was completely willing to propitiate me with sex, and I also knew that the consequences of her so doing would be disastrous to her future state of mind as well as a finish to my career.
I decided to tell her the truth, followed by a lie. I told her that although I dearly wanted to take her up on her offer, it would be a breach of professional ethics for me to do so. I told her that I’d come and get her after a couple of weeks, once she qualified for a pass to leave the center. I’d buy her a dress and take her to dinner and a show, maybe a comedy at a real theatre. After, we’d get a nice room and have all the jungle sex we wanted.
None of this would ever come true. I knew it, and the reality that I was lying to cover rejecting her sank into her like a long, slow blade. I’d overshot it, or she just knew. Either way it didn’t matter. The expression on her face became one of utter self-loathing (not exactly the effect I was going for). She shuffled to the foot of the bed, away from me, and began sobbing, her head buried in her arms, deep, heaving sobs. I still clutched the bible in one hand. God, I thought, I could use a little help here. As if on queue, Baxter jumped up onto the bed, and began nudging Sherrie with his nose, wagging his tail and licking the tears from her face, as if he could love away her sadness. She looked at him, gathered him deeply into her arms, and began rocking him, sobbing and half laughing at his completely disarming affection. Like he was saying, “If Steve won’t cuddle with you I will!”
I am no expert on woman body language but could comprehend that my little dog Baxter had – in that brief moment – managed to salvage an otherwise impossible situation.
After a few minutes Sherrie confirmed his success by setting him carefully aside (to his disappointment), and wrapping herself in the comforter from the bed. She then stood up and said matter-of-factly. “OK… Let’s go.” I didn’t even have to coax her to get dressed. She still looked teary-eyed, ashamed and embarrassed but took obvious, even moments of happy consolation in all the makeup I had purchased for her. Soon she looked more than a little presentable, much better than she had two hours earlier, needless to say.
I decide to get take-out and she ate with appetite, then slept for two hours or so, until she felt and looked like a human being. Five hours from when we pulled off, we were on the road again.
The, cold, deep indigo of night was relieved by the cold grey of early morning when we finally arrived in Watsonville and began the drive up Gaffey Road; a long winding road to the top of Mount Madonna, and a beautiful thirty-five acre treatment campus. Mike, my contact, meets me and says, “Hey we can’t take her. She has a cut on her head and needs to go to the hospital right now.”
“Great, have fun.” I replied as I started walking in the opposite direction. “If she had been willing to go to a hospital, believe me, that is the first place we would have gone.” Mike regarded me for a few minutes and then walked in to greet Sherrie.
I’m on my way down the stairs when he comes running out after me. “Steve! Sherrie said she won’t go to the hospital with anyone but you. Please take her man, get her checked out. Make sure she hasn’t cracked her skull or anything. If the doctor says she’s okay, then we’ll enroll her.” How could I say no? Besides, this would be our second date.
While we wait in emergency room, I handle her relatively minor hangover thirst with lots of lemonade from the vending machine and walking with her on her frequent cigarette breaks. When she is admitted, the orderly tells her they’ll probably have to cut her hair. Sherrie was on the verge of refusing care when the doctor came in. She shot me a murderous look. I took him to the side and explained, enough for him to get the picture. The doctor gives Sherrie a thorough exam, then four stitches but leaves her hair alone. She smiles broadly at me. He gives us the all clear and I drive Sherrie back up the mountain. Outside, we hug awkwardly. She looks down and then walks into the center. I did not expect to see her again.
Two weeks later, I’m back at Mount Madonna, delivering someone else. I’m walking up the front stairs when I look over to where the sun is beaming down through the trees and through the spring mist. There are small white flowers bordering the path. I saw a beautiful woman, with the sun back-lighting her hair, walking along the path and stooping now and then to pick them. I was thinking it would be nice if Sherrie could be like that one day.
Just then, she looks up, and WOW – there she is! Sherrie! I knew I liked this program for some reason!
Walking down the path, the sun at her back, came a magically transformed Sherrie. All the tragedy that had marred her very beautiful face was gone. She looked intensely feminine and after only two weeks of walks in the sunshine, vitamins, good food and fresh, coastal mountain air.
She glanced up, recognized me, smiled and walked over. Her greeting was very shy. I am thrilled by her transformation and tell her she looks great! There is no doubt she is happy to see me, but the events of that long drive from Auburn are still between us. I congratulate her on her good health and her progress. Then she softly says she has to go or she’ll be late for her class.
After writing this up a friend asked me if I was crazy to include a story like this. “It’s all over the map,” he said. Aren’t you supposed to be writing the book to sell the idea that interventions are easy? That you always have things under control?”
I’m not telling these stories to sell you something that isn’t real. If an interventionist tells you that the process is easy, then he’s either inexperienced or selling you something. I succeed because I’m realistic about what the work is. It’s usually a controlled mess at best. Sometimes I get a simple, A to B intervention but that’s the exception not the rule. The rule is; be prepared for the worst and be grateful if it doesn’t happen. I maintain my success rate because of a few basic principles, and this story illustrates one quite nicely; you must persevere. In the face of anything.
If you find yourself thinking it’s going to be too hard or too weird or unusually chaotic, you’re probably right, it is all of that and more. Be ready for it, get help if you need to, and persevere no matter what happens.