The ceiling of the private plane was inches away from my face and I could feel a foam-like material stuffed up my nose. Cold rushes of air brushed by my face and a pervasive chemical like smell provided steady nausea. This was true claustrophobia. And where was I again? Oh, right, on an air ambulance flying from Dubai to Zurich to Newfoundland to Newark. End game? Dropping me off at what was to become my new home, two days before New Year’s Eve 2003.
I had no idea what rehab would have in store for me. But having had friends and family search frantically for days before we left Dubai to find the best place in the world to “fix me”, I suppose it was a relief to many that at least one of the most renowned places in the world was in a country that at least I was a citizen of as well as in a state where both my family and I had friends and family of our own. However, no one could have prepared me for what I was about to experience.
Of course, the physical challenges I faced were innumerable and frankly, the most concerning, surprisingly they were not the most overwhelming aspect. While on the outside the belief was that I was going to one of the most prestigious places in the country, the truth was, on the inside it was comparable to what I had seen on television and in films: a combination of The Sopranos, The Shawshank Redemption and Law & Order: SVU.
During my seven-month stint there, it was consistently about 75% male. The cast of characters was long and ever-changing and ranged from an 18-year-old boy whose gunshot wound from a rival gang rendered him a paraplegic to a well-known music icons’ grandfather whose stroke left him hemiplegic and mute. The cop who introduced himself as, “Francis O’Leary” but had an unmistakably symbolic Italian tattoo on his arm. (I’m not making this up: remember the shows and film I referenced above? Clearly, I could tell the case that got him injured was high profile and he was under cover.) A middle-aged gentleman who had been crushed by a speeding train while sitting in his car who suffered irreparable brain damage. Of course, there was the occasional young girl or older woman who would end up being my roommate but seemed to transition in and out of there faster than I. It made me feel even more alone, different and “obvious” (for lack of a better word) than I needed to feel.
This time was supposed to be about a complete and total focus of my physical health, but a lot of it felt like survival of the fittest. And if you were going to stay up later than 5 PM or mix with the rest of the people stuck living in this alternative reality, it was necessary to develop a thicker skin. I guess it was truly a blessing that I had the Jersey side of my identity to call upon during that time. I loved when my personal care attendant Allison was working morning shifts and was able to come and put me together in my velour Rocawear outfits, complete with cornrows she crisscrossed effortlessly through my hair while exchanging pleasantries in her wonderful Guyanese accent. I had a pair of oversized headphones she’d place over my ears and the only one album I requested and cared to listen to: Tupac’s All Eyez On Me. From that, I was able to channel a lot of more of the inner strength required to get through the dark times that perhaps I’m not even ready to write about right here, right now.
Although I was doing very well summoning my inner thug and rocking different personas, every now and then a gleam of extreme naïveté would practically knock me out. I didn’t realize how difficult and scary it was to interact with some personalities especially the dominant aggressive males who were on some serious doses of painkillers. (But, then again, so was I! Every single day the pain was off the charts from the moment I opened my eyes my first thought would be about medicinal relief.)
And then of course there was The Anger. The majority of us who could express ourselves were feeling a plethora of emotions but anger was chief among them and clearly the one that was not only a danger to ourselves but also to anyone else in our immediate vicinity...
Stay tuned for part three…
Photo: Margaret Malandruccolo
Hair, Makeup & Styling: Melanie Manson