Going Undercover at Impact House 

Hardcore recovery

Wednesday, Jun 25 2008

"Lift your nut sack.”

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I hope I never hear this phrase again.

Popeye, a 50-year-old, cornrowed black dude wearing white surgical gloves, is now pointing out what to look for to a concerned 20-something kid named Manny. I am their anatomical test dummy. I stand stark naked in a small shower room at Impact Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center in Pasadena. It’s the most hardcore rehab in town, they say. I am quickly finding out why.

“Now turn around, bend over, and spread ’em,” barks my anal examiner. Manny gives me two paper towels to stand on while Popeye does his examining. Manny looks on like a protégé admiring his mentor. Even I, a pretty damn good extrovert, cannot come up with any small talk.

Also read Addiction: Buying the Cure at Passages Malibu and Rehab or Bust: A Guide to L.A.'s Drug and Alcohol Treatment Centers by Mark Groubert

For the record, only Jim Stilwell, the legendary executive director of Impact, knows I am here undercover. When I first suggested the idea to Stilwell, a burly 60-ish biker type with a walrus mustache, I had to drop a bunch of names to widen his comfort zone. But to his credit, the savvy ex-junkie quickly got it. He had nothing to hide. According to Stilwell, everything would be standard operating procedure. I would be processed as a regular resident and treated as such for the duration of my stay. No employee or patient would know why I was there.

After an hour’s worth of paperwork, I am led into the main yard of the 130-bed facility. I have never been a patient in a rehab, and it’s like walking into another world. Some really hard-looking men (and women) chain-smoke on the outside patio. There is no swimming pool here, no equine therapy or “talking sticks.” There are carrots but no carrot juice.

I am given the 21-page Residential Client General Rules. A young gap-toothed kid named Michael takes me into a tiny, empty office to go over them page by page. It takes an hour.

There are many, many rules. Most are harsh, some are weird: No sunglasses, no tattoo paraphernalia and no haircutting articles. Portable TVs are allowed in rooms if the resident is Third Phase. Second Phase residents may have radios. No radios or TVs for First Phase residents. It all seems very foreign. Very cultish. Very prisonlike.

After the examination, I’m finally turned over to my impatient “daddy” — someone who shadows your every move for the first few days. You are his “baby.” In fact, everyone calls you baby. Not in the Sinatra way but in the infant way. It is all very humiliating. This is by design.

My daddy is a 50-year-old Latin gangbanger named Lorenzo, who did 21 years in prison for various infractions, one of them beating a man nearly to death with a pipe for refusing to pay his rent on some property Lorenzo owned. Lorenzo was a professional dope slinger. He also put in custom-made windows. He tells me he had seven years clean, when he “got busy and stopped going to N.A. meetings.”

In Impact for the past six months, he had worked his way up to Phase 3, the highest at this facility, when he was inexplicably de-phased back to square one. As he told me his crime/addiction/recovery story in the tiny cubicle that was his room, his eyes moistened. He took pride in Phase 3. He couldn’t fathom what he had done to deserve this “demotion.”

“I need to keep these in my pockets,” he mumbles, gesturing to his fists. He is a tightly wound guy. Very rarely smiles. When he does, it seems forced. Like someone is watching, and he has to do it. He is a good man. He wants it bad. I hope he makes it.

Lorenzo passes me an additional set of handwritten rules, headlined: “Getting Your Wings.” (Getting your wings is Impact-speak for shedding your Daddy.) I read the forbidden“Five F's”:

1. Fighting

2. Fucking

3. Fixing

4. Flirting

5. Fruiting

The first one, I quickly get. No fighting. Easy. The third rule, no fixing. I can see that. Numbers two and four, fucking and flirting — these are really, really frowned upon. (As we walk through the woman’s section, I am instructed to yell, “Man walking here,” which I do rather meekly. I’m so terrified that I keep my eyes averted and my head down.) But number five? Fruiting? What is fruiting? Is it like fisting but with a papaya?

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