Tantrums, violence and useless, the £12,000 therapy: what REALLY goes on inside rehab

A beautiful, sunny morning in high summer, but the weather is doing little to lift my spirits. I’m sitting in a group counselling session at Clouds House, the rehab centre in Wiltshire where addicts from all walks of life come in the hope of being ‘cured’ of their addiction. Deborah, 44, a “recovering” heroin addict is having another tirade. Jumping to her feet, she grabs her plastic chair and repeatedly slams it against the wall. Shrieking, her face is bursting with rage and her fists are pounding the air. No one dares to challenge her. She’s frequently shared fantasies about stabbing her parents and isn’t one to walk away from a fight.

The group counsellor looks at her blankly and says: “Why don’t you sit down and tell the group how you feel?” Deborah curses and storms out while the rest of us breathe a collective sigh of relief. She’s discharged days later for abusing the nurses.

I knew rehab would never be easy but I had no idea how common such dramas would be when I checked into Clouds in August 2005 for six weeks to recover from my drink problem. Before entering, I’d had fantasies of healing counselling sessions and inspiring lectures to help me overcome my addiction. I thought it would give me the opportunity to evaluate my life in a calm and supportive environment. Instead, by the time I left, I wasn’t even sure who or what I was. Was I an alcoholic, or, an over privileged young woman who partied too hard? And did rehab actually work? I was very doubtful.

The fact is, I was never a classic alcoholic – the sort who had to swallow a stiff vodka in the morning to get out of bed. I started drinking in 1995 when I was 22. At the time I was working for a national newspaper in Canary Wharf, London, and trying to make my mark in a somewhat cut-throat environment. The competition was fierce and as a trainee reporter I struggled to make any impact. As story after story I filed ended up being dropped, I felt like a failure and I found that after a few glasses of white wine in the evening my anxieties dissipated.

It helped that drinking was part of the work culture and it was considered perfectly acceptable to head down to one of the thriving bars on any given night. Several of my colleagues were hardened drinkers with cocaine habits. The more time I spent with them, the more I embraced the party lifestyle. After work I could drink anything up to two bottles of wine in three hours, and at the weekend I’d go clubbing and put away anything up to five bottles of wine with a few cocktails thrown in.

I finally bottomed out in July 2005 when I had a panic attack. I’d been drinking for three days, virtually nonstop, having gone to a wild party at someone’s house and slept on the floor for two nights. My hands were shaking and I started hyperventilating and had to go to hospital where I was given Valium. It was an utterly terrifying experience and it signalled a turning point. My body was clearly telling me it couldn’t cope any more and I decided to tell my parents my secret – that I had a drink problem.

My parents were utterly shocked and worried sick. I’d been so careful to hide the extent of my drinking from them that they honestly had no idea. Anyway, how could I possibly have a drink problem? I had a high-flying career, good friends, and even a Prada handbag! I looked healthy and ate a reasonable diet. But I knew I needed help and I asked my father if he’d pay for me to go to rehab.

He generously agreed to do so at a huge cost of £12,000 for six weeks’ treatment. I confessed all to my boss who was very kind, telling me to take a chunk of unpaid leave and simply concentrate on getting well. My entire family were very much behind me and when my mother dropped me off at Clouds one afternoon I had to walk away from her quickly, so she didn’t see my tears of shame.

The large manor house where Clouds is based overlooks rolling green fields with dormitories that house up to six patients. Bizarrely, it reminded me of my old boarding school in West Somerset. I was full of trepidation, as I’d been warned by a former patient and friend that I was going to be housed with drug addicts and alcoholics from all walks of life, some of whom would be coming in to Clouds going through physical “withdrawal” and in grave emotional torment. But I didn’t know what to expect. I just knew Clouds was somewhere people battling addictions went to get help.

Ironically, there was a whiff of glamour about it – wasn’t it the prerogative of any self-respecting celebrity to go to rehab at some point? Kate Moss, Tara Palmer-Tomkinson and Britney Spears are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to rehab. I was intrigued to learn that the late Paula Yates had been to Clouds (she was thrown out for bedding a fellow patient) and Robbie Williams wrote the song Angels while being treated there. Only last week, singer Pete Doherty was admitted for his ongoing problem with drugs.

But the reality of Clouds was far grimmer than I’d imagined. There were no celebrities except an incorrigible party boy who’d been on the TV show Love Island. Many of the patients were in their 20s and had been pressured into rehab by despairing parents or a court order. Local authorities paid for their treatment. Initially, I felt intimidated because I was afraid they might bully me. Actually, to their credit, they didn’t – although one or two patients dubbed me “the duchess” because they said I had a “posh accent”.

Their stories were much sadder than mine. So many never stood a chance of having stable lives. After the nurse went through my luggage to make sure I hadn’t smuggled in any drugs or alcohol, I was shown to my dormitory. There were beds for up to six women and the decor was basic with a thin carpet, solitary washbasin and large windows overlooking the garden. I felt lost during the first night, I kept thinking, “How did I get here? Where did it all go so wrong?” and I wept silent tears on my pillow.

I shared the dormitory with a painfully shy young woman who had been living rough in a multistorey car park for weeks and using heroin; a middle-aged woman who confessed she was prone to cutting herself with a razor if she got too anxious; a depressed mother of two in her 40s, and a vivacious young Cockney girl who cheered us all up with singing.

The routine at Clouds was much the same each day. We’d wake up and go to breakfast at 8am. Next, we’d be allocated chores such as vacuuming, cleaning or washing up. Then, there would be around an hour-and-a-half of group counselling, for which we’d be divided into regular groups of up to eight people. A counsellor would sit on each session but would say very little – it was up to the patients to counsel each other. We were encouraged to offer one another guidance, confront each others’ demons and talk about our addictions. The idea was that we could help each other recognise our common problems. But in reality it often descended into chaos and tears as patients criticised and belittled each other.

I soon learnt to avoid being confronted by staring vacantly at the carpet. Eventually, I was singled out by my peers and told I was fake, stuck-up and hiding my true self behind a mask of denial. One day a young recovering addict called James rounded on me for being too polite. “You’re always saying hello to everyone and asking them how they are. It’s just a false act you put on,” he said.

“I’m not going to apologise for being middle-class,” I replied. Of course, my comment triggered a group argument with people from opposing backgrounds criticising each other until the counsellor finally told us all to be quiet. We’d spend the rest of the day lounging around in a big common room. The boredom was excruciating. We barely had any one-on-one counselling – I often had less than two hours a week in which we never explored anything deeper than how I was feeling about my fellow patients.

My father was effectively paying £2,000 a week for me to sit around doing nothing. The staff claimed that it was important we learnt to “sit with our feelings” and gain insight from the “therapeutic atmosphere”. But there was nothing therapeutic about listening to addicts boast about the times they’d flat-lined – taken so many drugs they’d almost died – and alcoholics weeping because their children were being taken into care.

Television was banned and books were limited, although a friend smuggled in Jane Austen novels for me. In the evening we’d have “group workshops”, which involved making notes about various aspects of our addictions and asking fellow patients to evaluate our work. Most of the time we simply went through the motions quickly and then went back to playing Blackjack with Monopoly money and listening to our iPods.

The work assignments occasionally handed out were far too simple. For example, we were asked to write about our worst drinking experiences – but we’d already covered this in group therapy. When we actually had lectures they were over simplistic, and patronising to anyone with half a brain. We were asked to perform mimes showing each other how we could enjoy ourselves without resorting to drink and drugs on a given day. I mimed country-dancing.

On the plus side there was a great sense of camaraderie at Clouds. I formed close bonds with people from all walks of life, including a man in his 70s (he claimed he wasn’t really a drunk, he’d been set up by another man), a one-time violent thief and a charismatic male addict who had lived rough for years in North London – and who tragically died last summer after taking an overdose. Unfortunately, living in close confinement also meant Clouds was a breeding ground for hot crushes and illicit relationships. I knew of at least two pairs of patients who secretly had sex in the clinic’s sprawling grounds and in the dormitories.

What’s more, I’m ashamed to admit that I developed an inappropriate crush on a married fellow patient. When I shyly confessed my feelings to him he started slipping me poems across the dining room table and grabbing me for stolen kisses when no one was looking. I wasn’t sure what to do; I felt torn between my attraction to him and my conscience telling me to behave, and so I seemed to be in a constant state of anxiety. Although men and women were in separate sleeping quarters it was still possible to creep into each other’s rooms after lights-out. At one stage I did cross that line, although I never went beyond a quick kiss and a cuddle – it was too dangerous because if a couple were caught they were immediately thrown out – I know of two couples who met this fate.

Another major problem was exhaustion. It was not unusual to be woken at night by addicts going cold turkey, sweating, thrashing about and screaming into the darkness. Severe alcoholics just hours away from their last drink suffered, too, having hallucinations, tremors and acute anxiety. I didn’t understand why patients at this traumatic stage of early detox couldn’t be put in separate dormitories until they stabilised. What amazed me more was that these same individuals were expected to attend group counselling. They were so ill it was pitiful and often fell asleep slumped in their chairs.

On the last day as I packed my bags I felt rather tearful about saying so many goodbyes to people for whom I felt genuine affection. But, in truth, I felt I’d have gained more by spending two weeks relaxing at a health spa. I’m sorry to say that within two months I went back to drinking. The problem was my experience actually made me doubt I had a drink problem at all.

My drinking was hardly as serious as that of many of the other patients, one or two of them had even laughed when I told them about my drinking history, as if to suggest it was no cause for concern. I felt that stress and depression had been at the root of my addiction and once I was feeling better in myself I’d be able to drink like other people. I was wrong. Just a few sips of wine were enough to set up an insatiable craving to binge until I was ready to drop.

Rehab may work for some. But it wasn’t for me. I found it isolating and ineffective. The counsellors expected all the answers to come from within patients themselves – but if we knew what to do, why would we check in in the first place? 12.11.07