Alcohol detox involves all the symptoms of hangover, just much, much harsher. That’s because withdrawal is an entirely different process than a garden-variety hangover. Hangovers are the body’s acute response to sporadic intoxication. They usually take less than a day, though as one descends into addiction, that stretches to two and three days and beyond. My last self-detox lasted five excruciating days.
Withdrawal, by contrast, is recuperation from the long-term damage of drug abuse. (For more on this subject, click on Hangover versus Withdrawal.) Though doctors classify most withdrawals as “manageable,” it feels anything but that when you’re going through it. Detox is extremely painful. When you’re undergoing it, it seems unbearable.
My detox was typical, though longer than most. During the first few days, my life narrowed to two immutable realities: the pain in every part of my body, as if each cell competed to see which could feel worst; and a psychological whirlwind, the mother of all identity crises. The physical pain was easiest to deal with, as it was all too familiar. I’d felt similar, though much less extreme variations on lousy virtually every morning I’d woken up for years. The acute eye-piercing headache, the desert-in-a-drought thirst, the aches of the various muscles I’d bruised along the way, the acid stomach and feral gut-wrenching cramps in my colon, the wet-concrete density of my elephantine triple-gravity legs, the dry heaves, these were my normal daily “hangover” symptoms though several orders of magnitude more severe.
I was so dehydrated the staff kept offering to fetch liquids (and, to my astonishment, ice cream) from the kitchen. My attitude was, “Fuck off. I don’t want it and if I ever do, I’ll get it myself.” But I couldn’t, I was bed-ridden. Though still in full denial, there was no disputing my unquenchable thirst, so I had to rely on others for drinks. It was the first help I accepted, albeit belligerently.
One of the things that surprised me most about detox, particularly my last few home detoxes, was how cold I got. My hands and feet were like icicles. Nothing I tried to do to get warm — heating pads, hot baths, multiple layers of clothing — could fend off the cold. It was exacerbated by intense bouts of the “cold sweats.” My clothes got drenched, requiring that I change them constantly, and endless process due to my uncooperative body.
I had the extreme shakes, forcing me to cup water or juice in both hands just to get it to my mouth without spilling all over myself, often unsuccessfully. The nurses rated my tremors as 3+ on a scale that didn’t go any higher.
My coordination was so off, every time I got out of bed my body responded in unbalanced super-slow motion. I expected my feet to touch the floor, but they were two beats late. When I tried to walk, I couldn’t. My knees buckled and my legs were inoperable. My attempts at it — at first, only as far as the bathroom — were arduous foot-to-foot shuffles, like a convict shackled by ankle chains, where neither foot loses contact with the ground. I was mightily assisted by the crawl bars thoughtfully bolted to the walls just for people like me.
My mind was even more scrambled than my body. It was un-focusable. To this detoxing patient, the normal hubbub of hospital activity seemed like absolute chaos. Nurses, doctors, and all the other people whose functions were a puzzle to me, came and went apparently randomly. Since I was moving haltingly, the bustle of activity around me appeared accelerated, like I was in the middle of a hive full of bees tweaked on speed.
Despite the physical torture, the emotional pain was worse. My bodily malfunctions were accompanied by an inchoate panic which seemed to settle in and make itself comfortable, like it intended to be around a long, long time. It waxed into full hysteria or waned to barely suppressed alarm for no reason I could discern. This fear manifested in the pit of my stomach, a smoldering sensation like a charcoal briquette already turned ashy gray.
Rehab was the one place I swore I’d never go. I knew somewhere deep inside, the way religious zealots know there’s a God, that I could figure out what was eating me up so badly I had to be drunk to deal with it and, thus enlightened, remedy the problem on my own, returning to a garden-variety heavy social drinker instead of the incorrigible lush I’d become. Yet here I was. Not of my own volition, of course, but at rehab nevertheless. I thought, “How the fuck did I sink to this?”
Overwhelmed, devoid of all coping skills, I aspired to be an inert blob. “Get me through this moment,” was my silent prayer, one I’d repeat nearly endlessly for days and days and days. (For more, click on Detox: Emotional.)
The staff assured me I’d get better little by little, but I didn’t see any evidence of it for at least a week. Looking back, I found that just as there’s no silver-bullet cure for a hangover, withdrawal is largely a process that simply has to be endured. Rehab gave me vitamins, anti-depressants and tranquilizers, forced me to drink fluids and, when I could finally do so without immediately throwing up, start eating properly for the first time in months. It all helped. But the most important factors were removing the alcohol intake and time. It was eleven days before my doctor formally declared I was out of ”detox status.”