Tales from the Halfway House: Life inside Egypt’s Rehab Centres
Some are ritzy, others are hellish, but a healthy cage is still a cage no matter what it’s like.
With narcotic trafficking and drug abuse getting more and more intense in Egypt as time does its thing, Egypt’s wasted need much more strict, controlled means to shake it off. You hear a lot about rehab from modern media and the news, but you don’t really have an individual’s side of the story.
I talked to a few folks I’d known over the years who’ve been in rehab in the past, perchance to get a better picture. Though the establishments were different, and varying in quality of life, they were pretty much the same when it comes to core concept. However, one of my sources kind of stood out above the rest (he’s well-spoken), thanks to his experiences, his insights and the literally insane stories he’s been in. So delving into this man’s slightly sordid past could be quite the article, no? Let’s hope so.
*Names have been altered for anonymity, locations will not be mentioned.
“I remember waking up that morning to the sound of my parents calling for me. They’d wanted me to come down, and after making my way down, I was in for a shit surprise.” Ragab had quite the shady history with heroin, as well as indulging in various pharmaceutical drugs among other, less intense narcotics. He’s been in and out of rehabs for a few years now, and thankfully, he’s clean, and he’s quite fond of reminiscing about those difficult times, despite the treacherous circumstances. “I go down and I get charged at by four bulky dudes in white uniforms, and some doctor in a lab coat. It didn’t take long to figure out that my parents had shipped me off to rehab. I kicked and screamed the entire time, managing to hit one of the grunts in the face. The doctor moved in to give me a sedative shot, and let me tell you; the shit in there is enough to knock out a horse. It was supposed to knock me out, but all it did was calm me down enough to just give up and comply.”
Heroin is a vicious drug. It clings to your body as if trying to replace your soul. So when you try to shake it off, it fights back hard. “I woke up at 9 AM in my room with some doctor seated a few metres away from me. He explains the situation to me, and tells me to try and get through those first few days. For about five days, I’m just in my room, drugged out of my mind to help me survive the withdrawal. It was like a prolonged hallucination; intermittent memories, visions, weird dreams, and that was the status quo because I wouldn’t move around too much.” Round the clock medications and fluids, close monitoring by staff and a warped perception of time eventually got Ragab back on his feet, albeit a bit slower than usual, and only managing to sleep with a nightly intravenous benzodiazepine drip. That’s when the real work starts.
Ragab was admitted to a more upscale rehabilitation establishment than most similar facilities. Initially, I dreaded user feedback taking offense to that fact, but what I’ve learned from talking to recoverees, it’s all pretty much the same thing, difference is whether or not there’s a PlayStation, and the quality of the food. “Yeah, it might have all this fancy shit and luxuries that places like it typically lack. But think of it this way; even if you have all the amenities and luxuries you wanted in a prison, it’s still a prison. You’re not free to do what you want, you don’t see people you love, and you’re stuck doing the same thing every day, within even tighter confines.”
Speaking of doing the same thing every day, what was the daily routine like? What were you forbidden from doing? Was it a concentration camp like it’s painted to be?
Routine is a Saviour
“It’s not as restrictive as you think it is. You wake up at 8, go down for breakfast, you could smoke and watch TV and all that, nothing too fancy that early. We’d go to take our medication, and you had to be supervised before and after swallowing; they checked your mouth for any monkey business. There was nothing we were given that could be used recreationally, at least not practically. But people in there were desperate to get any kind of high, no matter how they could.” What about the actual therapy though? How’d that go?
”We had activities that were recommended for us, but we didn’t have to do it if we didn’t want to. Stuff like group therapy, psychiatric activities, one-on-one therapy and even art and music therapy. I wasn’t interested in most of it, but I tried it all out anyway to see what’s up. Group therapy was nice; we all just sit and introduce ourselves with a doctor present, we share stories, experiences, learn a bit about each other, that kind of thing. You get to see how widespread drugs are, and the variety of ages, social classes and backgrounds that succumb to it. But at the same time, you make some of the strongest bonds in there. Some of the tightest relationships I've made so far was in that centre. There's a sense of camaraderie that you just don't get like that anywhere else, folks would even force each other into activities and fun if they were too depressed. ”
Ragab’s days were usually him going around the common room; a place where everybody could chill, talk to each other, play video games, read or watch TV, all under strict supervision at all times. He had breakfast, lunch and dinner at certain times, and thankfully for him, “it wasn’t shit.” You could also have food taken up to your room, but that had ended a while after he was admitted; a point we’ll touch on later.
“I remember this activity that I’d tried once, but never wanted to go near afterwards. It was called “Empty Chair;” a therapist sits you down on a chair facing another chair, and you’re instructed to talk to whoever you want on that chair, even though nobody was on it. You could talk to your family, a friend, your dealer or even yourself, and it usually ends up in tears. It was a bit too intense for me, and I was still clearing my mind from withdrawal, but I do think it helps.”
“Music therapy is kind of…dumb. It was basically just a bunch of us in a room with a guy taking our music requests, It’s just a bunch of dudes saying “play Mounirrrr next” for an hour, so it wasn’t my thing. Art was cool though; you could sketch, paint, even shape clay and shit, and before you say anything; the entire place was inhalant free, so there was nothing in the art room we could use to get a buzz.”
Not unlike popular belief however, the delicate economy of rehab is a tobacco-driven market.You're forbidden from carrying actual money inside - so as not to bribe anybody or somehow find a way to abuse it. "We'd all get a pack of cigarettes a day - plus five extra cigarettes if you a good junkie - and cigarettes were how you got around. Primarily though, we used to gamble with them back when cards were available to us, you can guess how they were banned. The economy was unphased however.
Now you might be thinking that all this was a bit too lavish for rehab of all places, and it is for your average Mahmoud. Other establishments often make their patients do manual labour like cleaning in all its forms or hauling things around, from what others had told me, and I wanted to see what Ragab had to say about that. “There are two schools of thought about that: One is that forced manual labour is effective at breaking you, making you much more pliable and easier to build on. The other is that it’s not really nice when you make a bunch of recovering addicts do your chores, and that you don’t have to break somebody down to fix them. You can improve on what’s already there.”
Where there’s a Will…
Ragab’s rehab wasn’t exclusive to drug addiction; it also offered psychiatric help and asylum for Egypt’s deluded. Besides recovering junkies, there were schizophrenics, psychotics and warped individuals running amok, from ages 18-to-60-something. So Ragab had quite a few stories to tell. “Some shit genuinely shocks you when you see it in reality. I remember this one dude who would ask for a lot of juice and even more fruit. Back then, they used to have room service for food whenever you wanted, and it was great, until this idiot came out of his room with some others, drunk as all hell and making a mess. Turns out, he was somehow fermenting the juices he had in bulk, along with all that fruit to make liquor. I’m trying not to think it was toilet wine. After that, if you wanted to eat, you went down to the cafeteria and eat under strict supervision.”
But then there was Magdy, and his brief but intense encounter with Ragab was akin to a test from God. “ Magdy truly showed me what a schizophrenic is truly like. I had originally been assigned a single-bed room, but they were in short supply, so they gave me a double room all to myself. I make my way to the common room and spot this guy arguing with one of the security staff, yelling about how he’s waiting for two of his friends to hang out with him and wants to go out to meet them. It was obvious he was new and maybe in shock or disbelief of his situation. So I offer him a cigarette and tell him what it’s like here, try to calm him down. He takes a shine to me and starts trying to be my friend, and I was OK with it till he pulled a pretty risky stunt. We were sitting in the common room at one point with another guy who’d been in and out of rehabs for 18 years, a pretty irritable dude. Magdy starts staring at him like a hawk, and starts tapping his chair’s frame loudly three times. He keeps doing this while staring at the dude’s soul, tapping faster and faster. He then starts yelling at him saying “HEY YOU YES YOU” as he taps, and the guy explodes on him and almost kicks his ass, but he just stormed off mumbling. Then Magdy just turns to me and we talk as if nothing happens.”
That was a tame example, Magdy had much more in store for our dear Ragab. “At one point, he just takes his stuff and moves into my room on the other bed, while I just watch as it happens. He hadn’t told anybody about it, and he just went about setting up his closet and everything. At this point, you could say I was sceptical about being around the guy, So later on in the night, he’s sitting on his bed drumming on his pillow or whatever, and I’m there reading El Feel el Azra2, he then turns to me like a mannequin, then gets up and yanks the book from my hands. “Don’t read this book, it’s based on a real story” he says to me, staring me dead in the eye, and I’m just there trying not to lose my shit while on trippy medication. The nurse comes in to give me my sleepy-benzo-bag, but I tell him to hold off a bit; I do not want to be asleep around this guy. So I just stay up reading my book, then he went out to go to the bathroom, but ended up running around screaming “I am el mahdy el montazar. I have swallowed the blue elephant pill and I am the one you seek,” among some other stupid shit. After they wrangle him and ship him off, I run for my benzo-bag and begin to pass out, that’s enough reality for one day”
Not all the situations Ragab’s been in had an entertaining tone to them. Some, such as the case of Isaac Newton’s son, were a lot more heart-breaking. “We had this guy who was convinced he was a Isaac Newton’s son, except he was a more modern, fortunate Isaac Newton. I remember giving this guy a cigarette, and he turns to me and asks for my name. So I tell him, then he presses his side and says “Diaa, please transfer $200 million to Ragab’s bank account.” Then he winks and just shuffles off, and he had a habit of doing that a lot. He would yell at security, telling them how his father found gravity and how he had important business he needed to tend to. Turns out, this guy’s parents both died in a car accident, and the shock of it made him revert to a happier universe where he’s, well, Isaac Newton’s son. Not everybody in that situation would react that way; his mind definitely predisposes something like this to surface at some point, and all it needed was a trigger.”
Ragab neared the end of his longest stint in the facility, and even though it was something that he’d been looking forward to at first, it was steadily becoming something he dreaded. “I was fucking terrified of getting back out there. I’d really gotten into the sessions, the activities, the atmosphere of safety, and the protection I had from temptation. Getting back out there, at the time, meant slipping back into that shit again, and I was scared of just bumping into anybody I knew from that life and immediately slipping back into it.” This is something all of the folks I talked to agree upon; leaving rehab meant an uphill battle against your urges, and though they’d walk out stronger and with more clarity, they were still vulnerable to temptation, like anybody out there.
“I remember this 60-year-old dude who had gotten permission to leave for whatever it was he had to go to. When he came back, he came up to me and told me that he’d snuck some heroin through in his ass. Yeah, that happens. I obviously told him to fuck off and went on my way, but I’d later heard that he’d gotten an 18-year-old who’d been in for just a couple of hash joints into heroin. I didn’t hesitate to tell the staff about it, and they both got some serious comeuppances. If this shit happens inside rehab, how the hell am I supposed to survive out there?”
Ragab has been clean of heroin for years now, although he’d admitted himself into the centre for sporadic pharmaceutical abuse. He’s doing fine, has his shit together, has a significant other and is gainfully-employed. He doesn’t hate the sights and scenes he’d witnessed in and out of rehab, “it’s a nice reminder to stave off the cravings, and it’s pretty funny all the same. Sad thing is, eight out of ten people walking out of rehab will relapse, and that's a fact. You have no idea how painful it is to see your brothers like that, so I guess I have that to remember whenever the itches start.”