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By Alejandro Betancourt:
Special Report for Beacon Media
Few of the patients of the Spanish-only speaking anexos de Corriente California around LA remember clearly if they were fully conscious or unconscious when they were admitted. They vaguely remember being led, dragged, or carried into a small, dingy holding room with roaches crawling on the carpeted walls where their shoes and socks were removed, and feet washed with rubbing alcohol, somewhere in Hacienda Heights.
Closer to downtown, even rougher and dirtier rooms like these hold newly admitted patients every week in centers with names such as La Diferencia in South Central, La Decision Es Tuya in West LA, Salvacion de Vidas in Temple City. These independently operated groups offer their own self-taught treatment for drug and alcohol rehabilitation, with methods where no health codes, city permits, or professional licenses are needed.
The standard 90-day program requires living in a locked-down and guarded location where you bathe in a child-size plastic swimming pool, sleep on the floor with unwashed blankets, and eat three hot meals a day at scheduled times prepared with electric stoves; all for free, courtesy of patients who have completed the program and have chosen to support it through membership fees, continued participation, and belief that it works.
It’s the Mexican way of doing rehab in LA that follows the examples of the anexos, meaning rehab centers, in Mexico, where patients learn sobriety “a huevo,” meaning “you have no choice.”
The ‘anexos’ have a history of tying patients down, handling them roughly, verbally giving them brutal confrontations, and using other forms of punishment to teach discipline, gratitude, and faith. It’s a place where machismo and spirituality collide. Though they are not Alcoholics Anonymous affiliated facilities, the program is loosely based on the traditional AA and NA programs.
In Hacienda Heights, nobody has been tied up in the holding room that they call Colchones for several months, but at least five have escaped or attempted to escape. In June of 2013, Maria escaped while shouting that she was pregnant as she struggled out of a guard’s grip and ran out of the front door. Later that summer, Rogelio escaped by jumping over the back fence and Moises, a skinny 60-year-old man, attempted to escape while an epileptic young man was having a seizure. Richard, a guard half his age and twice his size, seized him and roughly pushed him into Colchones.
Colchones is the size of a large handicap bathroom stall. The smell hits you with the stench of every human odor cooked into the carpet as soon as you walk by it. Male or female patients can be found there at any given time, sitting or laying on the floor, conscious or passed out.
To calm their shakes, alcoholics are given generous shots of cheap vodka mixed with tea. Everyone else is given Gatorade and homemade chicken soup. A drinker like Efrain spent several days in there, asking for shots, until he was cut off and left to detox by vomitting for two days.
Crystal meth addicts suffer their mental withdrawals. Because he was coming off of crystal meth, Carlos warned the guards that he was an insomniac who suffered from claustrophobia. Sonia, also a meth addict, remembers becoming panicked and imagining bugs crawling on her. To prevent physical attacks and hallucinations, alcoholics are not allowed water, coffee, or cigarettes for 72 hours. All new patients are watched carefully and their diets are regulated.
Once let out of Colchones, the men must get their heads buzzed with the #2 guard on electric hair clippers. At first, no patient may wear shoes, jewelry, or belts. For the first 30 days, patients are completely cut off from the outside world. No one is allowed phone calls, visitors, or access to their belongings. There is no TV, internet access, or newspapers in any of the anexos. If they have a street view, it is completely covered up or blocked.
Patients, referred to as anexados, must sleep on the floor in the same room where meetings are held, and get up at 6am every morning. From 7am to 12 midnight, they follow a strict schedule of 11 hours of meetings with breaks for meals and some regulated free time. They must sit on hard metal folding chairs during the meetings, and ask to get up, ask for any coffee or water, and only speak when allowed to speak.
If they break the rules, they’re punished by having to stand in place for two or more hours. More severe disobedience gets them literally pushed or thrown into Colchones, or sent to a tougher anexo where the punishments are even more severe. When Chris arrived from another anexo nearer to downtown, he complained of soreness around his chest and his back where he was beat by bigger guys who he claimed knew how to hit him without leaving any bruises.
The members who pay for and govern the anexos decide on punishments and everyday operations. They attend a weekly Monday night meeting where budgets, operations, and issues are worked out. At these meetings they also govern and punish each other if they break the rules.
To the anexados, the members are known as padrinos, and serve the same way 12-step program sponsors do. They are personal program guides. They have undergone the physical metal chairs, rules, roaches and the mental process of learning discipline, self-reflection, and conscious decision making.
Though the anexados are required to pay attention during the meetings, the padrinos are not. They are usually seen on their cell phones or chatting with each other. They demonstrate discipline by fulfilling obligations and generosity by bringing food and supplies, but there is rarely any guidance or much of a spiritual or even a friendly connection with anexados. There is more of a feeling that they are in one place, and the anexados are in another.
They do teach the anexados to stand up in front of everyone and talk about their problems, mistakes, feelings, and their desire to be better people. A family man like Ricardo talks about messing up his family and his home, Pancho talks much about living on the streets under a bridge. Alma and Pablo often recount how they were tricked into coming and staying in the anexo. But the point they make, is that they stayed, and they all appreciate how much it helped them to live a better life.
During their own meetings, most of the new patients don’t know what to do or say, so they just sit there quietly, or fidget like school kids. It only takes about a week before they begin spilling their own stories, following the examples of the padrinos and the anexados with more time in the program. They’re locked in, so sobriety is learned “a huevo,” but the unburdening of their problems and heavy feelings is often volunteered. Even the most closed minded can’t help to at least be exposed to the scenes and the ideas.
Their personal memories begin to resurface. When Cecilia talks about the guilt she feels over being a bad mother, it’s hard for her to hold back her tears. When Richard talks about punching his pregnant fiancé in the stomach, and when a very young Gary talks about mixing up things he didn’t even recognize to shoot up while living on the streets, the honesty that comes out of their mouths as they struggle through nervous stutters stings everyone into silence.
To most, there’s no greater confrontation than having to serve as guards to newly admitted patients in Colchones. When the tables turn on them, they’re faced to deal with belligerent drunks like Roberto who swung at his guard and got seizures; or crystal meth addicts like Jerry who escaped by threatening his guard with a kitchen knife.
New anexados often get scared of the newer patients who are freshly let out of Colchones, like Jessica who began to accuse everyone of raping her and Roberto who had a seizure in the main room right after dinner. They begin to appreciate some of the rules for the sake of a more livable place. Sometimes they become friends, and sometimes they turn on each other, but after hearing themselves talk about the way they had to live just to get high or drunk, they appreciate the little they have and begin to consider a more peaceful and meaningful life.
Obedience for 90 days and sometimes severe punishments become ordinary. This is what it takes to begin to have hope for the hundreds of brand new crystal meth addicts that are becoming too common among Latinos in LA today.
Chris is a 16-year-old crystal meth addict and he’s in his third 90-day anexo. He’s taken beatings and punishments and it’s still not enough. He talks about being interested in making movies. Having been through it all, he still sits on a metal chair today, before he’s even gotten the chance to legally attend an R-rated Hollywood premiere.