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Detox on $72 a Day : Treatment: Alcoholics from three counties go to an Oxnard center to get acupuncture, counseling and a first step to recovery when they can't afford other care.

July 26, 1990|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Marilyn had binged before, but not like this. By the time this run of drinking was over, a month was gone. Her green Toyota was bathed in dust, the interior a jumble of pillows, cans, curlers and the uncomfortable odors that accumulate when you start living out of your back seat.

The car sat in the dirt outside the government-supported Primary Purpose detoxification house in Oxnard. Marilyn sat inside the detox, 52 years old, alcoholic as they come, feeling the way her car looked.

"Vodka," wrote the worker on her intake form at 12:30 p.m. A quart daily. Assigned to Bed 1.

Wayne, a big man with only a duffel bag and recollections of schnapps, King Cobra and the Wagon Wheel Motor Inn, arrived three hours after Marilyn on the same Sunday afternoon. He was 44, subdued when sober, five days out of the County Jail. Bed 8, in the men's bunk room.

The detox house is on West 5th Street, a few blocks from Oxnard High School. It has six bunks for men and four for women and costs $216 for three days, $360 for five. It is not fancy. But when you're someone like Marilyn or Wayne and you want help sobering up from drink or drugs, you don't have insurance or savings to pay the $500 a day that many private medical clinics charge.

You could try the Ventura County Medical Center, but unless you need emergency medical care, they'll send you here. The Primary Purpose detox is the only place of its kind in the area. From Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, they come to this detox.

"I could have sobered up at home," said Marilyn, when she was cleaned up and the shaking had subsided some. "But that wouldn't have done any good. I need counseling and A.A. That's the problem--I don't keep up with A.A," she said of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Wayne, once his head was clearer, put it another way.

"I've tried counseling. I've tried medication. I've tried religion. . . . I've tried changing drinks. I've tried controlled drinking. And none of it works," he said. "I need to do what I'm told this time."

Detox is simple but not easy. You stay three to five days. Wake-up is at 5:30. Bed-making. Morning acupuncture. Counseling and Alcoholics Anonymous. Herbal tea. Evening acupuncture. At 11 every night, lights out.

And so Marilyn and Wayne, strangers in a house on West 5th Street, set out to dry out.

Monday morning, early. Marilyn is up but shaky and not at all ready for breakfast. The plums in the kitchen, the Nilla Wafers and grapefruit juice, the unopened box of oat bran. . . . She steers clear and finds a seat on the couch in the living room.

There's a newspaper, but she can't read properly because she's lost her glasses. She'll have to call her brother. Until then, she sits.

Next door, in the office of detox coordinator Cathy Mullins, the woman from Bed 3 is checking out to go home, against advice.

"I know I'm not going to drink," the woman said.

"They con themselves," Mullins said after the woman had gone. "It's so sad because I get calls from the coroner. . . . They say, 'Cathy, tell me the next of kin.' "

Six of the 10 beds are full, with two more clients, heroin addicts whose parole officers have referred them, on the way. There's sometimes a waiting list, but it never seems to get longer than about five people. Instead, Mullins said, the callers just go back to drinking or shooting or snorting or, as is usually the case, some combination of those.

Wayne is next in the office, explaining for the files how he landed in detox. The story comes out in a flat, steady voice.

He is a career drinker, raised by an abusive mother and a Washington state orphanage, further trained in the military. He was living in Ojai with his girlfriend when he got drunk, stayed drunk a while and got thrown in jail. He got out on the Fourth of July and got drunk again for four days.

"I hit her about two weeks ago," Wayne said, explaining the jail time. "I either slapped her or punched her in the forehead and one of the neighbors called the police.

"It's always been the same with me," he said later. "If I wasn't drinking, I was a pretty good human being."

Wayne rises quietly and shuffles into the living room to wait for the 8:30 acupuncture session. Five tiny needles in each ear for 45 minutes. They say it eases anxiety. Wayne is ready for that.

They meet their housemates on the porch, where everyone smokes.

Marilyn sits there with a red coffee can for the ashes. Wayne watches the traffic whiz by. Near him, in a cloud of Bulgarian cigarette smoke, sits the man from Bed 10 with a book.

The man is a vodka drinker, 33, less than a year out of Bulgaria. His book is from there, and looks like a tractor manual or a government document. It is not. It is a translation of Dashiell Hammett's "Maltese Falcon." Hammett is very popular with the readers at home.

"But the top in Bulgaria," said the man from Bed 10, "is Raymond Chandler."

It's Monday afternoon now, and the way Wayne sees it, circumstances are nudging him toward sobriety.

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