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Going to the Movies Alone

by Forrest Spinney


At the easternmost edge of Brattleboro, Vermont, right where it seems the entire town just falls into the West River and emerges as New Hampshire on the opposite shore, a brick building stands on a sharp cliff’s edge, threatening to drop at any second into the shallow water below. This is the headquarter facility of Brattleboro Retreat, one of the nation’s first private psychiatric hospitals, and, in the spring of 2017, a place where I had felt real inner peace for the first time in years. The story of the two weeks I spent at rehab isn’t a story about addiction, nor is it a story about internal struggle. It is more broadly a story about self-discovery, and, in however small a way, a story about my own transformation, how, at least in part, I became the person I am now.


As a freshman at Keene State College in New Hampshire, back in 2016, I had gotten myself involved in the consumption and sale of a variety of prescription drugs. My roommate, Kevin, who I’d been assigned, had some friends in New York. These friends pressed their own Xanax and had still other friends who I figured were probably working directly under some drug lord, maybe El Chapo, based on what Kevin had told me. Cocaine passed through my dorm room like a breeze through a window. This frequency sometimes scared me. 


And yet there was something I loved about that lifestyle. The highs took me away from the pains and obligations of ordinary existence, and my innate cravings for spontaneity and adventure seemed always to be satisfied. Habits, I would learn in time, that would not turn out in my favor. After several months of binging on Adderall and a slew of harder drugs, I found myself under thorough investigation by the law. The charges would ultimately be expunged, but only after I had spent two weeks in outpatient care, and a single night behind bars in the Cheshire County Department of Corrections. By the time things had settled, I owed more than $4,000 in legal fees, and had missed nearly half a semester of school.


* * *


My parents were a wreck the day they dropped me off in Brattleboro. Well, more my mom than my dad. Tim Spinney often communicated sadness in a more reserved way. When Jacqui Spinney broke down in tears inside the admissions waiting area, her husband stood gazing out a window at the grey, dismal, unoccupied space high above the distant Vermont tree line. This was my father’s usual way, however unusual it may seem to those outside our family, of showing my mother compassion, of sharing her pain. 


My dad is a guidance counselor, and all he’d ever wanted to do was help people. I didn’t want him to think that he’d raised me wrong. He used to keep a little framed quote on his dresser, something about making a difference in a child’s life. This afternoon, in this waiting room, while filling out forms and answering questions about my drug history, I suspected that he felt pretty incapable of making a difference in mine. I still remember the moment just preceding my trial when, sitting in our family’s white Volkswagen Passat outside the courthouse, he had turned to me, straightened my tie, and said in what was almost a whisper, “I hope you know, this is the worst day of my life.”


* * *


If I were to guess, I’d think that being a voluntary outpatient at almost any psychiatric facility must be the least stressful form of rehabilitation treatment there is. At Brattleboro, I was responsible only for being present during conversational group therapy three hours a day, five days a week. It was an experience comparable to kindergarten - there was coloring, therapy dog visits, and mostly just talking in circles. Contributing to the conversation was never mandatory, so most days I just sat and listened, absorbed. Life story after life story after tearful confession after rage fit after life story. For the first forty-eight hours, those sessions were the highlights of my day, I spent the nights locked in my room trying to work things out with a girlfriend who very much wanted to break up with me. On my fifth day in Vermont, she got her way. I didn’t blame her for it then, and I don’t blame her now.


The building that I slept in was on the facility grounds but independent of the Retreat. It gave no view of the river. In the other direction, high dirt mounds sloped up into a small park and obstructed any view into town. It was a tall and lean brick building whose interior faintly resembled that of a cheap motel that had not once been renovated in decades. The grounds manager, an older gentleman named Brian, his face shadowed beneath an Air Force veterans hat, would stand in my doorway, and offer me life advice based on what he had learned over the course of his seventy-plus years on Earth. I was allowed to leave whenever I pleased, but all doors locked at 10 p.m. “Don’t stay out too late,” Brian would remind me. “You’ll end up sleepin’ in the cold.”


One afternoon, about a week into my stay, I wandered into town. I spent hours just walking and walking. A thin banner hung over Main Street, promising passersby that “Hate Does Not Grow Well In Our Rocky Soil.” I remember wondering if that were true. Later that night, I went to see a movie, still alone. Some drama about aliens starring Jake Gyllenhaal. It wasn’t bad. 


The Brattleboro town theater was beautiful, marble arches, polished oak floors. Fewer than ten people in the lobby. The next night, I went again, and then the night after that, and so on. I loved sitting there alone, with my thoughts and a warm bag of popcorn, and every movie I saw was my favorite movie, even when it didn’t have my full attention. It woke me up and put me to sleep at the same time. It was inspiring and healing and relieving. It was everything rehabilitation should be. 


* * *


I still think about that theater and how I felt there, and how my worries slipped away in a small town in Vermont, and how that changed me. During those weeks I started writing again, music and poems and short stories. I taught myself about audio mastering and producing, and even recorded a song in my room. I cried and felt bad and felt free and then felt okay again. I was liberated from what had been a drug-induced apathy, one that I hadn’t been able to recognize before. 


This is a story about dipping into platitudes for meaning: it is how it is (until it isn’t). A toxic time in my life gave root to something better. I had some fun along the way. And that’s the point, isn’t it? 


I had to hit a low to reach a high.


It’s been four years now, and I still think about that theater, a microcosm of the quiet place that I go to in my mind to muffle or make sense of the relentless noise of every day. That’s where I’m safe. Where my love for that former life falls away, vanishes. Where distant Vermont tree lines no longer appear so bleak, so grim. I have not once had a single regret about seeing a movie alone. 


Born in York, Maine, Forrest Spinney is an essayist, literary journalist, and photographer. A media studies, business writing, and humanities scholar at the University of New Hampshire, he also writes poetry as well as fiction. Spinney spends his summers slinging spirits on Martha’s Vineyard and his winters rereading Gogol’s Dead Souls.