Nick Foulkes: Rehab is tough, Robbie, but I still I miss that big Arizona sky

It was hard going, but I had time for a cigar under the night sky. Some see rehab as a career move, a spa break or even a sitcom

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Apparently it is neither the alcohol nor the illegal stuff that has Robbie Williams in its grip these days; instead, it is said to be everyday mood-altering substances, anti-depressants, caffeine and nicotine, allegedly ingested in Old Testament quantities: a fistful of Seroxat and three packs of cigarettes, washed down with three dozen double espressos and 20 Red Bulls.

Last week it all proved too much and he checked into a clinic in Arizona. At first it was reported to be the Meadows. Then it was Cottonwood. They are the Oxbridge or Ivy League of rehabs. If he is being treated at the latter he is in good hands. It will be neither easy nor comfortable, but, in my experience, Cottonwood is effective. Although I stopped drinking 10 years ago, by 2003 my life seemed to be disintegrating alarmingly. I was not enjoying the benefits of a life without alcohol. Instead I shopped a lot and was angry. My relationships with everyone from my family to the traffic warden I tried to strangle, to the good-natured repair guy I tried to take hostage, were deteriorating.

While I still had a family life to salvage and before I got arrested I decided to go to Arizona to get better. Looking back, I can view my five weeks in rehab with affection. I felt safe and, strange to say, I had fun. But when the time came to board the flight, I felt that familiar knot of fear that I remembered from boarding school. I began to envy those people who turn up at a rehab in dramatic fashion, bottle of whisky in one hand, crack pipe in the other, hand-rolled cigarette of dubious Etonian blend smouldering between the lips, nostrils frosted with white dust. But I was flying into the middle of America, sober and scared.

There is a tendency to see rehab as a career move, a spa break or even a situation comedy. At Cottonwood, the experience was starker. The television was turned on for a few hours at the weekend. Mobile phones were confiscated. There were no single rooms, only single-sex dormitories. My first experience was to have my luggage searched by a man in a T-shirt of a howling wolf: he was looking for contraband, and he took away my Solzhenitsyn and Tolstoy novels.

As it was, I didn't miss Aleksandr and Leo. There was no time. The daily regime was unforgiving. Breakfast was from 7am in the canteen. The first meeting of the day - at 8.15am - was a community gathering at which everyone announced who they were, what they were in for, and how they were feeling. You heard announcements such as: "Hi, I'm Nick. I am a depressed alcoholic and rager." They would say they felt anything from happy, hopeful, sad, to anxious. There was a lecture at 9am, two hours of group therapy at 10am, lunch at 12pm, then more therapy and lectures, followed by another confessional session at 5.30pm. Dinner was at the distinctly American time of 5.45pm. Then it was off to another lecture or two until about 9pm, when I just had time for a quick cigar under the impressive Arizona sky. Then I had to knuckle down to my homework.

I understand that Robbie has already been in treatment and therapy, so he will be familiar with the rudiments. It was all much more powerful for me as it was almost totally new. But by the end of my time I did not want to leave, and even now I miss the place, the people, the feeling of safety, and the desert skies. The first few days are tough, but if Robbie sticks with it, I hope he'll benefit as much as I felt I did.

Nick Foulkes's latest book is 'Dancing into Battle'

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