White Darkness

A short high turns into a lasting low once the colors fade.

Written by Joey Finiguerra

Photos by Yunuen Bonaparte

It is February 14, 2013.

Jim Morrison’s voice thunders throughout a small dorm room at Chico State University, as freshman Drew Chaffee drops acid. This is another typical Friday for the ratty, long-haired 19-year-old. A scene out of the ‘60s: The Doors’ self-titled album on the record player, psychedelic writing sessions and heavy drug use. Preferably hallucinogens. The world is altered on these drugs; a fitting vibe for an aspiring rockstar from Southern California.


Drew’s passion for music and creativity, which once led him to play piano in a local church, now fuels his drug addiction. The drugs started out as a new and innovative way to experience songwriting and music. After four years of experimenting with drugs running the gamut from cocaine to heroin, Drew has damaged his brain and lost sight of his music career. His purpose is quickly fading behind the distorted perception of life that the drugs have created. And this hit of acid may cause Drew to lose sight of his purpose forever.

February 21.

The prior weekend is now a dim memory of mind-bending, multicolored madness: A hit of acid. A few mushrooms. Repeat. A hit of acid. A few mushrooms. Repeat. The cycle is powerful. The acid and mushrooms gave Drew the ability to use any color he wanted to decorate a blank canvas. He would paint beautiful portraits on his wall—colorful masterpieces that came to life. He would paint and paint until realizing that all the walls around him were white. Nothing had been accomplished. No masterpiece had been painted. The entire week is lost. Drew sits alone on a small, unmade bed in his cluttered dorm room staring at a white wall. All the color is gone.


The sun glistens outside, but the cheap, plastic blinds cover the window and darkness fills the room like a dungeon. Drew hasn’t attended class all week. HeI think I'm going insane. So what if I'm insane? You all with your cars and your jobs. Wait. Just wait. hasn’t left the room. No drug has entered his body since the previous weekend, but the damage is done. Drew’s brain has been pushed to its breaking point, too far from reality to come back. Clutching the fading hint of sanity he has left, Drew converses with worried friends who come to visit.


It is late in the afternoon. They no longer decide on band names or share song ideas. They do not pass a joint around the circle and exchange squinty-eyed laughs. Drew discusses the end of the world with them and how it is approaching quickly. He quietly mumbles Biblical thoughts that circle his scattered skull. Drew’s brain is frying. His stone-like eyes stay fixed on the white wall in front of him. A gold journal sits open on the desk. Personal thoughts and ideas inspired by Charles Bukowski and Allen Ginsberg fill pages. Drew loves Bukowski.


On one page he writes, “I think I bit from the tree. The tree God was talking about. I bit and now I’m fucked. So why not be fucked! I think I’m going insane. So what if I’m insane? You all with your cars and your jobs. Wait. Just wait. When I’m on top of the stage and on top of all my shit, that is when all this greatness will come out. I promise.”


The conversations continue in the congested room that has sheltered Drew all week. After all of this “Jesus talk,” the friends propose a challenge to Drew. “If you love Jesus so much, why don’t you go tell everybody about him?” The question relights a fire in Drew.


Pacing the room, Drew decides his calling in life is to preach to other people about Jesus. He can't continue living a life devoid of purpose, being shackled by the chains of drugs, fear, loneliness and a false reality. God is opening up a new door and he must make a decision.


“Alright, the world needs to hear about the love of Jesus and I’m going to tell them,” Drew shouts as he swings the door of his room open and enters the dorm hallway. Right. Left. Right. Left. Right. Left. These are the first strides he has taken outside of the room in a week. No more white walls.


His shouts echo throughout the length of the narrow row of student apartments. “Come and hear about Jesus! Our savior is coming back! Everybody needs to hear this!” Dorm doors decorated with pictures of friends and posters creak open to see what is going on. Drew continues preaching. He navigates down the hall sharing his message of hope to a gathering crowd of curious students. Now he has everybody’s attention. But there is one problem. Drew is naked.


Treating the coed hallway like a men’s locker room, Drew continues his crazed message without clothes. The laughter turns to fear once the students on his floor I need to run away. These people think I'm Crazy, but they're the ones that are insane.realize that Drew is not just stumbling around drunk. He is losing his mind.


After 20 minutes of fulfilling the calling to tell the world about Jesus, two pairs of  hands grip tightly onto Drew’s thin, drug-induced body. His opportunity to spread the message he so recently became passionate about is stripped away. Drew is arrested by two police officers and taken to Enloe Hospital in Chico. The drugs are still eating away at Drew’s brain. He is incoherent on the short ride to the hospital.


Unable to speak, Drew ponders the decision he needs to make. Once we get to the hospital, I am going to break free. I need to run away. These people think I’m crazy, but they’re the ones who are insane. The car slowly approaches the white, five-story building that is layered with windows. There has to be a way out. The police officers loosely grip onto Drew again to bring him to his feet and a window of opportunity opens. Drew shakes free and bolts down the street.

I am out of here. There is no way I’m going inside that hospital. I don’t need to be hospitalized, Drew thinks as he rushes through the tree-lined street that leads down to the main road from the hospital. Right. Left. Right. Stop.


Drew is hunted down again. The hands that once loosely held his weak arms now clutch on with force. There is an urgency in the officers’ actions. They are starting to see what the students living in his dorm saw in the hallway. This isn't a college student who had too much to drink. This isn't a frustrated teen who wants to rebel against the cops for the fun of it. This is a crazy person. Drew is detained  again and put back inside the police unit. He does not have the luxury of heading back up the tree-lined road to the Enloe entrance. He is transported to Heritage Oaks, an acute psychiatric hospital 90 miles away, in Sacramento. Drew is placed under a 5150. Section 5150 is a section of the California Welfare and Institutions code that authorizes a police officer or clinician to involuntarily confine a person suspected to have a mental disorder that makes him or her a danger to themself, or to others. Drew is showing all of these signs.


Mentally, he is going dark. His mind wanders on the long drive to Sacramento. Thoughts and visions are blurred as Drew pulls up to a smaller red-bricked building with fewer windows. A tug out of the still unfamiliar vehicle gets him onto his feet and into a white room inside. The color is gone.


This time, there is no running. A struggle with two larger males holding him ends abruptly. Thick leather straps have replaced their hands, pressing down on Drew’s body and hugging him to the stiff bed below. A needle forces a liquid sedative into his bloodstream. And then, like an engine shutting down on a vehicle, the liquid takes effect. White walls surround him. His eyes close. Darkness. Hours later, his eyes open again, only to view the same white walls on all four sides. Now the white carries a certain emptiness. There is a darkness in the white. The process continues into the night.

February 22.

It is a new day. The sun peeks out, but no light shines into the white room inside Heritage Oaks. There are no windows. Time does not seem to exist here and the days feel like eternity. Drew does not speak and, when he does, nonsense flows from his dry lips. The words blend with the banging of a grown man’s head against a nearby wall. People do that in here. Hitting your head against a wall starts toThe world is meant to be seen outside of those white walls sound like a good idea after a while. Nurses enter to check momentarily on Drew. Nurses are the enemy. Their faces become dark and demonic when they enter the room to check in on him.


These smiles they give to families in the lobby are all a mask. They are hiding what I am seeing all day ... darkness, Drew thinks.


The day continues with more visits from the dark-faced figures in white coats. Drew’s brain is still not helping him. The white walls swallow so much, and that damn head banging against the wall continues. “Stop!” Drew screams.

February 23.

The sun arrives at the same time it did the day before. Drew is out on the patio, but still inside the walls of Heritage Oaks. Hope lies out here on the concrete bench that overlooks the miniature garden. It is a brighter day. The world is meant to be seen outside of those white walls, Drew ponders.


Drew’s father stops by with a Charles Bukowski book and an issue of Guitar Magazine featuring Stevie Ray Vaughan on the cover. Drew looks them over front to back. It is therapeutic. These items bring comfort. A sense of normalcy comes over Drew—foreign in Heritage Oaks. The air outside is freeing, but inside Drew is still trapped. Each and every inhale counts in the small, green walking area.


He blankly stares at the white walls in his room. It is the size of an office cubicle with a firm bed in the corner. The pillows are like rocks. Sleep is a faded memory along with life outside Heritage Oaks. The white walls stare blankly back and provoke Drew to stay. It starts to make sense for him to stay.


“I hope I hold onto my insanity as long as I can. There is beauty in insanity. Because everyone else only thinks they’re nuts,” he writes. Drew’s words give life to the idea of staying in a place like this. The world outside is such a broken place, why not stay broken inside of Heritage Oaks? Thoughts like these circle for hours. The light from the patio dims and Drew thinks as he falls asleep, It’s official. I am staying in here. I am a part of this place.

February 24.

Evaluation day. Drew must now decide between freedom or mental prison. The recipient of a 5150 is required to spend three days in a mental institution and then submit to a physician’s evaluation before release. Complying with the doctors on evaluation day means a release to his family. Choosing insanity means another evaluation and possible re-entry into the confines of the white walls.


The ultimate decision is up to the doctors. If the team of physicians feels he is safe to return into the public, he will be cleared. They talk with him for over an hour and analyze everything he says. Notes are taken. His every action is closely observed. His responses are closely followed. Drew starts to think about his life outside of the white walls.


Visions of his life before drugs drown out the questioning of the doctors. He fantasizes about playing music, the dream he once had that the drugs stripped away. Nightmares of dark figures entering his cold room make Drew want to escape. If I want to get out of here. I have to tell these doctors what they want to hear, Drew thinks. He passes. Drew can go home to his family.


The doctors diagnose Drew with a drug-induced psychosis. They prescribe him Klonopin, a sedative that decreases symptoms of paranoia, aggression and irritability. Drew has escaped Heritage Oaks, but a piece of him is gone. The drugs have taken Drew to the darkest pit in his life. He must climb out of the darkness that the white walls created.

March 1.

The process is slow. Doctors say that Drew may not be able to work or go to school again. His speech has slowed and is almost nonexistent. He refuses to take his medication because he has made a promise to God, but decides he must to show the doctors he is taking the proper steps to recover.


Today is Drew’s first day at Pacific Hills, a rehab center in San Clemente, California. He shares his story in a small circle of addicts. They discuss their want Being sober allows me to enjoy this beautiful life without any alterationsand need for drugs and their fight to resist the urge to use. Drew is past that. He knows that, after escaping Heritage Oaks, he has a greater purpose in life. The cleansing process begins. Drew changes his phone number and erases all connections with people back at Chico State. New hobbies must be picked up to pass the time—reading books and the Bible, rebuilding the relationship with his parents and starting new, healthy relationships.


It is late April. Starting over continues at the house where Drew began his life. He develops a new relationship with a former high school friend and fellow musician, Jake Berry. Jake and Drew spend the next few months playing guitar together.


Playing music had become something Drew never wanted to do again. His passion had faded. But slowly, making music becomes therapy for the once aspiring rockstar. Relearning simple chords on his acoustic guitar never felt so freeing. Jake shares the same dream Drew once had—to play music in a band. Conversations start of writing original songs and making an album. A new, black leather journal rests on top of Drew’s desk at home. The pages are filled with new thoughts and song ideas. One reads, “I still feel like I’m a little nuts. But I understand life more than ever. There’s more to it than just doing drugs, not participating in society and creating my own alternate universe. Being sober allows me to enjoy this beautiful life without any alterations.”

September 19.

A small parking lot in Costa Mesa is packed with hundreds of friends, family and fans who have come to see Roah Summit. The local band is playing their album release show tonight. Drew Chaffee, the band’s lead guitarist, stands onstage beside his best friend and lead singer, Jake Berry. It is dark. The crowd surrounds the small stage awaiting the sounds of “Deep Bloom,” a five-song album the band has been working on for the past five months. Jake and Drew’s dream album. Drew takes one last sip from his green, glass Pellegrino bottle. White lights flash on the stage behind Drew. They light the face of the crowd. No longer surrounded by the white walls, Drew smiles and strikes the first chord on his white Fender.