Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Maybe a chicken isn't so dumb....

When I first got to the ranch, my dorm was garden level – so when I looked out the window, I was ground level. While this had its advantages – it was always cool in the daytime and warm at night – and I could always see people as they walked across the campus (yes, I am a lil bit nosey), there were also some definite disadvantages.

One such disadvantage is that the ground is usually not a pleasant place you want your face while on a ranch – it doesn’t smell very good. Another disadvantage was a peculiar one. The ranch has a lot of free range hens that wander the grounds. Chickens are by far the stupidest animals on the planet. And several weeks after I arrived, one such hen parked herself outside my bedroom window and never left. That damn hen even laid eggs there! Now the novelty of having a clucking hen outside the window is cool for the first day or two it happens, but it quickly wears off. The clucking, the cooing, the smell, we all thought she was just lost and couldn’t find her way back to the chicken coop.

This sounds ludicrous but, as I said, a chicken is really stupid.

For a while, the hen was a bit of a pet to the guys in the dorm. I think I even blogged about her once– can’t remember. But the guys would feed her and she would eat – and hell, maybe she wasn’t such a dumb bird in that she always got some good food and lots of good company – far above what the other hens got.

One day, she died. I looked out my window and there was a dead hen laying there. I asked around and we came to the conclusion that the hen had simply given up. She was old and it’s a strange thing in the animal world that an animal knows when they’re giving up and they leave the group, go off on their own and they die. Our best hope is that they don’t suffer – and this hen didn’t suffer one bit, in fact she was indulged. But she died.

One of my roommates since the day I got here, JT, left this weekend. He was 71 years old. He and I have a great friendship – he has lived a really amazing and colorful life. In the 60’s he owned a night club in Compton where he had pole dancing women that he ‘rented’ out for special occasions. In the 80’s he owned a liquor store that was one of the few businesses that survived the LA riots after the Rodney king verdict. He had two wives, his brother wasn’t mafia, but he ‘knew people’ – He was also one of the few Catholics on the ranch so we tended to stick together.
He also told me one time that I was the first friend he had in about 25 years. I thought this was really amazing. But he was old, he was tired, and alcohol had been a huge part of his life for so long it seemed kind of stupid to finish the program now.

JT was kicked out of his house by his wife after decades of marriage and thats why he came to the ranch. A few years ago, she suffered the loss of her daughter to cancer, and now her son is afflicted with liver cancer and dying, and the thought of watching JT slowly kill himself with alcohol was too much so she told him to leave. He went to the ranch. He was great at the program. His job on the ranch was about 1 mile from the dorms so he would ride his bike to work each day and I would often see him joyously pedaling down the roads of the ranch, kind of lost in thought – but he always had a smile.

A couple weeks ago JT got sick and at this point he decided that he really didn’t need or want to be at the ranch. He certainly wasn’t going to get a degree through the education program, he didn’t need to find a job to save money – he had social security and pension and investment income. He didn’t need the car. So he called up his wife and told her to rent him a small apartment (she wouldn’t take him back in the home) and decided to leave.

I helped him move. As he packed we talked and he told me that he was pretty much ready to die, that he felt at peace and that he had decided that he didn’t have anything left to do here in the world, he was ready to go.

On the ranch, we have something called ‘planned departure’ – its sort of a way to gracefully step out of the program before graduation, but leaves opportunity to still use some ranch resources in case you needed it. It also keeps us from talking about you behind your back once you’re gone. We dissect each person who leaves the ranch because of relapse in our addictions classes because that’s the most telling evidence of relapse scenarios – often we trace a relapser’s last few weeks so we can see the behaviors that led to the relapse – it’s a macabre way of learning but it works. We knew these guys, they were our friends and our roommates. Again, like the chickens – when one of them dies or is injured, the others circle around it and peck it apart. Its disgusting to watch but it could be why the dying hens try to leave when they get sick so they can die in peace and not get pecked to death – I dunno. Maybe they aren't as dumb as I imagined.

JT’s wife, Nancy, used to speak to me often. He had told her about me and she was curious about me. I am also about the same age as her son who is dying, and she encourages me often. She emails and asks how I am and sends me little prayers to say. My sobriety is somehow important to her. Maybe its also because I am pretty cool to her husband. I think she was relieved he had someone who considered him a friend. I’ve realized that even if you can’t live with an alcoholic, if you love one, you still don’t want to think of them suffering alone because of their sickness.

When Nancy picked him up, I met her at the door. She decided that he needed to have his stuff waiting at the door and she gave him about one hour to pack. At first this seemed like a bit impatient, but I think its because she’s probably understanding what is going on…. And maybe by this point in the blog, you are too. Sometimes, facing the inevitable and getting it out of the way right away seems like the best way to deal with something. I think her attitude might have been, 'C'mon, JT, lets just do this and get it over with....' Hard to say - a lot of unspoken communication must happen between people after 40 years of marriage.

You know, I am pretty glad it was me that helped him move. I was able to briefly witness the devastation that a lifetime of alcohol abuse leaves on the people you love. You see, Nancy was pretty mad at him, years of resentment had built up. Her life wasn’t supposed to happen like this – this isn’t how she planned to spend her last few years. And it was JT’s fault.

When he was saying good bye, she gave me a hug. She asked if she could occasionally check in on me and I agreed. I told her ‘Take care of my buddy, he means a lot to me,’ and she looked at me and said, ‘He won’t take care of himself, and you should say good bye to him.’ At that moment, our eyes locked and I could see the decades of pain welling up in the tears that she tried not to shed. I could see that she knew this time, JT was through, he was done - he had a planned departure in life too. He was going to find his quiet corner and simply retire. As they drove away, I saw him open the glove compartment and pull out a bottle of scotch.

She had to have provided it to him, but I think after so long, she was exhausted, and this is what he wanted. But the look she gave me haunted me. There is no way I can do justice to what a person looks like when their heart just breaks - the expression can only be slightly described as "crushing," and you are not human if you do not feel for the other person. I felt it and it was really powerful.

The pain of knowing he won't last long, in his apartment, his only company a bottle of scotch; it just seems too unnerving to me. I wept a little bit. Not for JT, but for Nancy. She was taking the old bird away where he would just kind of die – and this was his choice, like that hen who was indulged in her last days, JT, too will be indulged in his.

So the weekend progressed, and I found out that a really dear friend had gotten entirely too drunk and had fallen and woken up in the hospital with a breathing tube. He was unresponsive and in a semi-coma state. I felt helpless about this because I wanted to go rush to his side but couldn’t find transportation. When he was finally able to speak to me, I wanted to lecture him, but decided against it.

I mean, WHO the HELL AM I to lecture someone about drinking too much and worrying everyone. Who the hell am I to tell someone the consequences of drinking that much. I mean, I have’t even been completely sober for 150 full days and I can’t imagine taking hypocrisy to that level. I also know what its like to be on his end of the receiver and a lecture wouldn’t be heard, and frankly, the humiliation is enough.

Not really, but it WILL EVENTUALLY be enough.

So I comforted him, and let him know I cared about him. I do care about him. I felt bad and scared and helpless and it was an UGLY feeling. And now, this will add to a worry I feel each time he goes out again. In a way, its cosmically awesome. I am beginning to feel what its like to care for someone who may be in dangerous situations and he is racking up the experiences which every alcoholic MUST have in order to decide to quit. Rarely does anyone decide, “Hey, I’ve had absolutely NO bad experiences drinking, and absolutely NOTHING humiliating or dangerous has ever happened to me, but I’m gonna quit anyway.”

As we were speaking, he was describing what he was feeling and what it was like to be connected to the machines and at one point he casually and almost silently muttered, 'I hate this,' and I was almost relieved that he said that. Thats at least a start and how many times I've said those same words before I decided to stop hurting myself I have no idea.... but for him, this is at least one down.

And these two experiences this weekend kind of really brought home the idea that this isn’t just one person’s disease; that addiction is a family disease, but its inflicted by one person. And, its really not fair. I mean, I’ve commented once before that as an alcoholic, it seems like we’re perfectly content with just hurting ourselves, but its not that cut and dry. We cut a swath of hurt in everyone who has the misfortune of loving us.

And, if you’re struggling with an addiction and you’re reading this and you’re not fully grasping the idea that your problem has painful consequences for other people – often worse for them because they feel helpless and because they aren’t drunk most of the time, so they live it each moment in complete painful understanding of whats happening, you should spend a moment and ASK them, straight up what it does to them. Be prepared, but I bet you, they've been wanting to tell you for a while how you hurt them. If you aren't gonna quit drinking, at least have the decency to let them have a moment to describe to you what it does - this is merciful.

So, that was my weekend. I’ve got some funny stories I’ll share next time – I am going on weekend pass again this weekend to spend time with my family and be able to blog then. In the scheme of things, I’m pretty glad that JT left BEFORE I went home and I had to witness Nancy’s heart break right in front of my eyes and I’m pretty glad that my friend was hospitalized BEFORE I went home because I can appreciate a little bit more the people who I've made worry. Its so interesting how life works out like that.

But I have to wonder what will become of JT, and although he may look like the bad guy or the insensitive one in this scenario, he, too is a victim. He will carry his addiction to his owned planned death like the scotch bottle hidden in his glove compartment - and I see now that for some, the only way to escape it is death, and can you imagine the lonely and hopeless world they live in up to that point?

Peace all. I mean it.

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