Thursday, March 18, 2010

A decent carnival trick.

Usually when the volunteers come in, we have a bon fire at some point. This is just a semi-social event where we can relax with them and they can have what they paid for – the chance to mingle with real life addicts.

These volunteers come from all over the country – this time of year they are on spring break – and usually college groups that come in instead of partying for the whole week. They opt for constructive time, they call this alternative break. Its huge on campuses these days apparently.

I generally avoid these volunteers and any chance to interact with them. There is something about being on display that I find unnerving, like a zoo animal, or a carnival attraction. ‘Look kids, he drank himself into rehab, see the meth head try to say ‘she sells sea shells by the seashore’ with no front teeth, come one come all.’

Last night, however, I finished working out and was walking back to the dorm and saw there was a bon fire going on. Brian was going to give a testimony – which is when we are really on display. It’s sort of the story of our lives, a chronicle of how we got to the ranch, the things in our life that led us to this point. I’d imagine this is the main attraction of the week – the chance to hear an addict speak.

Brian has given countless testimonies, he goes to the schools with me and so his story is one I have heard many times. I can almost recite it verbatim. But, he is my friend and moral support is about the only thing I can offer people on the farm many times, and the support of a friendly face in the crowd goes a long way when you have to map out all your transgressions to a bunch of rich college students who you don’t know.

He began his talk as he usually does. He detailed the first time he got high at a Pearl Jam concert. He always gets an ‘ahhh’ when he tells that he lost his last baby tooth when he did LSD the second time. He started young.

He tells of how he chopped off his thumb the time he used the wood cutter and his parents rushed him to the hospital, thumb in hand. He was given a choice, he could be wrapped up and sent home, or they could get a micro surgeon to sew the thumb back on but he would have to stay there the whole week. He wanted to go home, he needed his drugs.

Eventually he was convinced to stay and his thumb is now back on his hand, but when he tells the story, he shows the deformed thumb and people gasp at the grip of addiction.

Brian is someone who is always a source of sunshine in the darkest of times. I have been very close to him for almost a year, we work together, our programs are parallel in time, we hang out a lot outside of the ranch. He has an amazing ability to keep me in a pleasant mood. I don’t know if I would have managed this without this friendship with the unshakable, unrattled, always in good humor, Brian.

Maybe it was the darkness, maybe it was the fire, maybe it was the fact that Brian is realizing that his time on the ranch is nearly over and real life is about to begin, but last night, he strayed from his usual script.

He spoke about his family, about the bridges that he burned, about the money he stole, about the pain he caused. He told how he knew those bridges would take years to rebuild. He said he had only time to give these days, and that he was committed to having his family back. He spoke about his friend who sent him a bus ticket because Brian’s life was spinning out of control, the friend wanted to save his life. He began to speak in a tone that I hardly recognized, the voice of someone I had never heard; the voice of someone who was crying.

He looked at the ground and gazed into the fire as he recalled losing all the people in his life who meant something to him, losing the job opportunity of a life time on a cruise ship, he spoke eloquently about the hardship of having to maintain an addiction by stealing copper wire and scrapping metal. He spoke about how people used him for a place to stay, and how he used them for the money to get high. These people he considered friends at the time. He tried to gain some composure and he muttered something that no one except me probably even heard because I was sitting next to him.

Disguised deep in the muffled mutterings of someone who had nothing left but the pathetic story he could share at a volunteer bon fire, he said, ‘I was so sick of myself.’ When he said this, I couldn’t believe it. Those words, the way he said it, it was how I felt before I came here. Doing drugs or getting drunk always looks like fun from the outside, but inside, its torture being in all that. And the disappointments we cause other people are nothing compared to the disappointment we feel about ourselves. We are addicts, not sociopaths, and guilt is the one thing that never leaves us. Family, friends, opportunities, happiness, our teeth, health, our appearance, even our very lives; all these things leave. Guilt and shame, well, they are loyal companions.

He said he now lives with an attitude of gratitude, which explains why he is always in an inappropriately good mood all the time. He cried more but explained that these were tears of joy. He detailed how he is building his life on a foundation of something he never had before, this new life, it’s built on self-respect.

And while he has a long way to go in repairing the damage he’s caused, the best he can hope for is that his life may appear like his thumb – deformed from the original design, but it works, and he’s still got it.

I hugged him, which is strange because I am not a touchy person. He rolled his chin into my neck, cried a little more and told me that he is thankful to have real friends. I think he did really good.

One of the volunteers decided to speak. He told us that his father was an alcoholic. He said that he was about 13 before he even realized that something was wrong with his dad. He didn’t know anything but a life with a drunk or high dad. Finally, when he was a teenager, he realized that his dad was NOT normal. That getting high, getting drunk, with small children in the house was not how a father was supposed to act. He began to resent his father, and his father’s drinking.

Eventually, as happens with chronic drinkers, the addiction begins to kill you. His father had developed cirrhosis of the liver. This is a disease that deforms its victims. There is generally a large, over-sized protruding belly that fills with poisonous fluids, and eventually, the liver is functionless and death is pretty swift.

This volunteer spoke of the resentment of losing his father the week before his graduation and how he has harbored this for a few years. He spoke about how he has always been angry at his father for the inability to control this. He spoke about the embarrassment and abuse he suffered at the hands of his father. He spoke about how he had planned on living his entire life with that grudge that could hardly be considered frivolous. I mean, c’mon, this was his dad, he should have known better.

So the past several years have passed and he decided to try this alternative spring break. Mostly he wanted to help people directly, working on the ranch, farm work, Christian work, in the soil. But he was also secretly a little curious about what rehab might have entailed, what kind of help was available, or what might have been done to prevent his father’s death.

He has guilt too, but he won’t admit it. I saw it, though. The mere act of trying to decode his father’s behavior and reconcile his resentment was a thinly veiled attempt at getting rid of the guilt he had for hating someone he never wanted to hate. A son should never have to hate his father.

I think part of him wanted to believe that help was unavailable for his father, though, and he would determine this with this visit. Rehab wasn’t for everyone, not everyone could kick it. Rehab was the last house on the block for many guys, and his dad died before it ever got that bad. Then he could blame the death on timing, bad genetics, something else.

And then he heard Brian speak and something else happened, instead. For the first time ever, he got a glimpse of the inside of the heart of an addict. It’s unthinkable, it destroys us to know we are monsters, as Brian said, we get so sick of ourselves, and unlike family or friends or opportunities, we can’t leave, we are stuck, forever, with who we are.

The volunteer said that dying from alcoholism does no good to understanding what it does to people, this leaves a wake of so many more questions. He had lived trying to understand it from the perspective of someone left behind by a mysterious and selfish death. Living in alcoholism obviously does no good. Recovering from it, and surviving it, and then sharing it, well, people who are victims of the terror caused by the monster deserve to know what the hell happened. There is a certain justice that is awarded to someone who lives with an alcoholic and then buries one, when they are allowed again to love the person they were forced to hate.

I don’t know for sure, but I think the volunteer left his guilt at that bonfire. I don’t know for sure, but I think Brian did too. I don’t know for sure, but I may talk to the next set of volunteers. Perhaps we are an attraction, but making some guilt disappear is a carnival trick I don’t mind repeating.

Have a good week all

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  1. I have never read your blog without crying at the end and this week was no exception. I read it sometimes hoping to find something to help me forgive my dad for not being there for me and this week you wrote it to me. For the first night in years I am going to be able to sleep peacefulish because I think I can finally forgive him.

  2. Dear Roman,
    I did not discover your blog until about a month ago. Once I did I consumed as much of the archives as I could get through in one sitting. Didn't get much work done that day. You are an awesome writer, role model and friend to many people. I know that you have been a great friend and influence for my son. Reading last weeks blog (dangling carrot) helped me realize what he is going through right now. The big prize is in reach but just too far to touch. His frustration and shortness made sense. You guys have all come so far and have a wonderful life ahead of you. Thank you for being there for so many in need including my son. Yours truly, Lane's MOM