Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Normal treatment.

Springtime is in full swing at the ranch. I spent Sunday sitting around by the horse shoe pits with a bunch of the lower phase guys while they all came out of hibernation for a day-long tournament of horse shoes. Kites were flying, footballs were tossed around, and 36 white legs were trying to bask in the sun.

One of the guys mentioned to me that he feels great to be outdoors doing something, that he feels ‘like normal’.

While I can certainly understand this, I quietly observed these guys as they began to stretch their wings, the wings which had been cocooned within the pod of isolation for so long – it is springtime, it is warm outside, there is nothing else to do on the ranch except have fun.

There is a strict policy on the ranch that says that no resident can ever be alone with a volunteer, at any time. Volunteers come to help out on the ranch all spring and summer – many are church groups looking for a mission, many are college groups who either come to study farming or study rehab. The policy is meant to protect the residents – no one can accuse of us of any impropriety if there are other people around. This policy is very strict – a couple weeks ago a resident faced expulsion because as a runner on the running team, he dashed ahead and one of the volunteers joined him at the finish line, for two miles they ran alone, and this is prohibited.

But there is also another reason that this policy is in place. It’s a really fun time when the volunteers come and work with the guys on the ranch. They work on projects, and there is always someone in the volunteer group that may remind a resident of a family member or friend or someone they once knew – it feels like normal to be part of a group of people that aren’t residents on the farm. It feels good to feel normal again. But it isn’t real.

Your brain can be pretty heartless. One thing that many of these guys don’t understand but eventually must is that they are not yet normal. This situation is not at all normal. I have said it before that living on a rehab ranch for a year is far from normal. And a lazy Sunday afternoon playing horse shoes with fellow residents feels good, but it isn’t normal.

Normal people are out in their real lives having a real relationship with the world. They are not governed by curfews, random UA’s, shuttle passes, addictions classes, dorm chores, work therapy, they just aren’t.

Guys often get so enamored of having volunteers around that there is a marked depression that hits the farm when they leave. The reality of where we are is compounded by the loss that is felt when the volunteers are no longer around and we are required to get back on with why we are here. It is easy to forget that we are at the farm because of an addiction, it is easy to forget that we are, indeed, not yet normal.

Feeling normal is FAR from being normal. It’s a very dangerous situation. This is where guys, at about 6 months, begin to think everything is OK, and they can have just one drink. They can’t. This is when guys think its OK to start having a relationship with someone. They shouldn’t. This is when guys think that its OK to leave the program and get on with it because they have gotten all they need. And they haven’t. Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome is the trick your brain plays on your body to make you think you’re completely OK and you could get a drink.

But we can’t. Not drinking has to be the new normal for us. And it sucks because drinking was so great, such a good normal for so long, it sucks that it can’t be anymore. Only time is going to reinforce the concept that normal for me doesn’t include a bottle of gin.

What we are asked to do in rehab is create a new normal for ourselves, and sometimes it gets so normal that guys go the opposite direction, they never leave. Last week, I moved into the last dorm on the ranch. WOO HOO for me. I have an awesome semi private room and its super comfortable.

This dorm is like none of the other dorms because the other dorms are occupied by guys you came in with, we move through the program in an order, so we always live with the same group of people. This new dorm is the last dorm and since guys can graduate at any time between 13 and 27 months, there are guys from many timelines in this new dorm.

There is a lot of sleeping, a lot of doing nothing, a lot of lethargy and mental atrophy in this new dorm. I was so excited to get here, and now I can’t wait to graduate just to escape it. This is the dorm where ambition goes to die, I believe. And I will not succumb to this.

I have stayed active with my health, running, biking, working and my gaggle of friends. I read, write and stay busy. These are all significant to me because someday, in two months, I will be leaving this ranch to get on with my ‘normal’ and I think it is going to be much more like this dorm than like the previous dorms. It will be lonely, boring, and silent.

But this is the part of the program that we focus on transition. How are we going to maintain this momentum and energy required to get sober and place it in to the habits which will help us to stay sober.

Transition meetings are essential for me. They seem so trivial, but much of what I have learned about my triggers and causes to drink I learned from some seemingly trivial exercises I was asked to try out way back in my Addictions class last summer. Many of the principles I have developed in terms of my values and what I consider important I learned from some of our trivial exercises we did in LEC. I complained back then about the fact that I considered it humiliating that I had to go to a class to learn how to be a decent human being, but you know, it wasn’t… I discovered many things about myself and I think I am pretty decent these days, and it comes to me without much effort.

So, transition phase has some practical exercises that I am participating with in hopes that I find some strength or exercise which will keep me sober when I am out there, in the normal world, by myself.

First, we have access to a case manager whose only job is to work with us once we leave and provide encouragement and resources. Because I did not really do the whole 12 step approach, I don’t have a sponsor or a mentor – this is not really the best way to handle things. But I have a pretty active family and friend network and so I think that if I needed to talk to someone about all this, I could.

I don’t anticipate the late night phone calls whereby I am staring at a bottle of gin, needing to be talked away from the ledge of inebriation and someone will need to come rescue me. This isn’t recovery, that’s still dependence. I went through this program with the idea that I wasn’t going to have to depend on that kind of crap, that late night phone calls to my parents would instead be things like, “It’s a boy!” and NOT “Please talk me out of getting drunk.” It seems foolish to me.

I have created a list of things, activities that I should keep with me and employ if I feel the need to get hammered. Some are simple things like, “Go shoe shopping,” “Go get a cheesecake,” “make a lasagna,” – others are more in-depth things like, “Recall such-and-such time being drunk and how you felt getting sick,” “look at old pictures of myself when I was chin deep in alcoholism, and how unhealthy I looked” “play the tape forward, think about how pissed I would be if the past year was wasted,” “call a graduate like Lane or Brian or Curtis and go out for sushi or a movie.” Sometimes just being around the guys who went through the program with me, we just know what to say, we just know how to remind each other of the victory. Yes, victory.

For now, at least, I will have a constant connection to these guys, and they will have one to me. We will need to remind each other of the way life was in our previous normal, and what a frickin pain in the butt it’s been to make this new normal comfortable.

One of my methods I was asked to do in my transition group is to list all the positive things that I have done or experienced the past year as a direct result of being sober. The experiences I have had, people I have met, big ones like my upcoming trip to the Bonnie Hunt Show, or small ones, like the nightly walks Lane and Curtis and I used to take when we were confined to the ranch in the early phases.

The memories of this place are going to help me stay sober.

But this brings me back to normal. As I transition out of the ranch, I am fortunate to spend time with the new guys who are discovering normal, what normal should be like. What it should have been like all along. It’s nice to see as they begin to feel normal. Although none of them is normal, rehab isn’t normal, there is the flavor of normal which they each get to taste. I am reminded of my nephews, the first time they discovered the joy of having ‘bampa’ (grandma) squirt whipped cream directly in their mouths from the canister. Its not nourishment, but it tastes surprisingly delicious!

One thing I have learned about this transition phase is that normal isn’t something I just all of a sudden got back, I had to create it, piece by piece, Sunday by Sunday, experience by experience – and reflection by reflection. I had to dig deep into my memory banks to remember when life was ‘normal’ or at least normal as how I wanted it to be. From there, I also had the painful task of following each ‘normal’ experience to whatever it was that disrupted the normal. In almost every instance, it was my addiction to alcohol.

The other thing I learned is that it’s organic. It can change. What is normal for me today may not be normal for me in a few months. We had an exercise in addictions class that reinforced the idea that adaptability is a key component to maintaining sobriety.

I was sober last spring but what was normal for me isn’t normal to me at all these days. But my life is somewhere light years from where it was back then, and I don’t even recall traveling the distance to get here.

Looking back, it’s been a great journey; not normal, and I sort of like that it hasn’t been. When will life get back to ‘normal’? I kinda hope this is it.

Have a good weekend all, and I will post pics of LA next week!!


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