Wednesday, November 4, 2009

That Amy Winehouse song, or ... What Taylor & Fortensky Had in Common

There was bougainvillea growing over the razor-wire, atop the 8' high fence surrounding the compound. I saw the obstacle course first, and felt my heart sink into my empty stomach. I was just out of jail, and while I expected a kinder, gentler experience, I did not anticipate that there would be obstacles - at least not literal ones.

I expected them to shave my head, but not my face ... and then there was the cavity search ... Anyone who has ever been in a gay bar (after-hours) is perhaps no stranger to 12 men getting naked and bending over in front of a urinal trough ... but this was far from a happy, social gathering.

The 120 days which followed passed more quickly than I expected. There were dark moments, the likes of which have no parallel in my life prior to this point, and there were light moments, which were not unlike times I knew not so very long ago - when I was sober, having fun, and wearing very unpleasant pajamas.

The uniforms were not unlike those worn in jail - rough poly-cotton jumpsuits, composed of elastic waist pants and a short-sleeved top of the same material and color - Navy blue. Beneath these we wore white cotton boxers and white cotton T-shirts, over which we wore a colored shirt. White crew socks, and orange rubber or plastic sandals (slides) completed the look. The colored shirt was a marker, some might say a form of control - red when you first arrive into the program, dark blue as you progress on-course, green when you reach the pinnacle of your recovery knowledge, and orange if/when you do bad things - relapse, which referred in these cases not to returning to drinking or drug use, which was impossible there, but to breaking the rules.

Doing things outside the program was bad ... wrong ... not following the rules was relapse.

As I say it now, it sounds like I was brain-washed those 4 months. I was, I suppose, although I echo the learned responses of those who subscribe to cults and devotional communes, e.g. "It's not about brain-washing; it's about finding a new way to think ... a new way to live ..."

I was critiqued, called-out, for the way I walk. The swing of my hips was relapse.

It was a counselor who pointed it out first, a peer (that is what we called ourselves, 'peers' ... the sum of whom comprised the 'family'). My 50-man family lived together, in bunk beds - 25 along each wall - in the North Dorm. A peer called me out on my walk, and then another counselor. I felt stifled, targeted, literally uncertain of every next step.

But that was the point. It was made clear that my intellect would not become me in treatment, that it would lie to me, that it would allow me to lie to myself, that I was in "intellectual denial." Or, as my counselor (and several counselors) said:
"You don't know shit. You ain't runnin' shit. You are not smarter than this disease [of addiction]."
I took to referring to my counselor, whom I loved and disliked, as 'the old black man' in letters out. It is the same term I occasionally use to refer to my father. The old black man reminded me of my father, of Dad, although he knows more words and isn't too Southern and religious and decent to turn a phrase. My counselor often said, of 'smoking dope,' "You know you done sucked that glass dick ..."

It was ironic that the old black man reminded me so of my father for his particular way of counseling was to take client back to that moment in childhood from which point forward he became a dope fiend. Never mind that I did not start using drugs at 27, or that - unlike others around me - I never stole from my mother or wife or children, that I did not pimp out my girlfriend for another balloon or heroin, or that I had never had sex for money or drugs. It was said simply that I had not gotten there yet ... and so, the old black man had me write a letter. It was my first assignment.

I wrote a letter to my (biological) father. I told the old black man that I did not know my father, that I had nothing to say. He said, "That's good. You will." And he said it in that way the Oracle speaks to Neo in the first "The Matrix" movie, with the wisdom of untold ages - with being one of "the original programs." I wrote a letter to someone I made up. I sobbed a week later, when a boy named Billy read his letter to his (biological) mother. They, my group, offered me a hug.

I did not hear then the routine I would hear my counselor say so often in those 120 days. It would be a moment - in group, or in some other setting, the more public the better, when one of my peers got quiet, not knowing how to deal with a tricky emotion (or issue). My counselor would come in, moving quickly or not at all - bringing his voice in close, such that it gets inside your head and there is an expectation. "Go on. Let it out. Let that pain out. It's safe here. Go on. What do those tears need to say? What's behind those tears?"

And when the peer broke, when the sobs came heavy, or the voice cracked and he began to tell some ugly story, the old black man moved in - certainly, and with the wisdom of the ages, "Tell us what those tears need to say. Tell ______ what those tears need to say; she/he is standing right there." And without looking up, the peer visualized the loved one about whom the tears kept coming. And he'd meekly offer an "I'm sorry, Mama ..." or "I love you. Please forgive me." And the old black man was there ... yelling, "HE CAN'T HEAR YOU!" The peer would muster something from behind those tears and offer it again, with more force. Again: "HE CAN'T HEAR YOU!" and then the old black man sat back and let the sobs come. Time would pass in seconds or hours, depending on the depth of the darkness.
You're as fucked-up as your deepest secret. Get it out. Take back the power.
So, the peer would cry, and then it would be done. He'd hand over the letter he read, the effigy of a loved one to whom an apology was owed or forgiveness begged. Each group ended with a group hug, and the Serenity Prayer.

I said it to myself every night, said it often, lying on my top bunk - in my head - when the weight of the place got to be too much - asking for the gift of serenity, to accept the things I could not change / the courage to change the things I could / and the wisdom to know the difference. I say it still some nights, in my own bed, and it carries me to sleep.

I rediscovered ambition in treatment, and I rediscovered my faith (in God, and through my Higher Power, in myself). It was mostly for praying to get out, for praying that it would pass quickly, for praying that I would not 'relapse,' and making a deal. Bargaining is one of the steps in the grieving process, and perhaps I bargained because the part of my that 'they' said was a slow death was dying, because the party was over. I always got sad at the end of the night, or early morning, when the party was indeed about over, and the bodies on the floor or on the bed stumbled up and out.

I bargained, or haggled, or just made a deal (or just plain ol' prayed) - that if I got through it, if I danced the recovery dance and changed my walk, and did my best to think and be different, listened to the speakers, and suffered fools (gladly) that I would get out of there and find the world a different place - that I would be different.

Right before I got out, the weekend before I left, I find myself in a panic - 'freaking out' as they say, because I was no longer sure if I had, in fact, been playing all along or come to believe what I heard coming out of my mouth. Others went before me, who talked of sponsors and meetings and being ready for the dangers - for the tiger waiting just outside the gates. We heard from them in letters, reports drifting in from outside - filtered through the rumor mills, maybe cleaned up or left sullied.

So-and-so is shooting up again. You-know-who is already back in jail. The odds aren't so good.

I am lying in my own bed tonight. It was a good day, a productive. I am hoping for more of those. I declined an invitation to go to a bar tonight.

Tonight, I am just going to bed.


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