Letters from a Son: A Change in Direction

I remember there was snow on the ground. Outside was the kind of cold where the sky was perfectly blue and the sun was so bright, but yet, there was no warmth in the wind. I sat on the second level in the main house of a farm where kids like me lived.  To explain what I mean by kids like me, I mean kids that needed to get away from a troubled life of drug addiction.

The view from the windows was spectacular. I could see out into the distance as large, tree covered mountains wove together and interlocked like fingers from the hands. The trees were without leaves and the branches were crystalized and white with frost. There was a blanket of snow that covered the field behind the tall red barn. The cows were close to the barn. As always, the pigs were inside, grunting in their pens and the sheep scampered in a flock upon the hill behind the main house.

It was Saturday and I had yet to commit myself to the idea of sobriety. Instead, I was on this farm in body alone—but not in mind. I followed the rules of the house because I was forced to; however, I was not forced to truly surrender—at least, not completely. I was 17 years old. My hair was freshly cut short, which was very different from the long hair that grew down to my shoulders and bangs that hung passed my eyes to separate above the bridge of my nose.  I kept my hair this way to hide the proof in my eyes, which were either bloodshot or my pupils were fixed as a result of whichever chemical flooded my system.

My clothes were simplified. I was made to wear an undershirt with a pocket t-shirt over it. I was not allowed to wear ripped jeans or anything relating to my previous and rebellious lifestyle. I was cleaned up, both figuratively and literally. Yet, I was not willingly given this idea of a life without drugs. Least of all; I was not willingly given to the idea of life without so much as the occasional drink or a beer.

My troubles with the New York court system had been defined by a sentence of three years probation as well as the completion of a long-term drug treatment facility. Before my sentencing, I had finished 28 days in an adult facility that followed with another 42 days at an adolescent drug and alcohol program. Upon my completion of both facilities in back to back time, I was then driven up in a van, alone and with a driver from my adolescent program to a farm, which is where I was to remain until I successfully completed the farm’s program.

I was shocked when I arrived at the farm. Some had been there for years. They prayed to God. They prayed before each meal.  By “They,” I mean the inmates or members of this facility.  There were some adults, but most were teenagers like me. Some had the court systems over their head as did I. Some waited with a heavy sentence from the courts looming and threatening with lengthy prison terms. Other members of the house were sent by parents who were either unsure how or unwilling to help support their child through the turbulent times that comes during teenage years.

There was Paulie. He was a year younger than me. There was Shane. He was also a year younger and so was Brad. There was Chris and Eddie. Both of them were one year younger. Then there was Timmy, who I believe may have been two years younger. Timmy’s sister was also on the farm and both of them had been there for quite some time before me.

Brian was my age. He arrived on the farm about one month before me. We were the new-comers. We were new to the rules and regulations of a house with sober principles. We were given a syllabus and told to complete the steps on this syllabus upon our arrival. This is the way the farm broke us down. As new-comers, like myself or Brian and some of the others, we were not allowed to sit together or congregate alone with a senior member.
A senior member is someone that had been in the house long enough to understand the rules and principles. The reasoning for this is because it is easy to breed contempt amongst new comers. It is easier to find someone interested in breaking the rules than it was to find someone who was willing to comply to a program of life without drinking or getting high.

Like a young, unwilling horse, eager to kick and buck the system—I was made to be broken. I was shot down and yelled at before the entire membership. I was stood up in front of my community and humbled. I was told to wear signs around my neck. I was made to sit in corners and made to face the wall. I could not slouch, in this case. I was told to sit straight and face the wall. This was to take away my spirit. Same as my longhair or symbol of my rebelliousness was cut to bring me to submission. I was made to follow rules by senior members and counselors to strip my sense of control.  To me, since I had no way to leave or successfully escape, my only ability to control or rebel was through loud behavior. I could not control whether I was allowed to stay or go. But I could control my compliance.

I was given a choice. I was to complete treatment or serve one year plus 90 days in a correctional facility. However, my physical ability to survive and maintain my own safety behind bars was limited to a frail and thin body. I would have been picked apart in jail. I would have seen beatings worse than I ever experienced before or ever imagined. The more attractive choice, to complete treatment and remain clean, was not an attractive choice to me at all.

We were up early in the morning. When the alarm sounded, all members of the house and those in each dorm were to be out of their bed and their bunks were to be made by the count of 20. I have been away from this place for more than 20 years; however, I can still clearly recall the sound of a toning alarm clock, which was followed by a loud count that began at one and ended at 20. The lights were quickly brought on as we all moved fast to make our bunks. Our showers were to be no longer than two minutes and there was always someone yelling and commanding us to, “Move, move, move. . .” These were yells enforced by a dorm leader as well as a dorm supervisor.

We were to move quickly and efficiently. On top of getting ready, the dorm was to be cleaned before exiting. We needed to exit on time and arrive at the main house by a certain time; otherwise, we were not allowed to eat breakfast.
The house’s reason for this is because if you ran late for work, there would be no time for breakfast. As I understood, this was also a lesson taught in the military. The rules were to keep us on a strict schedule. There was very little down time. Either we were in a class or studying. If not, as members of our self-sustained community, we were cleaning the house or working in the barn or the kitchen. There was always something to do.  More accurately for me, there was always something to complain about.

I hated this place. I hated the rules. I hated the two-minute showers. I hated the senior members and their “Do no wrong” attitude. I hated sobriety. I hated the boring routines, the prayer sessions and lack of chemical stimulation. I hated fact that there was no way I could successfully rebel—besides stealing food from the kitchen, sing music that I was told not to sing, flirt with the female members (to no avail) or fail to complete my homework assignments, which in turn, led to a sign hung around my neck for a noncompliance.

I was not sold on the straight life at all. I was not willing to surrender to the idea that my life as I lived it is the exact reason why I found myself on the farm. I was not willing to let go or give up my control.  My time as I chose to live it was taken from me. And if I was given the unlikable choice between jail and treatment—I would make sure all those around me would understand that I did not like my choices. Therefore, if I was not happy with the choices that were offered to me; I made sure that those around me were not happy with it either.

Admittedly, I wanted to leave. I wanted to run away instead of surrender. I wanted to fight back, but I was losing this fight. As loud as I screamed and as hard as I tried to resist the rules and regulations; I was met with a firm, outnumbering and much stronger opposition.

I gave in—but not totally. I smiled as I was supposed to smile. I agreed when I was supposed to agree and I followed suit like the other so-called sheep in this crazy flock. I would follow suit; however, I refused to give in. I knew what my plans were so I pretended to go along in order to get along.

As I mentioned, it was around this time. It was December 1989. It was Saturday morning at breakfast. The sky was as bright as I had ever seen. The white snow blanketed the ground. The cold temperature and the wind blew through the tree-lined mountains. Perhaps, this was the first day I noticed the beauty of my surroundings. My eyes opened to the scenery as if I realized where I was for the very first time. I was not open to the change, but I was willing to admit the views were unlike anything I had ever seen before.

I looked out at the field from the upstairs window. I could see the two white geese waddling near the barn door at the side of the big red barn. I could smell the food from the kitchen that was made and served by us inmates.

As we all sat for breakfast, I was called away from my meal.

“Ben, we’re gonna take you home today. Your Father had a heart attack last night.”

With regards to change—most changes occur after a swift or heavy shock to the system. Most changes come quickly and unexpectedly. I was still not prepared to give in. Then again, I was not prepared to lose my Father either. I suppose this is when I learned that life is very real and so is mortality.

It was such a bright day too . . . .

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky

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