Institution Prose

I tell you this, you do not understand victory
until you are sat in a room with a group of kids,
all of them mad and starving to escape,
each one with a unique story
all of them lost and each one sick of life,the system,
and sick of the surroundings,
sick of the world they find themselves in.

and sick of the fact
that the only brief intermission of ease

is the momentary high that comes with drugs or alcohol.

I say you can’t know victory until you sit in this group,
institutionalized with a counselor sitting mid-circle
sitting in a small room with a circle of uncomfortable chairs,
or plastic chairs, a clipboard in the counselor’s hand,
a pen to write the notes which deem us as sociopathic,
addicts or drunks, depressed, and emotionally disturbed.

Had I never seen this, I would have never seen victory.
In my eyes, it was us against them.
And there I was, sitting in the middle of this circle,
listening to a counselor speak about a life,
which they couldn’t possibly understand.
I swear I hated this with all my heart, with all my mind,
and all my soul.

Had I never seen the kids I lived with,
I would have never known
what it means to overcome.
I tell you this—you cannot understand pain
until you’ve spent a little time
in a small adolescent rehabilitation center
and listened to the stories of what happens in the world.

You cannot know pain until you watch
someone so amazingly big and strong,
yet so unaware of their size and strength,
break down like a small child
while explaining the beatings he took.

I knew a kid like this . . .

His victory came on visiting day
when his old man walked through the front doors.
Finally, this young man realized his size.
He was no longer frightened
and no longer willing to take the abuse.

I watched as this young man explode.
He punched his father in the face.
Tears literally shooting from the young man’s eyes,
spit flying from between his growling mouth,
wired silvery braces carrying drool like that of a rabid dog.

Score one for the good guys, it seemed.
Or maybe this was a score for the bad guys
(depending upon the viewpoint) and all of us patients,
all of us inmates and cases—all of us cheered
All of us screamed as the other counselors restrained us
and kept us from surging the room.

I never knew what strength a girl could possess
until I met a 16 year-old girl, emancipated from her parents,
and living on her own.
Sure, she was a junkie too.
She was sick like the rest of us.
She was crazy to live and crazy enough to die while doing it.
She was not exceptionally pretty.
Yet, she was somehow incredibly beautiful
because in spite of the abuse, the rape,
and in spite of the neglect she saw,
this young girl would not submit.

It was us against them, I say.
I remember it well

Brian chose a losing battle.
Rather than complete 42 days of observation,
Brian threatened a staff member,
causing the facility to alert Brian’s probation officer,
who in turn alerted the New York State Police.

We were all gathered out back
when they came to take Brain away.
They took him out in shackles.
His hands were cuffed to chains around his waist.
His ankles were cuffed, and of all I can picture,
I can still picture Brian’s face
as he looked at me from the back seat of the police car.
His dirty blonde hair was long;about shoulder length,
His eyes were steel blue.
There was still a youthfulness about him.
After all, Brian was only a kid.
He was a kid convicted of a man’s crime.
He was a kid about to do a man’s time.

As far as we were concerned, Brain was gone
because we knew all about him.
We knew about the suicide attempts.
We knew what kind of kid he was.
Above all, we knew what kind of kid Brian wasn’t.
He was not someone with a “Doing time”
kind of strength or physique. 

I saw the best and worst in places like this.
I learned what it means to be beautiful
and what looks like to feel ugly.
I saw it all in a small window of time.
42 days, to be exact . . .
I saw life and death.
I saw desperation
I saw kids like me.
I watched them overcome,
and beat the “Us against them.”

Back in the summer of 1989, I saw these things happen.
Here we are, decades later, and I still listen to parents
and people wonder about the disease of addiction.
It is a family disease. It spreads and kills.
Addiction is not a choice

Addiction is not partial to race, religion, or creed.
It does not discriminate
nor does addiction or alcoholism
care about wealth or social status. 
Alhough criminal justice depends upon what you can afford
addiction kills equally and without prejudice.
I know this.
I’ve seen it . . .

I say that you have never seen victory
until you have watched someone walk into recovery
for the first time.
No one ever expects them to stay any longer than a few days,
yet somehow, just like the underdog,
this person remains.

I have had the benefit of watching this.
I have seen people come in through the doors,
battling, crazy and mad, searching for an escape,
looking for a way out, angry, and sick of the cycle
sick of the world around them,
sick of the life they have,
and sick of the life they can’t kick.

I remember my last tour in treatment.
They sat us in a room. (There were about 35 of us in there)
The counselor said, “Look around you.”
Then he explained,
“Statistics say only 1 out of 33 of you will stay sober.”

Then he stressed his point. “Only 1 out of 33 will make it.”

The counselor counted how many patients were in the room.
“There are 35 of you in here,” he said.
“According to the statistics, that means only one of you
is going to make it when you leave.
Your job now is to decide which one you want to be.”

And me . . .

I decided I wanted to be the one.

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