I sat in the back of an old empty Church somewhere in the small, far away town of Callicoon, New York. It was wintertime and outside, the cold winds leaked through the drafty walls. I had just spent hours cleaning the dark wooden pews. I vacuumed the green Berber carpet and dusted the shelving. Outside, the wind whipped and whistled passed the stained glass windows and the cold seeped in to chill my fingers. I thought to myself, “The least they could do is put on the heat for us.”
Cleaning this Church was not my idea. It was my responsibility. I was told this was part of my service and charity. I was told this was something I had to do in order to make my change. However, at 17 years of age, still sick-minded, still wishing I was someplace else, and still looking for the angles, the shortcuts, and the easy way out, I didn’t know what service and charity was.
All I knew was the courts mandated me to a farm where I was to go through a change. It was my own personal exorcism of a sort. This is where they sent me to save me from myself. This is where I went to stop me before the cycle spun too far out of control and to save me before my name was nothing more than an eventually forgotten addition to a long list of unremembered tragedies.
In order to be a better member of society, to kick my habits, and to change my lifestyle, I was sent to a Franciscan household that was based on the principles of a 12 step program.
As a newcomer, I was paired with what they called, “A senior member,” or someone that had time in the program and earned enough trust that they could be trusted not to run or contribute to the negative impulses that come with the early recovery from drug addiction.
A senior member was someone that had an understanding of sobriety as well as an understanding of what we called, “The house principles” which were the rules that we were made to follow as members of the household. To be a “Senior Member” had meaning; it meant that the member wanted to be sober and that they were willing to submit themselves to the change, to be humble to the cause, and to be willingly honest and open. But that wasn’t me in this case. No, this wasn’t me at all. I was young at the time. I was angry and more importantly, I was not willing or open to the co-called miracles of recovery. It was all a lie to me because I could not understand the concept of any life other than the one I knew. I couldn’t give in or give away my secrets. I couldn’t let down my guard or come out from behind the masks I wore. No, that was too frightening and too painful for me to even consider.
As a rule, The Farm kept new comers apart because negativity is easily bred and contracts were easily formed. It’s easy to find ways to cheat. It is easy to find ways to get over and in the wrong mindset and when placed somewhere I never wanted to be in the first place, the con in me looked for any and every angle I could find. I grasped at whatever I could to find a semblance of normalcy, —even if that normalcy could have been deadly to me, at least that normalcy was something I understood.
it is true to say that left to my own devices, I would have sided with people that thought the same as me. If it were up to me, I’d have stayed with people that shared my personal blindness because seeing, at times, exposed the truth and truth was painful. If it were up to me, I would have ventured back to places like East New York Brooklyn, The Rockaways, or that spot I found on 134th Street.
The truth was at 17 while most people my age were living their life, going through the basic teenage rituals or the simple rites of passage, while kids were getting their driver’s license, going on their first dates with their high school sweethearts, or gearing up to ask someone to their senior prom, I was mandated to a farm by the court system to undergo rehabilitation treatment.
I was painfully thin and still sickly looking. The physical sickness was gone but the emotional pain and angst lingered on like a terrible dream that I couldn’t wake from.
I wanted to run. I wanted to leave but there was no way out. Besides, if I ran, the courts would have me serve one year, plus 90-days, in whichever correctional facility that saw fit. This was frightening to me because at my size, weight, and physical ability, there would have been little I could do to defend myself.
More accurately and painfully so, the truth is I was a scared kid. I was a split personality, always trying to find some kind of comfort, and always looking for some way to compensate myself. For as long as I could recall, I tried to fit behind a mask or an image, which I saw as a shield to safely hide behind; however, I never felt safe no matter where I hid. The only time I felt safe is when I was totally and completely absent in a nod or elsewhere in a high
To keep me from myself, the powers that be at The Farm suggested that I stay outside of my own head. The idea is to replace thought with action.
“Stay busy,” they told me. “The last thing you need is to think too much.” But what else could I do? How could anyone say, “Try not to think too much?”
Especially when sent away and removed from my usual comforts, how could “Not thinking” be possible? I mean, as a species, isn’t that all we do? Our mind is always moving. Even when the body sleeps, the mind continues to move. Isn’t that why we dream. And oh, believe m, I had my share of dreams. they used to come at the worst times and chill my bones worse than the cold that seeped into the Church.
“Don’t think too much,” they told me. But what else could I do? I was 17 and my world changed in the blink of an eye. I moved away from the only home I ever knew. To add to this, my father passed away and the life I thought I had, switched instantly, and I was faced with a drastic fear of the unknown and upcoming future.
If asked, I always thought that I would be dead soon, so why worry? If asked, I never thought life was real. I never thought anything was real for someone like me, so why try? I was unsure if I wanted to be sober. I was unclear about life on life’s terms and I was unsure about who I was. How could I not think? How could I not be frightened and since I was new to the ideas of recovery and sobriety, how was I supposed to process the pains without something to ease the mind? As I saw it then, I was destined to fail. And had it gone on for me like this, I suppose failure would have been the option I chose.
They say a man is most tested when he is against the wall. That was me. I was against the wall. I was too frightened to change and too scared to stay as I was. If I was ever tested, it was then. I did what I was told because I had no choice. I couldn’t run, and even if I did, I had nowhere to go.
If I left, I would have been at the mercy of the courts. If I stayed, I would have to work and evolve into the man the system wanted me to be. I would have to change my ways, go to school, and be accountable for my actions.
If I stayed, I would have to wake up early like a grown man, and be faced with responsibilities like an adult is on a daily basis.
However, If I left to go home, the house I would run to to was no longer the house I knew as a boy. My father was dead and my mother was in mourning. I burned all of my bridges behind me but the firelight from the damage had lost its light and I had lost my way.
As I saw it, and although unattractive to me, my only option was to submit to treatment, which is why I agreed to go. And like I said, I agreed to go, but deep down, I didn’t agree to change. At least, not at first
I suppose this is what it means to feel raw because the word raw described me well. I was raw to the touch. I was raw to the feel of my losses and raw to the fact that I had to face the consequences of my actions.
I was raw to my self-hatred and raw to the deep, inner voices of my depression. I hated myself. I hated you and everyone else in the world. I was miserable and because I was miserable, I would do my best to make everyone around me feel the same way. Since I hated my choices, I would make you hate them as well. And if I were to hate, then I needed to hate perfectly. And if I were to be angry, then I would need to be outraged, to be as I always was, hidden behind a shield for protection.
I learned that change often occurs when situations take away our options. Sitting alone in the back of the Church, I weighed my options. I looked at the altar. I looked at the podium and cloth, which draped over it. I studied the white walls that led up to the high ceilings and watched the sunlight trickle through colorful stained glass.
I noticed the golden cup that stood next to The Holy Bible on top of the podium and I inhaled deeply to catch the smell of incense. I felt the cold emptiness in the room seep into my bones. I listened as the outside wind howled and crackled through the naked tree branches in the small, upstate, mountain town.
I was uncomfortable and alone; however, I felt as if there was someone in the room with me. I felt a strong and yet uncomfortable presence of purity. And in such presence, I felt the stain of my diseased mind. I saw the contrast between me, the good, the bad, and the evil.
Of course, one could suggest I was in the house of The Lord and that was the presence I felt. One could suggest I felt the presence of my conscience. But I believe what I felt is called a moment clarity.
I looked at the large cross above the altar from the back pew. I looked at The Son of Man; His arms were outstretched, His head was dressed with a crown of thorns, slumped downward, and off to His left shoulder. I studied the bleeding wound in his abdomen and read the initials in the sign above His head.
“I.N.R.I.” These were the initials of a title given by Pontius Pilate. The initials stood for, “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum,” which is the Latin inscription for, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
I looked around the Church. I looked at what I cleaned and felt the cold chill, still biting at my fingers and toes. And for the first time, I decided not to think. Instead, I chose to give in. I was too tired to fight back anymore. In a word, for the first time, I surrendered. If you would have asked me then about who I planned to be, i’m not sure I would have been able to tell you.
26 years later….
I’m sitting in a loft in a place where I call home. As I write to you, I am currently working on a business plan for a 30 day, 60 day, and 90 day drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. I have certificates of completion on the wall. I am a life coach, a sober coach, and a recovery specialist. As it stands now, there are powers in the court systems that have looked to me and allowed me to partner and help with the opiate epidemic and the ongoing struggles with addiction.
I still think too much sometimes and negativity is still easy to come by. But at least I have the presence of self. At least I no longer feel like I’m a stain in this world and if I have my way, I plan to make a difference.
Maybe one day I should go back to that old church in that small, quiet, upstate town. I’d like to say “Thanks for the inspiration,” and show that yes, people do change, and yes, people do get better.