I’ve returned to the addicts group. It’s the first time in five shifts that I’ve reunited with a group, and it’s already made for a smoother integration. For this familiarity to occur with the oldest, previously most intimidating group full of mustaches and patchy beards is a welcome surprise.
I’ve teamed back up with 18-year-old Matt, the “bad twin” who also has a set of younger twin siblings. I’m learning more about his journey beyond cocaine and his supportive family, including his latest batch of letters and pictures from home.
Matt shows me his mom and dad and his younger brother and sister, the football player and the cheerleader, respectively. There’s also his two dogs — “my babies,” Matt describes them with an affectionate air. It seems everything comes in twos with Matt’s family.
I notice a picture of Matt and his twin brother, taken when they were only ten years old. I point to the smiling twin on the right and ask Matt if that’s him, and he nods his head.
“My brother wrote me and said he loves me,” Matt says with a wavering voice. “It’s only the second time I’ve ever heard him say that to me.”
The group will change drastically this week. One of the six students graduated during my last off shift, and another is set to turn 18 tomorrow. For weeks Phil has been spouting how he can’t wait to turn 18 and walk out of these woods of his own accord. Phil is the #1 of the group, the one who’s been here longest, and he has had his moments of maturity and leadership.
But then Phil goes off the rails. Just last week he doused the group’s fire because he got kicked out of group for cursing out a staff member.
“I made that fire, and I can do what I want with it,” he’d said as the last wisps of smoke cried out from the drenched wood.
Phil’s been here 14 weeks; to his credit, he’s already been in the woods a long time. Of course he’s ready to leave. But is this the right way to do it? By storming out of the group?
After all, Phil’s parents won’t take him back home; they want him to continue his treatment at a sober living house. Phil repeatedly tells the group he’s not going to follow his parents’ wishes and will just “chill with some homies” back home in Chicago.
The morning of his 18th birthday, Phil doesn’t even want one last breakfast with the group. “I’m out of here,” he says. He only hugs one other student goodbye before he’s gone.
A couple hours later the group’s therapist arrives, and she gathers the four remaining students around.
“Phil didn’t walk,” she says. “His parents were waiting for him back at base, and he’s getting on a plane to LA tomorrow to check himself into Sober Living for at least three months. He just wanted to act like he was walking so he could show you how much of a badass he is.”
I look around, and all I see are open mouths and empty stares. The group can’t believe it; they’ve been conned.
“Phil made the right decision for himself. But then he kinda didn’t, didn’t he?”
~ ~ ~
A day later the group loses another member to graduation, and now only three remain. My mentee, Matt, is the new #1 after being an inconspicuous #4 during my last shift. He’s now the de facto leader of the group, and they need him.
In recent days I’ve noticed Matt’s smiles and jokes and presence a lot more. He doesn’t seem as inconspicuous anymore. Since meeting him last week, I’ve known how committed he is to his sobriety and healing within his family, but now it seems he has another purpose for being in the Blue Ridge.
“Would you say you’re more invested in this group now?” I ask him.
He’s already nodding before I finish the question. “Definitely. I think we have an awesome mix of guys here.”
If only Matt knew the group would be growing two sizes by night’s end.
~ ~ ~
It’s 9pm, and it’s pouring down rain. I’m standing at the edge of the gravel road with one of my fellow staff, and a pickup truck’s lights emerge over a hill coming toward us. It’s like a dark slushy scene from a horror film, but we know the occupants of the oncoming truck and its purpose.
We have a new group member.
Up until tonight, I’ve never witnessed the arrival of a new student. This one is fresh off a plane from a treatment center in Phoenix, and he’s already been placed on “run watch,” meaning he’s considered a threat to run away and must be covered by staff 24/7. I’m intimidated, to be honest. My vision of the most awful kid is formed —
— and then he steps out of the truck with his two transports, hugging them goodbye as he eyes me with a smile, extending his hand as the rain pelts his skin. “I’m Braden,” he says.
We lead Braden back to the staff shelter where we show him his open spot, and he groans with gratefulness for a dry place to rest his head.
Four hours later at 1am, a second pickup truck rolls down the long rainy road, and a second kid, Jake, emerges from Portland, Oregon. His eyes are lit up, and he’s got the widest grin I’ve ever seen. I’ll later learn that he’s still high from his latest drug trip, forced onto a plane by his parents who would take no more of his charades.
“I’m ready to change,” Jake tells me on the mucky walk back to camp. “I’m ready to leave that old man behind and become a new man out here.”
~ ~ ~
This new group of five has only existed for 24 hours, but there is already a chemistry forming here that I’ve yet seen in my five weeks on the job. There is no arguing, no back-talk, no laziness, no real problems of any sort really. Everyone works together on meals and cleanups and does as he’s told, and there are smiles and jokes and life-stories to go around.
We’re practicing the art of “checking in” with the new guys. You start by saying how you feel, and then you provide a snapshot why you feel this way. You explain your belief about this snapshot, and finally you conclude with your hope inside your control and your hope for others.
New kid Jake checks in about something from a few years ago.
“I feel sad,” he begins. “I feel this way when my dog dies before his time.”
My ears perk up, instantly relating his story-to-be with my own.
“My belief is that he should have lived longer.” Jake’s words slow down like a braking bicycle, and his voice wavers. His eyes are starting to water over.
“My hope . . . inside my control,” he continues, “is that I can . . . cherish my dog’s memory . . . because he was a great dog. And my hope for my family . . . is that they can cherish his memory too.”
Jake wipes at his eyes, and Matt eyes him from the other side of the circle. “Hell yeah,” he says with an affirming nod.
The other new kid, Braden, speaks up. “That was incredible, bro. In my last two years of treatment, I’ve only seen one other kid cry. I think that vulnerability you just showed was awesome right there.”
I’m nodding my head along with the rest of the group, and Jake is smiling again.
“Where the hell is the care in this group? Where did it go?” the therapist had asked a very different group last week.
I think it just came back.