I’m with the teen addicts for the third straight week, and they do not frighten me anymore. Their gruff voices and patchy ‘staches no longer leave my masculinity-challenged soul reeling. These 17- and 18-year-old guys aren’t big and scary; they are still kids, small and wounded. Their hearts, gentle and genuine.
I am enjoying this group more with every passing day in these increasingly orangeifying Blue Ridge woods. That we get to watch an entire episode of Star Wars on Therapist Donna’s DVD player each week around a campfire only adds to the joy of this group.
I’m sitting in on Matt’s therapy session with Donna, listening to him read a letter to his parents in which he places them and his three siblings into all of their family roles: his father the workaholic, his mother the tireless caretaker, his younger sister the mascot, his younger brother the lost child, his twin brother the hero, and himself the scapegoat.
He is the bad twin who tries and tries and tries, but he never succeeds, lost in his twin’s shadow.
“What do you mean you try but never succeed?” Donna challenges him.
“Do me a favor,” Donna says, “try and stand up for me.”
“That’s lovely, I’m so glad you can stand up. But I asked you to try and stand up. Now sit down and try to stand up.”
Matt stares at her for a moment, then slumps to the ground. He waits another methodical second before rising to his feet again.
Donna claps twice. “Again, fantastic job of standing. I’m thoroughly convinced you can stand up. But I want to see you try to stand up.”
Matt’s stare is longer and blanker this time as he sits back down. A few more seconds pass as he puts his palms to the dirt and takes an exaggerated stand, slowly thrusting himself upward.
“Matt,” Donna says firmly, “great job standing. I have no doubt whatsoever that you can stand. You are an expert stander. But I’m asking you to try to stand.”
Matt returns to the dirt and eyes his therapist. “I don’t get it,” he says. “How can I try to stand? I just do it.”
Donna grins as if a light bulb just went off. “You boys are gonna watch Episode V tonight. Listen to Yoda.”
She then becomes the most awesome therapist I’ve ever encountered as she cups her hands to the top of her head like little green ears and croaks in her best Yoda voice: “Do or do not. There is no try.”
Matt laughs, and I laugh too, but Donna holds straight.
“Matt, there is no try. You either do something in life or you don’t. If you’re trying, you’re lying.”
~ ~ ~
We are sending the guys out on solos. For the next 3 days, each of the five students will have his own campground separated from the rest of the group. This band of addicts has developed some incredible chemistry the last few days, and Donna wants us to shake things up and challenge them. They’ll have to build shelter, complete a writing assignment, and cook their own food — assuming they can also make their own fire, that is.
It is essentially a mini-vacation for staff the next few days. Back at our camp we hang onto the DVD player and do some hard work watching Return of the Jedi, rotating back to The Phantom Menace — though the battery dies just as Jar Jar hits the scene. The struggle is real.
We check on the kids every few hours, avoiding the use of speaking as they crusade through this challenge in silence. It rains the first night, and after the second day nobody has yet made fire. The guys eat lots of trailmix and grains and oats as their bags of rice and beans remain untapped.
One of the guys has a vomiting spell with some diarrhea thrown in there, but he persists. They all do.
By the third day nobody has made fire, and it is time to bring everyone back to camp. I can only imagine the agony this solitude and hunger and sickness has wrought.
And yet as we give the coyote call and watch five sets of legs reenter camp, all I see are smiles and laughs and exponential camaraderie.
They have largely failed, failed individually, and yet they have failed together. They are telling the stories of their shelters and latrines and how they endured the last 72 hours alone, and they are now bonded in ways even stronger than prior to their escapades into isolation.
For the next couple days they talk and hike like never before, and my heart grows inspired yet weakened over this brotherly magic that is spreading through camp.
My biggest wound is brotherhood. I wince when I read about it or see it unfold on film or in real life: two guys working out together, a bunch of boys riding their bikes along a railroad track, high fives and fist bumps and butt slaps and hugs.
I never had that growing up. I’m still largely looking for it.
The students start calling each other “brother” and “my boy,” and they’re eager to see their brothers achieve sobriety — inside these woods and out. All of it strikes some long loud reverberating chord within me.
I essentially had three days off this week, and this crew does just as they’re told. It was easily my easiest week yet on the job. And yet it was also the most difficult. The most gut-wrenching.
This week I looked into the eye of brotherhood and saw that it was good, very good.
But I’ll be honest. I couldn’t help yearning to be a teenage drug addict — a brother, a “boy” — in their midst.