Earlier this week I watched a powerful documentary on people being released from prison. It was a story of two men who were sentenced under California’s outdated and recently reformed Three Strikes Law. Simply stated the law demanded that any criminal who was arrested and found guilty three times received a harsh prison sentence often 25 years to life. After almost 20 years of being in place, the penal system and the citizens of California realized it wasn’t effective, led to overpopulation in the jails, severely impacted people of color, and left a trail of broken families in its wake.
The documentary follows two of the thousands of men who have been released for petty, non-violent crimes, after serving decades in jail. The transition for both of them was difficult, however, one was able to get back on his feet stay clean and sober, get married and be promoted in his job. The other man, who had a strong family and church structure, struggled mightily. Old demons such as drugs and mental health issues kept him unbalanced and unable to find his groove the way the first man did. At the end of the documentary both men were still out and making their way the best they could.
As I watched the film I couldn’t help but feel for both of these men. I work with men who are incarcerated and addicted. Addiction is a powerful force for evil and destruction. Incarceration can also be a doorway to a life of crime and recidivism but I’ve also seen men who learn how to make different choices so as not to end up in the same predicament.
Men who do three things greatly reduce their chance of going back to jail or getting back into their addiction. The first is having a positive home environment that might not necessarily be with their biological family. The second is a full-time job, a chance to do something and receive. The third might be most important and that is living a life around positive people, folks who will pull you up not drag you down. These three things, which most of us take for granted, will help men stay balanced, sure-footed, and on the path to a new life.
1 I lift up my eyes to the mountains where does my help come from?
2 My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot slip he who watches over you will not slumber;
4 indeed, he who watches over you will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord watches over you the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
6 the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all harm, he will watch over your life;
8 the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.
Sing Along –
Earlier this week I had a song stuck in my head. It played over and over in my mind. It was from an artist I don’t like or dislike and was a song that was fine but not spectacular. These facts didn’t matter because the song was like an earworm which burrowed its way into my brain and wouldn’t stop. I found myself humming the tune, singing along, tapping my foot and fingers, when I was in meetings, classes, and other places.
It is hard to get a song out of your head sometimes. I usually try listening to it several times in a row which can dislodge it. Other times singing it out loud, all the way through, will do the trick. However, some songs refuse to let go and I just live with it until finally, another song, or silence if I’m lucky, takes it place.
I was speaking with someone this week about the causes of poverty, abuse, addiction, incarceration and the incredibly hard task it is to break free from these often generational, familial, cycles. Too often, people think the battles we face are won by acts of wills and choice. While these are important they are not the sum of all problems. When you have been surrounded with these ills of society and family you become used to a normal. You witness those you love and look up to make decisions that keep them trapped in the cycle. Growing up in these environments impact the way you think, your view of the world, and the hopelessness of being free. Who we are, what we are, are not only the choices we have made but from a myriad of choices which happen when we cannot decide for ourselves or even before we are born.
Understanding the truths about some of the people we meet each day will, hopefully, rewrite the judgmental and biased scripts we easily recite in our minds when we encounter the poor, drug addicted, alcoholic, homeless, ex-felons, and wonder; “Why can’t they do something about their lot in life?” Maybe, they need us to sing a new song to them.
Heart Hunger –
This afternoon I attended a meeting where a speaker talked about babies born being addicted to drugs. The mothers of these soon to be born children were addicts of both prescribed and unprescribed drugs and when the baby emerged from the womb it too craved the narcotics.
It was heartbreaking to hear the stories of some of the moms. 85% were on welfare, didn’t have much in the way of education, lived in poverty and were receiving the help of many community and national organizations. What was even sadder was the moms knew their addictions were harming their unborn child and yet couldn’t break the cycle. The addiction had overtaken the heart of the mother and superseded their instincts to care for their soon to be born child. The hunger for being a good mom was less than the appetite for the drugs.
Our hearts, the souls, and spirits of us are powerful. They can give us the strength to overcome the greatest of challenges and reach heights unthinkable or take us to the depths of hell and nightmares unimaginable. Wisdom teaches us to choose today who we will be tomorrow. Choose carefully because our decisions mean life or suffering and death.
Serving Tea –
I had heard the story many times before. As he started talking I already knew how it ended. He’s an addict. He’s been one for almost as long as he can remember and will be one until he dies. The victory of an addict is not to stop being one but learning how to live life clean as one. He wasn’t living free, some of his old acquaintances had become recent friends.
The big three ways an addict stays away from relapse is a clean (drug, alcohol-free) place to live, a permanent job, and supportive friends. None of them are simple to attain and maintain but in my experience with addicts, the one which is the hardest to do is stay around supportive people. The reason this is so difficult for the addict is that oftentimes their addiction has hurt or destroyed the healthy relationships with family and friends which leave them with other addicts and pushers to be around when they are released from jail or a rehab center. It’s also hard to make new or mend relationships when at first you’re only sober moment to moment, hour by hour.
Wisdom tells us that we cannot stop negative people, negative thoughts coming into our lives and minds. However, we don’t have to stay or take up residence. We can choose to make our lives a priority, take care of ourselves so we can one day take care of others.
“You cannot stop negative thoughts from coming in the door of you mind, but you do not have to serve them tea.” #ZenProverb
All that Glitters –
Today, before an addiction lecture, I sat and chatted in a room with several men. One of them was an intelligent, well spoken, good looking older gentleman. He asked good questions, had a gregarious personality and didn’t fit with the rest of the mostly younger, lower class, good ol’ boys who occupied the room.
After the lecture, he came up to me shook my hand and I asked him; “What is your occupation?” He replied; “I am, was, a dentist. I’m hoping to practice again, but we’ll have to wait and see.” We talked a little more, he left and flashed a perfect smile with straight, bright white teeth, as he departed.
To look at this man, one would not think drug addict, alcoholic. One would think of a big house, nice car, country club, kind of life. One would be very wrong. He didn’t have much of anything in the way of material wealth and was sharing life, going to group, sleeping, in a room with meth heads, cocaine addicts, drunkards, pill poppers. At his core, he was exactly like them.
Wisdom tells us to be extra cautious judging the outward appearance of a person. No matter what one looks like we do not know their story, the battles they’ve fought, what they’ve possessed and have had taken away.
“But for the grace of God, go I.” But for the grace of God, goes us all.”
Take Care –
Yesterday, during my second lecture at a Rehabilitation Center, a young man challenged me about the ideas and skills I was teaching about getting and staying clean of alcohol and drugs. It started as fidgeting in his seat and then he couldn’t keep his thoughts quiet! He mumbled something out loud and I heard but didn’t understand. I looked at him and asked him what he said. I was interested in a dialogue but he was only interested in telling me how wrong I was about addicts and the ongoing journey to sobriety.
I was careful not to feel attacked nor make him feel on the defensive as I tried to help him understand why what I was saying was true. Others in the group started speaking up and telling the young man he needed to listen. I thanked the others for their support but asked them to let me speak to him so he wouldn’t feel the group of forty or so guys was against him. Unfortunately, the young man was done speaking and listening. My last words to him were; “I’d really like to talk to you about this after we’re done with the lecture.” He put his head down and when we were done he rushed out of the room. I looked for him as I was leaving but couldn’t find him.
This was the young man’s first time in a Rehab Center. He was struggling with admitting he was an addict, putting his past behind him, coming to grips with the truth that addiction is a life long battle. His thoughts, I am sure, swirled between surrender and control, acceptance and resistance, freedom and slavery.
People who have lived with addiction will tell you that the temptation to use begins in the mind, subtle thoughts start gnawing at you and soon, if they are not checked, you are neck-deep in things you said you’d never do again.
Wisdom teaches us that our thoughts and our words are to be guarded zealously for from them springs our destiny.
The story began in the 1990’s with a business owner who was stealing money from his company to pay his personal debt. He was arrested and sentenced to eighteen months in jail at a minimum security facility in Louisiana. It was a tale of bad choices and their consequences, however, the story became even more interesting when he began serving his time.
The incarcerated facility was not only a jail but also America’s last leper colony. Men and women with this dreaded and deforming disease had been housed there for decades. Even with advances in medicine and treatment most of the patients chose to live in isolation than face society disfigured and different.
It was heartbreaking to hear the stories of a resident being dropped off at age twelve never to see her parents again. Another who dreamed of distant cities and sights but couldn’t bear the thought of the stares of onlookers or the disgust as they backed away illness which had ravaged parts of his body. It was safer, easier to be set apart from humanity than be rejected by it.
As I listened I couldn’t help but think of the outcasts, the unlovable, those on the fringes of society judged as unworthy, unclean, unacceptable. I also thought of those with the hidden burdens of mental illnesses, addictions and other secrets kept hidden away for fear of being labeled and ostracized.
Connection, relationship, friendship, love, fidelity with all. Acceptance and grace with everyone regardless of dissimilarities . To draw close to those whom others have pushed away, to listen when the world ignores, to extend compassion to ones who’ve been harmed, to be human to all of humanity.
YouTube seems to be very random in what it recommends for me to watch. Sometimes its videos of practical jokes on unsuspecting people, then science facts; “that will blow my mind!”, life hacks to “make house cleaning fun!” (yeah right), and this video about Komodo Dragons hunting a Water Buffalo in Indonesia.
Last week at one of my addicted father groups we talked about the lure of drugs and alcohol. It’s always an interesting discussion with men who are coming to grips with the deadly hold this disease has on their lives. Some are still fighting acceptance. They don’t see their substance use as an addiction but more of a hindrance. “It’s just a little out of control. Once I’m clean it won’t be a problem.” They’re convinced the drinking and drug use isn’t a real threat and they can outrun it, out muscle it, out man it.
Other men in the group understand their addictions are stalking them, hunting them, never far behind them and waiting for a chance to strike. If the opportunity is there, defenses are relaxed, one strike is all that’s needed. Like the Komodo Dragon in the video, all it needs is an opportunity to inject the deadly venom.
While watching this tough, virile, powerful Water Buffalo and the sneaky, scheming, deceptively lethal slayer, I thought of all the dads I know who are doing their best to escape the deep hurts, deadly habits and persistent hangups that threaten them and the lives of their families.
I also thought about how easy it is for all of us to fall victim to things which don’t seem to be a real threat to our sanity and spirits. We fool ourselves into thinking we’re strong enough to handle all that life sends our way. We don’t need rest and recovery for our spirits, minds and bodies. We can bear the load of everyone and everything around us. Life will never get the best of us. We can escape the danger at anytime.
All the while the hunter stalks, biding it’s time, looking for an opening, waiting for a moment of weakness, whispering with forked tongue; “Everything’s okay. Nothing to worry about. No threat here. Just let me get a little closer.”