Ray McConnell

Ray McConnell
Orlando Straight
January 1987— July 1987

Empty the Poison Flask

It was another boring day at the tiny Christian middle school I was allowed to attend as a third phaser when I walked out of lunch and just kept walking for several miles. I was sent to Straight because of a plea bargain with my parents. I had been arrested for stealing the Oingo Boingo cassette tape ‘Dead Man’s Party’ to give to a friend for his birthday. I was probably the most untalented shoplifting eighth grader in Orlando that year because I didn’t know tapes had a magnetic strip on them. I was completely oblivious to the detector flanking the store exit until I heard a siren and bumped into the policeman standing guard at the door. My parent’s Bible study group was interrupted that night because my Dad had to pick me up from the Orlando police station where I had been assigned 30 hours of community service work. 

The Christian family counselor who my parents sent me to for weekly visits always donned a jet-black toupee and wore a thick gold chain across his exposed hairy chest. He started interrogating the hell out of me after I got arrested like I was some terrorist detainee and he was going to score the big guy. He wanted to know how I spent every waking minute—before school, after school, weekends,  what else did I steal, the identities of all of my friends. Then after a silent drum roll went off in his head he asked me if I did drugs. And for some reason, terrified and clueless, I lied and said “yes”. 

I didn’t know why I hated my parents so much. I didn’t know why I would scream at my mother and call her a bitch when she wouldn’t let me gel my hair straight up like Eraserhead and wear eyeliner. I didn’t know why I loved to steal candy and secretly eat it in my room when I could’ve just paid for it and wasn’t even hungry. I didn’t understand then how my parents were cramming me into a perfect Christian image of themselves by controlling every nuance of my existence from friends, to music, to movies, to where and how I could spend my time and, to what was of course most important to me, how I wore my hair and clothes. I just felt the rage of a caged animal and had no idea why. At least “drugs” was a concise clear answer I could give to this ‘70s night club owner looking psychologist and maybe then he would quit assaulting me with his questions which were only making me hate myself—because I had no idea why I was so unhappy and causing everybody pain. I wasn’t hiding anything, but nothing I could say was working. So I made something up with hopes that maybe then everyone, including me, would get some relief.

Actually I had tried drugs. Once. So it wasn’t a total lie, I thought. A friend stole some pot leaves from his uncle that past post-seventh grade summer, but none of us 13 year old suburban skateboarders knew that you couldn’t get high from just leaves—but we sure pretended to be.

My parents wanted to send me back to a Christian School. It was quite obvious to them that secular, heathen, public school was not too far removed from the gates of hell and it was the source of all my problems. I knew all about Christian School. During my elementary school years I had attended a teeny-tiny Lutheran school founded by Slovakian immigrants in the middle of a remote cow pasture. I had convinced my parents to send me to public school after serving my 6 grades of sentence time and I would’ve done anything to avoid going back. I had the Psychedelic Furs now and the Violent Femmes. I had discovered mousse, trench coats and combat boots, and how to wear a safety-pin in your ear when your parents weren’t looking. I had also discovered that the Universe was a lot bigger than church culture. There were amazing creative wonders to discover and explore far beyond the insular world of insipid popular Christian music and youth group outings.

So my parents ganged up with Mr. Mafia-shrink and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Since I was obviously a 13 year old drug addict (who still had to be home by 6pm and asleep by 9) I could either go to a drug rehab for a few weeks, or Christian School for the rest of my life—until I graduated high school. To me the choice was obvious. Graduation is an eternity for an eighth grader and even longer when it’s in a teeny-tiny Christian School. I could use a few weeks of vacation from my parents anyways. Heck. I heard in rehab kids just got to sit around and make moccasins and do horticulture all day. I was actually looking forward to it. Little did I know then that behind my pick of door number two there was a 100 foot boy-eating dragon who showed no mercy.

 Two weeks after my 14th birthday I entered Straight Orlando as the youngest, most terrified, and least drug experienced child in the program. I’d never even had an ounce of alcohol before. Of course I lied at first to try and fit in and be cool. Only recently have I learned that Straight’s favorite druggy of choice to incarcerate and completely destroy was the naive, and more easily manipulated, “dry” one. So even though I ‘fessed up and came clean about my sobriety a couple of weeks later they were already hooked and couldn’t quit using me. As the months went by I noticed clients kept getting younger and younger and some were even more greenhorn than I was. 

Apparently my parents were pretty sloppy about keeping up their side of the bargain because while on the third phase in Straight they sent me to a Christian School anyway. After about a month of endless classes hell-bent on debunking Darwin, one random day during lunch time I walked off the property and just kept walking. I had had no plans to runaway and no idea where I would go if I did. I just started walking. At that time I had been in Straight about 4 months.

Ever since going back to school on the third phase I had a non-stop obsession with suicide. I couldn’t see a car without feeling compelled to throw myself in front of it, see the second story window in Science class without imagining myself jumping out of it—every 3 seconds throughout the whole class. I would write with my pencil and could only think about shoving it in my neck. It took a lot of energy to keep myself from compulsively acting out these obsessions. Someone reported me for writing in my Mental Inventory that I thought about suicide. The staff stood me up and read the M.I. in front of the group and confronted me. I felt like my brain was being squeezed harder and harder by a vice and that it would soon explode. I suppose I started walking that day to try and stop the thoughts.

Several miles later I ended up at my cousin’s house. He was a coke snorting used car salesman at the time, about 8 years older than me, with a big Italian heart. He thought my parents had lost their minds. He knew what real drug addicts were and that I was just a kid who liked to spike his hair. He didn’t know what to do with me and had to go off to work but said I could hang out at his place. After he left I went upstairs to his bathroom, picked up his shaving razor and gave myself a tortured, painful, bloody Mohawk. Then I shaved off my eyebrows. Not knowing what else to do I started walking again.

I realized I was not far from my old school—you know—the profane one that created all my problems. As I got closer a plan began to formulate in my mind. I had two female friends that always liked to brag about their adventures among the skinheads at the beach. Apparently somewhere near Daytona there was a gaggle of bald drop-outs and runaways that hung out in some abandoned house like the Lost Boys in Peter Pan. On weekends these two Winter Park suburban chicks would go slumming it with them and have the time of their life according to what they told everyone the following Monday. I also knew these girls had a fancy for runaway boys and weren’t past hiding one in the closet for a day or two. And so the path to my new life of freedom and adventure became instantly clear. I was on my way to Never-Never Land. I didn’t consider myself a skinhead and the one skinhead at our school was a mean and violent prick, but Holly and Linda insisted the ones at the beach were nice and fun. At any rate, the thought of this new adventurous life was exciting enough to raise my spirits and with my new hair cut I thought I’d fit right in.

It seemed like fate was definitely on my side. My way to freedom was being handed to me because by the time I reached my school it had been let out and all the kids were filing into the streets on their walk home. Within minutes I was greeted by Linda and other friends that I hadn’t seen in months with hugs and amazement. I realized the enigma of my disappearance sprinkled with rumors of rehab had suddenly given me a lot of street cred mixed with pity from the girls. Linda thought my idea was great and she was happy to hide me in her bedroom until the weekend and help me secure my emancipation among the bald Beach Boys. Her eyeliner had gotten much thicker since I had last seen her and she had dyed her hair black. The idea of staying in a girl’s bedroom for a couple of days, after having not spoken to any for three months, started pushing some thoughts of suicide a little more to the background. First, though, she wanted to take me to see Holly who had skipped school that day so we walked to her house.

Holly was never seen without a lot of thick pasty white make-up covering her face and since she stayed home that day she must not have had any on. When she answered the door to Linda’s trophy, namely me, she kept gasping with amazement and covering her face with her hands pretending like the sun was too intense. Vampires weren’t really in fashion back then so she must have had some terrible acne to hide. She would hug me and then cover her face and gasp and all I could see were her eyes peeking out through her fingers and her blonde 80’s bob. The winds of fortune were definitely blowing in my direction. That morning I woke up in an alarmed room with a bunch of cult zombies and now two sweet girls were fawning over me and hugging me and gasping and laughing with genuine joy. Holly then vanished for five minutes to put on her pasty white make-up. Eighth graders.   

Soon we were sitting in her bedroom and I got to experience for the next hour something that I had completely forgotten and now felt alien and strange: the safe, pleasant feeling of companionship. They couldn’t know how just talking about music and gossip and catching up, things they did every day, had become so foreign to me, so non-existent and in some ways was starting to feel dangerous. Here were kids talking to me like a kid and like I had a personality and feelings and interests. I was too disassociated to remember anything we talked about. 

Human expressions like sharing, kindness, trust, affection, the security of friends hanging out, goofing-off and having fun were all strangers to me now. Such normal human feelings were like a long lost childhood friend you barely remember, but brush into one day and discover they have completely changed, so much so, that you wonder if they are even safe to be around.  I was standing alone on the edge of a barren chasm and my friends were way over on the opposite precipice divided by a vast void of incomprehensibility now separating me from them. I think I barely mentioned Straight to them. I did not know that I was in a state of profound trauma and was almost entirely dead inside. But while hanging with Holly and Linda, somewhere in a remote subterranean dungeon where there was a sliver of my authentic-self still alive—but hiding crouched in a corner just waiting for the next bomb to explode—a faint flicker of cold and long unused light twitched and sputtered and, for the first time in what seemed like aeons, I remembered what it felt like to have hope. What it felt like to actually feel anything.

My liberation from Straight was just around the corner and all our plans were set. We got up to walk over to Linda’s house where I would spend the night first and she and Holly would take turns putting me up until the weekend. I couldn’t believe I could just freely walk down the street between two giggling girls underneath the mighty Florida oaks draped with Spanish moss. No one was guarding me or yelling at me or looking at me with suspicion. It was too good to be true. Had it always been this easy just to walk away from it all? 

As we walked down the sidewalk of that historic Winter Park neighborhood a car driving toward us began to slow while the window rolled down and then the auto  came to a full stop. Instantly my heart fell 1000 miles into the earth as the face of a fifth phase kiss-ass, who had just graduated from the program the week before, came into view. Suddenly Straight seemed to have grown into omnipresent proportions. Its inescapable tendrils spread across the entire planet and right into the safe haven of my companions’ arms and homes. Now no place on earth would ever feel safe. The fear, the gnawing pit, the ten thousand hallways of empty darkness re-emerged in my soul. 

This guy was a Straight poster-boy, a program trophy. I had forgotten he was from Winter Park, too. He told me people were searching for me all over the place. He told me that the police were pursuing me and were very close by. He said that if they found me they would arrest me and lock me up in a Juvenile Delinquent Center. He said it was just a matter of time. But, he taunted, if you voluntarily come with me now, I will take you back and that will go a long way toward spending less time back on first phase. And like a beaten-down dog that only knows to obey his master and has no feeling or fight left in him, I prepared to get in the car and complied with his con. Holly and Linda looked horrified. They’d never seen anything like it. They gave me big hugs and sighs. Linda gave me a gentle kiss on the mouth and I noticed her eyes were pooling up with tears. She will never know how the memory of that singular moist-eyed kiss was like my security blanket over the next several months, one that I would cuddle and hold tightly again and again in my mind until the thought was threadbare and aged.

My mother was furious with my haircut when my parents showed up at the building that night. It’s really about all she could talk about. She made damned sure that she would be at the building first thing next morning to take me to a barbershop and have them shave everything off completely. No son of hers was going to be caught dead in a Mohawk—not even for one day. 

Straight Orlando was located in alien territory for middle-class suburbanites. Mother snatched me from the building the next morning and took me to the first salon she could find. We were the only white people in the joint. It didn’t seem like the beautician knew what to do with straight, white-folk hair and it was the most painful, battered, head twisting, ear pulling ‘do’ I have ever had. But it brought a great deal of satisfaction to my mother and I got to become a skinhead after all—minus the beach and the wild reveling. She dropped me back off at the building and that was that—no inquiry, no why did you do it, why didn’t you talk to me, what’s wrong. No. This was clearly druggy behavior and that defined everything I could possibly say, do, think, or feel. 

So it was back to round one. There I was abandoned a second time sitting with back straight, hands on knees, feet flat on the floor, authentic-self hiding in a corner of the subterranean dungeon. And like every captured soldier who has seen inexplicable human horrors in a war without end, in that moment, I got my thousand mile stare.

I moved quickly back up through the phases. I was good at crying and expressing regret and doing what I was told. Eventually I made it to fourth phase. After about seven months total of Straight my parents were fed up with being a host home and having to feed and house druggies night after night. They started signing me out for more extended free weekends. One day I was able to convince them that I was better, that I didn’t need Straight anymore, that I was repentant and saved and full of the Holy Spirit. 

It was the middle of summer when I was free to go hang out with the neighborhood boys again and play and swim and talk shit. I hadn’t seen anyone for seven months and a lot can develop in the neighborhood psyche of 14 year old boys over such a period. My friends had lost enthusiasm for skateboarding tricks and were pursuing a more cognitive recreation in the form of cannabis use. The Dead Kennedys were no longer blasting from the boom box. Now the summer air was filled with the sounds of Pink Floyd.

Before entering Straight I had never been high beyond middle school hyperventilating tricks. Yet, while incarcerated there I spent months on end listening for 12 hours a day to story after story of people getting high on every drug imaginable so please don’t blame me, dear reader, for being just a little curious as to what all the fuss was about. Seventeen days after my exit from Straight I found myself inhaling the harsh smoke of freshly scorched bud in a homemade pipe. And what had been for me only hearsay and speculation quickly dissolved into the sublime ecstasy of direct knowledge. A very ancient vibration of frolicking animals and primordial wonder filled ever last cell of my body. I had never known such happiness before. I had never felt such tangible love from the Universe. I had never understood what it was like to feel the burden of life suddenly vanish and to have your mind full of revelation and your body floating on waves of bliss. I was finally free. This was not a mere cop-out by physical relocation, but a doorway to cop-out on a profoundly mental level from the prison of my own mind. I knew then with such clarity that, in me, the “war on drugs” had played itself out as a secret cosmic joke. And for the first time in years I let out a serendipitous laughter from the depths of my belly. All I could think about from that day forward was how can I get here again and stay here always. 

Three months after exiting Straight Inc the obsessive thoughts of suicide finally caught up with me and I sincerely wished for nothing more than to cop-out of life all together. On Halloween Day I was alone in my house and opened my parent’s medicine cabinet. I began swallowing every possible pill I could find from all the abandoned medicine bottles that had been forgotten through years of storage—probably some 80 pills in all. Several hours later my parents found me completely incoherent, hallucinating, and beginning to slip over the edge into unconsciousness. Had much more time passed I would have gone into a coma. They brought me to the hospital where my stomach was pumped and I was assigned to a children’s mental health ward. It was there that I finally got to chill out in a hotel style room, far away from my parents, and spend all day making moccasins and doing horticulture.

 Tending those little potted plants and hand sewing pieces of leather together did nothing, however, to prepare me for how to navigate through reality with a completely demolished sense of self for a rudder. Any budding ego-identity that begins to emerge in a 13 year old boy had been smashed to bits and I had no idea how all the shattered fragments fit back together. I had been strategically re-wired to think any independent personality is worthless, dangerous, even criminal. And unless you are totally dependent on a totalitarian system of rules, control, and punishing authority you’re doomed to failure and death. 

It took some creative maneuvering to grow up with a vortex of vacuity for an identity mixed together with a daily tonic of insurmountable distrust for everything in the Universe. I spent the next 16 years in and out of strict cults and some of the most austere monasteries on the planet trying to find a replacement to Straight to give me  an identity, a persona, to have my behavior monitored, punished and controlled—in the absence of that quest I felt nothing but horror and hell-bound dread.  

What finally retrieved the subterranean vestiges of authentic self was, and still is, an encounter with the real story of existence: that the threads of the Universe are not woven with shame, and torture, and neglect, and angry condemnation but with a tireless nurturing Love reaching out from the inner heart of Bliss. Had not Lady Fortune sent my way a great and long-suffering friend, a soul-mate, who could love me as me in all of my inglorious selves, and maintain that gaze of non-abandoned compassion throughout the nightmares, the titanic rage, the cycles of addiction, and the fits of murderous vitriol hell-bent on destroying everything in sight–then I would not be on this planet writing these sentences right now. 

The history of child abuse is as old as the beginning of human society. Our story is just one contemporary new twist on an ancient theme that has always been playing throughout virtually every culture on the planet. Lloyd deMause who has researched extensively the psychological history of humanity, Psychohistory, writes: “The main psychological mechanism that operates in all child abuse involves using children as what I have termed poison containers—receptacles into which adults project disowned parts of their psyches, so they can control these feelings in another body without danger to themselves.” These can be the personal projections of parents and even the collective projections of entire nations. 

In a post-1960’s United States which became increasingly corrupt, selfish, hypocritical, confusing and violent, yet needed to preserve a wholesome God-ordained world-saving image of itself, Straightlings were the receptacles into which grown-ups injected their own poisonous guilt and shame.  Post WWII parents and government officials of the 1970’s and 80’s could evade dealing with their own Shadow, and the honesty and pain that may cause them, by trying to control it vicariously through imprisoning their children, and then forcing them to submit to brutal methods of thought reform and behavior modification. For more understanding of deMause’s grand “History of Child Abuse” take a gander at this: http://www.psychohistory.com/htm/05_history.html

However, when you see our story as one page in a several thousand year global history of abuse it makes it seem less personal. The history of the abuse of children is really the long, clumsy story of human beings becoming more aware of ourselves and of discovering greater differentiation between our inner experience and our outer world. As this capacity for awareness develops toward greater refinement, hopefully, we will move ever closer toward ending the legacy of dehumanizing our progeny and cease passing along our inheritance of harm.