I made plans to cop out on the first day of Spring because it symbolized a new beginning. I didn’t have a plan for what I would do after I left though and I didn’t really do anything during my copout.
(If you are looking for an exciting adventure full of bravado and glory, you should just stop reading, there’s none of that here. This is a true confessionary tale about sad adolescent pain and a small mountain of 15-day-old poop.)
I was only gone for one day and it makes me wonder what I was thinking. I’d been planning to leave for weeks, I’d been thinking about leaving ALL THE TIME but I didn’t have any idea what I would do once I. It’s almost like I just knew I had to get out, then my brain would be different. Maybe I couldn’t use my program brain for thinking or seeing beyond the hurdle of leaving, I could only see up to the moment when I would be AWOL but I couldn’t actually imagine being AWOL. I was already full of shit just for thinking about copping out, I would have been started over just for thinking about it, but all I’d been able to imagine and fantasize about was the hurdle itself, that was all, there was nothing clear beyond it.
That morning, thirty years ago, March 21, 1986, my mother dropped me off at school thinking she’d pick me up later in the afternoon and take me back to the building. I didn’t have the guts to copout from first or second phase, so I had planned to I make it up to third phase to avoid direct confrontation. I made third phase sometime in mid-March after being in the program since November. I’d been planning my cop out since my second time on first phase. It’s tedious trying to describe all my phases and programs and “days,” as we called them. I had three first phases, three second phases, two third phases, and then one 4th and 5th phase.
I got started over my first time on second phase after I reported myself for being full of shit. What a weird thing, to hold your hand out in front of you like you like a slice of bread silently dividing the left side of the world from the right side of the world, waiting for a fifth phaser to ask you what you want and give you permission to speak.
“I’m full of shit,” I said to the fifth phaser. He cocked his head back like a rooster, real important-like and grabbed his little notebook out of his back pocket. He came and sat down next to me in group and I felt important, like he was gracing me with his presence.
“I lied on my intake,” I said, “I didn’t do as many drugs as I said I did.”
He seemed disappointed that it wasn’t something juicier but he wrote it down and ripped out the tiny page and put it in a stack of other Chain of Command (C.O.C) Concerns that would be delivered to Staff that evening before night rap. I sat there waiting to be started over. I was relieved, like I’d taken a big poop, but not near as big
as the poop I took on day 15. My first poop in the program was on day 15. That’s a long time to go without pooping. It was a volcano-shaped mountain by the time I was done. It stood up out of the toilet water about five inches. My oldcomer and the other newcomer in the bathroom gagged on the fumes. My oldcomer stuck his face under his shirt so he could breathe but he still got desperate. When I was done, I wiped tenderly and stood up. There was no way it was going to flush. My oldcomer cracked the door open so he could yell down the hall to his dad.
“WE NEED A COAT HANGER IN HERE!!!!!!” His dad didn’t ask why, he just disappeared and came back with a wire hanger bent into a makeshift shit poker. He passed it to my oldcomer, who poked at the solid mountain of 15-day-old shit and tried to get it to break up a little and flush. He couldn’t get it to go down and my host dad had to deal with it the next day. I was easily ten pounds lighter but I felt like my anus had ripped open and I was afraid I was bleeding. It was late at night, we’d finished going over our MI’s and had our snack. The three of us were cramped-up in that tiny bathroom. I felt sorry for the other newcomer, slumped on the floor wishing he could just go to sleep but I figured the oldcomer deserved the discomfort, it’s what he got for watching me try to crap since I got there. Anyway, when I got started over from my first second phase for being full of shit on my intake, I knew my parents would understand, sometimes progress at Straight meant going backwards a little bit. At least I was getting honest, I mean I had gotten honest and was genuinely trying to stay absolutely, completely, totally, 100% honest.
But let me go back to the beginning. At my intake I didn’t know anything about the program. I knew Nancy Reagan had recently been on TV praising the place but I didn’t know what they did to kids there. I figured it was a legitimate drug rehab for actual drug addicts. When we first got there I was afraid they wouldn’t let me in just for smoking pot (about 25 times) and I wanted to get into to rehab to avoid going to juvenile detention. I was scared of juvie. I thought rehab would be easier than being bullied and raped in detention. I was on probation for something stupid, shoplifting. I was so desperately lonely and isolated as a child that when I finally made friends as a teenager I was willing to do the stupidest stuff just because I was so drunk on the joy of having a comrade or two.
My road to Straight, Inc. started after a fun afternoon skateboarding with my friend. After a stupid dare, I’d gotten caught stealing a skateboard. I was put on probation and when I ran away from home a few weeks later (just to go camp away in the woods and have space for a few days), I’d broken my probation without knowing it. When I ran away a second time (to get space again), I knew it meant something drastic would happen.
I thought I could blame it all on drugs and thought I would get sent to an easy 28 day clinic and get everyone off my back but the joke was on me. I had just turned 16, I didn’t know anything, I hated school, the bullies were terrifying and the work was insulting, a waste of time. I hated going to church because the preacher was insane and racist and they all made God into a really hateful man who wanted to burn most everyone for all eternity. The government was run by rich white men and all the grown ups I knew were all completely blind to all of those things. Growing up meant joining an invisible club of insanely hypocritical pretenders and I didn’t want to be in that club. I wanted to figure out how to live away from parents so I could smoke pot, play guitar and sleep with my girlfriend. I thought those were things that sick teenagers did, I didn’t know grown-ups did those things in any legitimate way. I assumed I was a bad person for doing those things and wanting to do them more than I was allowed. That’s how I ended up with the disease of addiction and needing the help of Straight.
Now let’s go back to my second program, after I got started over for being full of shit. My second time around, at least since the moment I decided to cop out, I felt like I was living in some kind of science fiction movie, like there were two worlds, a fake world and a real world. The world of futuristic world of Straight, being in group and writing MI’s at night, was fake, and the real one was in my head. The world of me scheming a way to get out was the real world and I cherished it with all my heart. I created something real just by obsessing on copping out. It was scary to carry around a whole real world in my head while I was in group. But I got used to the chronic fear – that my face would give me away or that group would see through me somehow and know I was about to cop out. I walked around group pretending to be earnest, pretending everything. I got used to faking it and to being an imposter. My adrenaline was always on overdrive, especially when I was in group. I had my secret and my secret was the only real thing I had in my life. My secret made adrenaline rush through me all the time and it meant that there was hope.
I knew that if I was brought back after copping out I would be confronted and started over to day one. But even that seemed like some part of the progress. I had noticed early on it seemed like copouts got called on more often after they’d returned and they seemed to make quicker progress so I figured that if I was caught and brought back, it still might help me get out quicker. What a weird thing, that leaving the program would have seemed like a way to get through the program quicker. Maybe that’s why I didn’t ever think to make a plan for how to stay gone. Maybe I knew deep, deep, deep down that I just had to cop out as a way to make quicker progress.
Anyway, as my mom drove me to school on the first day of Spring, my heart was beating so hard I was afraid she would hear it in the seat next to me. I had $1.15 in change for lunch money, I was wearing a tan jacket, I said goodbye to her and walked down the breezeway, across the parking lot and then out across the road towards the woods. I cut through someone’s yard towards the creek and the familiar powerlines where I used to spend time before being sent to the program.
I went and stood in the forest near the school and tried not to faint from fear. I could hardly catch my breath. It felt like I’d jumped off a cliff, I was falling and I was gonna splat. I felt so afraid just standing frozen there in silence, like my heart might explode from pumping so hard.
The point had been to leave and break out of the schedule, to not have to obey every single rule every second of the day. It seems now like the point had been to just get one moment of freedom, it never occurred to me that I would actually need a place to go and a way to stay gone. I sat down and tried not to cry, suddenly, without the group and the schedule and the raps, I was so deeply lonely. I wasn’t just alone in the world, I was nowhere, in between worlds. My one druggie friend from before the program had moved, my other friends would tell their parents that they’d seen me. I couldn’t trust anyone to keep my copout a secret. As I sat in the crisp spring sunlight getting hungry and thirsty, I tried to pretend that I was in the beginning of a big exciting adventure. I walked along the powerlines to the grocery store and bought a root beer with my lunch money and shoplifted a pack of cigarettes.
I spent the rest of the day just sitting, listening to the creek and marveling at the contrast between the way it felt to be in the program and the way it felt to be in the beauty of nature while breaking the all-powerful rules. There was no real big difference in the actual action of sitting in the woods and sitting in group but they were two totally different universes. I knew that they were different but I couldn’t understand why my sense of myself was so different when I was alone in the woods and when I was sat in group. By copping out I had suddenly beamed up from the weirdest hell. Like I’d stepped out from under a tarp that covered the world of Straight.
As the afternoon wore on and I imagined my mother reporting me to staff, I had the old familiar adrenaline start pumping again. Just imagining my name being called at evening attendance and the silence after supper as group realized I was copped out. I still had nowhere to go and nothing to do and nothing to eat and I began to realize that it was going to be very cold that night, laying on the forest floor. As it got dark I built a small fire but I let it go out, afraid someone would find me. I lay awake all night shivering and wondering why my life was turning out to be such a mess.
At some point in the night I decided that I would see if I could get into my parents house during the day while they were both at work. I waited until the sun was high in the sky and it looked like mid-morning. I didn’t have a way to tell time of course, only being on third phase when I left. I walked along the powerlines and up the creek to the street nearest my parents house. I hadn’t seen the mid-day sunlight shining on our home since I’d been put in the program in November and it was pretty and made me miss the normal days before. The spare key was there and I went straight to the
kitchen. I was only there for ten minutes and was in the middle of cooking a Steak-Um, when I heard the front door open. I turned off the stove and ran to hide in a closet, the Steak-Um still sizzling. My mother and her friend from work had come to check the house on their break for lunch. They never came home for lunch so I didn’t expect them but they later said they had a feeling I’d be there trying to get food and clothes. When she saw me I had to fight back the tears.
“Please don’t go, just let me call your dad, please wait until he gets home.”
I had no intention of running away right in front of her, I didn’t have the heart to run from her face. She was busy going around deadbolting the doors and windows as she nervously explained what a coincidence it was that she’d came home from work when I happened to be there. I could tell she was scared and it broke my heart.
It never occurred to me to explain anything about Straight, I thought she knew what the program was really like. I never stood up to my parents, not to their faces. As long as I can remember, I always submitted out of fear. It was fine when I was two or three years old but as I turned into a teenager this became more and more uncomfortable. “Don’t talk back” had turned into don’t talk at all. I didn’t see any other option, there was no way to talk it all out. The problems were fundamental, they couldn’t be adjusted and mentioning them would mean risking their punishments. I was born to the wrong family and couldn’t drink the right Kool-Aid no matter what I did. In the most painful moments of alienation I would try to open up to them, or at least to their worldview but as my teen years wore on I just wanted to go off and die in some quiet corner and be done with the hopeless mess it all seemed to be. There was no real place for me in the grownups world and that was the only world presented as an option.
Sitting there staring out the window, knowing I was going back to Straight, I felt trapped. I gave up inside once again, once again a little deeper. I couldn’t make it as a copout and at least Straight was familiar, at least there, they wanted me, or said they did. At least I wouldn’t have to decide anything. I knew I would be going back to the building but my mind was blank. There was nothing, no thoughts, no options. I was just really hungry and tired and there was nowhere I belonged. I asked if I could eat the Steak-Um while I waited for my dad to come home from work to take me back to the building. My mom was cheerful about letting me have the Steak-Um, she even toasted some bread for me to eat it on. I put way too much mustard on it just for the extra calories. It made my eyes water but I wolfed it down. I don’t remember what my dad said when he got there. I don’t remember anything after the Steak-Um.
My next memory is of an intake room, I remember staff taking my cigarettes. I remember tucking my shirt back in after the strip search. And I remember when they told me I was going to juvie. It was the most overwhelming moment in my life, even scarier than copping out.
I don’t remember who beltlooped me back into group from my re-intake but I remember being confronted for leaving. I stood there at the back of group forever, getting yelled at. The oldcomer holding the back of my pants was shifting his weight because he was tired of standing there. Everyone was motivating hoping they would get called on so they could confront me and tell me how mad they were that I left. It felt like they loved me and I remember being surprised to find it felt good. I thought I would be ashamed but mostly I felt loved, like they really cared about me and my disease of chemical dependency. Even the oldcomer holding my beltloop motivated with his one free arm. It was just a gesture of his commitment to getting sober really, oldcomers rarely got called on to confront the newcomer they were holding onto.
I was sat on front row but I didn’t start motivating. No one tried to make me motivate either and I assumed it was because I’d just come back. Right away, a senior staff member came over and knelt down beside me. He put his face close in and spoke quietly. I remember noticing how odd it was to have him talk directly to me without everyone in group being able to hear what he was saying. Staff always talked to me from a distance, from way up on their rap stools with the whole group listening in but I had never really realized that before. He was speaking to me privately, quietly saying that Sheriff Marshalls would be walking into the back of group in 15 minutes and they were going to take me to the detention center because I had violated my probation by copping out. I was so scared I felt the floor open up underneath me, I felt like I was falling but I didn’t land, I just kept falling and falling. I couldn’t breathe and my face felt like it was three feet wide and inflated like it would pop. It was afternoon rap, kids were relating in group but I couldn’t understand the words they were saying. I heard them through a muck of shock. And then I heard my name called in a huge deep voice and I heard a chain tinkling at the back of the open meeting room.
There were two Marshals standing at the back of the room wearing black leather trenchcoats. One of them had hollered my name and although I knew they were making a show of this, making me an example, trying to scare the group into thinking this is what happens if you cop out, it worked, I at least, was completely terrified. The tinkling sound was a pair of shiny handcuffs they were dangling along as they swaggered down the middle of group towards me. One of them said my name again, as a question, I guess to make sure they had the right kid. They told me to turn around and they handcuffed me and the cuffs were too tight. I walked with them up the aisle and as I passed the rap stools at the back of group, I heard everyone say “Love Ya” in unison. We walked in silence across the open meeting room to the door and the phaser at the back door stepped aside without asking us to turn and get permission to exit, he just knew to step aside.
They put me in the back of a police car and as I sat there trying to find a comfortable position with the handcuffs twisting my arms, driving down Backlick Road, I looked at
the people in the other cars. It was close to rush hour by then and at one of the stop lights, a young boy looked me in the eye. I realized that he probably assumed I was a bad guy, a criminal. Suddenly I realized the whole world saw me as a criminal, I was a criminal but all I was trying to do was make it to some place that didn’t hurt so much. All my life, when I got in trouble it was when I was trying to make something better, I was just doing it in a way that grown ups would not allow. I wasn’t a criminal in my heart, I was not a bad person but to the world I was a criminal in handcuffs in the back of a police car. It wasn’t unfair, it just another way that everything was wrong again and impossible to explain. All of that was hitting me as we rode towards the detention center.
You’d think I would have realized it but I didn’t, no one had explained to me that copping out from Straight would be a violation of my probation. I remember seeing my probation officer about a week after I had gotten put in the program. I felt so ashamed and just cried the whole time she was there, same way I did when I saw my parents for my first TALK. I was thinking about my parents when we got to the detention center. I felt pretty numb. I had the feeling that it was all a mistake, no one could understand and there was no sense in trying to explain. All the adults I’d ever met, the cops who drove me to juvie, the executive staff members, my parents, everyone grown up thought I was a criminal. I was, because I kept refusing to play by their rules, because their rules were hypocritical, they were make believe, part of the silly club they all believed in but wouldn’t admit to being in.
Detention was not scary at all. There was a really cool black man in charge of the night shift when I got there, his name was Otis. He made me feel safe and I instantly knew that he respected me in a way very few adults in my life ever did. I don’t remember much about the intake but there was no strip search, just a shower with poison for lice. “Why didn’t we do that in Straight?” I wondered. He handed me a towel, a pillow, clean sheets and told me night snack would be ready in an hour. I went and made up my bed in my cell and felt a rush of happiness that I would have privacy.
I went to the dining area and sat in a plastic chair. It was relaxing to be able to lean back and get comfortable. I looked around at the other kids, some playing basketball and some at the next table playing spades. There were about 20 kids there, none of them seemed scary or mean. The TV up high on the wall was playing some political talk show but Otis was the only one watching it. He reached up and switched the channel to Hogan’s Heroes when he called us in for snack. After cookies and chocolate milk, those of us who were 16 or older got to smoke a cigarette in the dining room and then we went to our cells for lights out. We’d get to smoke after breakfast, one at mid-morning, one after lunch, one in the afternoon, one after dinner and one before bed. They gave us the cigarettes confiscated from visitors who weren’t allowed to bring in open packs. When we ran out of house cigarettes, Otis shared his own. In many ways, I felt more free being locked up in detention than I had anywhere else. I was more free to be myself there than I was at home.
It didn’t compare to Straight at all, it was totally different but even though it was more comfortable, I knew there was no one there I could really share my feelings with. In Straight I had learned to focus on myself and I had forgotten how to just talk about regular stuff. I didn’t really try to make friends in juvie because I knew I was different and they wouldn’t understand the way I thought. I also started to worry that I was stuck on my days, not progressing and in juvie there was nothing I could do to make any sort of progress. It was just a matter of waiting instead of a matter of working my program. It was kind of boring. We were allowed to do schoolwork but it was remedial. The teacher was a very pretty young woman and she was very nice. But I knew that I couldn’t talk to her the way I talked in raps though and I started to get lonely for group. I wanted to open up and share all my feelings, to be to be able to relate to group about my experiences. Without group, I couldn’t relate.
I was there about two weeks before I went to court. When Otis told me I had a court date coming up I tried to act like I had known to expect it but it was actually a surprise. I had no understanding of how the court system worked and no idea what would happen in front of the judge. I remember thinking I could be sentenced to nine months in detention but I wasn’t. I walked in with a marshall, I saw my parents at a table, I sat next to them silently. The judge, Michael J. Valentine was his name, walked in like a god. My parents and I stood up in silence and Judge Valentine said I must complete the Straight program and he banged down his gavel.
I don’t remember the ride back to Straight or my re-intake. I just remember thinking I could make it through all five phases really fast this time. Since I was court ordered, I had to. I could use this as part of my past and it would be emotional and scary because of the dramatic scene with the Marshals and all my feelings about going to “jail.” I would be an example of someone who was so lucky to be in Straight.
Kids believed me when I screamed at them about how lucky they were to be there. I exaggerated how awful juvie was and it pleased the staff. I went right through my phases and graduated ten months later. Staff saw how grateful I was to be back, my past incidents were much more convincing and I really began to feel certain that it was either get through Straight or get ready for boring future in jail as a criminal.
There are a lot of bad things in the world.
There are so many awful, horrible things happening as we speak.
Very few of them are bad the same way Straight was bad.
I’ve been writing about my copout, not about the way Straight was abusive.
There are things that are worse than Straight but they don’t make Straight less abusive.
The Nazi’s were worse than Straight staff. Stalin was worse than any Straight executive.
Terrorists and the KKK and slavery and genocide are all worse than Straight.
But Straight was sneakier and more insidious.
They tortured teenagers and told everyone they were treating them for the disease of addiction.
They made kids hate themselves and believe things that weren’t true.
They made kids abuse other kids.
The people who invented Straight and turned it into a national franchise are different from regular criminals because they are still heroes to much of the world.
They still get federal grants and the still enjoy the privileges that come with being powerful, prestigious men in America.
There are a lot of worse things in the world, but in America, there isn’t much that is so wrong and so deceitful.
I’d sure like to see those fancy executives have to sit in group for two years, write two years worth of MI’s, motivate for two years, have to shit with their oldcomers watching and stand in the intake room for two hours every morning in silence.
I’d sure like to see them get reported and wait all day for review.
Like to see them held down for spit therapy.
Sure would like to see them try to copout and get brought back to group by the cops.
They didn’t tell the world about those things but they made sure those things were happening to us.
Those Americans who invented Straight and pushed Straight and sold Straight as something it wasn’t – they need to get honest.
They knew they were hurting a large percentage of the teens they got their hands on.
They wrecked more families and ruined more lives than anyone knows.
They programmed us to self destruct if we ever snapped out of their trance.
They made us believe that if we stopped working the program we would go back to drugs.
And since our disease was progressive, they said we would be way worse off than we were before.
They said it was because of our disease and it was why we would have to work the program for the rest of our lives, everyday, every minute of every day, forever.
When we realized we’d been brainwashed we also realized we had the whole world against us, all over again.
And we could still taste the tap water and the lies and stupid, mean, sadistic hatred.
The worst thing is that I know I was tinkered with and it’s too late, I will never know what it’s like to grow up without being contaminated.
They got in my soul and they tinkered around and I’ve spent my whole life trying to start over so I could grow some way true that wasn’t stunted by their styrofoam and fluorescent lights and linoleum floors and cinder block walls painted beige.
What kind of Americans would put such big American flags up on those windowless open meeting room walls?
There is no name for the sickness they spread but they made thousands of people sick with the same robotic virus.
They didn’t kill people but they made thousands of us want to kill ourselves.
Luckily, we don’t know how many were successful.
It’s an exaggeration to call it a an “American holocaust” like some do.
It’s not really an exaggeration to call it torture, but in general, it isn’t a helpful description because most people don’t understand the actual definitions of the term.
It’s ignorant to say it happened a long time ago because it,s still going on in other programs that work the same way.
Luckily, most people aren’t burdened with that thought.