The Growing Years
Max was always a sweetie-pie growing up. But, at age 8 his happiness progressively eroded into unreasonable fear and insecurity. Too scared to go inside the video store for fear of laying eyes on a scary movie DVD cover, and mentally absent in school, as if he was in another world, he invented gestures to blow away the imaginary demons that haunted him. After undergoing a battery of neurological and psychiatric exams, Max was diagnosed with severe OCD. He had been such a trooper- so agreeable and cooperative during the tests, and he continued this respect for his mental health as he responsibly took his OCD meds for the next eight years. I was so grateful to modern medicine, marveling that he was actually able to be happy again. He hadn't been cured of his insecurities, though. Well into high school, he continued to let himself be pushed around in order to be liked, yet was secretly angry for it. We hoped participation in band would help him, socially, and that he would mature and, eventually, find himself and come into his own.
When Max first started smoking marijuana at 16, with band friends, he smiled at me and promised he could handle it responsibly. Nine months later, he had been expelled from his senior year of high school, was hanging out with a new set of “mystery” friends, was openly smoking large quantities of pot, bingeing on alcohol, sleep and food and couldn't answer a question without lying. Of course, Max's behavior angered his younger brother, who was intolerant of his shenanigans and resentful of all the attention Max's negative actions drew. We followed a focused regimen of family, group and individual therapies. After one group therapy program ended, he celebrated his 12 weeks of sobriety by taking acid. He continued to abuse our personal rights to privacy and stole from us and family members. As Max was now inconsistent with his medication, his mood changed to surly and his thoughts more conniving. He made sure he was asleep during the day and up during the night, so he could keep his behaviors secret. He was tactical in his abilities to turn my husband and me against each other: Max knew I co-dependently defended his delicate mental state, which angered my husband, who was no stranger to addiction, having observed much of it while growing up in the 1970's.
Remarkably, Max always left evidence of his actions, as if he wanted to be discovered for his bad deeds. We never understood why he was such a “blow-it”. But, I'm grateful for it now, because that's how we found out he ate the poisonous flower that eventually led us all to Recovery Ranch.
Finding Recovery Ranch
The effects of the poisonous flower, called “Hells Bells” by the drug community, caused an unprecedented, three-day long “trip”that landed Max in emergency psych, followed by a transfer to a mental hospital for more evaluation. Two hours after we committed Max to the mental hospital, we were, ironically, seated at the bar of Slater's 50/50 restaurant, in Pasadena, waiting for a table with my sister and mother. I was voicing my woes about Max and the prohibitive cost of long-term, residential rehab to my mother, when the woman next to me, who had had her back to me, turned around and said, “Excuse me. I couldn't help overhearing your problems with your son. My 31 year old brother is in his 3rd recovery program and he feels this is really the best one he's been to.” (I still have the paper on which I wrote the words “Recovery Ranch”.)
I emailed the Ranch the next day and Daniel called me back right away. I couldn't believe how perfect the “peer-driven” fit was. It's affordability only made it more perfect. The Ranch wasn't about pricey, private rooms with flat screen TV's, psychiatric staff and therapy sessions with serene walks and badminton as primary outdoor activities. Max had successfully outsmarted us all in therapy. How would more therapy help? I felt Max needed to work, to earn self-worth by completing tasks, to really learn about himself and his true abilities in order to thrive.
When the three uniformed members of Recovery Ranch arrived to take Max from the hospital, he seemed a bit more relaxed, as if he was finally resigned to the news that he wouldn't be going home this time. He looked disheveled and homeless compared to the well-kept appearance of these young men who politely greeted me with bright smiles, clean-shaven faces and confidence. They understood what I was going through and, more important, about what Max would need to thrive as they were thriving. These clean-cut guys were testimonials to the Ranch's philosophy of living as gentlemen and being productive members of society. My maternal trepidation at sending my 17 year old Max off into uncharted waters dissolved immediately, easing my heavy heart for the months to come.
Six or Eight Months-- Who Cares?
The program is intended to be at least six months long in order to be effective. Max's improvement was first physical, with pounds dropping almost overnight from being drug-free, combined with physical work and exercise, and a structured environment. He was alert and at attention for the first time in two years. Not surprisingly, his emotional recovery took longer than six months. He had many self-made demons to overcome, and his 30+ other peers were not going to let him get away with any secrets or excuses. We had been told about the intensive, hours-long 12-step meetings that went on well into the night, where liars were exposed and openness prevailed. For several months, Max would not broach about his Ranch experiences, which kept us in the dark about his recovery. We had to glean what we could about the Ranch from other, happy-to-help residents and rely on brief, visiting day meetings with Daniel and Andy for updates on Max's progress.
There were downtimes, too, such as when the group's trust was breached by one person and emotional fallout spread throughout the Ranch. Daniel and Andy expertly managed the cleanup and the learning experience eventually became a good one. Later in the year,as Max showed his capabilities as a very bright and agreeable person, he earned management responsibility that tested his emotional maturity, but also took its toll. That, too, has become a positive experience. These trying experiences needed to happen because they occur in life outside the Ranch, as well. Max needed to learn how to perceive and handle the bad. Daniel and Andy must have felt he had achieved this and more when they announced his eligibility for graduation. I felt he had when we last arrived for a visit and he excitedly said, “So much has happened! I can't wait to tell you!”
Eight months after arriving at Recovery Ranch, Max is now living at the Graduate House in Santa Barbara, studying at SBCC part time and is looking forward to working for Ranch Hands. He says school is much easier to focus on when you aren't thinking about your next high. He will be one year sober on the last day of his first college semester. He trumpets Reveille and Taps every day at flag raising/lowering. He loves his “brothers” and knows they love him. His confidence is growing. He says he wants to grow up.
We have looked forward to every visit to the Ranch since Max came here. Its bucolic scenery is the best therapeutic environment for ANY person. At every visit we are greeted by a receiving line of healthy, smiling men with hopeful handshakes that grip in readiness for recovery. These men are present and are learning how to stay present. We hope that, at Max's young age, he's learned from the older guys about how wasteful addiction is, how lucky he is to be alive and healthy, and how each sober day means life will keep getting better.
How lucky we were to find Recovery Ranch.