Why Seek Conflict when Recovery is Going So Well?

Revolutionaries change the world. For better or worse, they leave their impact on the political, physical, cultural and/or social environment in ways they may not have even intended. They can be evil like Hitler, gifted like Shakespeare or unknown – like whoever started that goofy dance all the kids are doing where they swing their arms in front of them and behind them while swaying their hips. That said, I know being a revolutionary is absolutely counterproductive to my recovery.

For the first 30 years of my life, I told myself that I was put on Earth to have some kind of long-lasting impact that would be felt by everyone far and wide. By my mid-30s, that level of narcissism had settled as I decided I only needed to be known by everyone in a 25-mile radius around me.

The ironic thing is, I achieved it. Whether it was through my successful regional magazine, a film festival I co-founded or because of serving in local political office, I reached my goal of having just about everybody around me know who I was, and I loved nothing more than when someone came up to me to tell me what a good job I was doing.

I loved it even more though when somebody would come up to me and start an argument. I was the kind of person who, whether you did it to my face, in social media, or the local newspaper, I would dig in my heels and fight you word-for-word until I won whatever battle I thought I was fighting.

I thought I was a revolutionary. Whether it was introducing new ideas to the community in my magazine, discovering new filmmakers or creating city policy, I felt like it was my place to change the world and if that came with conflict, bring it on. I was going to win…or at least convince myself I had.

Today, instead of fashioning myself some sort of regional revolutionary, I actually avoid as much unnecessary conflict as possible. I haven’t had social media for about five years, first as a condition of bail and then probation and I don’t anticipate myself ever going back. I need neither the attention a picture on Instagram will get me, nor the long thread of responses as I argue some political or social point with my “friends.”

I’ve learned that when it comes to this kind of conflict, there is very little that I’m going to be able to do, either about someone’s opinion, or about whatever it is we’re arguing about. I completely understand why there is such support for Donald Trump, and I completely understand why there is such contempt, but I’m not going to get into a discussion about either. Whatever happens with Donald Trump, my opinion has no effect on his decisions and changing someone else’s opinion these days is just about impossible, no matter what facts or statistics you bring to the table, so why bother?

I’ve also become the same way with television and movies. Why do I want to get emotionally involved in something that is going to upset me, whether there’s a positive resolution or not? The other day, I happened upon the reboot of Wife Swap and it didn’t take me long to come to the conclusion that it was just about setting the audience up to root for one set of parents over the other, depending on what your beliefs and background are. I don’t want to get upset watching what I think is bad parenting. I don’t want to get upset watching people fail at running restaurants, bars or whatever the premise may be. I also watch far less sports than I once did.

It’s not just “reality” TV. I’ve almost completely turned away from dramatic TV shows and movies. I don’t want to see criminals be put in jail, nor get away with it, even if I know they’re just actors. I don’t want to see people lose loved ones or relationships not work out, even if it’s fake. Unless I’ve seen the movie and TV, so it’s lost its emotional punch, I avoid programming that features conflict as entertainment.

Perhaps this means that I’m running from the world’s problems and great art. At this point in my life, with my recovery going so well for so long, I’m OK with that accusation. Regardless of my opinion about the death penalty or abortion, I’m not going to be marching for or against it. That kind of energy, on either side, isn’t going to help me keep things on an even level. I’d rather see an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond or The Office that I’ve seen 10 times and leaves me feeling amused – or at worse, not feeling anything at all.

I think that I used alcohol and porn to let me escape my need of being a revolutionary, if only momentarily. I used them to bring me down from the emotions I caused – and needed — while creating conflict. When those needs disappear, it’s a lot easier to handle recovery.

‘Radical Acceptance’ Has Been Crucial to My Successful Addiction Recovery

One of the more important tools I developed in recovery has been the practice of radical acceptance. I was once called out for not having any radical acceptance ability when I was in rehab and it forced me to reflect on the accusation.

Several of the residents were allowed to attend an “outside” 12-step meeting, meaning they went to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting off the rehab property with regular community members. On their way back, they stopped off at a store and bought candy and energy drinks, which were both forbidden at the rehab. Their car was searched upon return and the contraband was discovered.

The next day, at our large group morning meeting, one of the counselors told us because of the actions of those four residents, all visitor’s passes would be cancelled the following weekend.

A few of the residents who had family or friends visiting got visibly upset and/or angry.

“This is meant to make you all accountable to one another,” the counselor told the group. “It’s a skill you need to develop. If you were in an office and one of your co-workers was flaunting the rules, your co-workers would come together and set them straight.”

I had always thought I had an overdeveloped sense of justice/injustice, and it was going off like a light on top of a firetruck. I couldn’t stand to see many of my friends denied visits with their families.

“Your rationalization is bullshit,” I said loudly.

“What is that, Mr. Shea?” the counselor asked.

“That’s a pathetic rationalization. First, if we were co-workers, that person would get fired. The entire team wouldn’t. Sure, we could complain to the boss about them, but none of us even knew what these guys did. Second, making each other accountable isn’t actually the way the world works. That’s why we have police and the legal system. We don’t punish all of society for one person’s wrongs.”

“Mr. Shea, do you family visiting you?” the counselor asked.

“No, they’re all in California or the northeast. They’re not flying to Texas to see me,” I explained.

“Then why does this particular situation concern you?” she asked.

“Because it’s not fair,” I said. “It’s not fair to the people who have family and friends coming.”

“Yet none of them are talking,” she said. “It’s you, who doesn’t even have a stake in this.”

“Whatever,” I said, and let it go, seething silently.

It kind of bothered me none of the people affected spoke up. It bothered me even more when a few hours later, I saw them joking and laughing with each other – and the counselor who delivered the news. It dawned on me that I was more upset about a situation that had no bearing on me whatsoever, than people who were directly involved. Something didn’t make sense about it.

Later that day, I sought out that counselor and told her that while the (in my eyes) unjust punishment was still bothering me, the others seemed to move on, and I didn’t understand how they could just do that.

She told me that she knew I believed I had a strong sense of justice and injustice, but she recognized it for what it was. It was really about power and control. I disagreed, but she pointed out as long as it was my allies, I was fine with other people in control, but the moment someone had it and I felt threatened, I confused it with injustice.

“You know you’re probably going to see a little jail time for what you did, right?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I explained. “Technically, I already pled guilty, but when I get home, they’ll look at the fact I went here and to another rehab for alcoholism and that I’m in therapy…”

“You’ll probably do 6 to 12 months,” she interrupted.

“My lawyer is hoping for no time,” I said.

“They always hope for that, and I hope you get no time, but if you do, be prepared that there is nothing you can do about it,” she said.

I looked at her somewhat blankly not wanting to admit she was correct.

“Do you know why none of your friends are still freaking out about their visitors? They’ve learned to practice radical acceptance. That’s where sometimes, no matter what happens, you’re not in control and you just have to accept it and move on.”

It took some reflection, but I was able to recognize plenty of times in my life that I tried to manipulate a situation I didn’t want to accept under the guise of injustice. I also recognized how many times I ended up begrudgingly accepting something I couldn’t control, and how when I finally let it go, it rarely stuck with me very long.

As I’ve made my way through recovery, I’ve done a lot of reading about radical acceptance. That counselor simplified the concept. For me, what’s it really about is the pain and suffering that comes from not being in control.

When I don’t let something I can’t control go, I suffer more pain than if I just moved on. Refusing to accept the pain by refusing to let things go just brings additional suffering, and who really wants that?

About eight months after my conversation with the counselor, I got a sentence of nine months (of which I served six.) As the judge was reading her verdict, a bit of a calm came over me. I now knew what my punishment would be, and I was at peace with it because there wasn’t anything I could do about it and it would be a waste of time to try.

Radical acceptance doesn’t mean being lazy. It doesn’t give an excuse to not standing up against the real injustices of the world, but for people who were power-hungry control freaks like I was, it’s a way to gain perspective.

 

Is it Possible for an Addict to Go From “Recovering” to “Recovered?”

If you’re reading this on the day I wrote it, April 2, 2019, today marks five years of sobriety from alcohol. I also count this as my sobriety date from pornography, although it technically was a few days earlier. If you would have ever told me I’d go five years without either of my nearly life-long addictions, I’d have said it could only happen once I was put in the ground.

I won’t be attending AA to pick up my five-year chip. I believe I took from the program what I could in about six months of attending meetings. One of the things that I questioned at the time, and question even further now with so much sober time behind me, is if their belief that alcoholism is an ongoing disease and people never truly “heal” or completely “recover” is accurate for every addict.

I have no question in my mind that I was addicted to pornography and alcohol. They were my go-to vices when I needed to curb anxiety and stress for two decades. Despite negative consequences and a desire to stop, I didn’t until the law intervened. For me, being told I’d be thrown in jail (first on bail, then on probation) was the incentive I needed to quit.

I’ll admit, the cravings for porn were strong that first year and the cravings for alcohol were just as strong for around three years. Today though, unless I’m writing for this blog or giving an interview on a podcast, thoughts about using are not there. It’s just not a part of my everyday thinking anymore.

I think it’s healthier for me not to attend multiple meetings per week where discussions of alcohol and pornography are the focus. I appreciate the newcomers who are on the verge of falling back into that world of addiction, but I’ve met so many people with long-term sobriety who didn’t take the 12-Step route to know it can be another road to success.

I spent years (and continue to attend) in therapy, learning what happened in my life to contribute to the addictions starting. I have also spent years carefully crafting a new life where my routines are different, my motivations are different and I dutifully pay attention to my mental health.

So, am I still a recovering addict? According to most of the messaging, yes. I’ll never actually “recover”. Can one be an addict yet not actively participate in their addiction, nor having cravings? I’m not sure. Someone who played professional baseball from 1970 to 1984 is not still a baseball player. Someone who stopped smoking in 1997 is not still a smoker. Someone who spent their single life as a womanizer, but remains devoted in marriage is not still a philanderer. So why am I still an alcoholic and a porn addict?

I think the answer for most is, “It’s safer to consider my addiction as an active, living thing instead of a behavior of the past. I’m just one bad choice away from being back there.”

I understand that line of thinking, but aren’t I just one bad choice away from being a heroin user or starting a gambling addiction? We’re all just one bad choice away from ruining our lives, addict or not.

I believe addiction is a disease. It’s been proven by science. But science has also proven there are many diseases that people recover fully from. Is it possible addiction is one of those diseases?

I’m not completely there yet, but I have a feeling at some point, there is going to be an evolution in my mindset from “recovering” to “recovered” and I’m not worried about it being the slippery slope that returns me to the addictions. While I hopefully will always educate and inform about the dangers of addiction, I think the personal danger can dissipate to nearly nothing over time for many people.

Maybe this is just a matter of semantics. We love to label things in our society and we also tend to catastrophize for the worst-case scenario. When I was in rehab, the program was geared the same toward me, who needed only one trip each for alcohol and porn, as it was the person who had been 12 times and never been successful. I realistically probably didn’t need the same level of care that they did.

If constant self-monitoring and keeping your addiction top-of-mind, even after a decade, is what you need to stay sober, then please, fight the daily fight. I don’t want anything I say to dissuade you from continuing on with a program that works for you. I’ll never say that I wasn’t “really” addicted because I don’t need to white-knuckle it day-to-day anymore.

I also think it’s OK if you’re not struggling day-to-day. I don’t think it minimizes your battle and I don’t think you have to apologize for a recovery that the mainstream doesn’t acknowledge. I think it’s actually the place that most addicts strive to arrive at. I’m here, and I’m grateful.

Yes, Recovery Does Get Easier

While porn addiction isn’t exactly a happy topic, I feel like I sometimes tend to be about doom-and-gloom, often specifically looking for negative statistics to show what a problem the addiction is, and will become in our society.

I rarely talk about what it’s like for me today, nearly five years into recovery. For those wondering the big question “Does it ever get easier?” I’m here to tell you that yes, it does, but you have to find the way to make it easier.

I cannot say enough wonderful things about cognitive behavioral therapy. If you have a behavior, even one that reaches an addictive level, I urge you to seek out a therapist who specializes in CBT.

When I was at both of my rehabs, there were the naysayers and people who didn’t want to be there. I remember one time, there was an especially mouth drug addict. He was young and it was clear his parents forced him to be there or he’d get cut off. There are always a few those at every rehab.

“You’re just here to brainwash us!” he once blurted out to a clinician who was running one of our group activities.

He stopped, walked over to the guy, looked him straight in the eye and said one of the most truthful things I’ve ever heard.

“If you’re not here to get your brain washed, you’re in the wrong place. Don’t you think you all need a little bit of brainwashing?” he asked the addict.

A few days later, the anti-brainwasher was kicked out for hooking up with one of the young women he shared his drug of choice with at the facility. It’s funny how it’s never the sex or porn addicts that hook up at these places.

In a nutshell, CBT is self-brainwashing.

The other idea this clinician introduced me to was the concept of the “pre-lapse.” His contention was that once you’re at the stage of relapse, you’re going to engage in your addiction, but if you can nip it in the bud in advance, you’ll never reach relapse stage. There are a series of almost ritualistic thoughts and behaviors most addicts, regardless of the specific addiction, go through prior to using. Once that chain of events begins, it’s hard to derail it.

I learned how to derail the pre-lapse with cognitive behavioral therapy. I used it to tackle both my alcohol and porn problems and although muscle memory has made coping with the addictions easier, I still have CBT in back pocket.

As long as I live and I see an ad for beer on television, I’m going to have the Pavlovian response of thinking it looks tasty. That’s because the first beer or two is tasty. It’s when I feel this way that I pause and remind myself that I’ve never stopped at one or two and can’t stop at one or two, so I can’t have any. That works now. When the pull was harder years ago, I’d start thinking about all of the horrible things I’d done or said when I was drunk and how I never wanted to go down that route again. Eventually, maybe the commercials won’t trigger any response.

With porn, if I see a beautiful woman on TV or in the movies, I’ll sometimes have the immediate thought, “I wonder if she’s done a nude scene.” In years past, that would lead me to one of those celebrity porn websites. Today though, I’m able to pause and ask myself, “What does it matter if she’s done a nude scene? What will I see that I’ve never seen before?” I find that when I boil porn down to its essence, naked people being objectified, I want nothing to do with it.

And whether it’s alcohol or porn, I’m able to look back at the last six years: First, my worst year of addiction, then getting in legal trouble, attending two rehabs and hundreds of hours of therapy, a six-month jail sentence, hurting so many people close to me, almost bankrupting myself all leading to what is today a very isolated, often lonely life. My choices with alcohol and porn led me here and having spent time with addicts, I know I’m actually one of the lucky ones. Reflecting back on these last six years is a quick trick to put any porn or alcohol triggers to rest.

Yes, it’s easier now going into Year 5 of recovery than it was Year 3 and certainly Year 1. For those of you who are in the early stages, don’t fret. Just stick with it. You have control over your actions, even if you need someone to teach you how. Seek out a CBT therapist and make the recovery journey a successful one.

Why do I have a pornography addiction awareness blog?

I was giving an interview to a podcast yesterday and was giving my standard answer to the “Why did you write this book?” question and it occurred to me that I don’t think I’ve ever directly answered the question on this blog which is strange, because the two reasons I write this blog are the same two reasons why I wrote the book.

1. To reach my fellow addicts who need to go get help

First, for addicts, or people who engage in pornography use more than they wish, I try to use my experience as a cautionary tale. Statistics suggest that one-out-of-three men between the ages of 18 and 35 believe they use too much pornography, have a problem with it, or are in the throes of a full-blown addiction.

I didn’t recognize I had a pornography addiction until long after I was arrested for inappropriate behavior with a teenager in a chat room. I believe one of the reasons that I never thought about porn addiction was that I never heard anybody talking about it.

Would it have stopped me before I let it get too far? I don’t know, nor will I ever know, but I can at least try to be that voice I never heard.

If you believe that you have a pornography addiction, please begin to get some help. That could mean a 12-step group, rehab, a therapist, online forums, research…whatever. Just don’t sit there are let the addiction fester. Check out the Resources page for more info on multiple ways to get help.

I know there is an addict reading this now who thinks, “I may have an addiction, but it clearly wasn’t as bad as yours.”

That’s probably true, and consider yourself lucky you have yet to reach the critical point that I did. If you think that I had some idea I’d ever reach the place where I was capable of going into a chatroom, look for a woman to talk to and make the mistake of engaging a teenager…well, you’re wrong.

I would have sworn to you probably up to the last two or three months before I made that horrible mistake I was incapable of doing such a thing – and I would have been telling the truth.

The gambling addict never thinks they’ll lose the house, the guy who snorts cocaine never thinks he’ll be putting a needle in his arm, the person who find solace in food never thinks they’ll get to 300 pounds.

If you have a problem – it doesn’t have to be an actual addiction yet – get some help soon. Stop this before it festers into something you can’t control.

2. To remind non-addicts there is no stereotypical addict

If you’re a male under 40 years old and you don’t look at pornography regularly, you are in the minority. If you’re a female under 40 that doesn’t visit a pornographic website at least twice a year, you’re in the minority. 98% of married men and 70% of married women under 35 report having looked at pornography at least once in the last six months. It’s not just people born post-1978 either.

Most people look at porn, but they won’t admit it. I think that they believe that people like themselves don’t look at porn and they are an exception. We need to acknowledge that more people look at porn than ever before, even if they’re not talking about it.

When I was in rehab for porn addiction, in 12-step groups, or in a group therapy setting, one thing always struck me: These are not similar people. I have met doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, people ranging in age from 19 to 78, the rich, poor and everything in between. I’ve met several women and people who can claim to be of just about every race.

Why is it important that we not stereotype who a porn addict may be? When we stereotype, we miss the outliers. If we’re led to believe that every porn addict is a 22-year-old pimply faced kid who lives in his mom’s basement and has never kissed a girl, we’re going to miss all of the others. It’s kind of like how we seemed to all agree that opiod users in the 1980s and early 90s were homeless types who weighed next to nothing and were making bad choices, not actually sick people. Now, almost everyone knows someone struggling with opiods and they don’t fit the morally bankrupt hobo profile.

Your husband, daughter, father, co-worker, clergy member, etc., may not only look at porn, they may have a problem with it. How would you really know?

I was a 37-year-old civic-minded business owner with a wife and two kids when my recovery began. I believe that the reason I had so much negative fallout locally was not only because of the charges against me, but because the community felt duped. Since I didn’t wear the tag of pornography addict on my sleeve, I certainly couldn’t be one, right? Well, they were wrong and I think felt betrayed for it. The reality is, you can’t spot a porn addict. The moment you think you can, you’re stereotyping and potentially missing something important.

 

 

 

The Sad Reality of Addiction and No Hope

This is much longer than most of what I write, but I think it illustrates the all-or-nothing mindset to life most addicts have. The only alteration to reality is that I changed people’s names.

Aside from the rotund early-20s-something Brackett, I was the longest tenured primary patient at Spencer Recovery Center’s Palm Springs location, with 52 days behind me to that point. I was running the morning meeting and it seemed like Sam, the program director and Allison, the office manager, both leaned on me when they needed help. Sam asked me if I wanted to be an intern just as I was coming out of the morning meeting.

It meant I didn’t have to attend one of the three group sessions every day and there was more leeway when visitors came, but I had to make sure the primaries — what we called the patients who had been there less than 28 days — were behaving for an eight-hour shift, six days per week. I didn’t understand what the upside was and he said, “You’ll be helping out.” I asked if it reduced my costs at all and he said no. He said the fact I was in my mid-30s made me accessible to both the younger patients and the older. I told him that if he needed me to do anything, I’d be happy to help, but I didn’t want to be an official intern until the 60-day mark, when it was mandatory. I was very comfortable and saw no reason to take on anything extra.

The van from Laguna Beach, where the detox and main Spencer facility was, would show up twice a week, dropping a few people off who were deemed to have the demeanor for Palm Springs. I was lucky in that I only spent my first 8 days in Laguna Beach.

The calmness of Palm Springs did catch up to many people. Laguna Beach was a den of drama where drugs and sex were rampant. Palm Springs was not. I don’t think anybody was having sex and it seemed like any time someone did drugs, they were found out quickly. We would max out at 30 patients in Palm Springs where Laguna Beach had about 50. It was much healthier for my recovery from alcoholism.

I made an effort to get to know everyone’s name, but I’d guess I only became close friends with one out of every six or seven people. You could spot from a mile away who was going to get kicked out or simply walk out the door, and with those people, I never got too close.

We had our fair share of “hot messes” as Brackett would call them, meaning girls between the ages of 18 and 21 who seemed like on the outside that they were from lower-socioeconomic homes, yet had a sense of entitlement that the world owed them something. They were clearly promiscuous, with many having their first kid around 16 and some with two and even three kids. They were often loud, enjoyed swearing at the top of their lungs and among the most rattled by the calmness displayed by those of us who lasted more than a week in Palm Springs.

While I didn’t make friends with the “hot messes” it bothered me when they would get kicked out. Usually it was for drinking, which I couldn’t understand because I know it wasn’t about satiating their addiction. It was about looking cool. How much fun could it be to get hammered at rehab? What are you going to do? Get tipsy and watch Family Guy? Either these girls had the worst judgment (something that was hard to argue against) or they just needed to be rebellious, which seemed to be the real answer. When they would get kicked out, they would usually be given anywhere from two-to-six hours additional on the Palm Springs property to figure something out. Those who lived in California were usually able to get a friend or family member to pick them up. Those who were from other parts of the country could usually get family members to wire them money to get home. Sometimes though, their first, second and third plans fell through and despite being young girls who constantly postured that they were “bad bitches” in control of their lives, they broke down crying, not knowing what they were going to do because they were hours away from homelessness if a plan didn’t come together.

My daughter was turning 14 in a couple of months and while to the best of my knowledge she had never touched drugs or alcohol, nor could I ever see her engaging in the kind of stupid behavior most high school teens did, you never know what’s going to happen and the idea of her ending up in a rehab facility in a few years really scared me and broke my heart. Despite the fact these hot messes were not people I socialized with, when they dropped their “bad bitch” acts, they were young, frightened girls and I’d seen my daughter frightened before.

One of the girls I rarely talked to, among everyone’s least favorite, was a 19-year-old called Tawny. She’d been caught drinking for a second time, freaked about it when confronted during our morning group and was kicked out. Told she had only a few hours to leave, she joined us in the van to go to the Friday night AA meeting at City Hall in the City Council chambers. She thought her sponsor would be there and could help her plan what to do next.

The first half of the meeting was typical AA business and mantras. At the 30-minute mark, they would take a short break. The last 30-to-45 minutes was a speaker, who would talk about how AA saved them. I would sit there week after week and think it was some kind of karma that I had to sit in the room where the City Council did its work whereas back home, it was being a City Councilor that contributed to my demise. At least Sonny Bono was never the mayor of my town.

Devising a plan

At the break, I was sitting on a bench about 20 yards from the front door, smoking a cigarette. I don’t smoke, but there was nothing to do in rehab so I took up for the habit for three months. Tawny came over and asked me if I had another, so I gave her one. Never be the asshole who won’t hand out cigarettes in rehab. Nobody likes that person, and they’ll tell you so.

She was a pretty girl, but you could tell the last several years had not been kind to her. When she did her hair and makeup, she was presentable, but without, she looked somewhat haggard. Of all the girls at Spencer, she also seemed to gain weight the fastest. She had to put on at least 20 pounds in the three weeks she’d been there, but it didn’t stop her from wearing the same bikini, which couldn’t hide her growing butt and stomach. She should have been tossed multiple times, but throwing a full bowl of cereal during a process group at Sam when he briefly checked in to ask her about the bottles he found was the last straw. She was given until 9 p.m. to get off the property.

She was told she’d have to be off the Spencer property 30 minutes after we returned from the AA meeting she was hoping to find the absent sponsor at. I knew she lived in California, but didn’t know her plan and wasn’t going to ask.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do. My sponsor isn’t here and isn’t answering my calls,” she said matter-of-factly sitting down next to me. I felt bad, but she didn’t seem to care. She had been caught drinking the first time about a week earlier. They put her on a “behavior contract” which stated she had to follow all the rules. She stopped attending some of the group sessions three days before she finally got kicked out and when she did attend, she often brought food against the rules or was a distraction. It was certainly not a surprise to anyone when she was told to leave.

“At 9 p.m. you’re on the street, I heard.” I said.

“I know.”

“Well, what have you tried to do?”

“I tried calling my Mom. She lives in Long Beach, but she doesn’t want to talk to me. Neither does my grandma in Manhattan Beach.”

“Everybody in your family live at beaches?”

“Pretty much,” she said.

“What about friends?” I asked.

“None of them are going to drive 100 miles to Palm Springs,” she said.

“You do realize there aren’t many homeless shelters in Palm Springs, right?” I asked.

“Yeah, I heard Sam say that in a meeting the other day,” said Tawny.

“So what are you going to do?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said, this time more seriously. We stopped talking and smoked our cigarettes. A few minutes later, a bell rung letting people know they needed to return to the auditorium.

“Ready to head in?” I asked, but noticed she had turned away and had tears coming down her face.

“What am I going to do?” she said through tears and threw her arms around my midsection for what others saw as a hug, but what I could tell was more clinging to hope. I put my arms around her and she started bawling into my chest.

“You’re strong. You’re going to be OK,” I said. “Keep crying, it’s OK. We don’t have to go in.”

She cried for another two or three minutes then pulled herself together and sat up.

“Sorry I got your shirt all wet,” she said, wiping the snot from her upper lip.

“We’re in the desert, it’ll dry in five minutes,” I said and she laughed. “Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to come up with multiple plans and we’ll figure out the best to the worst, OK?”

She nodded and looked incredibly vulnerable, like a little girl. “OK,” she said sheepishly.

“Do you know anybody around here?” I asked.

“Not really,” she said.

“And you have no family, no friends who are willing to come pick you up…none?”

“I don’t think so. I called everyone on my phone that made sense,” said Tawny.

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t want to call someone who is just going to get me fucked up. I want to stay clean,” she said.

“That’s commendable,” I said.

“And I don’t want to go back to being a prostitute,” she said.

“You were a prostitute?”

“Yeah, for a year. It was the only way I could pay for a place for me and my son. I couldn’t stay with anyone else so I did what I had to,” she said, sniffling and still trying to pull herself together. “If I could get to Laguna Beach, I have some friends there.”

“I’m not judging. We do what we have to,” I said, realizing I now knew a teenage prostitute. I was becoming more like a character from a Lifetime movie every day at rehab. “Would anybody at Spencer be willing to sneak you back into their room late at night?”

“I don’t think so,” she said. There were only a handful of girls at Spencer and I didn’t think any were close with Tawny. There were a couple of scuzzy younger guys who might, but the odds of them not getting caught were non-existent and she knew they’d expect something in return.

I checked my phone (yeah, it was one of the rare rehabs that let us have our cell phones. We can debate the merit of it another time) and found Mickey’s number. He lived in the desert nearby with his girlfriend and had left Spencer before Tawny arrived, which was probably to her advantage. He didn’t know what a pain in the ass she could be.

“I’m going to call my friend Mickey. He was at Spencer before you got there. He’s probably about 30. He and his girlfriend Sharon are pretty cool. They’re clean and they did like 90 days each here. I’ll see if you can stay with them one night, but tomorrow you have to figure something else out,” I said.

“I can probably get a friend to come tomorrow,” she said.

“OK, and if they say no, we’ll ask Tom if you can sleep in his truck tonight. If he says no, when we get back, I’ll say I forgot something in the van that brings us here and I’ll leave it unlocked and you can sleep in there.” I said.

Tom was a patient my age who I bonded with quickly. He was a member of the Hell’s Angels who drove himself to the facility, so his truck was sitting in the parking lot. While I know he enjoyed the party lifestyle, I also had a suspicion he was hanging out in rehab because it was a safe place to hide from the police.

“Thank you, Josh. I’m sorry I was such a bitch to you,” Tawny said.

“You were never a bitch to me of if you were, I just ignored it. Promise me that you won’t be so defiant in the future. You would have a bed there tonight, your bed, if you didn’t break the rules,” I said.

“I know. I’m sorry.”

I called Mickey and explained the situation, trying to play up the fact she was a scared, young girl and playing down the mouthy teenager I saw far more often. He asked Sharon if it would be OK and they both agreed to take her for a night. Mickey said they were renting a house near Joshua Tree National Park, so it would take him about 40 minutes to get to Spencer. Since we weren’t going to be back for a half hour, it was good timing.

Tawny gave me a hug and again apologized for everything. I didn’t tell her that I liked problem solving, especially other people’s problems, far more than I enjoyed listening to someone talk about how AA saved them. We sat on the bench for another 20 minutes waiting for the meeting to finish. We talked about her son, my daughter and what she pictured her future looking like. She wanted to eventually get to Hollywood to do hair and makeup for movies and TV shows. She said she’d taken half the cosmetology courses she needed to get her license. Her grandmother, who had custody of her son, said once she finished that schooling, she could live with them. I tried to tell her what great choices those were and how she should strive for that dream. I told her to imagine 10 years from now, when she’d be making good money and having a son who was proud of her. It seemed to perk her up.

When we returned, Tom and I helped Tawny take her bags out to the parking lot area. He was given access to his truck after 30 days and mentioned he had to go to Laguna Beach to sign paperwork at that facility and he could give her a ride there the next day.

“See, everything does work out,” I said.

Tom and I waited a few minutes with her before Mickey and Sharon showed up. I thanked both of them and they said they were just going to watch videos that night and Tawny seemed very grateful. I hoped she could pull the gracious houseguest act for at least a night. Tom said he’d pick her up very early at Mickey’s house, like 6:30 a.m. and take her to Laguna Beach. Tawny once again thanked me, gave several people seeing her off hugs and left with Mickey and Sharon. I felt good that I came to her rescue, even if only for a night.

Happily never after

I got a call from Tom shortly before the 10:30 a.m. group meeting the next morning.

“So, we’re on the way to Laguna and she asks me to stop at 7-11 so she can get coffee. Instead of coffee, she comes out with a handle of vodka. Before she even gets back into the car, she’s drank half of it. I told her she couldn’t drink when I was driving, so she drank another half of what was left. I have brothers in the Angels who are drunks that can’t drink in an hour what she drank in three minutes,” he said.

“Where were you?”

“We hadn’t even got out of Joshua Tree yet!” he said. “Then, we start to go and she starts begging me to take her to that hotel down the street in Palm Springs so she can get dope. And I asked her what money she had and she said she could just blow a guy to get what she needed.”

“Jesus Christ,” I muttered into my cell phone.

“I told her we didn’t have time and about three minutes later, she’s asleep. She wakes up like after 40 minutes and sticks her head out the window and pukes all over the side of my truck. So we had to get off the highway and wash the side of the truck at a car wash. She pukes like two more times while we’re there and then said she’d be OK,” said Tom.

“Did she get fucked up at Mickey and Sharon’s house?” I asked.

“No, Mickey said she was great. They watched a movie and she fell asleep halfway through.”

“So what happened then?”

“Once she was done puking, we got back in the truck and kept going. She’s on her phone the whole time and like five friends of hers all said she couldn’t stay with them. I don’t know what the fuck she’s done to her friends but she doesn’t have any fucking friends. Once she tried that, she called a guy and told him if he gave her a place to stay, she’d work for him again.”

“As a hooker?”

“Yeah. She said she fucked guys for anywhere from $50 to $200 and if she was lucky, she’d get half the money,” Tom said.

“So she’s going back to being a prostitute?”

“I dropped her off in front of what looked like a crack house in Laguna Hills,” he said.

“There are crack houses in Laguna Hills?” I asked.

“There are crack houses everywhere,” Tom said.

“That’s disappointing,” I said.

Her time at Spencer meant nothing. She was drunk again and planning on selling her body, something she had told me less than 24 hours earlier she didn’t want to do. The optimist in me said that it was the booze talking and once it wore off she’d come to her senses, but the realist in me knew it wasn’t true and her bad upbringing and addiction had not been conquered, and probably hadn’t even been affected by her time at Spencer.

“You can only save yourself,” Tom said. “Anyway, I’ll be back this afternoon. Talk to you later. Bye.”

“Bye,” I said and hung up. Tawny was on my mind for a few minutes, but my daughter was the one really on my mind. I know Tawny’s parents were not helpful, but I didn’t know if that mattered. Most of the people who were young at Spencer had parents visit who seemed like great people. How do decent parents, like I’d like to believe my wife and I are, keep our children from using? Whoever figures out a foolproof plan could make a lot of money.

I walked into the office before the meeting and told Sam I was ready to be an intern.

 

Everything You Wanted To Know About Being On Probation Without Having to Commit a Crime to Find Out

I’ve shared quite a few stories from jail, but once being locked up was done, my experience with the criminal justice system was hardly over. Jail is really just the middle part. At first you have the court system to wind your way through. That took me 22 months. Then, jail was 6 months. The final part, probation, is 36 months in my case. As of this writing, I’m now less than 10 months away from it being done.

When I was in jail, I learned that many inmates took longer sentences so probation would not be part of their lives upon leaving lock-up. I couldn’t understand why they’d make that decision. Isn’t a month in jail and two years of probation a better deal than three months in jail? At least you’re free.

When I first visited my lawyer, he suggested that we pitch a long-term probationary period of like 8 years to the DA and judge, while trying to keep me out of jail completely. That didn’t happen, and looking back now, I’m glad.

The judge, at your sentencing, also creates the terms of your conditional release, better known as probation. There’s the boilerplate stuff, like no committing other crimes, but then they will tailor things to your specific case. For instance, I was not allowed to move home with my family after jail until I passed a polygraph stating I’d never put my hands on a child. I knew I’d pass it with flying colors, but I still had to live with my parents for about three months after I got out while waiting for it to be scheduled. And while I knew I would pass, I was anxiety-ridden over the possibility of a false positive.

I was also forced to join a weekly sex offenders’ support group. Once I was deemed ready, which took about a year, I was moved to a monthly support group. I’ve grown to enjoy the group, so I’ll probably continue when I’m off probation, but as for now, if I don’t attend this group, which costs $40 per session (that’s $160/monthly in the weekly group – a large amount for some of the guys) I can be put back into jail.

That’s really the thing about probation, while it’s not difficult, there are so many strings attached that it’s like a black cloud hanging over my head. The specter of being sent back to jail always looms.

I first had to report every two weeks to the probation officer who handled sex offenses. He was supposed to have 30 people to oversee, but had closer to 80. After proving I was trustworthy over seven or eight months, I was transferred to a different PO that handled every kind of criminal.

POs are allowed to drop by and do a search of your house at any time. My first PO visited once in the beginning and my second PO did the same. I think their caseloads are just so large that they don’t have the time to make visits to people they don’t believe are at a high risk of recidivism.

My PO only sees me at the office once a month now, and most of the time his only question to me is, “Do you need anything from me this month?” and the answer is no. I’m guessing that they can tell that I am the kind of person who made a terrible mistake, follow the rules they provided me and am not going to be any trouble. I couldn’t just say that in the beginning, I had to prove it to them over time.

Most of the people I came in contact with in jail, and in the waiting room of probation, are there for drug violations that happened while they were on probation. They have a true addiction and despite getting nailed for having drugs at some point, the risk of being put back in jail is nothing compared to the demon of addiction, so they use again. Most who violate their probation are nabbed via a dirty urine test.

These are the people who will take a sentence of three months in jail and no probation instead of one month in jail and two years of probation. If they are not on probation, they can’t violate probation. Most have no interest in curbing their habit, or available support to even try, so skipping probation is the safest way to legally return to their habit. Nobody will be testing their urine.

While it was far worse in the beginning, I still get nervous on the days I go to probation. The PO has the right to determine I did something wrong (even if it’s not illegal for the rest of you) and bring me to jail. I haven’t even come close, but knowing that could happen ruins my day.

I did six months in jail and got three years of probation. Knowing what I know now, if I could have done an extra month in jail for those three years, I would have said yes. It would have meant no nerve-wracking polygraphs, no asking for permission when I want to leave the state, no court-mandated support groups, no $10 monthly fee for simply being on probation, no sick feelings when the first Monday of the month rolls around.

I now feel like I’m just playing out the clock, but much like I breathed a sigh of relief the day I left jail, I’m going to exhale just as deeply my last day of probation.