This particular post presents my personal story as background information and is one of five parts. Part 1 covered my early life through some of high school. This post will present my early experience at a Twelve Step boarding school. Part 3 will reveal my initial conversion experience. Part 4 will document my time at college and early years in marriage and part five will present the events surrounding my deconversion.
When we left off I was on a plane to The Family School, a boarding school in NY. My quite large escorts (one of whom played football with the Navy) gave me two letters -- one from each of my parents -- which I read as we coasted along above cotton ball clouds saturated with reds and oranges. The letters contained expressions of my parents' taxed endurance and refusal to idly witness my ongoing self-sabotage. I was shocked. I couldn't believe I had actually pushed them to do something like this. I had been in my own bed just a couple hours ago... now I was flying halfway across the country with strangers who's initial greeting involved an option of doing things the easy way or [holding up a pair of zip tie handcuffs, the hard way].
I soon found out that the boarding school was specifically for kids with addictions and behavioral problems. It was founded on the Twelve Steps, perhaps best known for their place as the foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Telling this phase of the story will be quite difficult since the school is incredibly unique and simply difficult to explain. Here's my shot.
The school was started, I believe, in the 80s by Tony and Betty Argiros. From my recollection of the story, they opened their home to a recovering alcoholic in need of a fresh start. He was allowed to live with them contingent on working the Twelve Steps, attending AA meetings, and working. Word spread of their generosity and as time passed more in a similar situation were "added to their number." From what I've heard, Tony and Betty created a sort of "sober ranch" in which individuals needing to remove themselves from typical addictive triggers (known in AA as "old people, places, and things") could stay and find a supportive community of recovery. I believe the early members worked jobs and contributed to some sort of communal fund from which food and supplies were purchased. There were also chores around the ranch in which everyone participated. Communal "spiritual work" was also mandatory. I'm not sure exactly what this looked like (what it transformed into will be described shortly), but I would imagine it focused on urging members to come clean with sins and character flaws and to be somewhat forcefully inspired by the group to remedy these things.
In any case, this "ranch" eventually transformed into a school, but I'm not sure when it was actually founded as such. As a school, this operation was able to receive younger individuals (the "ranch" I described above was more for adults) and allow them to be sheltered from the world for a time in order to work on themselves and be amongst a sober community, even while in school. The school had quite a good number of "unorthodox techniques," many of which have been changed or removed through the years. I arrived at a time when many of the very "old school" techniques had been removed, but many were still in practice. In it's present form, it is nothing like it used to be.
At the time of my attendance from January 2001 until June 2003, the school was structured into eight "families" of approximately 30 students each (about 20 males, 10 females). These "families" were groups which shared a common space (there were eight large rooms in which each family ate meals, did homework, watched movies, played games, etc.) and spent almost all significant time together. There were male and female dorms for each family (16 total) which were double-wide trailers with three rooms and three bathrooms. For the men, this meant a middle room featuring 5-6 bunks and two back rooms, one featuring three bunks and the other featuring two.
The structure of each weekday was as follows:
- 6:15 - 6:35a: Wake up, dress, and get ready for the day
- 6:35 - 6:45a: Clean the dorm (by doing your assigned chore, e.g. sweeping, wiping down the bathroom, etc.
- 6:45 - 6:50a: Exit the dorm and line up outside
- 6:50 - 6:55a: Walk to the chapel and get seated
- 7:00 - 7:45a: Prayer service (which rotated; Mon was non-denominational Christian, Tues was Jewish, Wed was Catholic Mass, Thu was Presbyterian, Fri was non-denominational. You didn't have to believe in religion x, but you did have to be present, be respectful, and participate (like with songs, responses, etc.))
- 7:45 - 8:15a: Breakfast
- 8:15 - 8:30a: Chores (clean up common area) and get to class
- 8:30 - 12:00p: Morning classes (M/F featured periods of 50min, I think, and T-Th featured 40min periods)
- 12:00 - 1:30p: Lunch
- 1:30 - 1:50p Chores and get to class
- 1:50 - 5:00p: Afternoon classes
- 5:00 - 6:30p: Dinner
- 6:30 - 6:45p: Clean up
- 6:45 - 8:30p: Homework
- 8:30 - 8:45p: Clean up and head to chapel
- 8:45 - 9:00p: Night chapel service
- 9:00 - 9:45p: Return to dorms, night time showers (4min timed showers), lights out
This is from memory, but I think it's pretty accurate. Weekends were a little different -- they involved a more "extended" set of chores, assigned on a rotating basis to each family group, such as washing the 15 passenger vans (used for trips in to town for student doctor/dentist visits), doing laundry, cleaning the school building, etc. Weekends also featured some extended rec time, usually meaning 1-2hrs in the gymnasium. I got pretty good at basketball as there really wasn't anything else worthwhile to during that time!
I also need to note that the somewhat massively long school day featured 8 periods on M/F and 11 on T-Th. These periods included study halls (I'd say the average kid had between 5-10 study hall periods amongst the 47 total periods per week) as well as any extra-curricular activities. For example, I played soccer, so during the fall my last period on M/F and last two periods on T-Th were scheduled as soccer. Same for being in choir, drama, art, woodcarving, etc. There were also periods scheduled for various chores. A couple days a week you might have a period scheduled for lunch or dinner prep (helping cook, do dishes, deliver food, and set tables) or laundry. Laundry deserves a special mention. All of 240ish kids had to "intake" their clothes, which meant writing your initials in Sharpie somewhere on them. This meant everything -- shirts, pants, socks, underwear, etc. You also got a laundry bag with your name on it. Each family had two days per week assigned to laundry. As you wore clothes, they went in your bag. Two days a week, you would bring your bag down to the laundry area (in a big red barn near the building with the eating areas) and drop them off. There were about eight washers and five dryers in two rooms, one for girls and one for guys. Crews were assigned to laundry throughout all the class periods of the day, as assigned by their schedules. You washed clothes one-washer-per-person, dried them two-persons-per-dryer, and then folded the clothes afterward, matching the intake with the bag. At the end of the day, the bags were hauled to the dorms and thrown into the middle (biggest) dorm room to be put away by the owners at night. It was quite the operation. Laundry ran all day, every day.
There were also a complex series of "sanctions" (read, "punishments") for various things. You could be assigned to have a senior member (trusted student) follow you everywhere, you could have your food portions reduced or replaced with tuna, be put in the corner so that you had to sit facing a corner all day long, or even put on a standing sanction where you would stand 50min of every hour... all day long. It was pretty intense.
There are essentially two types of students that enter the school: compliers and rebellers. I was of the former type. I did what I was told, behaved, and just went along for the ride. I didn't really understand the twelve steps or whether I was an alcoholic or not, but it didn't really matter in the beginning. You have plenty to do -- adjust to the schedule, memorize various prayers/twelve steps, get into your classes, tons of homework, extra-curriculars, and lots of chores. I've always done fine in school. I had a 3.7 in high school up until entering the Family School, and I graduated (sorry to spoil the ending of this saga) as valedictorian (of a class of 25!). I memorized what I needed to fairly quickly. I started meeting with my sponsor, an assigned staff member who is to guide you through the twelve steps. This was a difficult portion of life there throughout. The first three steps essentially boil down (as is often said by AA-ers), "I can't, He can, so I'll let him."
In other words, you need to make an admission of personal powerlessness and come to the conclusion that only a power greater than yourself (aka God) can restore you to sanity (proper functioning, a non-destructive lifestyle, etc.) (steps 1 & 2). The logical conclusion, therefore, is to surrender your will and life over to that being (step 3). Much emphasis is placed on having a proper first step. Without truly believing that you are powerless, it is said, you will not be able to work the rest of the steps as if your life depended on it. I don't know how much I believed all of this, but I did buy in and think that I was an alcoholic or addict of some sort. I was able to see how my actions were different from my friends (taking extra risks to get high/drunk, using substances alone, perhaps obsessing about the next opportunity rather than going on with my life, etc.). These types of realizations helped me with the first step.
In any case, I was a pretty good kid for about a year. I was well-liked, trusted, and earned more responsibility. I will say that my emotions were insane. By that I mean that I had previously been quite a sensitive kid -- prone to crying easily when yelled at, insecure, etc. Drugs had a definite effect of "hardening me." I didn't feel as much as I had before. I was able to harden myself to the effect my behavior had on my parents. Once at the school, all of the emotions came back. Without drugs, I found myself just like I had been. I was very sensitive, would tear up if picked on, and so on. It was crazy. They say that your emotional age stops when you use a substance in an addictive manner, and I'm prone to agree! Around the end of my first year at the school, I got in trouble. I don't really want to paint in all of the details, but let's just say that I was caught being a hypocrite. I had gotten someone in big trouble for not paying attention and was guilty of the exact same thing myself.
I need to backfill briefly. At lunch and dinner, the school holds "table topics." This is where the peers in your family group are able to submit concerns to the staff members, and the staff look through the concerns and decide which ones to handle. A "concern" could be like so (written on an index card and handed in): "Bring up John for not doing his chores for the 5th time in a row. He needs a consequence" The staff would ask John to get up in front of everyone, the writer of the card would address the concern, and John would respond. The conversation would go from there. If John discussed what was causing him to intentionally or unintentionally not do his chore, things might go fine. If not... me might get have a sanction applied.
So... I got brought up in front of the group and was accused of all kinds of things: skating by on personality/humor, trying to be too much of a nice guy, not internalizing the principles of the school, etc. My image came tumbling down. I stonewalled. I just stopped responding. I can't really recall if I was angry or just embarrassed or what. I got put in the corner. A lot of feelings that probably never really left started festering. My mind went to work. I hated it there. I didn't want to be there. I just wanted to go back home and live life how it used to be.
I decided to run away. This was a fairly common occurrence. Kids would bust out during the day or, more frequently, at night from the dorms. I put some warm clothes under my bed, drank a ton of water so I would wake up, and went to bed. I awoke to go to the bathroom, got dressed in my bed, and made my break. Keep in mind, though... this was January in upstate New York. The main fault of most runaways is to stay on the road. Rural NY doesn't have much going on and thus the main road is constantly littered with staff members who pick up runaways and bring them back. I was smarter: I stayed in the woods. The problem was that there was about 18" of snow. I managed to make it nearly into the nearest town when I came upon a house in my path. I didn't want to trek all the way around it (deeper into the woods), and so I got on the road to bypass it. Within minutes, two staff members passed by going opposite directions and both stopped. I gave up and went back. By the end of my journey my feet were freezing and my hamstrings were cramping every time I lifted my feet out of the deep snow to take a step. Running away sucked. Why couldn't I have gotten in trouble and runaway in the summer?
Once back at the school, I got in some more trouble but was able to ride a common assumption toward receiving better treatment: that a runaway experience is cathartic in some way. Essentially, most runaways tend to have "gotten it out of their system" and do rather well afterwards. I think this is how many thought of me. I was more or less left alone for a couple of weeks until a close friend asked a simple question, "So, have you made a decision yet?" He was referring to a somewhat lingering loose end about my getting in trouble and breakdown, having to do with me wanting to "just go back to how it was." He wanted to know whether I'd really decided to cash in my past-life chips and move on, committed toward sobriety... or whether I still wanted to just live my old life. I told him that I didn't know. The next day, I was brought up in front of the group again. Enough was enough was the word. I'd been there too long to skate by and not make a decision. I clammed up again and was angry. They told me that I'd now be put on a standing sanction to try and force me to make a decision. Right then I knew I'd be running away again. I was more determined than ever to be done with the Family School. The best part was that a lot of snow had left since the last time, even though it was mid February. That night, I did the same thing I had previously. I left and would not return for several days.
At this point, this post has become longer than I anticipated. I'm bumping my story up to span four posts as a result. My apologies for this being a bit of a jumbled read. It's quite hard to describe the world I lived in for two and a half years since it is like about nothing anyone has ever heard of before! Stay tuned for my climactic initial conversion in Part 3.