Saturday, February 28, 2009

Smoke & Ink

I don't think I've ever seen a greater percentage of tatooed smokers anywhere than in A Forever Recovery (AFR) drug and alcohol rehab. By the time I left we had three non-smoking clients out of about sixty. Even all the nurses smoked! And I saw some of the nicest ink work I've seen anywhere. I did not check to see who all had tats. Most people had them quite visibly dispalyed, some had them in less obvious places that one caught a glimpse of occasionally. Since we were all together all the time in one building, we saw each other in jammies and tank tops and shorts, covered up in sheets(for massage) and towels( for sauna). Eventually we all saw most of the tats.

The first impression upon entering the lobby of AFR is 'nice retreat center', spacious lobby, huge windows overlooking a lake; the first impression upon seeing the clients in the smoking room is 'co-ed, minimum security prison'. This could be pretty disconcerting, I suppose, for someone from a more sheltered, upper middle-class background. But that impression is quickly dispelled by the friendliness and openness of the people who are there for the same reason you are, to heal and transform their lives.

I wish I could tell you more about some of the people and some of the wonderful changes I saw even in the short time I was there, but those are not stories for me to tell. We all come with an expectation of privacy and rightly so. We all shared deeply private things about our lives trusting that we would respect the trust we placed in each other, and so I shall. What I can tell you in this final piece on my rehab experience is that I met a lot of sincere, wonderful people, staff and residents. I really found myself caring a lot about them and their stories and struggles. If I never see any of them again, I will never forget them, and I will always consider them more than friends. We were life sharers and life savers for one another.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Medicine Wheels and White Buffalos

The medicine wheel or sacred hoop, is an important symbol among many First Nations and although they may have some different appearances, colors, markings, etc., they represent the seven directions. These include 'up', 'down' and 'center', which is where we as a part of everything belong if we are in balance.The hoop or circle itself is the boundaries of the world, the cycle of life and death, the seasons, and for many people of the Plains, the Sundance circle. The Lakota and other people use colors symbolizing the directions and the powers of the directions: White, north;yellow, east; black, west; red,south.For an excellent article on the wheel go to, and search for medicine wheel.

Don Coyhis uses the medicine wheel as a basis for his teaching in the White Bison work. His wheel doesn't look like this ancient petroglyph from Tres Rios, NM. In fact, his wheel reminds me of a colorfully decorated baseball.

But that doesn't matter. What matters is the teaching about balance; the powers of the sacred hoop bring us into balance if we honor them within ourselves. Without the balance,(mental,north; emotional, south; physical, east; spiritual, west) we have no real health, certainly no sobriety, even if we are abstaining for the moment.

The name of the program, "White Bison", refers to a sacred symbol in the form of the actual animal. In the Lakota traditions, the sacred pipe or 'chanupa' and the teachings about the cermonies for peace and healing associated with the pipe were brought by White Buffalo Calf Woman(Pte Sa Win).

These are vital symbols not only for the Indigenous People of North America, but they are powerful teachings to help restore all of us to health and sanity, if only we would attend to the power found in them. I am not speaking of appropriating the culture or religion of a people from whom virtually everything has been taken. I am not advocating dressg up in beads and feathers to perform 'wannabe'ceremonies. These are insulting and foolish actions taken by many whites who feel a spiritual void within themselves. What I advocate is to learn the teachings, learn from the wisdom and use these teachings to combat the imbalances in our lives. This does not require us to 'play Indian', only to respect and learn from The People as we should learn from the wisdom of all people. Truly we are all one.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

White Bison

The track I participated in most regularly was the Indigenous track, led by my friend Tom Brown of the Lenape (Delaware) Nation. Tom went back to college at age 49, got his BSW and is now working on his MSW. He hopes to open a rehab facility for American Indians and Indian veterans(or maybe all vets). Tom's basic material is called 'White Bison'. This is a 12 step program adapted and developed by Don Coyhis, Mohican Nation. The mission of White Bison, a non-profit organization, is "to assist in bringing 100 Native American communities into healing by 2010." Tom uses a teaching DVD series Don Coyhis made in a couple of correctional institutions in the '90's. Don is a natural teacher and a humorous guy,and the video series is covered by an "Indian Copyright" as he calls it; the series should be shared, given, used to spread healing. I got some good stuff out of his detailed and lucid presentations. I learned about mind-mapping, which we did on the negative effects of drinking. You could also do one on the positive aspects of sobriety(or pretty much anything else-Google 'mind mapping' for examples). I was helped to see that my mind and body work together to keep me conformed to the image or mind picture I have of myself. I realized that even during my long periods of non-drinking(or smoking weed or taking speed or acid etc), I was actually only abstinent, not truly sober. I always maintained a picture of myself as drinker, stoner, partier and I knew that someday I would be getting high again. Now I am working to change that picture and embrace sobriety.
In addition to the video series we were given a book, "The Red Road to Wellbriety" and workbook materials. "Wellbriety means to be sober and well." The Wellbriety movement places an emphasis on community as well as individual and family healing. This is a critical need especially on the rez, but it would have been great in the Polish American neighborhood in which I grew up. I suspect the percentage of alcoholism in the Back of The Yards in Chicago rivalled most resevations, but we had jobs and hope to keep us more functional.
We had movies,(Skins, Smoke Signals, Lakota Woman) on Wednesdays and usually on Fridays we had 'talking circle'. Tom would smudge us with cedar, sage and sweetgrass, waving the smoke over us with an eagle feather. We would receive the blessing by reaching for the smoke and pulling it over our heads and bodies. This ceremony is to free us from negativity and purify our hearts and minds. We then passed the eagle feather, and the one who held it spoke without interruption or comment from the rest of the group. We spoke of whatever was on our minds and for as long as we chose. After each had a chance to speak, we then spoke freely as a group. These were deeply meaningful times for me and the others who participated.
AFR is planning to build a seperate building for the indigenous track so they can practice drumming and singing(Tom has a drum ordered from a Pueblo nation) and inipe or sweat lodge ceremonies without disturbing the other people in the main building. This is a wonderful program open to people of all ethnicities. If you would like to learn more about White Bison check out

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Much Better High

Yoga above the clouds
Originally uploaded by carl kalabaw
Junkies, and especially 'needle freaks'(addicts who will inject anything ) have needle scars and collapsed veins or 'tracks'. At AFR there are plenty of those type of tracks so I found it curious that the assorted elective evening programs are called 'tracks'.
The Holistic track is run by an earnest young ex-acid freak who has studied yoga and meditation. I tried one yoga session on a saturday afternoon and kept up with the youngsters pretty well; the next oldest person was 23, only 39 years younger than moi! Alas, I woke up in the middle of the night with the damndest head and back aches. Oh well, so much for the parsva dandasana posture. Fortunately, I healed quickly. Most evenings, Matt leads the group in different types of meditations and I went to those when the Indigenous group watched movies that I had already seen, but on Tuesdays, Buddhist Bob came in to answer questions about Buddhism and to teach us mindfulness meditation. I went to those religiously (little play on words there, he he). Actually, that was one of the first things Bob, a Buddhist priest in his late 60's, addressed with us. Many of the people were surprised that Buddhism is non-theistic and so not a religion in the traditional sense. Bob was so lucid and down to earth that I got as much from his visits as I had from all the books and articles I have read about Buddhism over the years, perhaps more, a living experience. Bob, who also runs meditation groups in a prison in Michigan, embodied the spirit of the bodhisattva for me and I have come home determined to undertake a disciplined meditaion and study practice, not as a 'tool' in my aftercare plan, but because it is the right thing for me to do. Thanks, Bob. If you are interested in learning more about Bob and his work check out

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Found: Weapons of Mass Destruction - Alcohol ( Artist: Tim Burke )

So much for the adventure that is bus travel in the good ol' U.S.of A. Now for the wonderful world of alcohol and drug rehabilitation, affectionately known as 'rehab'. I mentioned going to AFR yesterday which is the acronym for A Forever Recovery inpatient rehab center in Battle Creek, Michigan. Most rehabs use AA 12 step exclusively. Many people, myself included are not crazy about AA and don't feel that one size fits all. AFR offers a program called MRT or Moral Reconation Therapy plus five specialized elective tracks: Faith Based, Cognitive Behavioral therapy, Holistic, Indigenous and 12 step Narcotics Anonymous.
MRT was originally used in a correctional facility; it has been studied extensively and has proven very effective at reducing recidivism and relapse. To quote the MRT website," MRT is a process that seeks to raise the moral decision- making strategy of individuals." If you are interested you can check out, (and find out what the weird word in the middle means).
Our program started with a 268 question self evaluation inventory. Actually with all the sub questions(a, b, c, etc) it was actually about 1500 questions! They added a dimension to the AA concept, fearless, searching and exhausting. I wrote about 60 pages. It was an invaluable exercise which one I will reread from time to time. We had 16 chapters in the MRT book with written exercises and when we completed those we had to write responses to the 16 steps on the 'freedom ladder'. We then stood in the front of the room and presented those steps aloud to the entire group of about 50. We got questions and challenges from the other clients and the facilitators. We then left the room while the group decided if the step was sincere and complete. If not it had to be rewritten. A few people got REALLY pissed off when their step didn't pass muster. It was intimidating,at least the first time, and usually very humbling. Mostly what I felt was a sincere concern from everyone to help. I felt love and acceptance from this group in a way I almost never had in all my church experiences(which was a lot-another story for other postings perhaps). There were many really moving moments as we poured out our pain and shame, hopes and goals. Tears were shed and wounds were exposed to the healing air. I will never forget this time spent with good, kind, caring people who understood from experience what a hellish prison the obssesion of addiction is for those locked in its grip.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Home again, home again, jiggity jog

I am back home after a month in rehab and two days and two nights on the bus. First the bus. A meditative experience at times, but definitely not the conveyance if you want to get a decent night's sleep!
I live in South Dakota, middle of the state and I went to a facility in Michigan and I rode the bus, 24 hours there, but, ah, the return trip was somewhat more eventful. Before you ask, I will tell you. To fly from Sioux Falls, SD to Detroit or Kalamazoo costs a thousand bucks-bus costs 300. 'Nuff said
So I am all happy to have finished the program and I get on the bus and I travel all the live long night. In a bizarre rerun in reverse, the Chicago stop was supposed to be an hour layover but was an hour late, just as when I was going to AFR. We finally got to Minneapolis and the driver told us the bus to Sioux Falls was cancelled! The Greyhound supervisor got the word that the busline we were supposed to transfer to (Jefferson Lines, may their name be accursed!) had not only cancelled the ride but refused to provide lodging, food or even taxi fare to get to lodging! Basically they said, sure you paid, but fuck you guys! Several of us who were stranded got together and checked into a rental car; 278 bucks. One of the guys spent a lot of time on the road for his job and had traveler's points for rooms at LaQuinta Inn so he booked rooms and we got a taxi and five of us spent the night in Minneapolis. Steve, the guy I shared a room with, room is really a great guy from Georgia on his way to Rapid City, SD to visit his son and grandkids. He is an iron construction worker and probably on seasonal lay-off. Turns out he had a hell of an addiction to pills, we like the same kind of movies and had quite a lot in common. We watched stand-up comedy and funny movies all evening, ate pizza and actually had a pretty good time. Art, the guy who got us the rooms puts up cell phone towers for a living and climbs towers hundreds of feet high, and he's 46! He was just laid off but anticipates returning to work in a couple of weeks. I sure hope that happens for him. Fernando, a young black dude, was on his way to Mankato MN to stay in a homeless shelter until he finds a job. Dude had 3 bucks left! Cory, another of the guys is a laid off electrician and a hell of a decent guy. Chris, the sole woman is unemployedand returning to Wyoming from Georgia where she went for a funeral. She had seven dollars left. So three older white guys, two younger black guys and a middle aged woman with no front teeth shared, laughed, survived and became friends. How excellent is that?! We got our bus, talked to each other most of the way and exchanged contact info. And here I am.home, sober and feeling peachy.
More about rehab later.