The ranch is an amazing place. Again, the real name is the John Volken Academy. Click hereto learn more about their program. Above are the “addicts” I had the privilege of being around, learning from, and getting to know. I’m third from the left in the middle (yellow button down).
Do any of us look like addicts to you?
The ranch is as intense and brutal as it is amazing.
It’s all peer run. Addicts help other addicts recover. There are strict rules. If one person witnesses another breaking one, that person is expected to address it with him right on the spot.
You address it by calling the person by his name, looking him in the eyes, and saying, “Johnny, check yourself.” Then you give a brief statement of correction. It’s called a “pull up.”
The person being pulled up is not allowed to say anything in response OR show any kind of reaction whatsoever. He’s to look the other person in the eyes and stay quiet. He doesn’t smile, raise his eyebrows, roll his eyes, nothing. I think you could say thank you. But, that’s it.
Really, you can pull someone up for anything you want. It seems fairly harmless and simple, but it is not as easy to do as it sounds. If you do react in any way the other person is to pull you up again.
All pull-ups are reported to leadership (also selected students) and a decision is made as to what the consequences are. It can be anything from having a timeout (where you sit by yourself for a certain amount of time and not talk to anyone), to writing a letter to the entire “family” explaining what you did and how you’re going to change it, to having to work extra hours after everyone else is off.
For the most severe violations, you get put on, oh, I forget the name of it, but for an indefinite period of time, you have to work from sun up until it’s time to go to bed.
I mean, the minute you wake up at 5am, you have to immediately start doing jobs and you don’t stop until 9 o’clock or so at night. It’s absolutely brutal, although I never had to do that. I witness several others go through it though. Another student is chosen to monitor you the entire day making sure you don’t stop working or try resting.
We have group meetings once or twice a week. During the meetings and only during the meetings are you allowed to address any problems or concerns you have with another student. In these meetings, you’re allowed to yell, scream, curse, and just plain go off on someone.
The person being addressed is not allowed to show any reaction or get upset in return, no matter how justified he may be or how brutal the verbal attack is.
No one is allowed to defend someone else or rescue them.
These meetings are not even close for the faint of heart. It often becomes brutal, verbal combat. But, they’re highly effective. It’s a real test in self-control.
I can’t say enough about the guys there. They are some of the best, most talented, humble, hard-working, disciplined guys I’ve ever known. I look up to each one of them for the horrendous challenge they have faced head-on.
Each of their stories is incredible.
None of them were casual drug users. All were hardcore addicts for years using the worst kind of illegal drugs available. Most ultimately lived on the streets and were in and out of jail. In my mind though, they’re heroes for their courage to humbly, honestly, and boldly commit to and actually change their lives completely.
I can’t imagine anything being more difficult to beat or overcome than addiction to drugs. I’m a very strong-willed, determined individual. Most would say I’m unusually determined. But, addiction scared, confused, overpowered, baffled, shocked, broke, and humbled me to the dust. My strong will is no match for it. Not even close.
I experience both healing and suffering on the ranch. James, the ranch director, would have multiple conversations with my wife. I remember wishing I was him because he actually got to hear the sound of her voice.
By now I can’t imagine hearing it.
It’s been almost 3 months since I’ve spoken to or seen her. I have no idea where she is living in Kentucky. I never knew being so completely cut off from her could cause so much agony.
There are days when I hurt so badly inside, the only way I can bear it is to talk to somebody and seek some reassurance.
Zach, my full time “buddy”, is usually the guy. I ALWAYS feel better after talking to him. He is always positive.
My thoughts, on the other hand, can only conceive of my worst fears playing out in the future. I only see more pain and trauma. I imagine Amy moving on and living a happy life without me. I’m tormented constantly by the hash reality of it.
Zach always says the right thing. He tells me that I will be with Amy again, she’s not going to leave me, and I will be with my family soon. He doesn’t even know Amy and has never talked with her, but his words are always soothing to my soul. We grow to be very close. He’ll never know how much relief he gave me when my suffering was at its worst there.
Once it hits me like a bolt of lightning that I am in fact an addict, I spare no minute working on beating it. I spend almost every moment of my free time working through every step in a manual called, LDS Addiction Recovery Program.
I absolutely devour it. I take no shortcuts. I go through each of the 12 steps over and over again. Every time I read from it, I feel hope and light. My pain is subdued. I carry it with me everywhere I go, even when I’m working. I tear out the pages and keep them in my pocket and while I’m walking from place to place I study them and write down my thoughts and feelings. I completely wear this manual out. I put all my trust in it, and it doesn’t fail me.
I have strayed from it some in my life now, but at the time it was this program and manual that worked the miracle in me. The ranch gave me the space and time to do it, but the principles and steps in this manual are what rescued me. Of course, I put my whole heart and soul into it. I did the hard work. It became my mission not to just beat my addiction, but to overcome my character weaknesses as well. As you will come to find out much later, I still struggle with both for lots of reasons.
If anyone is struggling with addiction or knows someone who is, this is the answer. Trust me on this one. Take my word for it. To me, the principles contained in each step are the only answers to recovery from addiction. It is patterned after the 12 steps of AA.
Every day on the ranch is a humbling experience for me. I’m depressed for the most part and scared of what my future holds. I still think I can get my old life back though and rebuild my business. What torments me every day is imagining what Amy and my kids are doing and where they are. I can’t conceive of a path that leads us back together. I constantly seek reassurance from those who talk with Amy like Carson Brown and James, the ranch director. Neither can give it to me.
I’m told that Amy has said she wants me here for 2 years now. I can hardly believe it. It’s a big blow. I feel completely on my own at this point. No matter what now, in my mind, if I leave before 2 years I’ll be considered a quitter or a failure. I feel like I’ve been duped by a bait and switch.
Weeks go by and then months. My strength is returning. I no longer feel any effects of withdrawals or need for my medication. I’ve proven to myself I can handle a rigorous schedule. I’m not 100%, but I start to feel like I can face hard things head on again.
I can’t talk to Amy, so what I do or decide is entirely up to me.
The ranch has a feed store. I’m assigned to work in there for a period of time. I remember being in awe when people would pull cash out of their wallet. I no longer can imagine actually having money. I wonder how all these people can afford cars, homes or anything.
After I pass my 3 month mark (almost 6 months of not seeing or speaking to any member of my family), I begin feeling I can make it on the outside on my own. If I leave the ranch, I will not have any support from the program or anyone from my family. I will have to walk off the property with my backpack and whatever clothes I can fit in it. I’ll have my phone, but no service.
It’s late one night. The thought of being free even if I’m on the streets becomes very appealing. I remind myself that I’m an adult and can do whatever I want or choose. So I ask myself, “What’s my choice?”
My choice is to leave. I feel a rush of adrenaline as I consider walking off the ranch, never to return.
I pack my backpack. It’s late and dark outside. Everyone is asleep. I sneak out. I start walking having no idea where I’m going. I walk for miles. At first, it feels incredible to be free. After wandering around for a few hours, it starts to not feel so incredible anymore. I’m tired. I’m willing to sleep under a tree, but I don’t like the way I left and quite frankly I have no money or food or drink. I decide to walk all the way back to the ranch. I sneak back in and collapse in my bed. I only get a couple hours of sleep that night, but no one ever finds out I left the property. Had I been caught, I would have had serious consequences.
I begin to feel the freedom and ability to do whatever I choose again though. I know if I leave, I will face unbelievable difficulties. I’ll literally start with nothing and have to figure out how to rebuild from there. I mull it around in my mind for a few more weeks. It’s a huge leap of faith into the unknown.
It’s a Sunday. I feel it’s the right time, and my choice is to venture out and figure things out as I go. This time I tell everyone I’m leaving. The guys are nervous for me, but most are encouraging. I give a lot of hugs. I pack my backpack again. It’s in the middle of the day this time. I say my goodbyes to everyone. My new friends try and sneak me some water bottles, but are then told by the ranch manager to take them back. If I’m leaving early they are not allowed to help me in any way.
I’m nervous and excited at the same time. I know once Amy and my family find out all hell is going to break loose. But, I know it’s the right choice for me and it’s the right time. I trust that as things play out they will all come to realize that.
I begin walking and finally I’m off the property walking down the road. I look all around and soak it all in. I turn and look back at the ranch knowing I’ll never go back, at least to live there. I don’t know exactly where I’m going. I walk…and walk…and walk. I’ve walked many miles now. I have nothing to eat or drink and not one penny to my name.
I didn’t think things could get any worse than what I’ve already been through. I was wrong. The lowest, hardest point in my life is right around the corner.