Excommunication

One of the things that was drilled into our heads in Phoenix House was that we only needed each other and that we were “our” brother and sister’s keepers”, meaning that we were responsible for keeping each other accountable and out of trouble. From time to time, the staff would take a group of us to Narcotics Anonymous or other outside self-help programs, but we were not allowed to speak to anyone at the meetings. There was no encouragement to begin to build a network for life outside of Phoenix House. Because I was one of the older residents of the group by the time I completed the inpatient portion of the program, had graduated high school during my stay, and had a vehicle given to me by my mother, I was allowed to get a job outside of the house. I found a job at a place called Boudin Sourdough Bakery in the University Town Center/La Jolla area of San Diego, which was approximately 40 miles away from Phoenix House. I was discouraged from socializing with coworkers or really anyone who wasn’t a fellow resident. The level of paranoia and fear of anyone who might be a bad influence or “bring me down” that they had instilled in us seemed normal at the time, particularly since they seemed to want to make it clear that everything we learned while IN the program should be everything we were ever going to need to stay clean from drugs and stay out of any other type of trouble once we left. We were forbidden to associate in any way with anyone who so much as drank alcohol, even normally, smoked, or was an overall “bad influence”.

My Live Out living arrangements were to be that I would go live with my mother in the Ocean Beach neighborhood of San Diego. They had made it clear to my mother, who was an alcoholic when I was admitted to Phoenix House, that she would have to be completely sober if I was going to live with her, which even today seems like a reasonable expectation. My mother had been attending A.A. meetings and had stayed sober for some time prior to my completion of the program in order to make it all work. I was living with her approximately two weeks when one evening she came home and smelled like she had been drinking alcohol. She didn’t appear to be drunk, but did admit that she had had a slip. Because of the conditioning from Phoenix House to “drop my guilt” on any little thing lest I end up back using meth and living in dope houses, I immediately notified my counselor at Phoenix House and they demanded that I move out the next day and into the home of a fellow Live-Out, renting a room from them at my expense. Additionally, I was forbidden to speak to my mother again until and unless she could produce some proof that she has not had anything else to drink…which is impossible. The penalty for speaking to my mother or anyone else who drank was excommunication and “failure” of the program. You’re conditioned so deeply that you’ll fail and die (not an exaggeration) if you hold anything back from them that if you’re dedicated to graduating at the end of the Live Out phase and surviving overall, you do as you’re told. This hurt my mother very deeply in ways that I don’t believe we ever quite recovered from. She was quite angry that I would let them dictate my behavior and associations and my clap back was that SHE was the one who placed me in Phoenix House in the first place.

We were encouraged once we entered the one year live-out phase to stick close to our peers who were also in that phase. We returned to the Phoenix House Descanso facility weekly for Group, which would often be an encounter group if there was a Live Out who other Live Outs or staff felt like was breaking rules or otherwise behaving inappropriately. One of the other rules of the “Live-Out” phase was that you don’t have inappropriate relationships with any of your peers. You also aren’t safe, according to them, to socialize with anyone outside of your Phoenix House peer group, which includes dating.

“Kam” was a fellow Phoenix House Live-Out that I had actually gone to high school with prior to entering Phoenix House. In fact, a boy I dated for nine months in my Sophomore year was one of Kam’s best friends. Kam’s family had taken two Live-Outs into their home since they did not have appropriate placement options otherwise. They also financially contributed significantly to the facility, but I didn’t know this at the time. Kam’s family offered me a job in their office because they knew that now that I would be paying rent for the room in another family’s home, I would need a more steady job with more hours. We had never had an inkling of a romantic connection throughout or stay together at Phoenix House, but the boy I mentioned earlier whom I had dated in high school committed suicide while Kam and I were in Phoenix House and we had definitely trauma bonded over that. We did begin a romantic relationship over the course of the time I was working at his father’s family-owned business, but we kept it extremely private, secretive and no one else was aware that we were in a full-blown relationship for approximately six months or so. For both of us, the tremendous guilt that we felt that we had anything going on in our lives that our peers and the staff at Phoenix House didn’t know was incredibly heavy and neither of us was able to deal with that well. It was like a cancer, eating away at even the happiest of moments in our relationship.

When I became pregnant in October 1994, seven months into the “live-out” phase, we knew that we were going to have to reveal this if I planned to keep the baby. I urged Kam to just drop out of the whole program with me at that point because I knew that IF we weren’t “kicked out” of the live-out phase, we would certainly be punished severely, probably forced to come up the mountain to the facility to work from sun up to sun down for a few weekends, as I had seen countless live-outs on punishment come up to the ranch to perform throughout my time at Phoenix House. I gave Kam the heads-up that I planned to call a counselor at Phoenix House and talk maybe coming up and speaking with them before or after our weekly live-out group so that he could talk to his parents first. Kam’s parents were understandably shocked, both that we were involved in an intimate, sexual relationship and of course by the pregnancy to boot. They were very devout Catholics and they believed that Kam was a virgin at that point. He had been before we became intimate, which I didn’t realize until afterward.

I did not anticipate what would occur next. After Kam told his parents, they notified Phoenix House of the news before I had the chance to do so, seemingly as an attempt to show that he had planned to tell them but that I had intended to continue to hide it from them. It worked. I was phoned by one of the counselors and notified that my “secret” had been shared with them and that due to my attempt to hide the facts of our relationship and my pregnancy, I was no longer considered a Phoenix House live-out and would not be allowed to “graduate” in five months. Kam was required to perform several weekend “bum squads” which was physical labor for several weekends to atone. He also was forbidden to communicate with me further at the risk of not being excommunicated. We did continue to communicate, even moving into a tiny apartment together, with him going back and forth to his parents’ house to conceal our involvement as much as possible. They knew at some point that we were “shacking up”, but they hid it from Phoenix House since Kam being excommunicated would impact their arrangements with the two residents they had living in their home, as they would be forbidden to communicate with him.
Immediately, all of the peers I had lived in Phoenix House with, those they forced us to refer to as “brother” and “sister” and “family” were forbidden to speak to me or even acknowledge my presence if they encountered me. We had all attended the same Narcotics Anonymous meetings and socialized primarily only with each other, since we were isolated from anyone outside of our bubble. When they ended up running into me in passing at a meeting, they looked down, wouldn’t make eye contact. Since I had been estranged from my mother at Phoenix House’s insistence, I essentially had no one at this point, no support system, no safety net.

Having a history of substantial trauma, shame and sexual abuse, the message sent to me by being excommunicated while Kam was not was the same message we got while IN the Phoenix House facility, which is that as the female, I had “brought him down” and I had a deep, disproportionate sense of responsibility and shame as a result. This stayed with me for decades, but I didn’t understand it for so long.

After this occurred, I never spoke of it with anyone again. When my child was four, I married a man who knew that I had used drugs as a teen, was in a treatment program and that it was a phase. I convinced

him…and myself that there was nothing else to tell about it. After a few years of marriage, I convinced him to move across the country in what I see now as an attempt to shut out any possible memories, associations or run-ins with anyone from the program and start over entirely like it never happened. I became a PTA mom and made friends, but never shared about my life before our arrival in our new state except in generalities. With not another living soul did I share that I had experienced anything prior to meeting my husband. I returned to binge drinking alcohol for the greater part of the following ten years. After ten years of attempting to drink away the trauma and PTSD and forgetting I had to do of my earlier life, I was prescribed opioid pain prescriptions after developing migraines and a couple of injuries and became hopelessly addicted to them, using lethal amounts daily for the next five years. I got sober in March 2013.

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