Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires (or Caramore Part 1)

The office for Caramore Community was not what I expected. Think non-profit, low budget, scuffed up, battered furnishings, cracked and sterile floor, walls badly in need of paint. Instead, the office appeared interior-decorated. There were two large seating areas with comfy chairs surrounding over-sized square coffee tables. The walls were painted a warm caramel with matching plush carpet. Magazines and plants were scattered about. The receptionist desk was a long white affair that stretched across the length of the room. We were greeted promptly by Samantha who quickly found Jerri’s appointment and brought her coffee.

After a short wait, Jacob, the admissions director, greeted us and escorted us back to his office. He stepped out to get a copy of Jerri’s application giving us a chance to check out his digs. On the wall behind his desk was a portrait of someone who might have been Andrew Jackson. It was hung upside down. To the right was a credenza stacked about a foot high with piles of paper. Above this hung 8 to 10 apple green paper plates as if they were china. Above these, a bathroom scale had been hung and it took me a minute to realize it wasn’t a clock. On the opposite wall, a tree branch reached into the room, it’s base framed with an ornate white frame. Interesting!

Jacob, himself, was soft-spoken but exuded a sense of purpose and authority. He began the interview by saying this was an opportunity for us to learn about Caramore and for him to learn about Jerri. They are very protective about their community. They have limited space and receive hundreds of applications a year. They only have space for 30 individuals in their residential program and there is a 4 to 6 month wait-list. They only accept individuals who are not a threat to the community – you must be stable on medications, no history of violence, clean/sober for 6 months, ready and willing to work. He told Jerri that he would request records from Telecare and it was important that what she shared with him aligned with Telecare’s records. It was important for her to be completely honest with him because dishonesty was a warning flag and would raise concerns about allowing her into the program.

He asked if she wanted me present during the interview or if she would be more comfortable if I waited outside.

“My sister can stay. She knows everything about me so there’s no reason for her not to,” Jerri replied.

He asked about her diagnosis and how she was first diagnosed. Listening to Jerri tell her story was hard – it brought back a lot of difficult memories and all the emotions I’d felt at the time washed over me again. I don’t remember some things exactly the same way Jerri does, but I have a lot of gaps in my memory – things I imagine I’ve blocked because they are just too painful. Jerri talked about repeatedly running away and our parents checking her into Mandala, a private hospital, when she was 15. One of Mom’s friends had a daughter, Connie, who had “acted out” like Jerri and Mandala had helped her. Mandala diagnosed Jerri as having mental illness – the actual diagnosis is unclear – but my parents never accepted the diagnosis. She did not get medication or counseling.

After that she started using drugs and skipping classes with a 38 year old woman who hung out at the high school, buying drugs and alcohol for the kids, and taking them home. Debbie sexually molested Jerri – at the time Jerri thought herself in a relationship with Debbie. She believed she was discovering her true sexual orientation was lesbian. But as an adult, Jerri recognizes Debbie was a predator. Jerri was so desperate for attention and affection, she was willing to go along with Debbie in order to feel loved.

Jacob then delved more into the substance abuse. “When was the last time you used?”

“Four months ago,” she said and explained the situation.

“If that is true, and I have no reason not to believe you, then you don’t mind doing a drug test today, right?”

Silence. Jerri looked at Jacob and said nothing for what seemed like eternity. Her hesitation was a dead give-away. Finally she spoke. “You’ll find crack in my system. I smoked it yesterday.”

Ayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy! I could just strangle her. Why would she do something so STUPID? She knew Caramore required 6 months of sobriety to get in. She read it on the website and even talked to me about it beforehand. Did she really not want in the program? Was this some twisted passive-aggressive way to get them not to accept her? Was she purposely sabotaging herself?

Jacob closed his folder and said, “I’m going to end the interview now. If I continue the interview it’s not going to go well with you and could prevent you from ever getting into our program. I’m going to reschedule the interview for 3 months and you will need to provide evidence of 3 months sobriety in order for the interview to occur. It concerns me greatly that when I asked when you last used you said 4 months ago which was not the truth. The truth is you used yesterday. Maybe you lied because you want into the program so badly. But if that is the case, the way in is through sobriety. This development delays when you could be considered for the program. If you are serious about changing your life, I’ll see you again in January. There are some people I’ve worked with for years to get them ready for the program. This is not a ‘no’. It’s a ‘you are not ready.'”

I could learn a lot from this man.

He refused to accept any of Jerri’s excuses. She said, “I don’t crave drugs any more. I wouldn’t use if people weren’t knocking on my door offering it to me for free.”

Jacob’s response: “No one held you down, forced the pipe in your mouth and made you inhale. Even when they bring it to your door, you have to take responsibility and say no. Even in Carrboro, crack is available. It will always be accessible no matter where you live. You can’t use that as an excuse. You are lying to yourself when you say ‘I wouldn’t use if I lived somewhere else.'”

As you might imagine, the drive home was a bit strained. Jerri couldn’t explain why she’d done it. I could feel myself disassociating.

“Here’s the thing, Jerri,” I said. “If you really aren’t interested in Caramore, you should have just said so. I took half a day off from work for this interview, and believe me, come January, I will not do it again if you use at all between now and then. What you did was inconsiderate of everyone – you, Jacob, and me.”

“I knew I’d made a big mistake the minute I did it. I don’t know why I did it. I was just so surprised when he handed me the pipe. I didn’t know how to respond so I just took it.”

“Jerri, the way your life is now is the way it will always be unless you choose to change it. That is if you’re lucky because right now you are dependent on the government and they could pull funding at any moment making your life even more challenging. You need to be dependent on you. You need to make a choice – do you want simply to exist? Or do you want to live? No one can make that choice for you. Only YOU can prevent forest fires.”

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That’s right. Everything I ever needed to know about personal accountability, I learned from Smokey the Bear.

Many of the bad things that happen in our lives are a direct consequence of choices we make. I’m not saying that we are responsible for EVERY bad thing that happens. Bad things happen all the time to good people out of no fault of their own. Last time I checked, 100% of us can expect to experience something devastating in our lifetime. The untimely death of a loved one. Debilitating illness. Estrangement. Divorce. Bankruptcy. Down-sizing. A crime against us. Abuse. We live in a broken world and no matter how good we are, how religious, how smart or careful or risk-adverse, there is no magic formula. Bad things happen, period.

But some bad things are avoidable. If I make my car payment, my car will not be repossessed, for example. I won’t lose my job because I don’t have transportation to get there. Smokey teaches me that if I don’t light a match and throw it into the woods, I won’t start a fire that may eventually consume me.

“If God wants me to get into Caramore then He will make it happen,” Jerri said.

Really? Because I don’t think so. God forgives but I can’t think of a single time that he supernaturally revoked the consequences of someone’s bad choices. He’s not going to, for example, plant the notion in Jacob’s head to rescind the sobriety requirement just for Jerri.

So the visit to Caramore did not go as planned. Jerri continues to talk about the program as something she wants to do. We’ll just have to see how the next three months unfold.

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5 Comments on “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires (or Caramore Part 1)”

  1. […] Those of you following the blog may recall Jerri’s interview at Caramore Community back in October –the one cut short when she confessed she’d smoked crack the day before. Yep. Not one of her more stellar moments. If you’re new to the blog, you can catch up here. […]

  2. (Not That) Joan says:

    I read this just after you posted it, and left without commenting. I still can’t think of anything helpful or appropriate to say. But I want to thank you for the same reason as Anonymous. I hope to be able to learn to tread that fine line between enabling and empowering with as much love and wisdom as you do.

    • Oh Joan, thanks so much for the encouragement this morning. Honestly, most of the time I don’t feel either wise or loving. I feel torn, just as I’m sure others do, about what to do and not do, say and not say. I argue with myself about my motives. Am I really taking this action for the right reasons? Is it best for her or best for me? Is it ok to sometimes put myself first? Life is fraught with challenges and relationships are at the top of the list. The line between enabling and empowering feels like a tight rope that I never acquired the skills to traverse. Perhaps, that’s what I am doing now. Acquiring skills.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I so enjoy your honesty. Thanks for sharing your journey.


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