Parham Nematollah (Chief Operating Officer)
I always wanted to interview the staff at Buckeye Recovery Network. After all, I had been apart of Buckeye consistently since the day I first arrived in California to get sober nearly three and a half years ago. Perspective is something that is constantly shifting based on the variables of time and vantage-point. I had come to BRN (Buckeye Recovery Network) with 22 days of sobriety to seek treatment for a vicious addiction to heroin, which at that point, had derailed every dream and ambition I ever had. 6 months of process groups, therapy, counseling, and self-care within the confines of BRN truly changed my life. It was not the sunshine and palm trees of southern California that restored order and balance to my troubled mind. As beautiful as the scenery is, it could easily have provided the backdrop for a further descent into madness instead of true recovery. It surely wasn’t the building itself that allowed me to finally sleep at night. A small, discrete, and grey chunk of concrete sitting quietly in a bustling surf-town next to the beach in Orange County California. It positively had nothing to do with my thinking or ideas, which had been contorted and construed by years of drug abuse, emotional trauma, and criminal mischief. No, the true authors of my recovery were the people of Buckeye Recovery Network. You see in the midst of the beautiful weather and palm trees; sitting inside the grey chunk of concrete in the bustling surf-town is a team of people that gave a fuck. They took a broken, confused, and scared boy and gave me the tools to pursue freedom in my life. So, as I write this 3 and a half years later as a proud employee of the company that gave me so much, I now have the privilege of working with them to do the same for many others.
I have wanted to interview each employee of BRN for some time now and decided to begin with the leader of us all. His name is Parham Nematollah and he is the Chief Operating Officer of this organization. As we sat down for the interview on a rainy Thursday morning he described his role within the organization more brilliantly than I ever could have. As the ultimate decision-maker and driving force behind the treatment provided at BRN I jokingly described him as the conductor of our facility. He chuckled momentarily before a more serious expression straightened his gaze and lifted his chin. He said, “A great conductor will tell you that his musicians are his instruments and that a great conductor is one who uses all his instruments in perfect unison.” He is the conductor. The employees that work at BRN are his instruments. The recovery of countless men and women under his tutelage is the music. How beautiful that music truly is.
Parham is a 6 foot 3 Iranian man with jet black wavy hair that is consistently slicked backward with precision and force. The only variable I have ever found in his appearance is the amount of product in his hair on any given day. You know a man is consistent when the only observation of inconsistency is the varying level of hair gel he uses. Everything else about him is as guaranteed as death and taxes. No matter where you are on this planet you can be sure that he is somewhere dressed in all black, feverishly dreaming of his aspirations, quoting Persian poets and backing it all up with an unrelenting work ethic. If you ask him why he is always in all black clothing you are inviting yourself into a ten-minute conversation regarding the success of icons like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. He will tell you that the truly successful dreamers and pioneers will limit their choices regarding anything personally aesthetic as it will allow for more focus on the choices that truly matter such as navigating an industry or directing a company. Parham’s office is the smallest one in the entire company. You will open the door and find a 7 by 7 room with two small wooden chairs separated by roughly 5 feet of space. You will find 3 blank walls and a fourth dotted with pictures of the high school basketball teams he has coached. You will find a computer raised in the air for him to type while standing and a small generic oil diffusor. That is all. Minimalist.
I have known Parham for years now. He had aided in my recovery from drugs and alcohol but had more so been a professional mentor in my career. I would sit in his miniature office for countless hours throughout the week. He would coach me on how to achieve my goals and handle situations that I had no experience with. Considering my only job history before recovery was as a pizza delivery boy, let’s just say his presence was and is, continually invaluable to me. My first real interaction with him was as a patient. He came into our counselor’s room following a process group between me and five other clients. He asked us what we liked and didn’t like about the program. So, we told him. He asked us what we would change about the schedule and group times. So, we told him. Then an amazing thing took place that until that point had never transpired in my many encounters with authority figures. He listened to our genuine feedback and he made nearly every adjustment that we were asking for. I’m still fighting to have burrito Wednesday every day of the week but alas you can’t win them all. He won me over a bit that day. The tall Iranian in all black, sitting on a dainty wooden stool and intently listening to the recommendations of a bunch of newly sober crackheads, junkies, and booze-hounds. The minimalist.
That was my concern for the interview. As I navigated the 15-minute drive from my apartment to our clinical building I was filled with excitement at the prospect of getting such an intimate setting to pick the mind of someone who has played such a huge role in my life. However, I was also uneasy about what I would get out of this man who seemed to have developed a knack for de-escalation. He was, after all, a minimalist in many more ways than the material world. No matter how big a problem a client was facing, whether it be legal uncertainty, family tragedy, financial ruin, or miscellaneous catastrophe; Parham would speak in truth and simplicity. He could, through years of practice, convince you that the burning building you just ran out of was necessarily incinerated in-order to clear the plot of land for you to build the beautiful home that will house your future children and gorgeous spouse. He had a calculated way with words. His speech cadence and tone were as consistent as his wardrobe. Soft, tempered, and confident. When I interview someone, I am not looking for soft and tempered. I am not looking for the calculated and cadence. I am surely not looking for a minimalist.
I sat down in the bare vacuum of his office and pressed play on a recording device. For one hour, twenty-six minutes, and thirty-four seconds we spoke about everything under the sun. From addiction to recovery. From early childhood in Iran to life in America. From a societal outcast to a smooth-talking leader of a company. Nothing about it was minimal. Parham was born in Iran 6 years after the Iranian revolution. His brother was born in the year of the revolution. What this means is that his parents lived through a seismic societal and cultural shift that saw the Iranian people thrust into their current age of right-wing religious extremism. Parham’s recollection of his early years’ ages one to five could only be remembered by him as “loud and blurry” as Iran was at war with Iraq and was dealing with bombings of Saddam Hussein daily. He remembered the sounds of the sirens going off that would alert him and his family to escape into bunkers. His family moved around constantly during this time out of fear for their safety. He then moved to California with his brother and mother when he was five. His father remained in Iran. He spoke of this time fondly. “That really began the Americanized version of me. I was obsessed with GI Joes and Ninja turtles.” He described getting a taste of the western world before being moved back to Iran at the age of 9. Ripped away from his Saturday morning cartoons to be placed in a religious and strict Iranian society at a pivotal point in his childhood. He went into vivid detail about his inability to fit into a society he no longer related to. At 15 he would return to the United States permanently with his Mother but it would be years before his father would join him. He would once again struggle to adapt to his new surroundings and adolescents in America.
Two general themes revealed themselves to me during our one hour, twenty-six minute, and thirty-four-second conversation. I had been given fragments of stories and bits of the puzzle of this man’s journey over the years. I never once had a complete picture of why he is the way he is. A Six foot three Iranian minimalist with 12 years of sobriety and the task of running a treatment facility in Huntington Beach California doesn’t just happen by accident. We are all molded and shaped by the experiences we face on our journeys through this world. His experience is one that was forged in never truly belonging. I have never been to Iran. I do have enough knowledge to know that it is quite possibly one of the starkest cultural comparisons to American culture that exists. To be vacillating between the two at pivotal moments in one’s development would be taxing, to say the least.
When he spoke of his addiction to a multitude of substances and how it developed, he frequently spoke of an evolving and shifting identity. He stated that he would go as far as to pretend he was from New York City and wear Knicks jerseys to help sell the ruse. He spoke of changing friends groups over and over. He spoke of moving to Carbondale, Illinois for several months to once again attempt a fresh start only to fail miserably. In front of me was a man that for the first part of his life had never known stability in any sense. His outside environment was one that would shift as the inner works of his being followed suit. To go back and forth from the basins of Iran to the sandy beaches of Southern California. To go from the Persian kid who couldn’t fit in in America, to the American kid who couldn’t fit-in in Iran. Back and forth a couple of times.
Suddenly I had a clearer and truer understanding of the man who sat before me. Buckeye Recovery Network is a treatment center that regularly gets patients from all over this country. I came from New Jersey. I had never been west of Michigan before coming here for treatment. Many others like me arrive here shellshocked by the sudden terror of so much change. It is only fitting that we are greeted by a man who knows that feeling so intimately. Parham has an uncanny ability to help our clients and staff with adapting to a new environment and a new lifestyle. He has this ability because he has done it more than anyone else I have ever met. Treatment can be a chaotic place where nothing seems to go as planned because you are dealing with men and women at their most vulnerable. I can’t think of a better person to run a treatment center than someone who was avoiding bombings in the Iraqi/Iranian war for the first five years of his life.
The second theme that stuck out to me was his relationship with his father. His tumultuous past with his father and inability to connect to him was something that came up at varying stages in our conversation. As a young man, he held resentment towards his father for moving him back to Iran after getting a taste of a sega genesis and an American life. It wouldn’t be till years into his recovery that he realized that his father had desperately wanted to stay in Iran to be close to his own father. Parham’s Grandfather who was ill at the time. He talked about his father living in Iran whilst his mother and brother lived in America during his high school years. Parham told me that his father only attended one single high school basketball game of his career. I asked him how he played that night and he said: “I can’t remember”. I assume he didn’t have the game of his life. He used his mother as a buffer to convey messages to his father as only she could translate Parham’s troubled alcoholic thoughts into something digestible.
Parham does a lot at BRN. He has to manage an entire facility and its staff. Often you will find him spread thin. Out of everything I have ever witnessed him attempt or achieve, I have never seen him more focused on anything than his family education and support group. What began as an in-person weekly group designed to help families understand their addict loved ones has become a border-line obsession for Parham. When Covid-19 forced us to video conference the entire group out the masses he became fixated on offering the highest quality experience possible. After an initial session where the video was grainy and the audio quality was muffled, he immediately acquired a high-quality camera that would broadcast his slicked-back hair with razor-sharp clarity. He obtained a clip-on microphone that captures his soft and tempered tone with crisp perfection. Just as inevitable as the rising sun, you can find Parham dressed in all black every Saturday at 10 am. You will find him giving families the tools they so desperately need to aid in the recovery of their loved ones living with the illness of addiction.
When I asked Parham what his father and his relationship is like today he smiled and lifted his chin. “It’s really good. Maybe it’s always been good. I think maybe its perception thing and my mind was all twisted.” I asked him if his father ever did anything differently to improve his side of the relationship. He said, “He started showing up to a family process group every Wednesday night at my treatment center”. Suddenly I was provided with another stroke of the paintbrush that was finally giving order and weight to a personality that a first glance seemed slightly neurotic and obsessive. Here is someone that has dedicated his life to providing people a sense of belonging that he desperately missed as a child. Here is an addict who never fit in and found his place in the world. Here is a son who never could connect properly to his father until someone like him created a program to help families do that very thing. Here is a man who has faced adversity and won. A gangly Persian with slicked-back hair. The minimalist whose impact is anything but minimal.