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The Smile

The Smile

How well can you ever really know someone? As I sat down with the Director of Admissions of Buckeye Recovery Network that is the question that weighed heavily on my mind. Matt Keogh is the gatekeeper of our company and the one that everyone speaks with before coming here.  

Matt-Keogh

The Smile

How well can you ever really know someone? As I sat down with the Director of Admissions of Buckeye Recovery Network that is the question that weighed heavily on my mind. Matt Keogh is the gatekeeper of our Company; the phone answering work-horse who was tasked with convincing men and women that leaving their home-states behind to travel to our quaint treatment center in Southern California could potentially be a decision that transforms their lives. It wasn’t a hard sell, considering Matt himself had made that very decision nearly four years ago and arrived in California with a soul withered to shreds by his love affair with Jim Beam and Miller Lite. Like myself, he accomplished the seemingly impossible and built a life from the ashes of sadness and defeat. BRN played a crucial role in his recovery and he, like everyone who works here, knows the entire staff on a personal level far beyond the standard confines of traditional employment. I believe that this is what makes him so good at his job. When you sell something you truly believe in it does not feel like your selling anything at all. If you feel as though you are making the world a better place every time you dial the phone why wouldn’t you work 12 hours a day? He truly believes in the work he is doing and is universally known as the happiest person on the face of the earth.

He never stops smiling. This is not hyperbole for the sake of my writing. Now you can say “maybe he just smiles for his job as an admissions director” and I am to here to tell you that it oddly goes so much further beyond that. I have been Matt Keogh’s roommate for nearly a year so out of all the interviews I have done or will do with Buckeye Recovery Network this is easily the most intimate and comprehensive of them all. Matt Keogh smiles while he works. He smiles while he cooks dinner. He smiles while he does the dishes. He smiles while he fills out his taxes. I am certain that if you teleported into his bedroom at 3 am you would find Matt curled up in his bed with a giant toothy smile plastered on his face. I think that was what flared my curiosity when I imagined the possibility of this interview. It of course was not the smile or the happiness that interested me. Instead, it was the desire to learn the truth behind the smile. The nature of who I am is to understand what is beneath the surface; always skulking around the Land of Oz with my magnifying glass, desperately searching for the man that was surely hidden behind the curtain.

These interviews were written to uncover why the employees of BRN are driven to work in the field of substance abuse but I would be lying if I said I did not have ulterior motives with Matt. What sadness and heartbreak could lead to someone who constantly made a point of exuding so much joy at every turn of his existence. Maybe it is the reason I love to write so much, that I am always looking to poke holes in the fairytale. Always looking to prove Cinderella planted her glass slipper strategically as she left the dance and that Pinocchio was just a hallucination of Geppetto’s dementia-ridden brain. I think its clearly a reflection of my struggles with despair and life in general that I cannot accept a smile as just a smile. The clown at the circus may make the entire audience erupt in raucous laughter while I sit expressionless, attempting to physiologically unpack the series of unfortunate traumas that would lead a grown man to a career of makeup and colored jumpsuits.

Matt Keogh was born in Long Island, New York. He is 30 years old with a full oak-brown beard and dark-blue eyes reminiscent of the pacific ocean. He is roughly 5 foot 10 and looks like someone you would allow to house-sit for you while you go on vacation without so much as a second thought about something going awry. Ever since I have known him, he has been the hardest working person I have ever met. At first, his work ethic was less of a quality to admire and more of the proverbial thorn in my paw as I attempted to climb the ladder of our company.  Both of us worked in entry-level positions and it was nearly impossible to keep up with his production. If a task needed to be handled he would volunteer without hesitation nor consideration for the time it would take and the difficulty of it. He would not only accomplish whatever it is was asked but also he did it all with a smile. He was always making me look bad. I have never been the best at taking direction or doing things by the book. Matt would memorize “the book” and live and die by the rules. He was the perfect employee; never once daring to even so slightly color even the slightest bit outside the lines. Meanwhile I was spending a large chunk of my time trying to secure boxing fights throughout Southern California and moonlighting as a freelance breathing meditation instructor. My mind would be pushed and pulled by romantic relationships and a passion for writing. I would see Matt and I saw in him a model of consistency, efficiency, and focus that I have never known. Watching his bright white smile from afar as I rode a daily roller-coaster of emotional uncertainty; my face a revolving door of expression fluctuating rapidly through an endless spectrum of feelings.

We were never close, that is until he became Director of Admissions and I an Operations Director for the company. In the training our predecessors gave us before moving on to the next phases of their career, they made it abundantly clear that operations and admissions needed to have incredible synergy for the company to flourish. That the synergy that exists between the two departments is the life-blood that will fuel great success for our treatment center. Matt tasked with finding prospective patients who fit the criteria of our program and myself with the guidance of those patients once they have admitted into our universe of recovery. I would be molding many of the operational pieces that we could utilize to improve our ability to manage clients and help them change their lives. Matt taking those pieces and making sure to emphatically explain them to addicts and families across the country. Convincing them the structure I created is a necessary building block in the recovery of an addict. Matt was Heimdall guarding the bridge and I was Thor greeting junkies and booze-hounds in the halls of Valhalla.

Although our methods and personalities were wildly different we both shared common denominators that tied us together and continues to do so until this day. Ambition, a concrete belief in what Buckeye has to offer, and an unwavering desire to help people. If we were both challenged to travel to China on foot with the end result somehow magically being that the world would change for the better, we would both leave immediately and without hesitation. However, our methods would contrast. Matt would Forrest Gump his way across the globe with a never-ending smile and dark blue eyes. Greeting the inhabitants of this planet pleasantly along the way and making friends with sailors and fishermen who would gladly ferry him across the oceans and seas. Meanwhile, I would be manically attempting to dig through the center of the earth with raw and blistered hands, desperately trying to create a short-cut that turns out to be a dire over-complication of a simple equation.

When our prior Director of Operations told me of the necessity of a close relationship between myself and Matthew, I jokingly said “he will be the best man at my wedding one day”. Little did I know that I would end up not only working with him but also living with him. Little did I know that through the strength of his character and the profound impact he has had on me over the years that the statement was true. If I were to get married tomorrow you would see him standing to the side of me and my bride. Dressed immaculately with a giant smile to match.

Matt told me about growing up in Long Island with one sister and five brothers. I pressed him immediately asking if it was hard being one of seven and if his parents had a hard time giving attention to all of them. “No, actually I think that they gave me more attention for some reason.” He told me of growing up in an Irish Catholic household where weekends were spent at the beach with his mother and siblings. He told me of friends long-ago forgotten and a kindergarten romance that resulted in his first kiss. “We didn’t make out or anything” Is how he finished that topic of discussion. He stated that he was always close to his brothers and sister. I attempted to extract some kind of family disfunction during his childhood but every invasive question was met with a confident answer of serenity and functionality. Every inquisition into his childhood was retorted with stories of family bonding, vacations, and quaint summers. He did not, by my perception, seem to be distorting the truth or concealing information. When Matt spoke of beach trips with his mother, his dark blue eyes would drift to the ceiling of his office and more calmness than usual beset upon his already gentle tone. After spending time searching for the smoking gun in his youth that would surely explain his alcoholism later in life, as-well-as the sadness that surely lived behind his smile I realized that I was not going to find it. Simply because it did not exist. I then realized that his pain and darkness in life must be a result of the dastardly antics of his drinking years.

He spoke of his first drink. “My first drink was probably about 12. I drank at a family party or something. Snuck some beers.” I asked him if he committed this rebellious infraction alone and he replied with simply “Ya alone” but the memory was hazy and he could not recall any specifics. When Matt spoke of his first real drunk his face lit up. This was his trademark Bill Wilson “I have arrived moment”. Every alcoholic has one. The night where you feel like alcohol is the missing ingredient that will transform the pumpkin that is your life until a beautifully designed horse-drawn carriage. Matt drank 12 peppermint cosmos at the age of thirteen and had the night of his life. Waking up the next morning with a vicious hangover and confusion of how he could have gotten throw-up on the ceiling. His drinking would takeoff from there but slowly and surely. More of a story of the traditional American high school experience of partying on weekends with his brothers and friends. Drinking on weekends and sneaking into New York bars. Keeping up with his brother’s trajectories and never having moments of true concern for his well-being.

When I asked him when his drinking began to scare him he took a more somber posture then I am used to seeing from him. The smile still there but lessened to a dull. “I think it was about 20 or 21. Everyone else was going to class and I would stay home every day to drink.” I asked him how this made him feel and replied simply with “Disappointed in myself.” I was upset with his lack of struggle thus far in the interview and what I perceived to be a calculated evasion of truth. I bluntly said to Matt “You have an avoidance of conflict in your life today and you have an avoidance of conflict in your memories. You’re an alcoholic and you burnt your fucking life to the ground.” He snapped back with “I do avoid conflict in my life but I’m trying to dig in. You know me. I’m trying to dig in but there’s nothing there.” It was maybe the most serious I had ever seen him before he realized the conflict I had created. He had failed to avoid it. The smile quickly returned to his face accompanied by a nervous chuckle. I tried to go even deeper as I sensed that he was vulnerable as I believed the façade was about to finally crumble. I asked him with the sternest, most piercing tone I could muster “What’s the worst thing you have ever done. Your entire life. The thing that keeps you awake at night.” He replied “Obviously the DUI. At the point, I didn’t have a license and I was in fear of going to jail. That was one of the worst points in my life.” That was not at all what I was expecting. I was expecting an answer of poetry and sadness. Something so insidious that I would have to leave it out of this article and never speak of it to anyone. A DUI is an incredibly unpleasant and sad occurrence for sure, but in our world of recovery, it is usually the ice-breaker a recovering alcoholic would use before diving into stories of grand-larceny or panhandling.   

It was about a half-hour into the interview where Matt gave me some of the more philosophical insights that I have ever heard from him. He talked about dropping out of school without his parent’s knowledge. He would get on a random subway every day and drink while his parents assumed he was In class. He would ride the train for the entire day and was just simply existing for the sake of existing. “Pretending to go to school and pretending to go to work. Either steal my mom’s wine or buy some forties to start the day. Living at my parent’s house before getting sober. I know there’s life out there but it’s just too far away. To difficult.” It was genuine sadness he was speaking of and when he spoke the smile surely was extinguished from his face but only momentarily before returning to the ray of sunshine I knew him as. It wasn’t an overwhelming torment he spoke of but instead a crippling fear of the world and the conflict that lived within it. It was pain that was the result of his alcoholism and inability to stop drinking but had nothing to do with some cataclysmic event or powerful narrative.

Matt’s oldest brother is an ER doctor. The two other oldest are lawyers. His immediate younger brother is a Michelin star chef. His youngest just graduated Maritime school with the desire to become a ship captain. His sister was a successful event planner before getting married and having her happily ever after. The Keoghs are an incredibly successful family. While each brother was priming themselves to pursue their greatest passions, he was drinking 40 ounces in New York City. Riding subways into oblivion and deftly afraid to enter a world of conflict that he did not want to face. I asked him if he feels like he is making up for lost time after he finally sobered up. He repeated the question slowly and exhaled before saying “I don’t have a degree. This work experience only started a few years ago. I am 30 years old and trying to make a career.” Another simple answer devoid of narrative weight or anything literarily profound.

The truth of the matter is that this interview was more revealing of myself then it was of Matt. My unrelenting pursuit of truth had obscured me from truth itself. Listening to the recording of the interview I could hear how feverishly I attempted to press his buttons and dig into his soul. How manically I was digging to the center of the earth with raw and blistered hands. It is now becoming clearer that I search for blemishes on the beautiful simplicities of this world to justify the demons that live within my soul. If everyone’s past is filled with ghosts then that would allow me to sleep at night with the ones that haunt my own. My own over-complicated mind taking the trivial and increasing the focus on the microscope until I can’t even see what I’m looking at.  Missing the beauty of the forest because I cant look past the ugliness of a tree. With all things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be the right one. There was no destructive event or family dynamic that sparked the kindling of Matt’s alcoholism. He drank for the first time and he loved the way it made him feel. Then he couldn’t stop. His family loved him unconditionally and they were always there for him. Things got rough from his drinking and he faced consequences. He needed to change his life and get sober. He did. In the end, the power of Matt’s narrative comes from the complete lack of one. The fact that alcoholism doesn’t need to be tied to some Shakespearian tragedy and can truly corrupt even the best of us. Sometimes those things are there if you look for them. However sometimes you pull back the curtain in the land of Oz and you will find that it is you yourself who is standing there.

 

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