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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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The Minimalist

The Minimalist

Parham Nematollah (Chief Operating Officer)

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Chad Steinetz

Chad Steinetz

Blog Writer and Director of Operations for Buckeye Recovery Network

The Minimalist

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.

 

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