Sunday 17 December 2017

The child who ran away from the circus for rehab

Oran Canfield's hippie childhood may sound idyllic but he became a heroin addict by 24, says Anne Marie Scanlon

Anne Marie Scanlon

Freefall: The Strange True Life Growing Up Adventures of Oran Canfield

Oran Canfield

Ebury, €13.99

For those of us who grew up in "traditional" households -- with rules, curfews and school uniforms -- and who longed for hipper, less restrictive and authoritarian parents, then Freefall is an eye-opener.

"I felt lucky that with two parents who fixed other people's problems, I would never have any problems of my own." In theory, Oran Canfield's childhood sounds idyllic -- he joined the circus, travelled widely and went to a school where attendance at class was entirely at the discretion of the individual student.

In reality, Canfield was anxious, lonely and felt unable to relate to his peers. His parents were both hippies who believed in free expression and overthrowing the shackles of tradition.

Yet Canfield's father, Jack (who would later find fame and quite a fortune as the author of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books), abandoned his family when Canfield was one and his mother was six months pregnant with his younger brother Kyle.

When Canfield meets his father for the first time at the age of four he says, "I expected to see a monster with fangs and horns." The fury he feels against Jack is fuelled by both his mother, who constantly rages against her ex, and by Jack himself, who seems almost immune to the fallout from his actions.

"Mom" (we are never told her real name) is a complex and contradictory figure -- controlling, stubborn and quite bitter yet she obviously loves her sons. Mom is highly opposed to every form of corporal punishment and bans her sons from watching television or eating refined sugar yet, conversely, she abandons them for long periods of time, often with virtual strangers.

At the age of 24, Canfield drifts into heroin addiction. Like a true addict he denies that he has a problem -- just a "habit".

"No matter how much I wanted to do the right thing, the urge to get high eventually outweighed everything else," he says, describing the process of addiction. Finally, after going to rehab seven times, Canfield starts to admit that he's an addict but he has problems accepting the 12-step/AA recovery model used in most rehabs -- as the son of a "self-help guru" he believes the whole approach is "bullshit".

"I had always thought that his whole self-help shtick was a racket," he says.

The narrative whips along at a cracking pace; Canfield's account of his drug addiction from the age of 24 runs in parallel with his description of his childhood and early adulthood. At times this back and forth can be a bit confusing and frustrating but it does help give the reader a sense of the sheer chaos of Canfield's life.

I lost count of places he lived in and the names of the people he lived with. Breaking up the narrative also helps move the story along when it becomes bogged down during Canfield's late teens.

It may be voyeuristic but I was utterly gripped by Canfield's seemingly unwinnable battle against addiction. He goes cold turkey -- "I thought I would be prepared ... It was beyond horrific. Everything hurt. Bones, stomach, skin." He tries a "rapid opiate detox" which is like cold turkey only more severe, he goes to rehab, he stays clean for a while and yet, sometimes unconsciously, he starts using again.

This is a must-read for anyone with children and for anyone who ever dreamed of running away and joining the circus.

Sunday Independent

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