Looking down from above, and through the years of wreckage that have been my life, you would see that my path of chaos led to death's door in July 2012. If that was where my story ended, few who had met me would have been surprised.
The fact that my story continues, along a very different path, can only really be understood by feeling these words that I’ve written.
When the powers that be picked up my unconscious body, I was barely breathing four times a minute. This was not the first time my choices had led me to a dead end. This horrific scene has played out numerous times over the course of my life. I can see clearly the last in a long line of self-destructive incidents. Imagining the sight of my almost lifeless body brings feelings of sadness and frustration. If I could, I would like to be the one to have shaken me awake. I would have liked to have asked myself a question. (I’ll get back to that question later.)
When the clouds of a narcotic overdose began to clear, I was being booked into jail. I was arrested for a laundry list of charges and I knew that I would be serving some years in prison. With that thought pressing down upon me I was locked in a detox cell, waiting for medical clearance so that I could be processed into the prison population. I was not happy. I was yelling. I was making demands. I wanted to use the phone. To my lasting shame I used a disgusting ploy to garner sympathy. I screamed, for all to hear, that I wanted to call my children.
It was during this irrational tirade that the actions of an anonymous officer presented the first link in a chain of events that has changed my life forever. I was lost, in the midst of a hazy place, but I can still see his face. As I screamed in anger at a cold hard world of my own making, this officer calmly approached my cell. As my complaints were then voiced in his direction, he stood impassively staring at me through the glass.
My voice was nearly hoarse when I finally finished filing my grievances. I looked at this officer imploring, probably daring him to argue the imagined injustice of my position. But that was not why he took the time to approach my cell. He had come to ask me a question. With just a hint of sadness mixed in disgust, he asked me, “______, when are you going to stop being SELFISH?”
Looking back I remember that the word ‘selfish’ was a spit of accusation. I was in shock. It was not the response that I expected and it confused me. I didn’t understand what he meant and I told him so. He didn’t care to listen. He turned and left just as quickly as he came. I may never know his motivations. If I could I would like to go back and thank him. I’d like to tell him that his words will forever echo through my life. I might stop to say some things to the man inside that cell as well. Even though I know, he wasn’t ready to listen.
After some time, I was sent to an intake mod of the jail population. I tried for days to sleep through the physical consequences of my narcotic addiction. I sweat through the aches and pains of a wretched sickness. My wish for sleep was mixed with the toss and turn of restless fits. I daydreamed and nightmared, wrestling with the demons of my decisions. The word depression does not quite describe the kind of self-loathing, heart-breaking, utterly bleak blanket of darkness that I tightly wrapped around my broken self.
As the numbing of the narcotics wore off I found that, in fact, my heart was not broken. It was working just as it should, and as it should, it was hurting. As I remembered the long trail of my destruction, I passed huge holes that threatened to pull me in. These holes were the relationships with my loved ones that I had left in ruin. My Mother-My Brothers-My Girlfriend………My kids. Inside of me could not fit another drop of disparity. My visions were visceral and I drifted in darkness.
As I wound through all the many ways that I had hurt the ones I love, it led me back to the day before my latest knock at death's door. A hundred times an hour a thought came unbidden. A painful reminder of my last in a long list of broken promises.
Most of my life has been lived with reckless abandon. Criminality and drug addiction mixed with narcissistic self-absorption have been the most remarkable examples of my behavior. Almost ten years in prison was not catalyst for change. I failed to find happiness in life. I literally tried to inject happiness, despite the negative consequences.
By the time I was arrested it had been at least two years since I’d truly tired of suffering those consequences. I didn’t like my life in jail. I didn’t like my life out of jail. I, more than half-heartedly checked myself in and out of rehab in an attempt to change the course of my direction. But I wasn’t ready and so I failed time and time again.
It was during an excursion out of town, on one of my, ‘geography will get me clean’ trips that I made the last in a long list of broken promises to my daughter, Isabella. I called Bella on her birthday, July 6th and told her I was out of town. I told her that I would be back in town that week and that on the day I got back I would visit her with a birthday present. I returned to town on July 10th. On July 11th I took the money I should have been spending on a gift for my daughter and I bought drugs. Instead of bringing my beautiful child a smile, I tried to inject one for myself. I almost died.
An odd sensation the fact that remembering a raw thought can truly hurt your heart. The thought clawing at my conscious was that I had to call my newly 9-year-old daughter and apologize. This obligation was felt like the sharp sting of a self-inflicted stabbing. I remember laying there wounded by my own decisions. I felt broken as I wallowed in what seemed like waste. It was during this time that a simple, but profound thought crept in. The cop was right. I had been ‘SELFISH’.
At some random moment, in the third week of July 2012, I had my first real revelation. I would stop being selfish. I would start by calling my daughter to apologize. I can clearly see myself taking that first step toward the phone. I took the first step on an entirely new path in life. I took a step……….and then I fell in fear.
I have a stomach condition called ulcerative colitis. This is a digestive disorder that I was diagnosed with in my teens. The symptoms of this disease are many but can be summed up by its main effect: varying degrees of stomach pain. Although I have, at times, followed the advice of various doctors; to eat right, take medication as prescribed and have consistent check-ups, my efforts to maintain this healthy discipline were sporadic at best. By far, my ‘go-to’ method of managing my condition was to use copious amounts of opiate narcotics to treat pain. I often procured these narcotics from criminal drug dealers, and just as often, through criminal means. However, this was not always the case.
Over the years I developed a clear pattern of irresponsibility in my own health care. While in prison I would take medication, eat right and exercise. During this time my pain was managed at a tolerable level. Almost immediately upon release these healthy choices would go by the wayside. I soon found myself experiencing extreme stomach pain that could only be treated with powerful substances. Whatever substance I chose to use and abuse, it worked to treat my pain. It did not work to treat my condition. My stomach pain has been for nearly two decades, a never-ending cycle of self-inflected misery. I chose to continue this cycle despite the advice and counsel of medical multitudes.
I found that emergency room doctors would also give me the drugs that I desired. I became exceptionally adept at walking out of various hospitals and clinics with a script for a quick fix. I utilized these same skills when coming into contact with the medical department of corrections.
When I took a step and found myself falling, it had been a very long time since I had failed to manipulate a medical provider. So, it was with confidence that I stepped away from my walk to the phone and instead found a form and filed a request to be seen by a doctor. I put off the conversation that I owed to my daughter with high hope of first numbing the pain. Not the pain in my stomach, the pain in my heart.
The very next day I was called to the doctor’s office and was excited to see it was a provider I had talked into giving me pain pills before. I immediately played him a tape of pre-recorded, carefully constructed, exaggeration and excuse. My performance was perfect and hid the excitement of expecting reward.
When my tape ended the doctor, who had been taking notes, calmly closed my file, folded his hands and met my stare. Blank-faced, without the sympathy I’d pre-supposed, he posed a question, “_____, what is wrong with you?” (Note: I’ve left out an obscenity mixed in with his question) I was shocked and for a moment indignant, but immediately determined to change the course of that conversation. I provided excuse for the ravaging of my body but was rebuffed. Holding up a forceful hand the doctor said, “I don’t want to hear anymore about your stomach ______. I’m sure that you are in pain. With your condition, and the way you live your life, you are literally bound to be in pain. As sure as I know that, I know that is not why you’re here. So you tell me _____. What is your problem?”
I can look back and clearly see my mouth open in an attempt to play some more of that tape, but no sound came out. I was torn and the cracks in my conscience were widening inside me. My mind screamed at me to lie but my heart had had enough. Maybe the doctor sensed this because his follow up cut into my lost looking pause. Spoken with the force of will he said, “With all your obvious advantages, intelligent, articulate, even charming, you sit in this room year after year having failed at life and looking for us to fix you. Well, if you want to be fixed you’re going to have to tell me _____. WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM!”
I had tunnel vision as his words echoed through my head. The sensation I felt was the vibration of a chime telling me to speak the truth. I could hear the beating of my beat up heart and my face was flush as the tears flowed freely down my cheeks. Finally I found the words that represent the very first time I was whole-heartedly honest about my addictions. I stammered when I said, “I………..I………..I have to call my daughter and tell her I’m in jail…………………I………..I have to tell her that I’m sorry.”
I’m pretty good with words. I can be descriptive in my writing. But I’m at a loss for a way to explain to you how hard it was to get those words out of my mind. I’m not sure how I found the strength. Each pause was an exhalation of air, and the pressure of weight, filled with denial and shame. Each inhalation was filled with honesty and selflessness that spread just enough hope in me to go forward. I recall feeling relief and thought to tell the doctor that this was why I needed the pain pills. But there was no need. He understood and he nodded knowingly.
When the doctor spoke it was with the kind of quiet calm that is filled with certainty. With compassion, mixed in conviction, he said, “______, I want you to listen to me carefully because what I’m about to tell you is an important lesson for your life. The pain that you’re experiencing, the pain in your stomach, the pain in your heart………………..THIS-PAIN-WILL-NOT-KILL-YOU……….your addictions WILL kill you………..if you let them……………….And if you let them, it will be so ‘SELFISH’ of you.
I probably blinked in stunned reflection. There it was again. Spoken with the same accusatory inflection, that word, ‘selfish’. I amazingly wondered at the random chances of coincidence. At just the right time, in just the right space, I nodded in agreement. Within myself I took responsibility and held myself accountable. I had been selfish, and it had to stop.
There is an old saying that nothing worthwhile is easy. That definitely applies to the phone call I had to make to Bella. I floundered for days rehearsing what I’d say. Then I attempted to anticipate her responses and how best I could reply. I prepared answers and comments to her thoughts. This stall went on for far too long when I was transferred to another jail.
After I settled, I continued to pace with this conflict un-resolved. I had taken steps, but still stood before a fork, stuck on a gravely road. Looking back, I know that I was feeling the push and pull of light and darkness, positive and negative. Some would say, good and evil. I know that I failed to find strength on my own. I looked for guidance and found it in my friend: Jason Premo.
Jason and I used to have a lot in common. And then he changed. And then I changed. And now, again we have a lot in common. To make you understand this, I’ll tell you how the path of our lives first intersected.
In the late '90s I was very young and very new to the adult prison system. While many young men that age started their second education, I started years of prison incarceration. Prison was my chosen education and I was interested in participating in most aspects of criminality. The older prisoners found that I was an excellent student in the finer points of the criminal code. I was quick to violence, hostile to authority and most well regarded, I could hustle women.
Without going in to too much detail, suffice it to say that I was soon under investigation for smuggling contraband through visiting. It was in the context of this alleged activity that I first met Jason Premo. Some years older than me, and well established in the prison hierarchy, Jason had a reputation that preceded introduction. If you listened closely, whispers could be heard through-out the jail, “Premo’s got the Premo”. We ran in the same dark circles of that jail, and some time later a half-way house.
I looked up to Jason and saw a slightly older version of myself: a few more tattoos, a few more scars, a few more tricks up his sleeve. As I got older, and grew to fill those shoes, I lost track of Jason. As it turns out, each of us spent years staggering down our own dark and winding roads, lost.
When I found Jason again it was during the time that I was in and out of rehab (and in and out of jail), tired of suffering the consequences of my actions but not ready to make the necessary changes. During one of these incarcerations I was locked up, again, with Jason. Jason had been arrested for a major felony and, at that time, had fallen deep into the depths of his own darkness. But Jason has a story just like I have a story. Jason’s story is filled with courage, hope and the conviction of a man who has journeyed, for some time now, down the road less traveled.
During my brief time passing through his life in jail, I could see that our roads had drastically diverged. Jason’s path in life had changed so dramatically and with such stark contrast that it embodied the word ‘AMAZING’. I saw the positivity he exuded and the result of his good choices. I peppered my friend with questions as to how he’d made such changes. I was impressed with his answers and they inspired much reflection. After I left, I wrote to him from some failed rehab center and told him so.
When I returned to jail, he hadn’t forgotten what I had written or the hope he’d heard in my voice. He honestly voiced his disappointment that I was back in jail, but assured me that the right choices were still mine to make. When I found myself faltering on that gravely road it was to Jason that I turned.
Most of our important, thoughtful conversations ate away the hours of a day or night. This particular conversation, turning out to have immeasurable influence in my life, was short and not so sweet. I was whining, but I didn’t know it at the time. I was being a coward but I tried hard to cover that with excuse. After telling Jason that I didn’t know what I would say to my daughter, I was ashamed and had my back to my friend. He asked me, “Well bro, what are you gonna do?” With a weakness of will I replied, “I don’t know bro……….I don’t know if I can call her yet.” Jason, as the true friend that he is, very simply, very gently, pulled my card and held it to the light. He said, “______, this phone call is not about you brother……This phone call is about your daughter.”
I turned to face the goodness of my friend and a flick inside me switched. At that very moment I switched my conscious disposition and gave up being selfish. I took a breath of fresh air, told Jason that he was right and stepped to the phone to call my daughter.
Years of manipulating the treatment center systems have made me well versed in rehabilitative lingo. “Rock bottom” is a term used to signify an addicts final acknowledgment that drug use is out of control and must be stopped. To me it represents a fall from a scary height. A fall that ends in being broken and the only way to continue life is to stand and pick up the pieces. Listening to people describe the incidents surrounding their “rock bottom” I’ve noticed that many of them result in incarceration. My “rock bottom” took place in jail.
I can be, at times, a very eloquent individual. Often my mind conceptualizes a conversation much faster than I speak, the gift of gab it’s called. In spite of this, it has always been difficult to converse with my daughter about anything serious. I get nervous and un-characteristically un-confident. As you might imagine, when I called Bella to tell her I was in jail I was a nervous wreck.
I was used to Bella being quiet on the phone. She didn’t say a whole lot when I had infrequently called. I thought it was because she wasn’t interested in what I had to say. (I didn’t realize until recently how very much she listens to me.) So when I called Bella there was not much conversation from her, but I was used to that.
The sadness in my heart that day was palpable. I struggled hard to hold it in and hide it from the inflection of my voice. I didn’t delay, lest I lose my courage. I told Bella that I was very sorry. I told her that I meant to bring her a present but I had gotten myself in trouble. I told her I was back in jail. I told her I was going to be in jail for quite awhile. She asked me, “how long?” I bit my lip. I was ashamed.
As I sat there wondering how best to explain the length of time to her, I was struck by the cold tingle of a panicked fear. The hurt in my heart………..what if she felt it too? Was I the cause of a similar hurt in the perfect little hearts of my children? The biting of my lip transformed into the slack-jawed expression of a life changing revelation. My life was not just filled with selfishness, it was driven by it, and my kids were suffering. I could barely breathe as my eyes filled with pools of guilt.
I explained to Bella, ever so gently, that I would be missing some more birthdays. Feeling raw and emotionally exhausted, I asked her if she was mad at me. I’ll never forget her response as it so clearly spoke the volumes of my failure. “No, I’m not mad”, she said. I was absolutely speechless. Sitting there, my disparity was tinged with sorrow and shame. In that moment I was finally broken. My beautiful, funny, smart little girl told me that she wasn’t mad that I would be in jail for years.
For someone who hasn’t experienced that breaking point it cannot be fully understood. I could use a thousand descriptive terms and never quite capture what took place. It’s as if, from that point forward, every fiber of my being has pulled me in a new direction. In the month of August 2012 I adopted a new value, SELFLESSNESS, and allowed it to drive the course of my direction. It has extrapolated into every aspect of my life and the effects of this have been no less than AMAZING!
But that is the ‘how’ of my change and that I’ll tell you about in the next chapter of my life. The chapter that you just read is the ‘why’.
I told you, at the beginning of this story that I’d like to go back to my last over-dose and shake myself awake. I’d like to ask myself a question. I’d like to look into those clouded eyes and demand to know, “Are you so SELFISH that you’re going to leave your kids forever!?”
The answer to that is a resounding,”NO!” I am taking advantage of my time in jail and learning how to be a good father. I am learning how to be a good person. I will spend every day picking up the pieces for a better life.
That is my story. It’s a sad story but that’s ok because it represents the end of a tragic path. I wrote this story wishing that it would help and I’ve found that it has. As you read this, I am somewhere widely smiling, writing a happy ending, and overflowing with hope.
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