I’m not sure where it all began. I can’t pinpoint the initial change or where my feelings shifted as a kid. Maybe it was an early realization I had. Only, I never had the language to describe it. I only know I that always felt differently from the rest. I was much smaller than most my age. I was babyish in appearance, thin, and terribly weak for my age. I never had much athletic ability and I couldn’t fight my way out of a wet paper bag.
I never felt like I fit in or I belonged — but I always wanted to.
I always wanted to be part of the crowd. I wanted to be “In” so I always tried to involve myself, but by living this way, I never had the chance to feel the compliment of being invited.
I can’t say how it all began. My life in review seems more like a book or a story I was told, long ago, and I know all about the characters and the landscapes. I know what happened and I know the details; however, it is strange to look back and realize, “That was me.”
I remember that only four months had passed since the time of my departure from home. I had been sent from one facility to another and returned home to the sad news of my Old Man falling ill to a heart attack. It was strange to be there in my bedroom. I had lived there my entire young life, yet, everything seemed so foreign to me.
The room was different from how I left it and yet somehow, the old spirit of who I was lingered like an old ghost refusing to relinquish its hold on life.
When I walked in my bedroom, I felt as though I was returning to the scene of a crime. It felt like I was at a murder scene. The only thing missing was the outline of a fallen body. I looked around and for the first time, I saw who I was.
For the first time, I was awakened to what I had become. I knew where all of my hiding spots were. I knew the unspoken truths about my bedroom, which were truths that no one else would ever know. Once upon a time, a little innocent boy lived in that room, but that boy had gone, and fear took place of his innocence.
I thought about the long nights perched upon the roof of my house. I spent hours up there, drinking gin, looking around to watch the world which seemed to be passing me by. I couldn’t believe this is who I was. Furthermore, I couldn’t believe this is what happened to me. Fortunately, in my case, the ends justified the means.
My first treatment facility was at an adult rehabilitation center where obviously, I was the youngest client at the age of 17.
I was filled with rage. I was still sick – partly because of my drug choices and partly because I was uneducated about the effects of what happens when stopping anti-anxiety medications. I was frail and painfully thin. My intake weight was 80lbs. which was certainly shameful to me. I was so thin that I kept two of the belt loops on both the left and right side of my jeans tied together by string because my waist was so small that I was embarrassed to buy a smaller belt.
My clothes appeared to hang on my body as if I were a skeleton. My eyes had dark rings beneath them and face was sunken. My skin was pale and greenish and my condition was obvious. I dragged my feet when I walked and I spoke through my teeth when I talked. This is what happened as a result of my choices.
I was “Smoked out,” as they said to me during my intake.
I was “too light to fight, too thin to win,” they told me previously when I was locked in a holding cell.
As I passed by a few of the other patients at the facility, I heard one of them, a man who I would later know as Kevin remarked, “Man, he must have been smoking lovely,” which meant that I must have smoked a lot of crack to become that thin.
Although I knew how this happened to me, there was something unreal about this. I was never sure how it all got this bad. It all started out as a good idea. I just wanted to have fun. I wanted to feel good because while living with the struggles of awkwardness, feeling good is good enough to help forget about the social discomforts of being who I was.
I was never sure where it started. Maybe it started in grade school. Maybe it started because I never knew how to express myself. I never knew what a learning disability was. Instead, I thought I was stupid. And really, it was just that: I was stupid.
I thought I was weak. I thought was unlike everyone else, alone, unwanted and uncool. Maybe the big switch began when I tried to get recognition from those I wished would recognize me.
But that never worked
I ever tell you about the time I tried to build a carnival in my basement? It’s a short story but it sort of defines the way I felt about myself.
Somewhere back when I was in the second grade, one of the sixth grade kids around the block invited us to his house.
He made up a few games in his basement. He charged a bunch of us youngsters an admission fee of 50 cents each. We stood at a distance and shot dart guns at little green army men to win a prize.
“Knock one down and win a prize,” shouted the older boy. He played the role perfectly, even screaming out, “We have a winner!” if somebody won something.
The prizes weren’t much and most of the army men were glued down anyway. There were other games too and we paid to play them all.
Deep down, I knew this was all a scam but at least the scam was good enough to have fun, which was also good enough to help me feel invited.
One day, I tried to build my own little carnival in the basement of my house. I set up little games and found prizes for the winners.
Too bad nobody ever showed . . .
Somewhere along the path of my early youth, I began to fold inward. Maybe it was because I wanted to be athletic; only, I never had the ability. I never had much speed. I could throw a ball and catch it, but I couldn’t throw far, and I couldn’t do much else. I had no physical endurance. And again, I was never very strong so I was never really picked for teams in the schoolyard. I was never really picked last but I was certainly never picked first either.
Back in 6th grade, I wanted to play basketball. How hard could it be, I thought. All you have to do is bounce a ball and throw it into a hoop. I never knew much about the rules or the fundamentals of the game. I just knew I wanted to play.
To play . . .
What else could a kid in the 6th want?
I suppose this is one of the first times I felt so painfully different from everyone else. Since there was only one league in my town, my parents signed me up for it. Unfortunately, the league was with the catholic Youth organization, which to me, a Jewish kid without much understanding of different religions or at minimum, without understanding of what made me different from the other boys on the team, Catholic Youth organization (or C.Y.O.) could have easily been called Hitler’s youth organization. However, this lesson of awareness is something that came later.
First day, first practice, I was a stranger to most on the team. I only knew two other boys because they were in my class at school. The rest knew each other from Sunday morning’s religion classes. However, since, I was not of their religion, I never knew anything about that.
We all gathered and the coach blew his whistle. He said, “Alright, two lines either side of the court and line up for lay-ups.”
I had never shot a lay-up before.
I knew how to dribble the ball. And I could run while doing this, but I never learned how to take the most basic shot in basketball. I never learned how to shoot a lay-up.
Nevertheless, I was excited to try. I had visions of me being a star on this team. I wanted to be the best. I wanted be good so badly that I could literally taste it on my tongue. One by one, the boys took turns in front of me. I felt the stir of anticipation:
There I was in the gymnasium at St. Raphael’s. The glossy hardwood flooring shimmered beneath the lights, the white walls, and the high-ceiling room echoed with the sound of a basketball bouncing against the floor — then there was the sound of the ball hitting a backboard mixed in with the sound of a swish as the ball dropped through the basketball net.
I wanted to do that. I wanted to be that kid who was not only good; I wanted to be that go-to kid who was the best on the team.
One by one, my turn to be that kid came up. The wooden bleachers at the side of the gym where the spectators sat were folded up against the wall like an accordion. Blue, gold, and white banners hung from the ceiling with school pride and team pride slogans.
One by one, my turn approached until suddenly, I was next. The boy before more dribbled up to the basket, and perfectly, he leapt upwards, allowing the basketball to release from his fingertips — one knee up high as he jumped in the air as if it would be perfect time to take a photo of his shot. The boy captured his rebound, dribbled the ball, and then he passed it to me with a hard chest pass.
Now it was my turn.
I was so excited to try. I dribbled the ball somewhat well and took it up to the basket. Then awkwardly, I leapt up, trying to replicate the shot I had just seen but my coordination was nowhere up to par.
I jumped up too soon and my aim was poor. After the ball left my fingertips, it hit the bottom edge of the backboard, shooting directly back at me, and then the ball smashed directly in my face.
For a brief second, there was a silent pause. That pause of shame was shortened and followed up with the humiliation of screaming laughter from the other teammates. I had never felt so mortified and with all my shame, I walked back to the end of the line while the others laughed at me – my head hung low, my spirit deflated, and of all times when I wanted to die, I suppose I wanted to die most right at that point.
For as long as I could recall, I never felt like I could do the same as anyone else, which is why I always looked for the angles. I always felt that I had to cheat in order to get buy. I never exceeded in school and I never did well in sports. I was never overly popular. I never kept with a group of friends very long because there would always be a fallout somewhere as a result of my insecurity.
I had to develop a shell. I needed an image; one that would act like a shield and protect me. I needed something I could hide behind – I needed a persona that would help me seem interesting to others, that would attract attention, that could be cool, and leave me to feel important. However, this sort of thing acts like quicksand to someone who is socially uncomfortable. It’s like putting your foot in your mouth and continuously saying the wrong thing – it never gets better, it only gets worse, and somehow, there has to be some way to survive in a social world where all that matters is status and popularity.
I remember when I was young, I knew someone that wore a shirt with a picture of someone drawn on it with a pair of black sunglasses on and a cigarette that hung from the mouth and it read, “Style: it’s not about who you are. It’s about what you wear. I mean, who cares who you who you are anyway?”
This is a perfect description of how I felt.
It wasn’t what you did; it was how you did it. Everything was about image; it was how you stood or how you leaned up against the wall. It wasn’t about what you drank; it was about how you drank it and if you made a face after you took a sip – it had to be a cool face.
If you smoked, the brand was important, but how you held your cigarette, how you lit it, and how you exhaled that first drag of smoke said everything. It wasn’t who you were; it was how you looked and how you approached.
It wasn’t that you walked into a room; it was how you entered, it was how you walked through, it was your strut and the way you stride through. These are what people noticed.
If I couldn’t feel like I was a part of anything then I would make a choice to destroy everything. If I wasn’t like, I decided to hate back. And by hating back, this meant I would have to hate back perfectly and uncontrollably.
Maybe my switch in my behavior started when I grew tired of feeling painfully unnoticed and incapable. Maybe my big switch happened when I saw the recognition of notoriety because when I gained a sense of notoriety; I felt a sense of security. I felt I had found something to hide behind. This was my shield — it was built from my fear that turned into rage, which hardened like steel, and it was the best way I knew to protect myself and hide from the fears of my awkwardness
All I wanted to do was be cool . . .
I had no one to talk to about these things. Even if I did, I wouldn’t have known how to describe them. I didn’t have the language yet. Also, I never thought it was possible for anyone else to understand what it felt like to be me.
Wondering how I landed myself here, I walked into a treatment facility in a small town I had never heard of before in Kerhonkson, New York. I was far from my home and my comforts. I was far from my routes of escape and far from the places like East New York Brooklyn by Liberty, or Far Rockaway, Corona Queens by Northern Boulevard at 103rd, or by the place that had fed me most when I was alone at the end on 134th street and Willis Avenue.
It’s hard to pinpoint where the fast progression of teenage addiction took its change and went from recreational to something more deliberate and deadly. I don’t know where or how it began. I only know that I wanted to feel better. I wanted to quiet the ongoing committees that rambled in my mind.
I wanted to calm the mental war rooms, to soothe the discomfort, to find myself warm and comfortable in that soft mental cocoon, and to feel weightless in an otherwise heavy time.
Somewhere in hindsight, all of my plans lost their brilliance. Somehow, everything fell apart, and like quicksand, I always felt like no matter what I did, I was always sinking. I never knew there was a way to redeem myself. No one ever told me this was possible. And if they did, no one ever said this to me in a language I could understand. As far as I knew, I was alone. I was”Terminally unique” as they said and unlike anyone and everyone else . . .
I ever tell you about the time I stood in classroom of high school kids and told them my story? Their eyes were wide-opened. Some cried. Some nodded their heads because they understood. And some looked away because they were afraid someone would see that they understood.
The name of the program is Not Even Once. The idea is to show what happens with experimental drug use, where it leads, and what happens.
I was asked why I never discussed much of my drug use. I never listed my drugs of choice. I only talked about the way I felt and what I went through. My usage was obvious and so were the reasons behind it. Instead of glorifying war stories, I spoke about the ability of inspiration. I spoke about the effects of positive motivation. I chose to tell them who I was instead of what I did. Else, the lecture becomes a challenge of comparison instead of a relatable truth.
In whichever action we choose to take in life, whether we are younger or older in adulthood; we act in order to honor something. I used to act on behalf of my fears. I acted on behalf of my anger and my awkwardness. I acted in ways to solve my discomforts. In the past, the usage of either drugs or alcohol was the only way I knew how to honor myself.
These days, I choose to honor myself differently. I honor myself with effort. These days, I honor myself by replacing troubled thoughts with the benefit of positive action. I changed behavior to change my thinking. In whichever way I chose to honor myself, these days, I choose to honor myself properly.
When asked why don’t I do war stories.
I answered, “Because where’s the honor in that?”
Tomorrow morning, I’m starting a program of my own. It’s called Breakfast with Benny at the nearby Homeless Shelter. A long time ago, I made a very clear decision.
How do I want to honor myself?
By helping others
That’s how . . .