There will be no apologies for this one so, I’ll understand if you end this here and move on to a different chapter. Either way, this letter is written to the ones that showed me how to live. This is a letter to the ones that gave me hope. And yet, they’re gone now . . .
I apologize. I’m not sure when I wrote to you last but here it is, decades later and yet, you are still a big part of my life. You all were. You were a lesson to me. You were a backbone when I couldn’t find my own. You were all the voices of reason when the only voices I heard were the ones inside my head. You were all of this to me, and yet, I’m still here and most of you are gone or just missing.
I watched the movie Boys Town yesterday. Remember? This was the movie with Spencer Tracy. This is when he played the part of Father Flanagan. He was the priest that took in kids that had no hope, no home, no direction and no reason to believe that they or anyone else could possibly see them as anything other than hopeless and lost.
I always tell people that if they don’t know then they can’t know. I always say if you don’t know what it’s like to be down and out, to not care if you live or die, or to be so hateful and hopeless then you couldn’t understand what it means to have someone come along and offer you a glimmer of light. If all you ever believed is the worst about yourself and then suddenly, someone comes along and wholeheartedly, without any ill-willed intention or without an agenda, they offer you a piece of them to help you stand up again, trust me, if you don’t know then you can’t know how incredible this is.
Father Flanagan was famous for saying, “There is one thing I know, that I truly know, and that is there is no such thing as a bad boy.” This line always made me weep.
I know that you and I have both seen our share of bad boys. Deep down, were they really good? Could they have been? Maybe. Was there something running below the level which made them turn bad? I would say yes. I would say we’re all born out of goodness. I would say that some of us might have problems with our personal chemistry, which as a result is what leads to the problems of our character. Besides, isn’t that what they say about mental health disorders?
There used to be a billboard that read, Depression is a flaw in your chemistry, not your character. Ever see it?
I never saw my life this way. I never saw it this way until you taught me differently. I used to always see this as me. I believed there was something inherently wrong with me. There had to be something wrong because why else would I do what I did or say what I said? I never realized that I was reacting and responding to situations that ran much deeper than the surface level or the fake postures I stood in which to hide behind as a means of protection. I never saw myself this way. I thought I was just bad. I thought I was evil to the core until people like you showed me that no, this wasn’t true.
I tell people if they don’t know then they can’t know. If they don’t know what it feels like to walk in a room and assume that everyone sees you as sick or as a bum, as a loser, as worthless and wasteful or worse, when all are on your side, except for yourself; if they don’t know then they can’t know what it’s like to have someone come along and change the course of your life.
Father Flanagan opened Boys Town, which was a school for boys. I’m sure there were those that were unreachable. I’m sure there were some that did well until they left the school and found themselves alone or feeling the results of old thoughts and old behaviors.
I know there are people that look to take advantage of kindness. I’ve seen this myself, firsthand, and as a matter of fact, I’ve been taken advantage of, used and disregarded or seen as an easy mark. I’ve met people that aren’t kids anymore. They grew up without anyone trying to separate them from the bullshit tough guy personalities, which is really just fear that has been constructed as a shield of hatred to fend off the vulnerabilities.
I used to work on an overdose initiative. They deployed me to hospitals after someone would overdose. My shift was always the overnight shift. I would go in the middle of the night. Most times, the client would be alone. They’d be tied to a machine. There was a common look on their face, as if to explain, “Holy shit, I just died!” Often, I would come in and see my clients beneath a dim light above their head in an otherwise darkened spot in an emergency room. The absolute shame or degradation was clear to most of them. Yet, some were content to go back out. Some refused services because they wanted to be left alone so that when the hospital released them, they could go back out to see the dope man to settle the uneasiness of their dope sick lives.
There were some that were content to die. There were some that death wasn’t the ultimate goal, but should death find them, then so be it because life as they knew it was nothing more than a trained routine. Life is a cycle. What goes around, comes around, right? To people like me or to people that find themselves on the bottom end of the cycle, there is no hope to be up on top. There is only the belly of the beast, in which case, I saw this to mean that people like us were meant to be here. There are gifted people and people with disadvantages. Regardless of wealth, family and all the possible riches we could have; there’s no sunshine when you’re in the belly of the beast. There’s no light. There’s no hope. There’s just more of the same. At least, this is what I believed until I met you.
I saw life this way. So did many of the people I spoke with after their overdose. People in the jail saw their life similarly too. I ran a program in a jail for two years. The Covid virus put an end to this. The truth is no one goes to crime or to the bottle or needle because they are happy or content with their lives. This is why I learned that my responses and reactions were only a small part of my so-called problem. Mental health is always first before the response. Anything else is only a symptom. you taught me this.
The strangest part is that although some of us get out, some of us go back to the way it was. I see them sometimes, nodding on 8th Avenue by 35th near the methadone clinic. Or I’ll see their posts on social media, begging to be heard or asking for someone to listen to them. Only, they’ve burned too many bridges and the fires that lit their way became faded in the distance.
I am writing this to you because of the help you offered me a long time ago. I’m sending this to you as thanks because there are times when my flaws get in the way. There are times when my defects of character step up to the plate and I swing and I miss. I go back to old, depressive thinking. I admit it. It’s hard to believe in one’s self when there are other disadvantages and distractions in our thinking.
I think about quitting sometimes. I think about walking away and look to find an easier path. I often wonder about my purpose. And sometimes I wonder if anyone cares or if any of this is really worth it. I’m not always sure about my purpose or destiny but I am sure that decades ago, I was seen as a waste until you taught me to see myself differently.
I guess what I’m trying to say is I wish I was more like you. I wish you were still alive. I wish you knew what you did for me and I wish you followed your own advice instead of pushing that final shove into your vein.
It will be Christmas in a few days. The lights and the holiday spirit and the wholesomeness can be difficult. I know you understand. You’ve been there before. And so have I.
Thank you for giving me my life back.
To be honest, I just wish you were here to see it.
It would be nice to hear what you had to say.