I have had the chance to speak in small rooms and large auditoriums. I have presented in front of people that ranged from young kids to adults. I do not change my speech. I do not change my explanation nor do I change the flow of my story. First of all, my story is my story so why change it? And the answer is yes, like anyone and everyone else in this world, I have a past. I have a past that I am not proud of. I have a history that was marked with shame. I have a stigma that I had to learn to change.
Perhaps my first memorable gig as a speaker was in a high school classroom. I was nervous for several reasons. I was also emotional because I never had a high school experience. I never went to prom or took a driver’s education class. I never had a high school sweetheart or had the traditional rites of passage that come with the high school experience.
At the time of my youth, I was paying for the consequences of my actions. I was on a farm. I had a leash around my neck, which is a figurative way of saying that I had to pay for some of the crimes I committed.
Rather than glorify the war stories and instead of discussing the pathways I had chosen to make them sound cool, I decided to take a different approach. I didn’t talk about the actions. I talked about the pain. I talked about the truthfulness behind my choices. I talked about my shame and the degrading chain of events that comes with the compulsion.
At the end of the class, the students responded to my presentation. Some of them wept. Some of the students shared about the way they felt in relation to the way I felt. I noticed a teacher in the back that raised his hand. He thanked me for my time but he was curious to know which drugs I used. He wanted to know more about why I found myself in a sewer on some nights, hiding away from the world. After explaining that he appreciated my story, the teacher added he would have liked to hear more about the drugs and more of how this affected me.
I explained myself very simply. First, I did mention why I had to hide away. I did explain what I was doing. The difference is I was not there to give anyone ideas. And I said this out loud. I explained about the first time anyone ever came into my school to tell my class about the dangers of drugs and underage drinking. A girl that came in and from what I remember, she was very pretty. I was in sixth grade at the time but I can still remember her features.
I listened to the young girl speak. She was an older teen that was brought in to tell her story. I remember her discussing her home and the way it looked. I remember her talking about the way she felt and how she remedied this by climbing out from her bedroom window and heading up to the roof of her home so she could sit there and drink. Her intent was to describe the loneliness she felt as well as the despair. Her intent was to tell this story and deter us from doing what she did. However, intentions will not always match interpretations.
I remember identifying with the loneliness and the despair. I remember identifying with the need to get away from people. And since I was not her nor did I have the history she had or the experience, rather than take this as a warning, I saw this as an idea to gain the experience to reach that level of understanding. That night, there I was on the roof of my home and sipping from a bottle of alcohol I swiped from the basement.
There are warnings all over the world. But do they work?
Does anyone listen? Did I listen? Did you?
If warnings worked, wouldn’t the statistics improve instead of get worse?
There is something about the soldier; there’s something about the war that he had to go through to get where he is. How can one be a war hero without the blood and guts that comes with the war? This is what people see. I have known prisoners from county jails that speak for local programs and go to schools to warn kids to stay away from crime, drugs and underage drinking. Although, this is not to say that the programs are not altogether helpful, there is another side of this. There is the heroism behind the knowledge. There is the glory of the fight. There is the prestige behind the danger of a lifestyle that people connect with. Put simply, the interpretation does not match the intention.
For years, I have heard the older warn the younger about the roads not to choose. And for years, I’ve watched the younger follow down the same destruction. I remember an older friend that had his own history. I remember being a 15 year-old punk. This man was trying to tell me to stay away from the drugs. He told me, “Stay away from the pins, kid.” He was telling me to stay away from the needle and to stay away from heroin. Although his message was clear, there was something so tragically cool about the way he said this. “Stay away from the pins, kid.”
We can tell people not to do things and to choose differently, but yet, the way we talk about this and the way we describe our older choices are more important than the lesson itself. It’s not what we say, right? It’s what people see and how they interpret what we say that makes a difference. In fact, I do not make anything I did sound cool. I allow the degradation of my past and the uncool truths to come out. I don’t want anything about this to be attractive.
There is another side to me. There is a side that grew and learned to overcome. There is another side to me that learned to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations without having to use a mask to find bravery. In fact, there was a morning I spent in one of my jail programs. While talking to the group, I heard one of the group members challenge me, “See, I like to get high. I just don’t like the consequences.” He told me, “If I could get high without the consequences, I would do it right now.”
I explained this is the difference between us. First, this is not a new saying. I’ve heard people say this way back when I first came into a recovery facility in 1989. As the man said this to me, I recall thinking to myself, “I haven’t heard this in a long time.”
Even if I could get high without the consequences, I have reached a point in my life where I would still decline the drug. I understand how good they feel. I know all about the prestige and the glory behind them. It took me a while but I also learned about the glory and the honor that comes with living straight and clean. It took me some time but I learned how it feels to live free from the idea that I need something external to free me from an internal exile.
Our society has become programmed to believe that we need external sources to solve internal dilemmas. Whether the need can be solved by the purchase of a new, fancy car or honored by the outward appearance of an image; or whether our inadequacies or insecurity can be satiated by a pill or fixed at least temporarily, the truest freedom is to be able to solve the internal problems without the use of an external source. To realize that we are absolutely perfect as we are without the need to dress ourselves up and be someone else is to achieve the best level of awareness.
I do not glorify my past because there is no glory to this. The glory comes with the understanding of how to live without the need to please or find acceptance. The truest glory one could find is to find comfort in themselves without feeling the need to seek someone else’s approval.
There is another side to life. There is another side to mental health. There is another side to downfall. I would rather talk about strengthening the platform to growth than mention the destruction of my past. I would rather inspire to live a good life than inspire to find the rush or the surge of adrenaline. I’d rather address the trauma and learn to resurrect than give in and allow the fall to serve as some kind of poetic justice.
There is another side to the old life of mine. In fact, I live it now. And I’ll live this way for the rest of my life. There is no reason to honor the old ideas. I’d rather honor me the way I am now. Anything else would only promote the social virus that is killing people off in record numbers. In fact, even saying this is a swaying comment.
Everyone knows that drugs are a killer. Everyone knows that alcohol is a killer. So are pills. So are steroids. So is criminal life. But yet, the numbers go up. Not down.
The answer is because there is a sad fascination to the tragic glories of all the symptoms of the above.
But me, I don’t want to be a symptom.
I’d rather be a solution.
And that’s why I don’t tell war stories.