It is a Monday morning in week ten. The Principal and other administrators from downtown sit on stage, preparing to tell us why we are all here:
“The things I would do with her if I were you Jose…”
Apparently finding himself funny, Mr. Henry continued to speak inappropriately as we both sat in the school’s cafeteria. The room was filled with whispers between staff; wondering why we had been called in for this meeting.
Mr. Henry seemed unconcerned, however. His mind was clearly on other things, but I was barely listening to what he was saying to me. He was referring to Lily, I knew that; our school’s young, now single, guidance counselor who sat on the stage in front of us looking gorgeous as always. Ever since Mr. Henry and I had become friendly, he found it fun to imagine Lily and I as an item.
“Could you please stop talking to me!” I thought to myself, lost in my own thoughts; fearing the reason we were all here.
After releasing my ham sandwich article on Saturday night, I had anticipated a student, or Lily, sending me an email to let me know that I had surprised them with that ending of mine. But Saturday night came and went, and I heard nothing. I was not worried at first, just disappointed a bit.
Then Sunday morning came and went. Still no word. That is when I started getting nervous.
Finally, around noon on Sunday I broke my silence and texted Lily. She never texted me back. My day was busy, so luckily for me I did not give her silence too much thought. That was until around six that night when a text message pinged my phone. It was not from Lily however, instead it was from the Principal: “Check your email.”
Given my history with the Principal, you can imagine how I felt upon receiving this text. Nervously I did what I was asked and checked my email: “EMERGENCY STAFF MEETING MONDAY MORNING BEFORE SCHOOL,” was the email’s headline sent to all teachers and staff in capital letters: “There is something we must discuss prior to the students arriving tomorrow. Please be at school at 6:30 a.m. for this MANDATORY meeting. — Sincerely, Principal Sam.”
I barely slept that night after reading the email; worried that this had something to do with the article I shared with the students on Saturday. Everything in me wanted to text the Principal to ask if this meeting had to do with me, but I figured that doing so would make it appear that I had a guilty conscience. I did text Lily again to see if she knew what was up, but again received no response; this got me scared.
The article was meant to be a lesson. I wanted to teach the students that nothing is truly common sense and that we can be tricked by entertainment unknowingly: “There was a reason for my story—I was not simply testing my creativity on them!”
Imagining my inevitable meeting with Principal Sam, my mind defended my behavior tirelessly all night. Anxious and embarrassed, I found myself frozen in fear sitting next to Mr. Henry in the school’s auditorium on Monday morning; “They knew it was just a lesson, just-a-joke; right?”
I continued to defending myself in my mind as I worried about being exposed in front of the entire staff. Not knowing what I was thinking, Mr. Henry leaned over towards me yet again, “Grow some balls and ask her out. If not for you, for me,” he whispered; referencing our school councilor yet again.
“Why had Lily not called me?” I thought to myself while looking at her on stage. Her eyes look swollen; “Has she been crying?”
Wanting to punch Mr. Henry, I watched in terror as the principal stood up and walked to the front of the stage…my heart sank…
“A tragedy has occurred,” the Principal said as I sat still, concerned someone would hear my heart beating out of my chest. “Two of our students are in serious condition as we speak….”
A deafening silence filled the room as my heart began to slow…
We are going to need to stop back at the halfway house for a bit. On Sunday mornings Ron and I would carry our dirty clothes in black garbage bags about a mile down the road to this laundromat that was right next to a breakfast diner. We would eat together while we waited for our clothes to dry. The weekend before Thanksgiving, this is where we were. I had just been delivered divorce papers two days prior and was telling Ron what I had decided to do:
“I’m not contesting anything, and I’m waiving my right to representation. That’s it, end of debate,” I said, trying to end the conversation we were having.
“But Jose, how did she pay for the lawyer?”
“A lawyer we know helped her and did it for her as a favor,” I answered; as Sirena and I had discussed everything the day before in John’s office over the phone.
“You gotta do what you gotta do, brother,” said Ron; though his disapproval reeked through his words.
Ron wanted me to go after the money in the house. But if I contested anything, or wanted any money from the house, then she would be forced to sell. This was something that I did not want to put her, or my son, or me through.
I had started at zero twice before and I was prepared to do it again. In retrospect, I agreed with all Sirena’s demands because it was the right thing to do at the time, but also, perhaps foolishly, because I didn’t think it would end up really happening in the end: I still thought I’d win her back.
This breakfast between Ron and I hit an awkward silence. Outside the restaurant an ambulance raced passed with its lights on and sirens blaring; Ron looked out the window to watch it. Trying not to be noticed, I took the back of my right thumb, pressed it against my forehead, and then touched it to my lips to kiss it before blowing it in the direction of the ambulance.
Ron noticed, “I still don’t get why you do that instead of blessing yourself like a normal asshole.”
My friend Ron hated religion. And if I’m being honest, I struggle with it myself. But what I did when the ambulance drove bye was something I had always done. Making the sign of the cross on my forehead when someone was in need was a habit I had picked up from my grandmother as a kid.
Making that sign always seemed to attract attention, so over the years I had shortened it a bit; but like Ron had just inferred, it was practically the same thing. In truth, it was simply a neurotic habit more than anything else (as if I really believed I had some magic power to help whoever was on that ambulance).
Seeing a need to change the subject, I decided to bring up my dream again while Ron finished his third cup of coffee.
“I don’t know why I do it Ron, I just do,” I said. “Hey—when do you think I’m gonna stop having these dreams of mine?”
Quoting John, our councilor, Ron replied, “Grief moves at its own pace my brother.”
I was currently beyond the denial phase regarding Sirena, sort of, and was now onto something else. I kept having these dreams of her, bad ones. Ones where I would be remembering beautiful mistakes of our past only to have them interrupted by haunting images of the present.
“You know what it’s like,” I said to Ron, who continued sipping his coffee, “It’s like in the Harry Potter movie when Ron imagines Harry and Hermione in that seductive embrace.”
Ron merely smiled at my eloquent description of these dreams I had been having. Realizing that I was being childish, I said, “Alright, alright…in my dream it’s a lot more X-rated.”
“You think?” Ron laughed at me.
“Yes, Ron, you’re absolutely right—You really wanna know what I keep picturing?”
Looking enticed, Ron put down his coffee and replied, “Yes—I do,” with a grin.
Watching Ron stare at me seriously from across the table; “Fine—” I said.
“In my imagination, Sirena and Bart are swapping ‘O’ faces while she dances on his giant piece of man meat!” Seeing Ron smile, I added, “—Is that graphic enough for you!?!”
Walking with Ron back to the halfway house that morning; with our clean clothes in our black garbage bags, I still had one very big decision to make….
***End Of Breaking Knews***
Back at school, Principal Sam began reading from a piece of paper, “The incident happened Saturday night, but because of privacy laws we cannot share any details with you yet. It is very likely however that the other students will come into school today knowing certain things and we need to have a discussion regarding what we can, and cannot, say to them right now. I’m going to invite Lily to speak with you about how to best emotionally support our students. I apologize for being so vague with you at this moment in time, but my hands are tied. I hope you listen to what Lily suggests and see me privately with any concerns you may have after we break from this meeting. Thank you all again for all that you do. These children will need you now more than ever.”
No one spoke as Lily talked to the staff. Glancing over, I saw that Mr. Henry had stopped looking at her with hungry eyes and now looked broken with concern just like everyone else in the room. I listened to every word that was said; still not having any clue what could have happened.
Frustrated by the lack of details we were being told, I heard Lily finish her talk, “…As a councilor I am more of a friend than a teacher to our students. Hoping to know what they might need, I’m going to meet with a few of you one on one after this meeting. Specifically, with those of you that I think might be most affected and most helpful with the situation we now find ourselves in.”
The meeting ended and everyone began to get up from their seats. Looking around the room I watched as adults seemed lost; not knowing what to say, or what to do. Between scattered bodies I locked eyes with Lily. Seeing me, she smiled meagerly, and began walking towards me like an arrow.
My heart sank….Damnit.
Week 10 (11.13.20):
While on one of my walks this week a lady stopped raking her front lawn and attempted to get my attention. We see each other all the time but had never talked. Taking out my earphones, I smiled and waited to hear what she wanted to say to me.
“I just have to tell you that I love seeing you walk so much. It is such a healthy thing for a young man like yourself to be doing.”
“Thank you,” I grinned; and then pointed at my head and said, “It’s when I get my best work done.”
Smiling back, she asked, “What do you actually do for work?”
I told her I was a teacher. Which lead to a conversation about the school I taught at. I told her about this job I had teaching at a “Recovery High School.” Not knowing what kind of school that was, I quickly told her the purpose of the school and the type of kids that I worked with. I then went on to explain how meaningful the work was to me given my own personal struggle with substances in the past.
Just like most people I encountered in sobriety this woman was surprised to hear that I was “In Recovery.”
Of course, she then wanted to know about how it all started for me. Basically, why I used. To which I told her about my battles with depression and feeling like a failure. About how life had beaten me up: Mistakes and Regrets and Blah, Blah, Blah….
She then asked the question that scratches at the minds of most people that don’t know, “Do you think people are born addicts?”
Not knowing myself, I simply spoke of my experience, “I don’t know if I was born an addict. I had dabbled a bit when I was young, nothing crazy or out of the ordinary. But later on, when life got tough, I remembered how good it felt, so common sense tricked me into thinking it would help again. What can I say— I was wrong.”
“But why would you do that? … Didn’t you know it would just make things worse?? … Why didn’t you just say no???”
My mind checked out after being plastered with these three questions. They popped out of her mouth like bullets from a gun. Feeling judged, I quickly made up an excuse to continue my walk and left feeling frustrated with myself.
This lady was never going to look at me the same now— I should have just kept my mouth shut.
“Why did I tell her all that crap?” I thought; mentally whipping myself for not knowing better.
After I got over being mad at myself, I again thought of what she said: “Why didn’t you just say no?”
With everything that was happening at school, hearing someone say this broke something inside me. This lady surely did not intend to upset me. Maybe it was not her, but life. Nevertheless, I was mad.
“Just Say No!” was outdated and annoying—It was not realistic and did not resonate with kids today.
“It is about time someone re-wrote that script!” I thought, “Why not me?”
That is when I went home and wrote this week’s story…I call it, “The Box.”
Imagine you are a teenager.
You are sitting at home by yourself watching television and mindlessly playing on your phone. Bored.
A knock on the door gets your attention. You get up and open it. When you do, no one is there, but you look down and see a box…
On the box, a message is attached. You reach down and grab it:
“If you open this box, you will have three of the best years of your life. If you open this box, you are guaranteed to be the happiest you will ever be. If you open this box, your mind will awaken to new possibilities that you never could imagine otherwise. If you open this box, you will be rid of all P.A.I.N. that tortures you today.”
Reading, you become excited at the possibility. But you are skeptical. Below the ‘Guarantees’ is a warning in black letters; “A Disclaimer”:
“After your three years of happiness, there is a 30% chance that your life will be more miserable and emptier than you could ever imagine; likely ending in death.”
Scared, you do not open the box. You are a wise young person and remember what your teachers told you: “If it’s too good to be true, then it probably is.”
With those words of wisdom floating around in your brain, you put the box in the closet and forget about it. Life is too short to consider such nonsense. You have an amazing life ahead of you. Whatever is in that box could derail your plans for the future—You are the master of your own destiny.
“F-That-Box,” you say, “I don’t need it!”
Someone reading this could be young; maybe a teenager. Life may be miserable for them already: It is not hard to imagine. They may read the situation outlined above and dream about ripping open that box; not caring about the 30% chance of misery that ‘might’ await.
“Life sucks right now, what is there to lose?”
Many others, maybe even the majority, would never open the box. They are content with life. They have found happiness. They don’t need a promise of things being better than they already are. There are plenty of people that feel this way today; aren’t there?
Then there is another group, the population who struggle over time. For these people, the ‘Guarantee’ of happiness would torment them. While they may be strong at the beginning, the odds on the warning label eventually start to sound pretty good. At a moment of weakness, maybe they are tempted to peek inside that box.
…So, What Is In The Box?
It’s unique for us all. But for me it is a magical three-year supply of ‘Percocet.’ (An opiate, and my “Drug Of Choice;” also known as Medically-Pure-Heroine.)
When I was young, this drug was introduced to me rather innocently; simple wisdom teeth surgery. Then yet again once my twins were born and their mother had a C-section.
“It was medicine— What was the harm?”
It made me feel AMAZING.
When I was young, and I had a lot to keep me motivated in life, this drug was just a small vacation. Later on; after a stock market crash, a collapse in the housing market, and a divorce, taking this medicine to feel better and more optimistic about the future felt like common sense. Little did I know that I was part of the 30% that struggled with addictive tendencies; always was, never realized it. For me, once I knew how to escape reality at that point in my life, there was no going back!
As an adult, it was the ultimate anti-depressant. It helped me focus, and to dream without reality weighing me down. Time slowed when I took it; allowing me to breathe in all the hopeful possibilities for the future. Simply put: It helped me be the best ME.
Until it didn’t…
Do not feel bad for me. I made that choice. I dealt with it. I’m dealing with it still.
The fact is, not everyone that uses substances struggle with addiction. It is true; do your research. But most everyone can feel better by using them. That is also true: I’m sorry if this scares you or if you did not want them to know.
Today people always want to know how I stay sober. To share my experience, strength, and hope with them. Well, for any of you looking for words of wisdom from me, here it is: “You can have how I felt when I was using, or you can have what I have now; you cannot have both, so choose wisely.”
But why did I do it in the first place—How could I have been so dumb—Why didn’t I just say no?
Well, the truth is, I was weak.
I felt like a failure. Life, I thought, could not have gotten any worse. I wanted to feel better. I wanted to be better—I Wanted To Escape.
For whatever the reason, the temptation was just too great, so, I opened the box:
Question for Reflection:
Do you have sympathy for ‘addicts’? Why or why not?
The Teacher’s Playlist:
“The worst is over now…”
—Broken (feat. Amy Lee) by Seether