Week eleven of the school year has us back teaching remotely again. It is the middle of November and this change is in response to a spike in cases in our district but also in preparation for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday; which they are calling a potential Super Spreader. School districts all over the country are making this same decision. No one is happy with this but this is the year of the pandemic and we have no choice but to adapt:
On the screen in front of me Pras is the only student attending my virtual class today.
“Can’t we do something to help?” he says.
This is a question Pras has asked me ten times already this week. It is now Friday, and while I am sympathetic, I am secretly frustrated with having to answer this question again.
“It’s gonna take time Pras but she’ll survive this,” I say. “Right now, all we can do is be patient and be there when she’s ready…”
Our topic this week was Reverse Engineering Goals, but since today’s lesson was designed for our entire class to take part in Pras cranked through the work I assigned in no time and the two of us now find ourselves staring at one another trying to get through this last day of the week. Over Pras’s shoulder, I can see the television that is on in the background; it is perched on top of a bureau in his bedroom. The television has been on the entire class period, but just now I find myself unable to look away.
For some reason I feel myself get annoyed and the plastic-infused face I’m looking at begins to irritate me. Does this intelligent boy really watch that? I think to myself.
I decide to ask. “Pras, do you watch The Kardashians a lot?”
Glancing over his shoulder, he looks back at me on his computer screen and responds. “Yes, Mr. J.—Do you have a problem with that?” he says, unashamed.
“I’m just surprised,” I say with a forced laugh.
“Being fake is the only thing that’s real in this world Mr. J.,” he says; sounding like the smart kid I have come to know. “When the History Channel only has reality shows and conspiracy theory re-runs, you know things are messed up. At least they know how fake they are.”
Recognizing how insightful this is, I tell him. “I like that Pras. Can I use that line in my book some day?”
“Your book?” he says.
At the halfway house, no one was allowed to go home on Thanksgiving: “Too many temptations,” they told us. Instead we did our own little dinner with donated food we received from a local grocery store. The day after, it is approaching four o’clock and I am about to leave for the weekend. This would be the first weekend trip home I was allowed to take since getting here in early October. A lot has transpired in a very short period of time and I have made the decision not to come back.
John, my councilor, is in his office. I stick my head in and tell him my mother will soon be here to pick me up. Creeping in just a step or two, I halfway close the door behind me and say, “I’m not coming back John.”
“Interesting,” he responds; not really surprised as I had told him I was leaning this way.
My parents have offered to let me stay in their apartment above the garage. I need to begin putting my life back together. I have responsibilities and I have been completely clean for two months. It is time.
Hearing my decision, John speaks to me like it’s just another day, and I am just another face. “Do me a favor Jose,” he says, “Could you come back on Monday to sign you’re AMA release paperwork? That way I can make sure you’ve settled in at your parents and I won’t have to stay here any longer today to file your paperwork—I want to go home too, you know…” He stops and just looks at me for a second. “As far as I’m concerned, you’re a resident here till Monday anyway. You know what AMA stands for right?”
“Yes,” I respond.
This stands for Against Medical Advice and I am familiar with what it means from a previous life of mine. Prior to this day, John explained that if I did leave, I’d only be allowed back if I left with notice. Signing this paperwork, I assume, means this is what I’m doing. I do not envision putting myself in the position to ever come back here, but I am not against leaving on good terms. In some ways being in this house did help.
“—Jose—Your rides here!”
Outside the office someone is letting me know my mother has just pulled up in front of the house.
“Before you go there is one more thing I should probably tell you,” John begins. “We are telling all the guys tonight but since you won’t be here, I’ll tell you now… Ethan overdosed Wednesday night.”
Ethan was the lovable character from that first night. The Anvil Guy. He had left two weeks ago. The guys all wanted him to stay since he had become a house favorite, but he insisted that he was ready to leave. We all think he got himself a girlfriend; or a boyfriend; some of us are a little unsure but love him regardless.
Not knowing what to think about this news, I ask John a question. “Is he okay?”
“He died. Services will be next week sometime. I can try and get you the details on Monday when you come in.” I am surprised by the coldness of these words. “Don’t let it ruin your weekend,” John continues, “this stuff happens in recovery. Go and enjoy your boys.”
I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing. As I turn to leave, John speaks again. “Jose…you won the lottery by the way.”
Turning around, I see him looking at me with no emotion on his face. “What?” I say to him.
“Sirena divorcing you is the best thing that has ever happened in your life.”
John says this in an arrogant tone and then leans back in his chair. He does not say this to make me feel better. He is challenging me. But all it does is make me angry.
I am so sick of this tough-love mentality that it pushes me out the door even further. I now know for certain I am making the right decision not coming back.
I look at John for a long second. The look on his face tempts me to run across the room and slap his bald head. Instead, I use my words. “Screw you John,” I say, and then turn and walk out of his office—no longer caring about ending on good terms.
***End of Breaking Knews***
Telling Pras I had always dreamt of writing a book offers us a short reprieve as the two of us share some of our aspirations with one another. Pras is detailing what he wants to do with the rest of his life when my youngest son sneaks up behind me on screen.
I turn and look at him. “Yes?” I reply; knowing that this word is always followed by an Ask.
“Can I play on my iPad during break please?”
Like most kids, he is cute when he wants something. He is still doing classes remotely, so little interruptions like this happen a lot. “That’s fine,” I say to him.
I give him a kiss on his head, smell his hair, and then push him on his way. I watch him shuffle his feet across the room and head into the bedroom. I then return my attention back to Pras.
“—Mr. J, is your son with you all the time?”
“His mom takes him every Wednesday and every other Saturday.”
“Is she in recovery too?”
Restraining from putting my own spin on this, I keep my thoughts to myself and answer his question. “No Pras, she’s not.”
Not shy, another question cartwheels out of his head and falls out of his mouth. “Why do you have him so much?” he says.
He is getting a bit personal, but I don’t think he even realizes it. “When I first got sober I had to be away from him for a while. When I was doing better his mom wanted to let me spend as much time with him as possible just in case I fell back. Now this schedule is just what works best for everyone.”
Depleted of personal questions, Pras’s young bouncy-ball-mind jumps to the next thing that pops-up inside of it. “Hey—did you know the Kardashian’s mother purposely leaked a sex video of her daughter and that’s what made them famous?”
This question brings our conversation back to the television show that is on in the background. Pras must think this piece of trivia interests me.
Thinking that this can’t be true, I respond. “No Pras, I did not. I’ll have to do some research on that—How about you do me a favor and change the channel though?”
Pras does what I ask and behind him CNN is now on. The caption on the bottom of the screen reads: “Will Trump Concede?” On the right of the screen is the tally of Covid related cases and deaths.
Apparently bored of me, Pras turns up the volume on the television so that we can hear what is being said.
The substance Pras struggles with most is benzos (benzodiazepines). He’s told me he likes feeling numb. Right now, I understand why. As his decision to turn on the news does not help my mental state.
***Dear Reader, a while ago I interrupted Jose’s story to tell you that adults lie. Here offers me the opportunity to show you this in action. Later in his story you will hear Jose tell his students the secret to a happy existence. He is going to tell his students to “hate nothing in life”. While he says this to them, he fails to be able to do it himself. The truth is, Jose was tormented by hate; hate for many, many things. Even though I have broken into his story to reveal this to you now, there is one secret I will keep from you: The thing he hated most. Yes, that I will keep secret from you—for now. ***
The opinionated noise behind Pras continues as he turns from the television and talks to me through the computer screen.
“Republicans didn’t want to win this election, Mr. J,” he says, “That way they can’t get blamed for this virus stuff—”
Donald Trump has lost the election to Joe Biden, but right now, the results of this election are being contested. A fact that has surprised absolutely no one.
Pras continues his theory. “In four years, he’ll be back. Or maybe his daughter? I’m really not sure. His tribe….”
I let Pras continue to talk but stop listening to any of the fortune telling that is spilling from his mouth. I can’t help but feel like I’m watching a version of my own past re-playing right in front of me. To distract myself, I debate asking Pras the question I have been thinking about asking all week. Approaching my breaking point, I decide to just do it.
“—Hey Pras,” I interrupt, “Would you and Nel be interested in coming to my house for Thanksgiving next week to hang out with me and my boys?”
The three of us have become very close and I figure it might be nice to ask them over given everything we’ve been dealing with. Large gatherings are not being encouraged this year because of the pandemic—or even allowed in fact—so most of the day I’ll just be alone with my kids. I’ve decided we can all be alone together.
“Umm…” Pras says, “Let me talk to Nel and let you know. Alright Mr. J?”
I can’t get a read on how he feels about my offer; I’m sure a teacher asking him over for Thanksgiving has him a bit uncomfortable. “Yeah bud,” I reply, “ask him. We’d love to have you guys come hang out with us.”
Looking at my student on the screen I think about making a stronger plea. Instead I stay silent; not telling him what I want to say so badly: We all need each other right now.
Week 11: Friday, November 20th, 2020
The other day I found myself talking to an older lady I barely knew about my past struggles with drugs. After a few minutes she asked me how it all started. 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.
After telling this lady way too much information she looked at me and said, “But why even start? Didn’t you know it would just make things worse? Why didn’t you just say no?”
The questions popped out of her mouth like bullets from a gun. Feeling judged, I quickly made up an excuse and left.
With everything that is happening at school what this lady said bothered me more than it probably should have. “Just Say No!” is outdated and annoying. It is not realistic and does not resonate with kids today. It is about time someone re-wrote that script and created a slogan with a little more of an edge to it so that the kids today can relate.
I have decided to give it a try myself by sharing this story with you. 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 craziest years of your life. If you open this box, your mind will awaken to new possibilities. If you open this box, you will be rid of all the P.A.I.N. that tortures you today.
Reading, you become excited at the possibility, but you are skeptical.
Below is a warning in big black letters: A Disclaimer: After the three years, there is a 30% chance that your life will be more miserable and emptier than you could ever imagine, likely ending in premature 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 announce defiantly to the Universe, “I don’t need it!”
Someone reading this could be young; maybe a teenager, they did not build this world that they see crumbling around them but they are living in it, and 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…there is nothing to look forward to…the world is coming to an end anyway…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 mystery around what is in that box will 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 all of us, 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.
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?
To say it made me feel amazing would be putting it lightly. When the drug hit me, I thought, “This is it…This is the feeling I have been searching for my entire life.”
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 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, 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. The weight in my chest lifted, allowing me to breathe in all the hopeful possibilities for the future. To put it simply: It helped me be the best ME.
Until it didn’t…
My three sons don’t know my story yet. They don’t know their dad’s an addict—recovering. I think I want to tell them though. So that when they get confronted in their life by substances, they can use me as a shield: “My dad’s an addict,” I imagine them saying. In the world we live in today I’m certain these words would stop any friends from pressuring them. They will eventually try things, I know that, I’m not dumb—even if it is just alcohol. But the longer they can put off trying these things the greater the chances it will not sabotage their future (as an undeveloped mind is much more susceptible to becoming addicted to something that may eventually be its demise).
The truth is not everyone that uses drugs become addicted (do some research), but most everyone can feel better by using them (this is also true). I apologize if learning this scares you (or if you did not want them to know). But why did I do it in the first place? … How could I have been so dumb? … “Why didn’t I Just Say No?”
No one reading this will feel bad for me. Nor should they. I made that choice. I dealt with it. I’m dealing with it still. I did it because I was weak. I did it because 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.
Well, today, I can honestly say: “F—That—Box!”
QUESTION FOR REFLECTION:
“Somethings have to fall apart to come together.” What does this statement mean to you?
The Teacher’s Playlist:
“Is it only me out here?”
Fly Away by Tones and I