(12) P.A.I.N. Through Emptiness

Week twelve brings us to Thanksgiving Day in the year 2020. Nel and Pras had taken me up on that invitation to join the boys and I on this day; we were all at my place:

“Look at this Noob, sweating,” said Nel, coolly from the couch.

At the same time, one of the twins was jumping up and down, yelling, “—Push!” 

All eyes focused on the chaotic battle happening on screen. A moment later, Pras watched himself die; “33rd” Place,” materialized on screen.

Announcing, “He’s a hack,” Pras annoyedly threw the remote to the next player in line.  

I was observing all of this from my computer desk tucked in the corner of the apartment above my parent’s garage. It was late in the afternoon on Thanksgiving Day. Any normal year I’d be relaxing with family watching football; listening to idle conversation and observing people drink alcohol as I practiced sobriety—But not this year.

Everything was different because of the pandemic. Eight months since it began and we were still trying to, “Prevent a spike in cases.” This meant big family gatherings were not allowed. If you chose to go against this guidance you risked being called out by every Karen you knew.

Dear Reader, please excuse my use of the word ‘Karen’ here. In 2020, this name had become a widespread meme referencing a specific type of middle-class white woman who exhibits behaviors that stem from privilege; there were ‘Ken’s’ also. The way in which I just used the meme may not have been accurate, but social media at this time didn’t really concern itself with accuracy; so, I didn’t think you would mind.

The point here is that my family did not risk becoming a target of criticism and spent that Thanksgiving holiday alone. I, however, took my chances and had Nel and Pras over. 

Despite the continued annoyance this virus was causing, the squad I was watching play Fortnite had me feeling grateful on this day. Listening to them talk to one another, it was like the five of them were speaking a different language. One which they all spoke fluently; leaving me to feel like a foreigner in my own living room. 

Pras and Nel had both dressed up nice for this visit. A little earlier my three boys had snuck into my closet and put my collared shirts and ties on themselves. They did this thinking they were funny. 

The image of all five of these kids in front of me dressed up playing a video game was cute as hell.   

Leaving the group, Nel walked towards me with a big smile on his face, “You got a nice pad here Mr. J.” 

The whole year my students made fun of me for living with my parents. But now seeing the place, Nel realized that it was not as bad as it sounded. Their teasing never penetrated anyways, as I’d regularly tell them; “Laughing at myself is my super-power; nobody takes the ‘L’ better than me.”  (A Fortnite reference I borrowed from my boys.)

Nel; now standing next to me, noticed the small yellow sticky note stuck to my desk. Looking at it, he asked, “What does ‘SAP’ mean?”

Feeling uncomfortable, I did not try to invent something to tell him. “Nothing,” I lied.

I couldn’t tell him what it really meant…  

See, I had gotten in the habit of writing little notes like this whenever I read or saw something that irritated me. It seemed like the world was going insane and the things people in the world were doing and saying drove me a little nuts once in a while. 

Whenever I felt frustrated by a person, I would take a sticky note, write ‘SAP’ on it, and then jot down the initials of the person that bothered me in that moment. This might sound silly, but it was my way of practicing one of my golden rules: Be Quiet. 

I had learned that venting over someone I disagreed with did me no good. So, I simply wrote a little private note to the universe and then ripped it up and threw it away. This was my own personal attempt to stay sane.  

Of course, I did not tell Nel any of this. All he saw was me wrestle with a meaningless note, crumble it up, and throw it in the trash. He did not need to know what politician the initials “J.J.” stood for on that day; or why I considered him a “Stupid-Ass-Person.” I’d keep that information to myself.

Now looking over my shoulder, Nel asked another question, “What’s that?”

I moved slightly to let him look closer as I responded, “It’s my Vision Board. Remember, I had you guys do one last year. I told you I had one myself, well, here it is.”

Leaning in, Nel glanced at one of my more private goals on the vision board: Books to Write.

Fingering his way down this list he spoke aloud, “‘Phase One.’ … ‘Exit Ticket’… ‘Lean In.’ … ‘Make It Real.’ … ‘Enjoy The Ride.’ …  ‘Dream On.’ … ‘An Addiction To Believing.’”

Allowing him to try and make sense of this, I let him ask the question that bubbled up inside him, “Why seven books?”

Feeling like this was some sort of special moment, I said confidently, “Because that’s how many I’ll need to re-write history Nel.”  

Not stopping to ponder the ridiculousness of this statement of mine, he bounced on, “You know Mr. J, someone, somewhere is writing a story about this quarantine stuff right now. You should do that. That’s a million-dollar idea right there.” 

He did not give me time to respond to this million-dollar idea of his before he asked the question that he had really come over to ask me in the first place; “—Hey, can we talk for a minute, alone?”  

Nel clearly had a lot on his mind. I could not blame him.  

“Sure…let’s go to my room,” I said, as I got up and headed towards my bedroom for some privacy.  


After leaving the halfway house on that Friday; the day I told John to ‘screw himself,’ I spent the weekend at my parents with my three boys.

They stayed with me on Friday night and Saturday night. 

Being at my parents with them was different, but they didn’t ask many questions; they just had themselves a grand old time. It was loud, it was messy, it was crazy. I was never great at adulting, and now there was no one to give them the angry eyes; that was Sirena’s thing: They took full advantage of her absence.  

Sunday morning my entire family came over to have a late Thanksgiving celebration with me and the boys. During this get together, the boys treated the entire house like a playground. There was a lot of, “Slow Down Boys,” but everyone let them just enjoy this time. I did my best to keep them under control, but angry eyes weren’t my thing. 

The plan going into that weekend was to take them all home Sunday at two. I approached it like a finish line to a marathon.  

After dropping them off, they had worn me out completely and I was glad to be sitting on my parent’s couch enjoying some peace and quiet. A lot of my family was still over at this time, so there was some background noise as I sat…thinking….

“I’m bored—What am I supposed to do now?  I don’t want to talk—When will everyone just leave me alone?  I’m exhausted—How the hell am I supposed to take care of three boys on my own?  Man-Up—It’s time to get your life back together—I wonder if that’s what Ethan thought? …. ”

This was the beginning of an anxiety attack. The weight in my chest had come back. I pretended to be watching television, but in reality, I was slowly losing my shit….  

I’m a twice divorced father of three boys under ten years old. I have two child supports, a few dollars in the bank, and I’m working for fifteen bucks an hour. And I live at my friggin parent’s house—How the hell am I supposed to do this?

Feeling anxious, I went outside to have a cigarette—another one. 

With water beginning to pool in my eyes, I looked up into the sky above and raised my eyebrows in an attempt to prevent the tears from falling. Exhaling a deep, liberating puff of smoke, I proclaimed the victim’s anthem aloud: “This life is a God damn punishment…”

Yup, that’s what I said. I remember it very well. I thought someone up there was punishing me. 

Dear Reader, telling you about all of this is embarrassing; but it is what it is: And denying events of the past does neither of us any good.  

“—You’re a resident here until Monday.”

John’s words when I left his office rang in my head. Walking back into my parents’ house after having that cigarette, my mother looked at me…she knew.

Shortly after three o’clock on that Sunday my mother prepared to drive me back to the halfway house. As long as I got back by four o’clock, they could not kick me out for breaking my weekend curfew. When I walked out the door to leave, with my entire family just sitting there, I could not look at anyone. I was crying like a baby.  


***End Of Breaking Knews***

Shutting the door behind me, I saw Nel look around my bedroom. He looked at the bed sitting directly on the floor, then at the bunkbeds. Then his eyes began taking in the posters that were hung all over the walls. 

Before he could speak my three boys burst through the door I had just shut…

“Dad!” — “Can we rent Jumanji?” — “Pras, said he loves that movie too!”

“Yes…just give Nel and I a minute. We will be right out.”

“Dad—” they stood like three choir boys preparing for another ‘Ask;’ not like the three boys I had just yelled at ten minutes ago for behaving like assholes, “—Vinny said he’d be cool with coming over… Can he?”  

Vinny had become an honorary member of our Squad. Of course he’d want to come hang with the older kids…how cool.

“Yes, I’ll text his mom and dad.” Smiling, I pushed them out of the bedroom, “Now leave us alone for a minute.”

Shutting the door, again, I looked at Nel. Unable to contain himself, he smirked, “It was real?” he asked.

This question must have been growing inside him as soon as he walked into the room and saw how it looked. His question was referring to the “Ham Sandwich” story I gave him a few weeks prior. The bedroom he was now standing in very much resembled the one I had described in that story. 

“It was a story,” I responded knowingly, “sprinkled with truth like all stories are. Just like I told you at the beginning of our class.”

Moving past this awkward moment, I brought our minds out of the gutter by asking, “What did you want to talk about Nel?”

“She wants to know if you’ll visit her. She’s back at her mom’s now.”  

I had known this; our entire school knew this. But hearing that she wanted to see me made my heart ache. I was going to say yes, but I had to wonder whether or not I was prepared for the conversation that her and I would have.  

Trying to sound like a confident adult I replied to Nel, “Yes I’ll visit, give Lauryn my number and have her text me. We’ll figure something out.”  

Week 12 (11.27.20):

“P.A.I.N. through Emptiness”

There are certain things about my past that I keep private. Hearing me say this might have you wondering what on Earth that could be given all that you have heard me share with you already. But today’s article hits on a very sensitive subject. I’m about to talk to you about my battles with depression. With everything going on, I felt you deserved to know.

I played with the idea of starting this article like an advertisement one might see about a new medication:

“Are you hurting and broken inside—Overwhelmed by the weight of this world—Do you feel disconnected from life—Wish you were somebody else; anybody else???  ….  WELL, I HAVE JUST THE THING FOR YOU …. I can make the P.A.I.N. go way …. Just take this pill and you will discover the secrets to being happy again—It worked for me— It can work for you too!!!”

I worried that starting the article in this way might be a little too insensitive given the current environment. I hoped you would realize that this fake commercial was not meant to be taken seriously and know I was just being sarcastic (an awful quality…I KNOW…I’m working on it).  

Please understand that I do not take depression lightly. I have been there. I know how it feels to have lost your passion for life. To be frustrated with yourself and the people around you. Upset with the direction this world is headed. To be sad. To be empty. To have lost faith. 

For me, my depression was at its worst after the house fire you have heard me talk about. During that time, my wife, me, and my youngest son lived in a temporary trailer that was set up in the backyard while we dealt with insurance claims and eventually rebuilt our home. We lived in this trailer for about a year: THE LONGEST YEAR OF MY LIFE!

I smoked weed back then…a lot of weed. Though I am a proponent of legalizing marijuana today, let me share a fact with you that I have learned firsthand: A person can become addicted to anything. That being said, I’ll take a dependency on weed over a dependency on alcohol any day (sorry/not sorry). 

Nevertheless, I am not writing this article to make any profound announcements about what is right, or wrong, or more right, or more wrong, or whatever. I do not judge as I am simply speaking my truth.  

Christmas morning in the trailer; 2016, was a day I’m not proud to tell you about. But I will. 

My three-year-old son; excited to wake up and see what Santa brought him, made himself wait for his dad to struggle out of bed, make his coffee, and then smoke his medicine before opening his presents that year. I remember begging my wife and him to just do it without me, but they wouldn’t. 

I was selfish and unable to see past my own misery at the time. If I was not sharing this article with my students, this is where I would input some very ugly words to describe my behavior that morning.  In that trailer is also where I began practicing meditation.   

It was not really meditation. This was simply what I told myself I was doing. In my head, I called it; “The Dead Man’s Pose.”  

If you are familiar with yoga, you know there is actually a real pose that is called this. I did not know that before. My version was much different…

We had a very uncomfortable leather couch in the trailer. On that couch I would lay flat on my belly with my right hand at my heart and my left hand just below my belly button; think of it as almost hugging yourself. My face would be turned on its side so that my cheek felt the firmness and coldness of the couch I was laying on. I would assume this position between cigarette breaks for what seemed like days on end. Yes, my smoking caused the fire, yet I still could not quit back then. (Enter self-deprecating words here)

I would just lay there. Outside I would listen to lawns being mowed, cars being driven bye, birds chirping, my kids playing. Once and a while I’d hear people looking for me, calling my name. I would ignore them and hope they’d just go away; sometimes they did. The world outside of that trailer was on play, but my life was on pause.  No…my life was over…

The truth is it got so bad that my doctor suggested I participate in “E.C.T.” to help me snap out of it. This is basically electric shock therapy. Studies suggest that this practice can help some people. For me however, there was no amount of electricity that would jumpstart my brain; or my passion for living. 

My favorite part of this therapy was when they would insert the needle into my arm. This was a shot they would give me to put me to sleep before they would do whatever it is they did. Counting down from ten, I was grateful to say goodbye for a bit. 

Because of what I went through, I fully appreciate that depression is no joke. Unfortunately, I cannot give you a simple solution; a simple pill to take. I wish I could. Out of respect for this diagnosable disease of the mind I changed the title of this article to “Emptiness,” as I believed it may be more relatable. But let me disclose right now that I have a personal, on-going fight with the difference between the two words.

Back when I burnt my house down, I DOUBTED my life would ever get better. I was ANGRY with myself and the world. The shame I felt kept me up WORRIED sick. My days were spent not knowing what to do next. I was full of ANXIETY. (Do you recognize these words?)

I remember performing that meditation I just told you about—The days were so friggin long. I remember fearing how many more days like that I could endure. 

Yes, I felt tired all the time. But I remember that I did not close my eyes to sleep. I rarely could sleep. I remember that I closed them because I had given up. In that state of despair, I remember thinking that this world was a terrifying place.  

“Be scared of everything,” I remember telling myself. 

There was a feeling of emptiness that consumed me (if that makes any sense). I remember that there was nothing that interested me anymore. To me, this is how depression looked.

A friend of mine at the time; who knew I had been struggling, left me a card in the mailbox that stood in front of my burnt down house. His name was Billy Preston. In the card was the ‘Saint Francis Prayer,’ and a note that read, “Bring your sorrows and trade them for joy. From the ashes a new life is born!”  

I remember retrieving this from my mailbox one sunny afternoon. And I remember immediately ripping it up and throwing it in the trash.  

When I read it, I felt nothing. The love this friend felt for me I did not feel for myself. The words of encouragement only frustrated me at the time.  

Today, this prayer now hangs over my bed as a reminder to love others even when they do not love themselves.

Many people struggle with substance use. But it is my belief that everyone is recovering from something in this life. For many, substances are just covering up deeper issues facing humanity in general.  

This week I would like you all to watch a short ‘TED talk’ by Johann Harri titled: “Everything you know about addiction is wrong.” It is about fifteen minutes long and is a video someone shared with me at one of the many recovery programs I participated in. 

Please be warned that some of what is discussed in the video will be considered highly controversial. Instead of focusing on areas of disagreement, please focus on these words: “We’ve created a society where life looks a lot like an isolated cage.”

I believe that this statement is accurate, and that this reality causes many of us to look for ways to feel connected. For some of us, this is why drugs and alcohol become our best friends. They comfort us wherever we are at, “…without judgement.”  

Let us not sugar coat the situation we are in. As I write these words, some of you reading this find it impossible to see the bright side of things. At home I have friends who have lost their hunger for life in general. I know of family members who have forgotten to be thankful that they are alive today.  

Feelings of emptiness across all demographics and all locations seem to be at epidemic levels (something that was true before this virus locked us all even further away from one another). And no, I do not think I am being over-dramatic about this.  

So, what can we do about it?

I’m not here to answer this question for you…not yet. Instead I will tell you what life has taught me so far; “Everything Is Temporary.” This applies to both good and bad times. Unfortunately, a lot of us just feel like things are bad right now.  

To many people out there: Mankind is adrift.  

To which I say: Perhaps we can find the shore together.

Until then, I ask that if you know someone that is struggling with substances, depression, or any other ailment please remember to love them wherever they are at; without judgement or expectation

Not often can you fix another’s problems. Instead, just be there: “You are loved, and you are not alone.”—Sincerely Yours, Mr. J.


Using one word, how do you feel about the future?

The Teacher’s Playlist:

“…come and dance with me.”

—In The Colors by Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals

(Click here to continue to next chapter)

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Read our story at: RecoveryHighSchool.com

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