(12) P.A.I.N. through Emptiness

“Look at this Noob-sweating,” Nel said coolly.

“Push!” one of the twins yelled jumping up and down, cheering.

Watching himself die, a frustrated Pras declared, “He’s a hack!” before throwing the remote to the next player in line.  

I was observing this heated battle from my computer desk tucked in the corner of my apartment.  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 watching people drink alcohol as I practiced sobriety).   I had found Thanksgiving and all other holidays hard not being able to drink like a normal person.  It was different this year not having family get-togethers because of the virus, but honestly, looking at this crew made me think that this might be better. It was this realization that dawned on me as I watched Nel, Pras, and my three boys play Fortnite on the television across the room.

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.  All of them were having such a great time…I was so glad my two students had accepted the invitation and joined our fraternity for the day.  

Nel walked towards me with a smile on his face; dressed up all handsome for this special day.  

“You got a nice little pad here Mr. J.” he said.

The whole year the students made fun of me for living with my parents.  But now seeing the place, Nel realized that it wasn’t as bad as it sounded.  Their teasing never penetrated anyways, as I’d regularly tell them, “laughing at myself is my super-power….no one takes the ‘L’ better than me!”   (A Fortnite reference 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 ‘S.A.P’ mean?”

Feeling uncomfortable.  I did not try to invent something to tell him.  Instead I just crumpled up the note like I always did and threw it in the trash.  “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 something online or on social media 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 ‘S.A.P.’ 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.  

I could not tell Nel any of this; so, all he saw was me throw a meaningless note with the initials ‘R.G.’ in the trash.

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, “Books To Write…”

Fingering my board, he read aloud, “One: ‘Phase One.’  Two: ‘Exit Ticket.’  Three: ‘Lean In.’  Four: ‘Make It Real.’  Five: ‘Enjoy The Ride.’  Six: ‘Dream On.’  Seven: ‘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 Mr. J.?”

Feeling as if this was some sort of special moment, I said confidently, “Because that’s how many I’ll need to change the world Nel.”  

The ridiculousness of what I had just said did not register with Nell as he quickly asked, “Can we talk for a minute alone Mr. J?”  He clearly had other things 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.  

Shutting the door behind me, I saw Nel look around the room.  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.  Turning slightly flush, but unable to contain himself he smirked, “It was real?” he asked.

“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 will visit her next week…she’s home.”  Nel said.

I had known this by now.  Our entire school knew this.  But hearing that she wanted to see me made my heart ache just a little.   Of course 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, have Lauryn text me and we will 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 to me.  I’m about to talk to you about my battles with depression.

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 we are all in.  I hoped that you’d realize that this ‘fake commercial’ was not meant to be taken seriously.  I hoped you would know that I was just being sarcastic (an awful quality…I KNOW…I’m working on it!).  

Please recognize 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. 

The truth is, depression got so bad for me that it was suggested that I participate ‘Electronic Shock Therapy’ to help me snap out of it.  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.  

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 to a wider audience.  But let me disclose right now that I have a personal, on-going, fight with the difference between the two words.

Back in 2016, when I burnt my house down (accidentally), I DOUBTED my life would ever get better.  I as 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?)

During this time in my life, I remember laying down and simply closing my eyes.  Yes, I felt tired all the time, but I did not close my eyes to sleep (I rarely could sleep).  I closed them because I had given up.  There was a feeling of emptiness that consumed me (if that makes any sense).  There was nothing that interested me anymore.  To me, this is how depression looked.

Earlier in life, when life overwhelmed me-or when I wanted to escape-I would often turn to alcohol.  Not something I suggest (it is a depressant remember).  I eventually found marijuana helpful, and later on other things that you know about already.  Using these things never ended up well for me as using in moderation was not in my DNA.  Without those things, what was I supposed to do but close my eyes and wait for things to magically get better?

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 (my friend’s 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 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, I have students sitting in front of me who find it impossible to see the bright side of things.  I have friends who have lost their hunger for life in general.  I have family members who have forgotten to be thankful that they are alive.  

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 overly dramatic about this.  

So, what can we do about it?

I’m not here to answer this question for you.  Instead I will tell you what life has tough 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.  Well, to that I say, stick with me, I promise it will get better.  

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’re not alone.  We love you.”

-Sincerely, Mr. J.

Week 12-Question for Reflection:  

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

(Click here to continue to next chapter of the journey)

Music for Transcending Minds:

“…come and dance with me.”

In The Colors by Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals

Follow us on Facebook: @SocialRecovery101
Read our story at: RecoveryHighSchool.com

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