December of the year 2020 is upon us. It is the Wednesday of week thirteen and I am visiting Lauryn after school:
I have a poster in my hand rolled up and safely protected in tight plastic. I had debated whether or not to give Lauryn this gift, but ultimately decided it was necessary.
Climbing the stairs to her third-floor apartment I see her waiting for me. Lauryn takes a lot of pride in her appearance; she is most always prettied-up whenever I see her, right now, however, I can see the toll the last few weeks has taken on her.
Approaching her, I want nothing more than to just give her a hug, but that is not currently allowed because of social distancing rules, nor would it be deemed socially appropriate anyways. “This is for you,” I say, handing her the hollow tube in my hand. Thanking me, she lets me into her home.
The apartment I see around me is empty. There is nobody else here, though I mean empty as far as stuff. The essentials I see, but this is not a place full of things like most homes I am accustomed to. A single candle is lit on a coffee table in front of a loveseat in the living room; which explains why the whole place smells of pumpkin spice, pointing in that direction, Lauryn invites me to sit down.
As I take a seat on the couch, I notice a piece of double-sided tape hanging from the ceiling above my head. People use tape like this to catch flies and insects. This one has nothing on it right now, but seeing it makes me think of my drug days and reminds me that there are so many people out there still struggling.
“What is this?” Lauryn says, referring to my gift.
“Open it,” I say to her.
Struggling with the plastic, Lauryn is eventually able to remove it. Unrolling the poster, she lays it flat on the table in front of us and then uses the candle as a weight to keep it from rolling back up.
It is a poster from the movie Mr. Church. On it is a picture of Eddie Murphy wearing a bowler hat appearing as his character, Henry Church. Across the bottom is a quote—which was the reason I bought the poster for Lauryn: A book is read from beginning to end but is best understood from end to beginning.
“You don’t have to hang this up Lauryn, just promise me you won’t throw it away.” I place my hand on the poster in front of us and tap it with my fingers. “Someday this poster will make sense to you.”
What Lauryn has been through is something I am ill-equipped to educate her on. So, I simply listen and let her talk.
She talks softly at first but begins to ramble. She wants to know what I’ve heard and what I know. I give her simple answers but do not elaborate.
What I have heard doesn’t matter, what matters is what she wants to tell me. A lot of what she says is a running script that has been playing in her mind, but now she is able to tell someone else all the things she has been fighting with inside. It is not my place to validate or contradict worries and fears that clearly haunt her. My heart breaks for her.
Eventually she runs out of things to tell me and the room goes quiet. I look at the candle sitting on the poster in front of us and try to think of something to say that will distract her from the guilt she is torturing herself with.
“Are you planning to go back to work Lauryn?” I ask.
“I got a whole life of working for minimum wage in front of me,” she says in a depressing tone, “I’m in no rush to go back.”
With these words I see her dead eyes wake back up; she looks completely depleted of caring.
“How’s Nel doing?” I say, taking this conversation in a different direction. “He was telling me the other day that he’s playing with names for his little music group thing?”
Lauryn gives me a small smile at this. It lacks the confidence I am accustomed to seeing on her, but seeing it still makes me feel better.
“He’s good,” she says. “Right now, he wants to call it The Recovery High Refugees…What do you think?”
By the look on Lauryn’s face it appears she is unconvinced of Nel’s idea for a name. Nel has told me about this name already so I’ve given it some previous thought and decide to lay it on Lauryn; hoping she’ll appreciate my honesty.
“I get it—and yes, I like it…” I say, “But maybe he should shorten it up a bit? The less words to remember the better. People are slightly stupid Lauryn. You know that. The less words to remember the better.”
For a quick second this comment gives birth to another small smile on her face and I find myself again wanting to give her a hug.
It is Fall in the year 2014. I had been to detox about six months prior and am now back doing construction after losing that teacher’s job more than a year ago.
At this point in my recovery you might say I was on the Pink Cloud: a stage of early recovery that involves feelings of euphoria and elation. When you’re in this stage, you feel confident and excited about recovery. This is the stage my friend Ethan was in on that first day at the halfway house; before he relapsed and died two months later: be wary of the Pink Cloud.
Things are going well but something inside does want to hide my past struggles with substance use from the world. Many people struggle like I had and then go about their life like those struggles never happened. For some reason, this approach to recovery disagrees with me.
I feel as if I have a story to tell that might help other people and feel compelled to share it. Motivated by a sense of redemption, I set out to prove to my friends, my family, and to the world, that I am still a good person who had simply gotten sidetracked for a bit. Inspired to tell my story, I do, by writing about it.
For a few weeks I spend my nights staying up late and writing what might be called a Manifesto. I called it, “Journey to JoJo: A Trip to Insanity and Back.” JoJo was that word I created that meant I had found my inner child again.
Once I am done writing this, I give it to Sirena to read. Finished, she puts my writing down and looks at me with a face that does not look impressed. “When did you learn to write like this?” she says to me.
Sirena reacts as if I have been possessed and I take it as the truest of compliments. Sirena is an English teacher and all my life I was just an athlete, a carpenter, or a numbers guy; I was not a writer. Her inability to comprehend how I had written what I gave her makes me feel like I’m onto something.
I am currently doing a bathroom remodel for one of those high-end customers I wanted to target with my construction business. The guy’s name is Nick. I gutted his kids’ bathroom and was creating a walk-in shower with some fancy marble he had purchased.
Nick owns an ambulance company in the area and we quickly became friendly once I started doing the work for him. Excited with what I wrote—and motivated by Sirena’s review—I give it to Nick in order to get his input. After he reads it, Nick says, “Very inspiring Jose.”
Heading to Nick’s house the next day for work, I come upon a site I have never seen before in my life. Nick has taken all of my tools out of his house and neatly placed them outside of his garage: He has fired me.
Nick tells my uncle; who had referred the job to me, that he is “unhappy with the work.”
I find it ironic that Nick makes this decision the day after I gave him this writing of mine. I do not ask my uncle if he mentioned the writing. My uncle finishes the job once I have been fired and this event then takes over as the most embarrassing moment in my life.
YOU IDIOT! — What were you thinking giving him that? — You let him in… You let him see. — YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN BETTER!
***End of Breaking Knews***
Back on Lauryn’s couch, she has run out of things to share and I decide that it is my turn to tell her a few things about myself.
“Lauryn,” I start, “have you been reading the weekly articles I’ve been writing for class?”
“Yeah,” she answers, “I have.”
“So you read the depression article then?”
Whether I’m imagining it or not, it appears to me that Lauryn now wears a look of sympathy that was not there a second ago. What I am about to share with her goes against my better judgement, but I can’t help myself, she has opened up to me about so much that I feel guilty keeping this from her. I did not plan this, but it feels right.
“Alright Lauryn,” I begin, “I want to tell you something that I would never put in writing, but something I trust you enough to share.” I shift in my seat and look at her. “I hope what I’m about to tell you can stay between us?”
She nods her head and answers, “Of course.”
“I talk about my depression stuff with you guys because a lot of people who suffer with substances can relate to it, but what I don’t tell you is I’ve also been diagnosed bi-polar with schizophrenia disorder—”
I pause. I’ve never actually said the words in that combination out loud and I immediately feel uncomfortable.
“If you talked with my ex-wife, she’d add the word severe to that diagnoses,” I add awkwardly.
Why I add this piece about Sirena I have no clue. I think I’m just nervous. I heard Sirena describe my diagnoses to someone this way once and it has bothered me ever since: the words people use on us leave a mark. I’m reminded of a family member that recently congratulated me for doing so well now by saying, “You had a demon that lived inside you Jose, but you’ve overcome it.” It would be one thing if this person was referring to addiction, but they weren’t. This family member; that knew my storied past, was inferring that my mental struggles were a result of “the devil” inside me. This one stung. Its thoughts and statements like these from people that want to label me that keep “people like me” in hiding— I don’t know exactly what I am… but I sure as shit know I’m not the devil!
Hoping that I haven’t scared Lauryn, I ask, “Do you know what that means?”
“I know what bi-polar is,” she says, “But does that other part mean you like…see shit that isn’t really there…you know, like in the movies and shit?”
I can’t help but smile at this. Her use of inappropriate language with brutal honesty is painfully heartwarming.
I look past Lauryn and respond. “From what I’ve been told it means sometimes I lose touch with reality. For some people that means they see things that aren’t there.” I bring my eyes back to her. “I don’t think that’s me, but I do know my imagination has gotten away from me at times…. The real question is why I don’t tell people about this. Do you think you can guess why I don’t?”
“No,” she replies; now fully engaged and not thinking about her own problems for the first time since we sat down.
“Because I’m embarrassed Lauryn. I don’t want people to lose trust in me or be concerned for me.” I take a deep breath. “The truth I was given this diagnosis during a very dark time in my life and I spent a long time fighting its accuracy. But I’ve come to realize that the accuracy of this diagnoses is irrelevant. I know I have my problems, but as long as I’m taking care of myself, they do not define me.”
I say the words I’ve been trained to say by others, whether or not I believe them does not matter.
“Does Principle Sam know?” Lauryn says.
“No—that’s the point, no one knows. I don’t need to tell them because it’s private. As long as it doesn’t interfere with my work, then there’s no reason for them to know…my kids don’t even know.”
I stop to think about this. “I don’t know,” I respond simply. “Just not important right now, I guess.”
“Will you ever tell them?”
“Honestly, I hope I don’t have to,” I answer truthfully. “Lauryn…I told you this because what you have been through will scar you. Don’t pretend it won’t.” —I see her eyes harden— “But you must not let it define you.”
I continue to look at her and feel a sense of calmness hit me unexpectantly.
“There are things about my past I don’t tell people Lauryn. And I have literally run away from this world in order to stay hidden at times. I don’t want this for you. What happened was an accident…”
Time stops at these words and Lauryn looks at me. She is no longer afraid of me, and she is no longer eyeing me like I might be crazy—which often happens when people hear of my diagnoses—but instead she now looks at me like someone that might understand.
Tears begin to gather in her eyes as I finish my sentence. “We all know it was an accident, the struggle will be accepting that yourself.”
The words I use cut deep, but they do not just attack her, I have the blade against my skin too. I think of hugging her again.
“I need you to trust me Lauryn. Life is forcing humility on you. And that’s a gift in this life. But there is a thin line between being humble and being ashamed.”
I look away from her, not wanting her to feel uncomfortable as I see her fighting back the onslaught of tears.
“Maybe that’s why some people can’t be humble?” I whisper—almost to myself. “Perhaps they are scared of being ashamed? Don’t let that be you…”
I stop talking and look back at her. Her glistening eyes try to look at me.
“You’re a good person Lauryn and you are very special. Do you believe me when I say that?”
With wet cheeks, she nods her head but looks down and stays silent. She focuses on the poster on the table in front of us and refuses to let me look into the hurt.
I put my hand on her shoulder. “That’s a start,” I tell her, “But if you need reminding there’s a lot of people here to help.”
Week 13: Friday, December 4th, 2020
(The following story is rated “R.” Reader Discretion Is Advised. Lauryn, this one’s for you!)
It was a few years ago now, but I remember it like it was yesterday….
I was on my way home from work, traveling the same two-lane highway I always travel, listening to some audio book about Inner Peace. I had gotten into a silly argument with my sister-in-law a few days earlier. That argument ended with me calling her a bitch. A word you can’t take back and a word that quickly echoed amongst family after I had used it on her. I was just having a bad day when I said it and know that I should just apologize, but I was recently told by someone that I say “I’m sorry” too much. All of this was weighing on me as I was driving this day.
Traffic is moving really slow. The speed limit is sixty-five, but everyone is stuck going a steady ten to fifteen because of a merge a few miles ahead. It has been like this for months now, so the delay is not unexpected. Annoyed, but in no rush to get anywhere, I stay in the left lane and listen to instructions on how to breathe through stress.
In my mirror I notice a car weaving around the slowed traffic behind me; displaying no regard for the other drivers trying to survive their journey. There is always someone trying to get ahead by doing this, and it always gets under my skin. He is getting closer and closer. What this driver is doing is wrong, everyone knows it, but no one stops him. I decide that I’ll be the one to teach this guy a lesson: This will be fun!
As this car approaches from behind, I match speed with the car to my right: Act One of a three act F-U.
By doing so I block this p-o-s from weaving around me; a very common tactic taught to me by my father years prior. In no time, the driver is right behind me. He successfully gets on the ass end of my car but has nowhere to go. Of course, I just play dumb and carefully maintain my speed with the car alongside. He gets closer and closer, eventually laying on his horn once he realizes I am purposely blocking him. With a smirk—that he cannot see—I move to Act Two.
Taking my right hand and shaping it like I am grabbing the fat end of a baseball bat, I turn my head ninety degrees and bob back and forth on the imaginary shaft. Anyone can give the middle finger, but only professionals can wordlessly tell someone to… well… you know…
I KNOW. I KNOW. What a vulgar thing for me to do. My father did not teach me this one. This was all me. It was childish and inappropriate. Yet, it worked like a charm.
This driver understands exactly what I am saying to him. Pissed off, he jerks around in his car, lays on his horn again, and gives me the middle finger while he swears and yells at me in silence. Amateur.
With a smile—and smelling success—I proceed to the final act. Act Three: The Icing on The Cake.
Turning my head again, I use my hand to blow this man a kiss. Then I waive at him like a queen would in a parade…slowly dropping one finger at a time until only one stands erect—directly in the center. I then stare into my mirror and admire the anger this man is now experiencing.
“Bingo-Bango!” I say out loud to myself in the car. “Got you asshole!” I congratulate myself. “That will teach you!”
In the midst of admiring my victory I do not see the traffic stop in front of me—BAM!
I hit the car in front of me, and as a result I am hit by the man from behind. Traffic stops, and I am about to encounter the man who I had just told to…well…you know.
This would not be good.
Then, something amazing happened that opened my eyes forever. A miracle, I think. Both of us jumped out of our vehicles looking scared. Neither of us got out of our cars ready to fight like you might imagine.
Standing there, I saw that this man looked ashamed as other drivers who had watched the two of us act like idiots walked towards us. We were both caught, and the fingers we wanted to point at one another were about to become silenced by all the fingers about to point at the two of us. With other drivers quickly approaching, I looked at this man and said two words before they swarmed, “I’m sorry.”
On that day this man and I could have reacted differently. Things could have gotten really ugly, I assume. Thankfully, instead of anger and revenge, we were both wired to feel sorrow and forgiveness in that intense moment. This is not always the case, I know: that’s why I called it a miracle.
After the accident he and I had to deal with insurance stuff for a few weeks. Surprisingly, he and I became friends during this process. His name is Nick and he owns an ambulance company in the area. “Kinda ironic a guy that owns an ambulance company drives like such a dick,” I’d later joke with him.
Nick has a family, just like me. Later this new friend admitted that my act on the road was really quite funny and original.
The lesson I learned that day I try not to forget: We had a lot more in common than we knew when we were just two A-Holes trying to get to our destination.
QUESTION FOR REFLECTION:
“We had a lot more in common than we knew when we were just two A-Holes trying to get to our destination.” What does this statement mean to you?
The Teacher’s Playlist:
“Maybe I shouldn’t be singing this song….”
—A*****e by Denis Leary