School in our district continued to be remote after winter break. It was now January in the year 2021, and on this eighteenth week we will not be going to class anyway. Instead you will be spending a night with me and the boys:
Lying in bed with the three boys sprawled all over me, we were watching a movie when my phone started vibrating on the bedside table next to us. I pushed my youngest son off my back so that I could get a look at who was calling. Seeing the name of the person displayed on my screen, I silently got up from the bed to leave the room, shutting the door behind me.
This call was unexpected and unannounced: normally I would get an email before. Trying to sound excited, but a secretly nervous, I answered, “Mr. Bernard! How are you?”
“Jose—my boy…you have to start calling me Bernie,” he said lightly.
Bernie did not do FaceTime, so I could not see him, but his voice sounded like he had that goofy smile on his face.
I never referred to him as Bernie. Everyone knew him by this name; and if people knew he was the one that got me the grant for my program then they would assume things. It was easier to call him Mr. Bernard. It was not a lie, just something I did to prevent awkward questions.
This Senator and I were first in contact with one another after he received an email from me in November of 2015. That was around six months after the other email that got me in such trouble and ended with my first stay at a mental institution.
When I had gotten home from the institution, I did my best to act ‘normal.’ I did not talk about my story or how I believed I was meant to do something more with my life. But even though I did not talk about out, I had not forgotten about it. I did a lot of reading during those six months and privately tried to prepare myself to give it another try when the time was right.
To put it simply: I had not quit on that delusionary dream of mine like everyone wanted me to.
Bernie had popped up on the political scene around this time. When I found out he was from Burlington, Vermont; the place I had runaway to, I decided to reach out to him. I thought that perhaps our stories were destined to be intertwined at the time.
Effing crazy…I know.
I knew who he was when I sent the email, but I really did not know much about him then. And if I’m being honest, once I did learn more about him, I was not a fan at first. This is probably why I’m still slightly ashamed to call him my friend now: People kinda suck and would no doubt call me names if they knew how much I loved and respected him today.
Bernie and I actually had not spoken personally at first. One of his staffers had responded to that first email I sent which included a short story and a personal mission statement.
I doubt he ever actually read what I wrote in that first correspondence of ours, but getting a response still made me feel better back then. In that email response from one of his staffers, it read; “Your insight is inspiring, let us hope young people can learn to bring the change you envision to life.”
Two years after that, in 2017, when I was locked away in the halfway house with nothing but time to think, I reflected on this statement a lot. I was not allowed a computer at the halfway house so a lot of nights I would simply write in my journal. That is when I began designing a curriculum I originally penned: “Social Recovery 101.”
With some sobriety under my belt, I later put that curriculum into document form and sent it to Bernie. Surprisingly, Mr. Bernard himself responded to me.
After telling him more of my personal story, and actually meeting him in person, we became more friendly. One thing led to another, and this wonderful man eventually got me a job at Locke Recovery High School in January of 2019 to test out this curriculum of mine: The one you know as “Emotional Intelligence.”
Maybe you can now understand why I just told you that I loved this man….
“So…” he said, “In front of me I have some letters from your students about you and your class. It looks like you are really making a difference over there.”
I assumed Lily or the Principal must have forwarded what they had put together to him; I responded, “Thank you, it’s been a crazy year, but I’m trying.”
As soon as I said this, I felt dumb. The day before this conversation, on January 6th, 2021, I; along with the rest of the world, watched the news in horror and embarrassment as riots broke out at the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. by supporters of the soon to be past president. They were disputing the election results. Fueled by outrageous claims and poor leadership, the scenes witnessed on television were scary and…well…sad. Knowing that Mr. Bernard must have been right in the middle of all of this, my comment made me feel a bit self-absorbed.
“You aren’t kidding, it’s been a hell of a year for me as well. I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch with you. With the election, and this virus, and well-pure craziness…I fear I’m feeling my age…” Pausing before continuing, he started to tell me why he had really called, “Listen, I’ve heard the program didn’t get additional funding. I’m calling to make sure that you don’t give up. You have something special there Jose… Are you almost done that book?”
This was a question I did not want to answer. Between being a dad, focusing on my students, and simply surviving, it was easy for me to put the book on hold. Writing it always had me questioning my sanity anyways. Not to mention I had no idea how to finish it. In truth, I had stopped working on it all together once I began teaching again.
Not wanting to admit to all of this, I said, “I’m working on it—Not really sure when I’ll be done though.”
“Jose, I think the world needs it. I really do. I want to read you something:
‘…. They will use what is happening now to improve future life on this planet. Because of this, I propose a full out assault on society using every weapon of entertainment at our fingertips. We need to entertain to transform. We need to accept that this is our responsibility. We need to take pride in how we effect human psychology. We need to get people dreaming again. We need to give people hope. We need to create a spark. It will take a lot of work, but it will have two major advantages: One, it will be fun; and Two, it will save the world.’
“Do you remember writing this Jose?” he asked me.
“Honestly, not really.”
I was being truthful, not modest. Writing that had gotten me in a lot of trouble and I had blocked it from my memory. Hearing him read it at that moment was embarrassing. This was a writing from the original manifesto of mine: Journey To JoJo; A Trip To Insanity And Back.
“I appreciate your desire to be in the classroom Jose, I really do, but I don’t think you can accomplish what this world needs by just being a teacher. Maybe this hiccup with your program is a sign that you should be doing something different to get your message out there. Have you ever considered getting into politics?”
In the spring of 2015, after getting my diagnoses, Sirena had been able to get me approved for disability payments. This is not something I announce excitedly to you, but it took some pressure off us at the time and for that I was grateful.
We were also forced to file for bankruptcy as my troubles had put us in a financial mess. I had cashed out all of my retirement after losing my teachers job in June of 2013. Having done that, and allowing Sirena to sell all her jewelry, we were still constantly struggling to stay up with mortgage payments and utility bills. I had amassed a lot of credit card debt as well.
I do not think it necessary to explain how affording my medicine over the prior years led us to that point: And remember…by ‘medicine’ I mean drugs and alcohol.
In order to keep the house and our single vehicle, we were advised that filing bankruptcy was our best option. This was not something my family approved of as my father and mother had been through some very difficult times keeping my father’s construction business afloat over the years and never took this “easy way out” themselves. Knowing this, you can imagine that this decision of ours was met which much criticism. While embarrassing as it was, I no longer felt prideful, so I did what was best to keep my family from losing everything. It was not easy, but it had to be done.
The summer after all of this went down, in 2015, I was visiting my father’s jobsite. While I was there my phone rang; it was an old psychiatrist of mine calling me back. This was the guy that would charge eighty bucks a session on top of insurance (you heard me reference him earlier on in this story when I was explaining how helpful he was).
At the time of this call I was having a hard time accepting my diagnoses and had called him to ask for his opinion. Having rapidly regurgitated all the events that had transpired since our last meeting, I asked him shakingly, “Do you think I’m as sick in the head as they all tell me I am?”
There was a pause over the phone, after which this amazing doctor spoke, “Jose, I can’t make that determination right now.”
He then stopped talking. I waited to hear more, assuming he was thinking of something to say that would calm the scared little boy on the phone; he had to have heard it in my voice. After a moment he resumed, “My records indicate that you never paid for your last two visits with me. If you can pay those, maybe we can meet and discuss this further.”
With my heart in my throat, I hung up the phone on him that day.
Medicine (the real kind) had not seemed to be helping too much. In fact, I remember thinking the medicine was not worth taking because on top of still feeling anxious as ever, I still believed in this dream of mine.
I never expressed this back then, but I fought with it constantly. After hanging up the phone with that doctor, I stayed in the attic that I had crept in to have this conversation. I crawled into that attic so that no one on the jobsite would hear me talking so pathetically. Even though I was no longer on the run, I was still in hiding.
In that attic, alone, I cried like a little bitch after hanging up that phone….
Maybe I am crazy—Or maybe I just don’t fit in this world…Can I start this life of mine over…. Please…???
At the time, I was truly lost. I did not know how my life would ever be put back together. Full of fear, there was only one thing I knew for certain as I stayed hunched over, crying in that attic: “People suck.”
***End Of Breaking Knews***
Bernie had called to simply check on me. Unfortunately, he had no magic solution to the problem of funding. His hands were tied at the moment as everything seemed to be on hold until this virus stuff was over. And I was not anyone special.
“Listen Jose,” Mr. Bernard started, as a sign he was about to change the topic again, “The other day a few college students had scheduled a meeting to ask me some questions. They were doing a study on who was more popular with members of Congress: Frank Lloyd Wright or Frank Underwood… you know, the character in that show ‘House of Cards.’ When they came in and explained the purpose behind this study of theirs, you immediately came to my mind.”
Not really knowing much about either of the two people he was talking about right then, I simply said, “Well, thank you?” Not really sure if he was complimenting me or not.
“I don’t believe in coincidences Jose, after that meeting is when I got the email from your principal. She is very impressed with you by the way. That being said, the meeting with those college kids made me realize there is an army of people out there waiting for you.” I remember thinking this was some strong language from a guy that just witnessed the attack on the Capitol but stayed quiet.
“There is no doubt in my mind that your program will get funded again, but you may have to wait till next September. Use this time to write Jose. It’s time. With the contacts I now have after writing my own book I really think I can help you get published. I need something to get me excited again Jose. I hate to say it…. But my faith is waning, my boy. With people across this country displaying banners of our President dressed as Rambo holding an assault rifle I worry about where things might be headed if something unexpected does not come along soon. There are a lot of good people in the world that will gather and fight if the right leader comes along: Maybe that’s you. Please finish your story Jose… will you do that for me?”
“I will try,” was all I could think to say.
“I’ll take that…”
Hearing a pause, I attempted to change the topic myself, “—Hey, did you get those mittens my grandmother sent you?”
“Yes—I did! In fact, I’ll wear them to the inauguration next week. Tell her to look for me…”
Mr. Bernard and I did not talk for very long after this.
Our conversation was enough to get my head spinning, however. I did not want to think of writing my book in that moment: that was just too scary. All I could think about was being out of a job and whether or not I’d be eligible for unemployment benefits. It was nice to hear him say such nice things about my writing, but right then I was not ready to deal with all that.
After hanging up with Mr. Bernard, I went back into my bedroom. The three boys created a sliver of space for me to cram my body into on my bed. Once huddled in, I began reflecting on the conversation I had just had.
Bernie was a dreamer, asking me if I had ever considered politics validated this fact. But I respected him, so any word that escaped his mouth I took time to consider. Worried about being out of a job, I found myself pondering the comment he made about me getting into politics.
How would a life in politics fit in my life? … What would I be? … How would it even begin?
I could feel my mind escaping into the realm of impossibility. This was a dangerous area for it to go and I had learned how to identify and avoid it whenever possible. Literally shaking my head to bring me back into the real world, I watched the movie that was playing in front of me: A Disney movie named Big Hero 6.
“Shake things up—Use that big brain of yours to think your way out!”
The big brother on screen was talking to his younger brother. Holding him upside down by his ankles, he told this young mind to, “—Look for a new angle!”
Contemplating what I had just heard, my imagination manically began putting the pieces of the puzzle together.
IT WAS LIKE FIREWORKS EXPLODING IN MY BRAIN.
Ideas began to come together. My past, my present, and my future collided. Visions that were blurry began to come into focus. My dream, long asleep, began waking back up.
It was at that moment my mind decided to let me know I was finally ready….
I had it: I knew how to end my story.
Laying there, I smiled to myself. That lunatic smile I had packed away like a good little boy.
Excitement began growing inside my body; inside my mind; inside my heart. While I allowed myself to enjoy this adrenaline rush, there were three pieces of reality comfortably laying on top of me to keep me from floating away. Looking at each of them, I began the process of playing the tape out in my head…. I wondered…
What if it could work?
Week 18 (1.8.21):
The only thing you have control over is your thoughts….
Your thoughts control your emotions…
Learn to control your thoughts and you can control your emotions.
When I was young and focused on living the ‘American Dream’ I read a lot of personal success and business books. Educated and full of enthusiasm, I prepared to conquer the world. Then I failed; over and over. Actually, first the economy failed, then my life followed suit. That is when life initially diverged on me.
Many of the books I read in my youth told me to expect failure. Yet still, it stung like a bitch. Maybe mental toughness was not in my DNA, or maybe I was just destined to be a failure…who knows.
Failure made me frustrated. It made me sad. It made me mad. It made me depressed. It made me anxious. It deflated my ego.
Simply put, failrue beat the living shit out of me.
Over time, it made me quit. At some point it made me detach from caring about anything in this world.
“They did not teach me how to deal with these feelings in school!” I screamed in silence to a universe that did not care.
Call me weak…whatever.
Eventually I traded my “Get Rich Quick” books for “Mental Health” books. In many of those books I read things like the quote I started today’s article with. At first, I listened and shook my head in agreement like any good student. Only over time did I start calling ‘B.S.’ on things that I once accepted as common sense.
Maybe you agree with the statement about having control of our thoughts and emotions. I could agree with it as well…if we lived in isolation. Some place separate from society and everything that comes with it today. Unfortunately, very few places like that exist.
After asking myself many questions, I’ve concluded that this statement used by thousands of people to sell books and make people feel optimistic about getting control over their emotions does not work all the time. Sorry if you do not agree. I realize that many people pride themselves on looking at life this way. But this article is about ME…so, shut up and let me finish!
It is my opinion that we have so many responsibilities in our evolved society that it is nearly impossible to sit alone with our thoughts. For example, focusing on the bright side of things all the time like we are told is nearly impossible if you cannot pay your electrical bill.
As an adult, most of us have to go to work. We have to deal with bosses, customers, and other employees: Some of us have to deal with students (good luck with that!). Silence is not an option here. On top of that, a lot of us have families. Being quiet to focus on our thoughts cannot happen if we want to raise our children properly or be a caring partner.
I could argue that we are expected to talk all the time. If we don’t, many people would think something is wrong with us.
As a younger person reading this and having to deal with us adults micro-managing you all the time, I have to assume you can relate to what I’m saying right now. It is the truth of world we live in today—Am I right?
And when we are not talking there is that phone in your hand…and television…and the radio… and… and… and… and… and…
Being able to focus on our thoughts in an environment so full of noise is nearly impossible.
My conclusion: Our environment effects our thoughts, and our thoughts effect our emotions. Therefore, to improve mental health on a global scale we must change our environment. Period.
This conclusion of mine goes against everything I am supposed to teach you at a Recovery School. But since I will not be with you much longer, I bring it up now because I think at this point you deserve to know. I’m going on a limb and hoping that you can handle the truth. With that said, let me explain myself a little further.
When I was in early recovery and my life was changing without my permission there was something I said that helped me survive the experience: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
This was part of learning the principals of ‘Acceptance;’ a key attribute in recovery. Saying this over and over; and believing it, helped me more than I could ever explain to you. But there was always something about the word ‘Acceptance’ that bothered me.
What if everyone just ‘Accepted’ the world the way it is; and simply ‘Accepted’ that things would never get better?
Questions like this haunted me. But I was told that acceptance was the answer, so for a very long time I just nodded my head in agreement.
I have since ‘Accepted’ that like everything in life, exceptions exist. Acceptance is not always the answer. (Sorry again)
In recovery, I became a better person: there is no denying that. And acceptance was a key ingredient to my success. For that I am grateful. The stability in my life has allowed me to be there for my children. And these children of mine give my life purpose. For that I am also grateful.
But, here’s the thing: The world that waits for my children in adulthood worries me sick.
Am I supposed to just accept the way things are—What if I could make this world better for them—Was acceptance truly the answer; or was it merely a chapter in a larger book???
Troubled by all of this I confided in my councilor, John. This man had helped me immensely and I respected him greatly for that (He was the councilor at the halfway house I’ve told you about).
I stayed at that house for six months, finished its program, and then went on to stay at a sober house for an additional month as John had suggested at the time. Prior to all that, I was constantly rushing through life. It was John who helped me learn how to slow the hell down and see patience as a virtue; especially in recovery.
John and I had become extremely close, so, after listing all these questions of mine, I asked him, “Am I crazy to think I can change things?”
When I asked him this he did not speak right away. Instead he reached down and picked up a bowl of M&M’s that were sitting on his desk. Picking up that bowl, he shook the candy in my face. Looking at me, he spoke sternly, “You are saying ‘I’ a lot; have you noticed that?”
He did not give me time to respond before continuing, “All of society has come down with a severe case of the Me’s. I was once told this by someone else, and now I’m passing the knowledge on to you.”
Truthfully, what he said really offended me. I disliked being called selfish, and basically that is what he was saying right then. Shaking the candy in my face was a routine the other guys in the house said John had done to them, but never had he done it to me until right then. (He taught the residents that the letters on the candy stood for Me and Me: Not the truth, but it got his message across.)
This routine of his was cute, but he still had not answered my question, so, I pressed further, “But I have ideas that I think really could help people John…does this make me crazy?”
He laughed; pissing me off even more at the time, and then pointed at something behind me. Turning around in my seat, a picture he had referenced many times hung on the wall. It was a picture with a quote that read, “Acting on principles costs money.” John loved comedians; George Carlin was his favorite.
By pointing at this poster, John was kindly reminding me of the fact that addicts often struggle with delusional thoughts of grandeur. What John was saying, without actually using the words, was, “You are (a little) crazy.”
On that day I sulked out of his office feeling defeated. The tough love this man had showed me in the past got me through a lot, but at that moment, it destroyed me. Looking back on it, it was something I needed to hear, as it broke something inside of me that needed breaking….
“—He did not know!” I later announced to myself, reflecting upon that conversation.
The truth was only I knew what had to be done. In reality, I knew this for a very long time. However, it had been called delusional so many times, by so many people, that I had learned to accept it.
Not anymore: I call Bullshit.
I’m not crazy: I just finally know what I have to do…and I know it my heart that it’s right.
SO… listen carefully…
I can do this: I can make a difference—Accept it!
We must accept that my time as your teacher is coming to an end. Please know that I will be here for you always and remember that you have now made yourselves heroes in the eyes of my children: I know you will not let them down.
With that said, I want you to be the first to know I’ve decided to attempt writing my book again. This is something that could never have happened without you; and for that I am eternally grateful. Thank you all for reminding me what strength looks like.
—With Love, Mr. J.
QUESTION FOR REFLECTION:
Can you make a difference?
The Teacher’s Playlist:
“Because all this bullshit made me strong…”
—Drop the World by Lil Wayne with Eminem