It is now January in the year 2021. On this eighteenth week I am home spending a night with my kids:
Lying in bed we are watching a movie when my phone starts to vibrate on the table next to us. I push my youngest son off my back so I can get a look at who is calling. Seeing the name of the person displayed on the phone, I quickly get up from the bed and leave the room; shutting the door behind me.
This call is unexpected and unannounced; normally I would get an email before. Trying to sound excited, but secretly nervous, I answer the phone. “Mr. Bernard! How are you?”
“Jose,” he chuckles, “you have to stop calling me that.”
I never refer to him by his real name because everyone knows him by that name. And if people knew he was the one that got me the grant for my program then they would assume things. It’s just easier to call him Mr. Bernard and avoid awkward questions; I’ve told him this a million times.
“So—” he says through the phone, “In front of me I have some letters from your students about you and your class. It looks like you’re really making a difference over there.”
I assume Lily or Principal Sam forwarded what they had put together to him. “Thank you,” I say, “it’s been a crazy year, but I’m trying…”
As soon as I say this, I feel dumb.
Yesterday—Wednesday, January 6th—the Capitol in Washington, D.C. came under attack. Supporters of the soon to be ex-president were disputing election results. Knowing that Mr. Bernard might have been right in the middle of all of this, my comment makes me feel a bit self-absorbed. I want to ask him if he was there when it happened, but I don’t.
“You aren’t kidding,” Mr. Bernard says, “it’s been a heck 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.” He coughs to clear his throat. “But anyway, I hear your program didn’t get additional funding. I’m calling to make sure that you don’t give up. You have something special there—Have you finished that book of yours?”
This is a question I do not want to answer. Between being a dad and focusing on my students it’s been easy for me to put the book on hold. Writing it always has me questioning my sanity and I don’t know how to end the stupid thing anyways.
Not wanting to admit any of this, I reply semi-honestly. “I’m working on it,” I tell him, “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…”
Mr. Bernard pauses, then his voice changes slightly as he begins to read: “‘Future civilizations will study how technology transformed our world. They will analyze how humanity was molded by television, literature, and all forms of entertainment. They will be able to look at our behavior differently with an advanced understanding of which we cannot comprehend today. 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. 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.’”
My stomach tightens as he reads this to me. Once he is done, Mr. Bernard says, “Do you remember writing this Jose?”
“Honestly, not really,” I admit.
I am being truthful, not modest. Writing that had gotten me in a lot of trouble and I have blocked it from my memory. That was a passage from something I wrote more than six years ago now: 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? … You know politics is a form of entertainment too.”
***Dear Reader, what Mr. Bernard says here is going to change Jose’s perspective on many things in his life, and it also is one of the key reasons I was asked to bring you this story.
You humans are creative creatures. Proof can be found in your ability to turn practically anything into entertainment. This is all in good fun and can even be educational, but it has become more and more M.E.A.N. as of late (Misremembered, Embellished, Agitating, and Not-exactly-true). Your creative minds do this for Entertainment Purposes, but here we’ve found it can be counterproductive to your overall progress as a species. Something you humans needed to be reminded of. You’re welcome.***
It is the summer of 2015; the summer after getting my diagnoses. Sirena has gotten me approved for disability payments somehow. The fact that I was approved for disability has people that know me surprised. “You must be REAL crazy!” they joke. This is embarrassing, yet I no longer feel prideful, so I try and laugh it off.
On this hot summer day, I am helping my dad at the NEADS Kennel in Princeton, Massachusetts. He had been hired to construct a large addition and needs an extra set of hands putting up roof trusses. My dad has a full-time job at a prison now but still takes on jobs like these to keep his business alive. Mostly he does it so his kids have an opportunity to make a little extra money. This is Poor Dad type of thinking, but I love him for it.
My dad asking me to help was a big deal. He saw my life spiral and had spent the last few months giving me the space everyone advised him to. My difficulties with drugs and whatever was going on with my head was something he could not understand, but he was blessed with a heart that understood he didn’t need to understand—this was his gift.
In construction my dad taught me a lot. Simple things, like how to remove splinters with a sharp utility blade, but also many other things that were even more useful to me down the road. He’s the one who taught me that a boss always has to be thinking at least three steps ahead of his crew. There’s no doubt our minds work alike in that sense.
During lunch, my cellphone that is lying on a pile of plywood begins to ring. It is my old psychologist calling me back; the one that would charge eighty bucks a session on top of insurance (My Mr. Miyage).
I’ve been having a hard time accepting my diagnoses and called him out of desperation yesterday to get his opinion. He didn’t answer, so I left him a message. I find myself immediately embarrassed by the call and consider hanging up. “Hello,” I answer.
I climb a ladder and hide in a part of the attic that already has plywood on its roof so that no one will overhear this conversation. I have knee pads on with a plastic strap holding them in place. The strap cuts into the back of my legs as I kneel down. The smell of heat and sawdust surrounds me. I feel a bead of sweat drip down the center of my bare chest as I tell the doctor everything that has happened since we last saw each other.
I have not seen this doctor for a while now. I think I was hiding from him but can’t really remember why. Just add it to the list of things that are fuzzy in this fractured brain of mine. After rapidly regurgitating all the important details to him, I listen to a shaking voice ask the doctor a question: “Do you think I’m as sick in the head as they all tell me I am?”
There is a pause. A long painful pause. This doctor never talked much. Silence was his thing. He made me talk. Remember. What am I expecting him to say to me?
“Jose, I can’t make that determination right now.”
Silence settles itself back in as sweat continues to drip off me. On his end of the line I hear him punching a keyboard. I wait to hear more; assuming he is thinking of something to say that will calm the scared little boy on the phone—he must hear it in my voice.
After a moment he talks again. “Jose, my records indicate that you never paid for your last visit with me. If you can pay for that, maybe we can meet and discuss this further.”
With my heart in my throat, I hang up the phone.
My chest caves on itself. Medicine—the real kind—has not helped much with my anxiety. In fact, I consider not taking it as I find myself still feeling anxious as ever—and because I still believe in this delusional dream of mine. I don’t tell people this, but I fight with it constantly.
I had crawled into this attic so that no one would hear me talking so pathetically. Even though I am no longer on the run, I am still hiding. After hanging up the phone, I don’t move.
A few minutes pass and I hear the machines starting back up and everyone getting back to work. Still, I don’t move. I can’t. Or else they will see. My dad does me the favor of leaving me alone. He probably knows. Now it is not just sweat dripping off me.
I am completely lost and completely hopeless. Hunched over, the hands I see gripping a piece of wood do not belong to me. I don’t want them to.
These stupid hands know how to do many stupid things, but I look at them and realize that they are incapable of putting this stupid life of mine back together.
Maybe I am crazy? … Can I start this life over? … Please…???
I am full of fear and do not want anyone out there to see it. I must crawl out of here. I must face them. I must face life. But I don’t want to.
At this point I know absolutely nothing… except maybe one thing… people suck...
***End of Breaking Knews***
Mr. Bernard had called to simply check on me. Unfortunately, he had no magic solution to the problem of funding. His hands are tied at the moment as everything seems to be on hold until this virus stuff is over. And I am no one special.
“Listen Jose—” he begins, “The other day a few college students 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 mind.”
Not really knowing either of the two people he is talking about, I stay quiet and just continue to listen.
“I don’t believe in coincidences Jose. After that meeting is when I got the email from your principal. The meeting with those college kids made me realize there is an army of people out there waiting for you—”
I find his choice of words interesting given he had just witnessed the attack on the Capitol, but I keep this opinion to myself.
“With people across this country displaying banners of our President dressed up 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 person comes along. Maybe that’s you? Please finish your story Jose. Will you do that for me?”
“I’ll try to,” I answer.
“That’s all I ask for Jose,” he replies.
Feeling uncomfortable, I attempt to change the topic. “Hey—Did you get those mittens my grandmother sent you?”
“Yes, I did.” His voice softens. “I’ll wear them to the Inauguration next week, tell her to look for me….”
Mr. Bernard and I do not talk for very long after this.
Once I’m off the phone, I head back into my bedroom and my boys create a sliver of space for me to cram my body into on the bed. Once huddled in, I begin reflecting on the conversation I have just had; paying little attention to the movie the boys are watching.
While it was nice to hear Mr. Bernard say such nice things about my writing, I’m just not ready to think about that yet. He is a dreamer, asking me if I ever considered politics proves this, but I respect him, so any word that escapes his mouth I take time to consider. Thinking about being out of a job, I find 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 can feel my mind escaping into the realm of impossibility. This is a dangerous area for it to go and I have learned how to identify and avoid it whenever possible. I force myself back into the real world and watch the movie that is 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 is talking to his younger brother. Holding him upside down by his ankles, he tells this young mind to, “Look for a new angle!”
That is when it hits me. Like an anvil falling from the heavens. Directly onto my skull.
Contemplating what I have just heard, my imagination manically begins putting the pieces of the puzzle together. IT IS LIKE FIREWORKS EXPLODING IN MY BRAIN.
Ideas begin to come together. My past, my present, and my future collide. Visions that were blurry begin to come into focus. That dream inside of me—long asleep—wakes up.
I HAVE IT —I know how to end my story!
As a father I’ve learned so much from watching television and movies with my children; how they think and what they believe. How perfect for me to figure out how to end my story while lying here watching a movie with them.
I feel like Hulk Hogan, wanting to rip off my tank-top and warn all his Hulkamaniacs to WATCH OUT BROTHER!
An excited little boy in my head laughs at this image and then smiles to himself—that lunatic smile I had packed away like a good boy.
Elation begins to grow inside my body…. inside my mind… inside my heart…
While I allow myself to enjoy this rush of childhood adrenaline, there are three pieces of reality comfortably laying their body parts on top of me to keep me from floating away (and ripping off my tank top).
With them surrounding me on all sides, I begin the process of playing the tape out in my head…. I wonder…. Could it work?
Week 18: January 8th, 2021
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, I read a book titled Rich Dad Poor Dad and vowed to never be like my father. He is a carpenter by trade and an amazingly good man. He taught me his trade so that I’d always have something to fall back on if I needed to. I never disagreed with this as it always seemed to make sense. Nevertheless, I did not want to be like my father.
Growing up I read many books. I had one focus in life back then: to be successful—whatever that meant. Educated and full of enthusiasm, I set out to make this dream of mine a reality. Then I failed. Over and over.
Actually, first the economy failed, then my life followed suit. That is when life initially diverged on me. After barely surviving, I remember thinking one thing: I’d give anything to be like my father.
Many of the books I read in my youth told me to expect failure. Still, it hurt.
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, failure beat the living shit out of me.
Over time, 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 world that did not care.
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 bullshit 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 does not work all the time. While many find these words comforting and inspirational 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. It is the truth of the world we live in today. And when we are not talking there is that phone in our 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. By the time we get a moment of silence, do any of us really want to hear what we are thinking anyway? (Someone talk. Please.)
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 owe you the truth. And while many people claim The Truth is always terrible and boring, in this case I argue it can be awakening. 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 principle 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.
In recovery, I became a better person 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? Is acceptance truly the answer; or is it merely just a chapter in a larger book?
Troubled by all of this I confided in my councilor; John. A man that had helped me immensely. 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 to 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 telling him how I felt, I asked him, “Am I crazy to think I can change things?”
When I asked John this question 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 questioningly. “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. Someone once told me this and I am now passing the knowledge onto you. I actually just read a study that says if a person uses the word ‘I’ or ‘me’ in a social media post they will get twenty-five percent less reactions on average. If that doesn’t prove that people don’t like other people talking about themselves, I don’t know what does…”
John taught the residents of the halfway house that the letters on the candy he shook in my face stood for Me and Me. This was not the truth, but it got his message across.
For the record, I have no clue whether or not his social media comment is true or not—I guess it doesn’t really matter.
This routine of his was cute, but he still had not answered my question, so, I pressed further. “But John, I have ideas that I think really could help people…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, my councilor was kindly reminding me 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 beaten. The tough love this man offered in the past got me through a lot but right then it felt as if it had defeated me.
Ultimately, however, it turned out to be something I needed to hear.
In my bed that night, I curled into a ball and thought about that conversation…
“He doesn’t know,” I said to myself, “Only I know what must be done.”
I must create a class. Not a class that will help people discover who they are—People already know who they are. I must create a class to help them get a glimpse of what they could become… Not an illusion— But something real.
This insight shook me to my core and the very next day I began working on the curriculum for this Emotional Intelligence class. A voice from somewhere had finally given me the answer I’d been looking for…
People need to believe in something again. Many of them need to believe in someone again— B.S. Jose—make them B.S.
I want you all to be the first to know I’ve decided to attempt writing that book of mine again. This is something that would never have happened without all of you reminding me of what true strength really looks like. Thank you.
Sincerely Yours—With Love, Mr. J
QUESTION FOR REFLECTION:
Can you make a difference in this world? Why or why not?
The Teacher’s Playlist:
“Because all this bullshit made me strong…”
—Drop the World by Lil Wayne with Eminem