The Bad Stuff

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I’ve never apologized for anything I’ve ever written because I say what I mean and I mean what I say. This essay and the following series of essays that I’ll be publishing will be as close as I hope to ever come to apologizing. The subject that I am writing about is taboo in our culture. People who’ve gone through what I’ve experienced have been expected to keep their mouths shut and take what society’s gives them. I’m here to say that the expectation society has towards people like me is wrong. Legally, it may be acceptable to deny people like me jobs, but morally it’s another story. We have a fundamental obligation as a society to treat each other with respect and dignity. Treat others how you would like to be treated is something my father taught me when I was growing up and as a society we are not living up to that. What I have to say here will shock some people, even some who know me very well, but it needs to be said in order for me to move on with my life. I am a convicted felon.

I decided that this summer was going to be a time for rapid growth in my life. I’ve been reading as many books as I can find on personal growth and self-improvement. Every book that has been written on the subject seems to follow a simple premise: you are good enough to live the life you deserve. At this point in time, I do not believe that said premise applies to me. Let me explain why. When I was eighteen years old I walked down to a convenience store and bought a pack of cigarettes. What better way to start adulthood than with some Marlb reds, no? This simple decision on my part led me to make a series of decisions in my life that to this day I am still ashamed about. I developed a drug and alcohol problem. I flew through three jobs in four years and got fired from every one of them. The last two jobs I got fired from I was fired on suspicion of theft. The first one I was totally guilty of, the second one was a result of having no one else to blame. The point is that I messed up. For a period of about two years or so I was actually addicted to stealing. It was a rush for me and seeing as how I was basically a spoiled middle class kid from the suburbs with a history of drug and alcohol abuse this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The surprising part should be that I am a white male and I’ve been convicted of multiple felonies. That is not an easy task to accomplish. You have to do some very stupid things and engage in some very obvious criminal behavior to make something like that happen.

I’ve never been able to adequately explain why I did it. I wish I had an answer to that question because in terms of putting all of this behind me it would be a lot easier if I understood why I did this. Part of me has always believed that it was some act of Freudian self-sabotage and it may very well have been that. Such an explanation would seem to imply that I had some feeling of self-worth however and that, I most certainly did not have. At the time that this all happened I was going through severe anxiety and deep depression. Let me be clear: this in no way excuses my behavior, but the fact that I routinely had to be hospitalized for panic attacks does help put my mindset into context. My whole way of thinking was defined by the fundamental belief that I simply did not deserve the life I had and that I was not good enough to live a healthy life. This is why we engage in destructive behavior. I believe that we have two choices in life; we can live a constructive life where we work to build things up or we can live a destructive life where we work to tear things down. At this point in my life I believed that the destructive life was the only game in town. It was not until I had spent time in jail and finished three years of probation that I started to believe that it was possible for me to live a constructive life.

My drug addiction and legal problems consumed my life from the age of eighteen until I was twenty-five. When I was in jail I started keeping a journal and I continued this practice when I got out. I took creative writing classes and developed my voice as a writer. Writing saved my life. There is no doubt about that in my mind, but more broadly stories gave me the fuel with which to keep on living. It wasn’t until I went back to college that I came up with the idea that everyone has an interesting or special story to tell. I went from a worldview that said people are basically bad and highly corruptible to one that said everyone has some sort of innate value. That’s a huge leap to make and it’s one that would have been impossible to make had I not spent time in jail, time on probation, and years reflecting on my misdeeds. The worst moments of my life spawned the best possible discoveries about me and without them I would be nowhere near the person that I am today.
This all brings me to the thing that has become my greatest fear: the idea that I am someone who will always be worth a little less than everyone else. No matter where I go or what I do I will have to check that box asking if I’m a convicted felon. I am unemployable because of my criminal record. I’ve gone to school and despite the fact I’m graduating at the top of my class with a double major having never missed the Dean’s List I cannot get an employer to look at my resume. What I’ve learned is that your talents are only worth so much and that stigmas are as powerful as hate. When I tell people my story they listen and often add a comment about how it’s too bad that this has happened to me or that I’m a talented guy and they wish me the best.

No one has ever said to me the one thing that I fundamentally believe down to my very core and that is that one mistake in your life should not define in your or anyone else’s eyes who you are or what you’re worth as a human being. Yes, I’m aware of the recidivism rate among convicted felons. Yes, I know how hard it is to trust someone after they have made mistakes. What I’m not aware of is who benefits from holding a grudge. Society casts judgment over people like me because we have already been judged. We’ve been judged in a court of law. Not one person has suggested that perhaps there is a higher court. No one tells you that your self-worth should be tied to what you believe in and what your core values and principles are. That is what I am going to say however. Here and now I am saying that your beliefs, your values, and your principles matter more than whatever actions you may have taken in your life.

What saddens me about all of this is that this single event is the one thing that has been holding me back from achieving my full potential over the last five years. Much of this is my own fault. I never forgave myself. A part of it however is thinking that as soon as everyone knows who and what I am everyone of value in my life and everything that I’ve wanted to achieve in my life will disappear. I know that this won’t happen. I wouldn’t put myself out here like this if I thought such a thing was possible. I have come to the realization that the only way out is through. My biggest fear of being judged as a convicted felon who doesn’t deserve anything in life because of the mistakes he’s made is out there. In order to truly grow as a person you need to identify your fears and attack them. I don’t expect sympathy from anyone over what I’ve done. When you read this don’t think that it’s about you because it’s not. This is all about me and my need to move on with my life in the direction that my conscience is pointing me towards and that place is not in my past it’s in my future.

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5 thoughts on “The Bad Stuff

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I am always trying to grow as a person too, and reading your words helped me step out of my own bubble for a bit and see things from another perspective. I hope things work out for you.

  2. I lived a life haunted by my past for a very long time. Even after I made changes and was living very differently, I was haunted and no matter how hard I tried to “leave the past in the past” I couldn’t. Finally, when I confronted myself and my past by bringing it out in the open and getting rid of some of the false ideas my past experiences had taught me about me, I was able to make peace with my past. It is a part of me that I accept now and it no longer causes me to feel that I am less valuable than others. We all make mistakes, sometimes really rotten, horrible ones, but we all have equal value. You too are valuable and capable of living the kind of life you can be proud of. Don’t stop seeking to overcome.

    • Thanks. I think you said something really important when you said you “confronted” your past. That’s really what we have to do and I think you’re right that all we can do is “make peace” with it. I’m glad to hear that you’ve moved past it and learned from it!

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