Recently I had the great pleasure of being the closing Plenary/Keynote Speaker for the Annual Indiana State CASA/GAL Conference down in French Lick, Indiana. This was my second year in a row with this conference, and my second year as the closing speaker. CASA, or Court Appointed Special Advocates are volunteers who advocate for children who are in need of assistance from an outside source, because the children’s parents are involved in some kind of legal trouble- drugs and alcohol, domestic abuse, neglect, etc… CASA’s have and will always hold a special place in my heart, because my son was one of those children who needed someone to advocate for him while I was stuck in the grip of active addiction. Here in Indiana we call it a CHINS case- Child In Need of Services. I was a CHINS Dad twice actually, and had the same CASA for both cases. To this woman I am forever grateful. I cannot even imagine the horror, pain, loss, and difficult decisions that these brave volunteers face on a daily basis. Children are the silent victims of drug addiction, and I am so thankful that there was someone to stand in the gap for my son when he needed it most. Thank God I was able to, so far, God willing overcome my demons and get my son back into my life and me into His. He needs his dad. But there are so many parents out there that will be forever separated from their kids, I cannot even begin to know or understand what those poor children grow up thinking or feeling-knowing that their parents either couldn’t over come and get them back, or quite frankly, gave a fuck enough to try. I have actually heard on more occasions than I care to recall- of parents who simply chose drugs over their kids, and signed their rights to their kids away to continue their pursuit of self destruction and blotto. It breaks my heart.
But anyways, I was asked to come down and speak to these amazing difference makers. On Saturday afternoon from 3:00-4:15 P.M. Months before the conference, I was asked to think about my topic, and what kind of talk I was to deliver, and I did, I wanted it to be different than last year. I wanted it to be personal to me, and relevant to the overall theme of the conference. Now I normally don’t script my talks, as I don’t typically do too well with memorizing things, and I didn’t want to force some topic that I couldn’t deliver on. So, I just allowed God to speak into my life and nudge me toward something he wanted me to talk about. And He did. I’m going somewhere with this, I promise, but those of you who have been following for years know that I write like I talk, I write like I think. So I tend to ramble and back track without warning. See? Told you. But anyways, So about 45 days before the French Lick conference, I did a panel at the Valparaiso Police Dept. with some friends of mine from the field of mental health, addiction, treatment, and law. A gentleman that was on the panel with me, who I admire and appreciate very much went just before me, and he said something that took me WAY BACK. Now, I’m not one for statistics, or charts, numbers, or graphs- but when he said this it pricked my heart big time. Because he was talking about me. And he said, “Children who experience trauma are 5000% more likely to become addicted to drugs.” Five Thousand Percent. Holy Shit. That Makes a lot of sense to me. And I didn’t know it it that exact moment, but that was the seed that I needed planted, that’s exactly what I was to talk about at the CASA conference. MY TRAUMAS.
One thing that I know for sure, is that it doesn’t matter who you are, or where you come from. It doesn’t matter who your parents are, or what your upbringing was. It doesn’t matter if you have never done a drug in your life- Everyone is in recovery from something. Another thing that I have learned throughout my life, is that all of our wounds and pains, all of our “secret places” are all very much the same, but so very different. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I may not have done what you’ve done or been where you’ve been, but I have felt what you’ve felt. The circumstances, situations, and people I’m sure were much different, but I know what hopelessness feels like. I know what insecurity is. I know what it feels like to be lost. Everyone’s pains are different, and we as human beings are NOT allowed to say that someone’s trauma or pains are insufficient just because we have survived “worse”. Another thing that I think I know, is that for the most part, people become, even for a brief time, products of their environments. We become used to our environments. We adapt, we take on our life experiences. To some extent or another. I believe this is why they say, “you are the average of the five people you hang out with most.” I was no exception.
I remember, very clearly as I was talking to this crowd of 800 people down in French Lick, this very soothing calm come over me. It was kind of scary at first, but one thing that I have come to practice when delivering talks, is to know my audience. And this bunch here, boy have they seen it all. They’re the hands and feet respectively in their particular niche, dealing with hurt children. And that’s exactly what I am. Deep down inside, I’m a hurt little boy. God it scares the fuck out of me to get so vulnerable on the internet for all the world to see, but I swore I wouldn’t hold back, so pardon me while I collect myself and push through this. UGH. Before I really got flowing, hell before I even got up there, I felt like I was gonna throw up. Airing out my secret places to a bunch of strangers. What will I even say? Can I even get through a full 75 minutes just free style sharing? Oh boy, this could go really badly. But it didn’t. I believe that I am still walking in my purpose, and the growth and the experience, the service is in the uncomfortable. It still is scary though. Sharing these things. When I first got clean, I had a hard time sharing just every day feelings with people, and now here I am up here talking to the masses about stuff that I thought I had almost forgotten about. I guess that compartmentalizing is a defense mechanism or coping skill that I developed from an early age.
And one thing that I noticed, and I think that this is where I was going all along with this post, is that I got up there and I was telling these people “About ME”. It’s funny, because I actually had this revelation while speaking, they may have thought that I was kinda playing them a little, but I wasn’t. I am NOT my story. I am NOT my trauma. I am NOT my scars. I am not defined by the things I experienced in my life. Although as a child I was defenseless, and helpless to the things that happened, I am not now. It’s funny, this whole life thing. And how it can affect us. How it can shape us and mold us into who we are.
They say the past doesn’t change. But maybe the way we look at it can. It has for me. When I first got thrust into this whole speaking thing, I would talk to schools and churches, and various agencies, and the beginning was always very similar: “My childhood was a lot like yours, I love baseball and fishing and riding bikes.” Which is true to this day. But none of our lives are really a lot alike. We all face different challenges and feelings, we all face different traumas and pains. The things that I faced as a boy led to a lot of insecurity, which, ask Tiffany, I still struggle with to this day. It took like 20 years to form me, its not going away over night. Food and housing insecurities led to insecurities of self worth and love. Parental insecurities and family insecurities led to abandonment issues. Moving constantly and running from our problems led to personal insecurities, Who am I? Am I good enough? Am I lovable? Why does everyone I love always leave me? Is it me? Am I the problem? And so I carried these things with me for a long time, and sometimes I pick them back up because I am human and we all do that. But, what I’m thinking about now, is that all of these pains, these insecurities, these wounds and these scars, were my identity. The Badge that I wore to identify myself. This broken, wounded, lost, lonely little boy from Georgia. And then I found myself using drugs to fill that unfillable hole. That Void. It was as if I was on some journey of self discovery. Just kinda wandering alone in the dark bumping into everything I could, trying to find myself with Zero Fucking Direction. Just cut em loose and see where he lands type of deal. I was layer upon layer of false selves. On top of the broken kid from Georgia, the hopeless drug addict, on top of that, a person dying to quit using, and on top of that, a person dying to not feel so alone, and just be valued. And it all rooted in my secret places as a kid. So fucking interesting. Freud would have a fucking field day with my crazy ass mind. What a rabbit hole we just went down. But that’s the idea. Is that I never really had an identity. I always identified as what I had been through, not who I really was. And I think that’s why a lot of us addicts struggle with this whole stigma thing. And its because I have a serious coping defect. I use to change the way that I feel, to escape the wreckage in my mind, to avoid discomfort, to find relief, and now that becomes part of who I am. And onward we go, running from one horrible fucking reality to the next, Changing like a chameleon every step of the way. From the frying pan and into the fire. Running away from the broken little boy, to the deranged drugged out adult, and never finding anything. Clinging to memories that I swore to suppress, hoping this next pill or powder makes it go away, and encountering more and more horrible things, people, feelings and situations as I go. All the while collecting them like a nightmarish snowball headed down hill. Until all of a sudden I’m 25 years old: bottoming out clean, because I don’t have access to drugs to numb it away and I’m sitting in a jail cell actually having to relive and refeel everything that I have been running away from for so long, and holy shit- I’m a dope fiend, unlovable, no good, loser, junkie little boy from Georgia and I should just off myself because the only thing I have ever known to work, drugs, stopped working long ago and i just want the pain to go away.
I identify as what I have experienced. I identify as my wounds. My scars. My pains. My Trauma. But that’s not who we are. That’s not who you are. That’s not who I am. I think that in some twisted way, we put the stigma on ourselves, because we never really deal with the ugliness of active addiction until we get clean and start taking a look at ourselves. There is so much shame and pain inside of us that we have stuffed down deep, that when we actually try to get out and be a productive member of society, that we expect there to be some giant neon sign above our head every where we go, Like, “watch out here comes this piece of shit that was molested as a child, watched his mother beaten on a nightly basis, turned over to foster care, and then turned to drugs to deal with pain of it all, committing felonies and robbing people because the pain of not having the drugs was less than the pain of feeling what a low life, unlovable peace of shit we are.!!!! watch out for this one, and definitely DO NOT GIVE THEM A JOB, because they’re just too ugly of a person and no one wants them around.”
That’s what shame feels like.
And it all happens in the blink of an eye. The human mind and heart are truly remarkable and fragile places.
And I share these things with others openly because I have to. I feel led to. I truly believe that one of the most powerful things we can share with one another is our pain, our secret places. People want to know that you understand. They want to hear that wordless language of empathy. They want to feel understood and valued. They want to know that they too can overcome and that they don’t have to identify as what they’ve been through. That they can rewrite their story, or help someone else rewrite theirs. If you want to truly help someone the most important thing you can do is listen to them.
I always felt ashamed of who I was. I felt ashamed of what I’ve been through. And I wore that shame like a badge. The very shame, hurt, guilt, insecurity, and fear that I thought I was avoiding, and hiding, shone like a dark mask on my inward self. And it’s who I saw when I looked in the mirror. And it still comes back once in a while. But it is not who I am today. And it doesn’t have to be who you are any longer. One of the greatest quotes I have heard to this day is: Recovery Demands Exposure. Now this doesn’t suggest you go screaming from the mountain tops all of your trauma and secret places to anyone who will listen, but it does suggest this: You gotta tell someone. A burden shared is a burden lessened. Expose that shit, name it, own it, burn it, blow it up, and get back to rewriting the story that god intended you to. Everyone loves a good comeback story. Everyone loves an underdog. Go fucking be one.