I’ve been through a lot in life. More times than I like to remember, I’ve fallen, left in a puddle of despair, sobbing through heartbreak. More than once, I’ve considered ending it all. Well, not in the finger-on-the-trigger kind of way, but in the I-can’t-go-on way. The stage of grief tucked between depression and acceptance.
Somehow, I’ve always bounced back. Crawling out of the mire, I managed to find some new lease on life, some new reason to go on, some meaning in all the turmoil. Tenaciously, I clung to the belief that there is a reason, some higher power connecting it all together, some lesson to be learned in everything that happens. To the chagrin of those I’ve harmed, I seem to always come back from the edge. Some believe unscathed, but I bear the internal scars to prove otherwise. Nonetheless, I’ve always come back.
This time, it feels different. This time, I find myself simply treading water. My audience mistakes my frantic strokes for swimming, as though I have once again found my way back, determined to succeed, head down heading toward the finish line. What they don’t see is that my treading water is a reaction to paralysis, a shrug to a life that goes on for no apparent reason. I have said it for years, but it rings more true now than it ever has before: I go on because I must. I must, because I go on.
I go on without joy. Without sadness. Without fear. I feel only anxiety, an underlying worry that I will be left without. Without friends, without family, without purpose. Treading water until the inevitable happens, a fate to which we all are destined, but one which I cannot no more hasten than I can prevent. A past I regret, a future I watch with emotionless apathy. I try to find a way to live in the moment, but honestly, I’m too tired from treading water.
Before, I’ve always found a way to come back, to push through, to survive. This one has taken the wind out of my sails. This one has left my resolve tattered and blowing in the wind. The words from Old Man River echo in my brain: I gets weary, and sick of trying. I’m tired of livin’, but afraid of dying.
Perhaps it’s karma. Touché, karma. Touché.
Thomas Kuhn wrote of the paradigm shift. He spoke specifically in terms of scientific revolutions, when a current paradigm is disrupted by a plethora of contrary evidence, resulting in a shift to a new paradigm. Though it seems that new paradigms come along in a moment of clarity, in an “ah ha” moment that heralds the dawn of a wiser, more advance way of thinking, the reality is that paradigm shifts generally happen after a long, arduous, painful crisis of dissonance as long held beliefs, rock solid ways of thinking are beaten down mercilessly bit by bit, argument by argument. In the end, the new paradigm feels comfortable, the old paradigm left in tatters like ancient folly, the tortuous path between the two forgotten like a bad dream.
Though he described paradigms shifts in terms of scientific advances, the concept is nonetheless applicable to the plight most of us go through at various points in our personal lives. The moments when what we thought we knew, what we accepted as reality, what we obdurately maintained as right and wrong come crashing down around us, leaving us in a cloud of dusty confusion, grasping for any sign of comfort and reassurance. Those moments are the culmination of a steady barrage against the very core of our foundation, the very base of our emotional and intellectual existence, our fundamental paradigms.
My paradigm has been challenged for years. And like most of us, I have fought to protect my paradigm with everything I have, despite the challenges life has thrown against it. Today, these past few weeks, these past couple of years, I have watched my paradigm unravel, crumble, become so much nonsensical din. Now I find myself in the midst of the uncomfortable chasm, that vertigo that comes when one paradigm collapses, but another has yet to form to take its place. All I know is that the old paradigm no longer works. But I don’t know what the new paradigm looks like.
This paradigm shift has to do with so many of the basic tenants of my existence. The answers to questions about what it means to be successful, what it means to be happy, what it means to a good person, what it means to be human and to be a human being. I thought I knew the answers to these questions. I thought it was pretty clear, a solid set of core values to which I could cling during any raging moral storm. Yet now those answers seem like grade school philosophy, simple and silly, a naïve perspective. A paradigm that simply no longer works.
And so I begin to build a new paradigm, to understand these basic questions in a new way, in way that I have never imagined before. I turn inward, toward some sort of inner peace that excludes external manifestations of accolades, approval, reward. I honestly don’t know the way. Maybe it is there, perhaps in some ancient texts from fringe philosophers, teachers, moral leaders, eastern religions. Or maybe it is a well-trodden path that I must discover and walk down for the first time alone, struggling to find what others could easily show me, lessons that many others have already learned.
Whatever it is, I don’t like it. I don’t like being left to twist, to blow in the wind, struggling to find a foothold. But what choice do I have? Life continues to give me one more day, and thus I have no choice but to keep trying. I go on because I must. I must, because I go on. In the end, we all end alone.
Two men meet. They become good friends. Both working towards a Master’s degree, they share a common goal of going on to get a PhD. At the time, it’s a pipe dream, but it’s one that bonds them in solidarity. They are also share the challenge of having a felony background. Both are determined to get beyond this, to strive toward redemption, to attain their degree and be called “Doctor.” The years pass.
The challenges come, and they go. Seems for every step forward, their checkered past sets them two steps back. But still, they persist, each in his own way, toward their goals. They support each other, encourage each other, lift the other up when despair weighs him down. The friendship strengthens.
Then one finishes, leaps forward in a moment of glory, hooded at last. He is no longer “mister,” he is now “doctor.” A proud moment shared between friends. Achievement for one, encouragement for the other. Perhaps it IS possible to overcome after all.
Tragedy strikes. One is cast out, set back not just two steps, but ten years. In one inglorious meeting he is dismissed, disgraced, and discarded. Clearly, not all sins are equal. He hangs his head. Perhaps this time it is too much. Perhaps now is the time to quit.
The successful one realizes his dream and then some. Accolades, offers, engagements—everything he’d worked for and more. He offers his encouragement to the fallen one, at last realizing that some mountains are more difficult to climb than others. The bonds of friendship strain, but they do not break.
Anger overtakes the fallen one. Angry that he cannot attain the same level of success as his friend, and angry that his friend has attained such success. And angry at himself for his selfish anger toward his friend. What right does HE have to be successful? What right do I have to be angry? Jealousy is such an ugly color. I do not wear it well.
Two friends drift apart, both reaching out to cling to the tatters of a dream, of a goal, of the idea that they would both overcome. Life propels them both on, the maelstrom of daily reality consuming each. Still, the bonds of friendship hold, perhaps tenuously, but nonetheless they hold.
I am ashamed of my selfish anger. My friend will never truly know how proud I am of his success, how happy I am the he achieved his goal, how much I would like to be just like him. The anger will pass as the shifted paradigm settles. When it does, the love, the bond, the friendship will be as strong…no, STRONGER than it was before.
Have you ever had so much time on your hands that you simply don’t know what to do? Since losing my job a couple weeks ago, I’ve found myself almost paralyzed with apathy and boredom, all the while lamenting on how much I need to do. I have a dissertation to work on, I have a ton of things that need to be done with the organizations I volunteer for, my apartment needs cleaning, I need to be looking for work, and there are a myriad of little projects I’ve been putting off that I should be working on. And yet, I find myself watching re-runs of The Dick Van Dyke Show and M*A*S*H.
I suppose part of it can be attributed to depression over my current situation. Seriously, did anyone expect that I would lose my job of seven years and not suffer some depression? Perhaps two weeks is long enough to pine away in self-pity. Perhaps it’s time to rouse myself from my solipsistic stupor and get back into some sort of routine. I don’t know. I don’t know if there is a time-frame for the stages of grief. I just know I’m getting restless. I need to be doing something.
This blog is part of that something. I realize few, if any, people actually read this blog, but for me, it represents not just a catharsis, an outlet for my thoughts and emotions, but it also represents doing something.
There. I have done something today. Now on to the rest of my list.
It’s been almost two weeks since the wheels last fell off. In no way am I “over it.” I continue to mourn the sudden, unexpected, and undeserved loss of my job, my community, my fellowship, and my last seven year’s work at the university. I miss it terribly. And I’m still anxious about my future.
At the same time, I am coping. I have moved on from waking every morning uncontrollably sobbing to waking up each morning wondering what I will do, what my future will look like, struggling to find meaning in it all. I’m not a religious person (been there, done that). I don’t acquiesce to “it’s God’s will.” And yet, I do concede the possibility that there is something greater, some force beyond our comprehension, a bigger picture if you will. I think of it as a universal energy that binds us all together, and that creates and recreates paths for us, that simultaneously gives us free will even as it guides us toward a destiny. I know. It’s a haughty way of saying maybe some good will come from all this after all, right?
I had a job interview last week. It was through a placement agency. I wasn’t excited about it. Oh, the job is a good one, and I would love to have it. But fresh off of my humiliating ejection from the university, I just didn’t know if I could bring myself to sit in front of another human being and admit the sins of my past. Nonetheless, I went. The first thing the woman did was to hand me a form authorizing a background check and tell me if selected, I they would do a criminal background check. My heart sank. I was so tempted to leave the form on the table and just walk out. But I didn’t. I filled out the form and went back for the interview.
The questions started out innocuous enough. Tell me about this job, tell me about that job, tell me about your experience. But then she asked me to tell her about my current situation. I took a deep breath, looked her in the eye, and admitted that I would not pass a background check. I told her the story of the university, of my attempt to be honest and upfront, and of my devastating rejection six weeks into the job. I told her what type of offense it was, and when it occurred. I steeled myself for the sour expression, the piercing evil eye, the slight shake of a disapproving head—all the reactions I’ve come to expect at my shameful confession. Instead, she told me that this particular employer only wanted a clean background (no felony, no violent misdemeanor) going back seven years. Seven years! My offense is almost 15 years old. Could I pass a background check going back seven years? Of course I can! She barely batted an eye as she told me she would send my resume to the company. I looked for any sign of dismissal, and if it was there, it was so subtle that I could not detect it. And trust me, I’m pretty good at detecting rejection. (Wait…that doesn’t sound like a good thing, does it? I should have to think on that.)
What I decided as I pondered this experience is that maybe I have to reconsider my wholesale condemnation of the “ride it ‘til the wheels fall off” philosophy. Sure, it hurts to tumble to the ground, reeling in humiliation, mourning the loss every time the wheels come flying off. But it’s been said, “that which does not kill us makes us stronger,” and I have yet to die from the wheels falling off. (Could happen, I suppose.) So what if I take a job and then get terminated because of my background? At least I will have worked and made some money. At least I will have had some experience. At least I will have tried.
I guess as long as I’m me, I will worry about the wheels falling off. My daughter calls it pessimism. I just call it realism. But I’m not going to let fear keep me from trying. I go on because I must. I must, because I go on.
In my last entry, I mentioned the inevitable crash that results from the “wheels falling off” of an opportunity. Here I talk a bit about that crash, about the toll it is taking on me. I admit upfront this blog entry is probably aimed more toward personal catharsis than toward enlightening the reader. I suppose it may come across as wallowing in self-pity. Perhaps it is. Perhaps I’m entitled to do that for just a little while. Honestly, I don’t know.
After serving three years in prison, I decided to go back to college. I began working towards my master’s degree in 2004. Since then, I have built my world around my relationship with my colleagues, many of whom I now count among my dearest friends. I believed I had found some measure of success, despite the horrible sins of my past. Those who were close to me knew that I was on the sex offender registry. Few ever asked me for any details, choosing instead to accept me for how they knew me today.
When the “wheels fell off” of this week, I lost everything. Of course, I lost my source of income, along with my insurance, benefits, and financial security. This has left me frightened, afraid of losing everything I own, including a place to live. I have spent 12 years since being released from prison building a decent life for myself, and it sickens me in my gut to think of losing it all.
But my financial ruin is only the tip of the iceberg. Underneath that is the indescribable sorrow of being cast out of my community, of abruptly losing contact with people I have grown to know, respect, and care about. Granted, I am not irreparably separated from them. I am still a student, I am still allowed on campus, I can still reach out to them. But the paradigm has shifted in a way that I can hardly even describe. Where once I saw myself as a colleague, a respected member of their community, a trusted friend, now I feel like a fool, a phony, a charlatan who tried to fit it, only to fail miserably in the end. In an instant, I went from being an insider to an outcast. Yes, I realize this is only in my own mind, a misconstrued reality I’m constructing for myself. I’m struggling. Struggling to make sense, struggling to land on my feet, struggle to find a reason to push on.
I wake up in the morning crying on my pillow. I pace the floor, tears streaming down my face, fear permeating my soul, weighed down by a woeful sorrow so real that my body droops. I long to be with friends, family, people who know me and like me anyway, people I’m comfortable around. Instead, I withdraw, wrap myself up distraction, afraid to reach out. I’m depressing right now, I know. Who wants to be around someone so gloomy and sad?
It’s a strange sensation, watching other people’s lives swirl about in fast motion while my own life seems to be trudging on in stop-motion. It’s like watching a movie. I see all the action going on, I understand what people are doing, I hear them talking, but I’m so totally disconnected from it that it doesn’t even seem real to me. None of this seems real to me. I feel so empty inside right now. Everything I do is a motion, propelled my years of repetition, the memory of what I’m supposed to do. But none of it means anything. It’s just what I’m supposed to do.
I’ve been here before. I’m crashed hard like this more than once in my life. Intellectually, I know that the only way to the other side is through the chasm. But seriously, how many times can a person trudge through the mire before he decides he’s just too tired to do it again?
Earlier this year, I wrote about the perpetual precipice, the trauma of constantly standing at the edge of potential disaster, a situation those on the sex offender registry know all too well. It takes so little to push one over the edge of the proverbial precipice, so little to upend one’s life so completely, so little to send one reeling into the abyss. I am sad to say that this week, I experienced such an event.
Last month, I accepted a full-time permanent position at the university I have been attending and working at since 2008. I was upfront about being on the registry before I even began as a grad student in 2008, and I was honest on the application for a full time job when it asked about felony conviction. My status as an RSO was well-known to the university, well-known to the department, and well-known to those at the university that knew me well. Like most of us, I rarely shared the grisly details of my offense, and I was almost never asked. People seemed to accept me for the way I am today, rather than rejecting me for what I did in my past.
You can imagine my excitement when I received the phone call offering me the job. Decent pay, great benefits, and a chance to work at a place where my background issues were already known. It took over a month between the interview and the time I was made an offer, and I assumed that this was because it took a while to do the background check and get everything cleared. I was so thrilled to be given a chance.
My first day of employment, I was emailed two forms to sign. One was an authorization for a background check, the other stated that my employment was contingent on the successful completion of the background check. I couldn’t believe it. They waited until AFTER I quit two jobs and AFTER I already started to do a background check? And they were just NOW telling me my employment was contingent? I talked to my HR representative who assured me that since the department was already aware, it wouldn’t make any difference. The department, she told me, was the one who would make the ultimate decision.
I’m no stranger to stress. Or anxiety. Or worry. I have yet to meet anyone who is on the registry who doesn’t experience SOME level of stress, anxiety, and worry. I’ve been on the registry now for over 10 years, but until now, I’ve never experienced actual panic attacks.
I used to think that panic attacks were just the way people described their anxiety, perhaps when they were dealing with sever anxiety. But then I experienced the reality of a panic attack for myself. My heart raced as though I were having a heart attack. I found I couldn’t breathe. My world closed in on me, suffocating me, sending me spinning in a freefall of dread. And I couldn’t control it. All I could do was to wait for it to pass. Which it did. Eventually.
I recently started a new job. No, this isn’t what brought on my panic attack. I’ve been working part time at the university for seven years, so working there full time now was not that great of a stressor. My commute, however, is now two and half hours each way. Far longer than I had anticipated. But, no, that didn’t send me into panic mode, either. In fact, the commute, now that I’ve gotten used to it a bit, isn’t so bad. I sit on a train for an hour and 10 minutes, so I actually have an opportunity to read, get some work done, or write a blog entry, as I’m doing right now.
But because I started a new job, and because my commute is so incredibly long, I decided to think about moving. In the past 12 years, I’ve only moved once. It was just last year that I finally took the plunge and moved out of my late mother’s house where I had lived since my return from prison. I got very lucky. A co-worker had a great friend who had a place to rent, and this co-worker made the introduction and even handled the initial disclosure about my background issues. Any move is stressful, but all things considered, this move went about as well as any move can. I was lucky.
I thought perhaps I’d have similar luck this time. I mentioned to a co-worker in my new job that I was thinking about moving, and she immediately put me in touch with an organization she works with that helps people find apartments in the town she lives in, about seven miles from where I work. She made the introductions for me and even the initial disclosure to this organization. Turns out, though, that all this company really did was to provide me with listings in the area, and then send me off with a hearty, “Good luck.”
I actually went to look at two of the apartments. One was in an excellent location and was a decent apartment in a decent price range. But unlike the two-flat building I currently live in, this one was in an apartment complex. And that’s where the panic attacks began.
Disclosure, in my mind, is a given. I can’t imagine trying to rent an apartment without disclosing my background to the potential landlord. Oh, I know people do it. I’ve talked to a number of people who have told me that they believe it’s nobody else’s business. But for me, I couldn’t be comfortable knowing that at any moment the landlord might find out and make trouble. No, I’d rather put my cards on the table right up front than to live with the uncertainty
And it’s not like I haven’t had to tell people about my complicated past before. I’ve done it many times. Employers, co-workers, friends, colleagues. Despite my fear and apprehension, it almost always turns out for the best when I tell people. To be sure, they are disconcerted to learn my secret. They certainly don’t like or approve of what I did. But they know me today, and they judge me based on that rather than on my past.
So why am I so terrified to tell potential landlords? Why does the very thought of it bring on a panic attack, cause my heart to race, force me into labored breathing? I suppose my over-active imagination is part of it. I imagine an angry landlord rising from his or her chair, ordering me out the office, telling me that they don’t rent to perverts like me. Understand, this has NEVER happened to me, despite the many times I’ve disclosed. And yet, the fear that it could, lingers like a persistent cough after a bad cold.
I got a job interview. One I’ve been hoping for. One that I’ve been working towards for months now. One that could result in a great job opportunity. As you can imagine, I’m very excited about it.
Almost as soon as I got the phone call, however, the panic set in. This particular interview will be done by a committee of four or five people. Most of those on the committee already know about my background. But at least one does not. Immediately, I began to fret about how I would handle the “background” question should it come up during the interview. What would I say? How will I phrase it? How do I be honest without making them think I’m a monster, or that I’m minimizing, not taking responsibility?
And it’s one thing to tell people face-to-face, one at a time. I’ve had to do that many times. And most of the time, it worked out well. People who know you can be quite forgiving and even understanding. But to have to talk about this shameful part of my past to a group of people, one whose job it is to judge me as a candidate for a job, well I’m honestly not sure how to handle it.
My “fight or flight” instinct kicked in unexpectedly, and I found myself wanting to turn down the
Everyone experiences traumatic, life-altering events. The sudden loss of a loved one, the unexpected layoff from work, the unthinkable announcement that your life-partner has found someone else and is leaving you. These are powerful events that tend to pull us out of the spin of our normal daily existence, causing use to reel, to flounder, to panic, almost as though we were drowning. These are shattering events that plunge us into deep depression, cause us to question the purpose of life, bring on uncontrollable crying spells, and evoke panic attacks. These tend to be the lowest points of human existence.
Fortunately, for most people, these events are rare, occurring only a few times in life, with an opportunity to recover between them. Recovery time is critical, because people need a sense of stability in their lives, a basic belief that tomorrow will be quite similar to today, the certainty that things will get better. People who teeter on a perpetual precipice of disaster struggle to hold on to reality, find little reason to hope, and worse of all, give up on caring.
Sometimes, as a registered sex offender, I feel like I’m teetering on the precipice of disaster way too often. The most significant event happened a couple years ago, when on the eve of completing my 10-year registration period the state invoked a retroactive law to change my status to “predator” and put me on the registry for life. This was one of those events I wasn’t sure I’d recover from. Perhaps I haven’t completely. If I allow myself to think about, I will feel the wave of depression start to roll over me.
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