Merry christmas to every one. I have not spoken to you since Thanksgiving but it was very important for me to at least wish everyone a Merry Christmas. Much is going on with my life and I will share the evolution and perspectives with you over several parts in my Christmas series.
Two years ago, I was sitting in jail on Christmas. I had no windows. I had no one except the men with whom I shared Christmas. Instead of sitting with the men at the tables to eat the Christmas dinner, I grabbed my tray and walked to my bed and cried a lonely cry. There were no windows in the men's dormitory of the Peter Pitches Detention Center of the Los Angeles County Jail system, commonly known as Wayside to the inmate population. There were only skylights and from my bunk I could look up into one. I could see a bright sunny day. The sky was blue and I saw an Air Force jet streak past my view leaving a vapor trail behind. It was a beautiful sight, a sight of freedom, and I clung on to that feeling for dear life. The vapor trail was at first sharp and crisp as was my feeling of freedom. Slowly it began its dispersing process and as it evolved in that process, so did my feeling of freedom. Finally the trail disintegrated and, of course,there was no evidence that it ever existed. In my heart there was no evidence that I had ever been free. That feeling was not only a function oflanguishing in jail, but the years of substance abuse that preceded it. No matter how my life appeared on the outside with the facade of success with titles and suits, I was shackled to dependency. Freedom in many ways was a stranger to me and my search for it was like the endless quest for the Holy Grail.
I found it all the more tragic because my legal problems started AFTER I finally succeeded in overcoming drug use. “Why now?” I kept asking myself. I had worked so hard and battled for so long in a lonely fight that finally ended in victory. I deserved to enjoy it.
Jail was followed with a court ordered stay at a facility on Skid Row. Of course I thought the judge had ordered me to a drug program. But that was not the case. And even though I did everything the program told me to do, I was told, seven months later, though I could leave, I still had to go to another program for 52 straight weeks.
Whenever I looked west from Skid row, I could only see the Great Wall of the Office Skyline. It separated the reality of my existence from what I viewed as freedom and dreams. Skid Row was the dormitory cell. The North-South Skyline dividing line of the office skyline was the row of bars in the skylight that reinforced the fact the freedom was so close but so far. And of course the other side of the skyline laid freedom.
Of course, many other physical things were in place to reinforce the idea that I was in one world and there was another one far beyond my reach. Seeing friends of mine on television, for one reason or another, was a big one. It practically drove me crazy. I felt like I could not dream about that world. That world meant freedom and I was far from it in a physical sense. Everything around me reminded me of that.
I had to survive. I had to keep going. I could not concentrate on the victory of overcoming drug use. I had concentrate on making it through each day emotionally and endure the test of time. I was on a mission and nothing was going to deny me. I had to feel freedom and it was going to be a feeling that I had never before felt because what defines freedom as a teenager or young adult is completely different from what defines it for a middle age man. What defines imprisonment however can be the same and I shed those shackles of psychological dependency and thus rid myself of that nature of imposed psychological and physical imprisonment.
Sure I had the courts limiting my options and they seemed to extend for a lifetime. But people kept telling me life would change. “Just keep going Walt. At least now you know what you must do. There will be no other surprises. Just keep going. “
I found that program. It was slow but each week I knew one thing. Each week I would get closer to the end. I started classes on November 29th of last year. It was rough. I had to pay for it. I had no money. I found the money collecting cans and bottles. I paid my initial fees. Each week I paid something. Each week I went to class. I cussed and swore at a City Attorney friend of mine, Jose Egurbide. I cussed and swore at General Jeff, of Dlanc.
Oh yes, before I catch hell from both of them, I whined a lot also. Boy did I whine. Jose let me whine for a second or two then he told me he could not take it. Jeff was not patient on the whining bit. He lit into me so fast it made my head spin. Each of them challenged me. Each of them pushed me. Each of them challenged me to break the most important moat that separated me from success and any vision of creative success. IT WAS MY MIND. I was allowing the courts and what people may think of me to define my future. It was easier to do that than think beyond it. I had lost the ability to dream. I was used to imprisoning myself anyway. I just found a more subtle way—a convenient way to stay stagnant. Why? The reason was simple. That is what I knew. It was my known quantity.
“I do not want to hear one thing out of you, Walter” declared Jose, former point man in Skid Row for the Safer Cities Initiative. “You are going to do every one of those 52 classes and you are not going to miss one week. You have your whole life ahead of you. You can do anything. You stopped doing cocaine Walter and you never went back to it. You can do anything.”
“Stop with that ole bullshit, man. You can’t let these people or the courts stop you. I am not going to sit here and let you talk yourself into defeat!, barked General Jeff. Both knew I was not going to go missing in action. Both knew I was not going back to drugs. They did not know how long I was going to hold on to the defeatist attitude. Nor did I.
I had to kick that. I had to fight back against the mental moat. Each week I went to class. Each week I made one more step of progress. Each week I took a swing at that giant redwood tree blocking my path.
I had to stay focused. I did not want to move. Everything was convenient: the courts, the transportation lines, the emotional support, my room and eventually the job.
I kept chipping away at that. I finally called one friend. A month or two later I called another friend. I was scared of rejection but I fought through it.
I had a victory in one area of life. I had a victory in another area. Of course those victories came in spurts after hard work. You know the stories of my path already. Those victories are not the point of this post. But each week I knew I would make progress. Time would elapse and I would go to class. I would get one step closer.
During the process. I slowly felt a confidence developing. I guess I was looking at the little victories that had been going on. They were across the board life categories as I had embarked in the beginning to fix my life in all areas. I wanted to clear the way so I could grow and be creative in my growth.
I think it was when I moved to my present residence. I started to focus more on what I felt inside after each completed class rather than getting closer to the end of the obligation itself. Each week I developed more confidence. Each week I noticed that more and more of what had faced me was gradually moving behind me, in addition to the other challenges and victories and confidence that came from it. Roots of confidence were building inside of me. Each week, fresh water, nourishing that confidence, showered onto me with each passing class.
I began to notice that I was not calling Jose or General Jeff to sooth my insecurities about the future. When moments of doubt would surface, I would take a deep breath and say “Walter, you have been through this a thousand times. The feeling will pass. Ride it out.” And it would pass. Perhaps it took take a while but it would pass. “Ah yes, FREEDOM.” I recognized that over a period of time I started training in the triathlon, I was building my ability to be free. It started with the obvious dependency of drugs. Yet over a period of time, even while sitting in jail, I was learning, across various platforms and categories, the respective formulas for being free.
Along the way, I was learning new skills of independence, skills that I had took for granted and neglected to nourish them. Soon they wilted like a plant in the hot sun that goes without water. I had the pleasure of observing myself like a parent who marvels at watching his child grow and learn. I was marveling at myself. And that feeling of despair, of being on a deserted island of misery, was dissipating.
Greater efficiencies in recognizing short term confidence lapses kept me on track. Increased confidence kept me striving. And each week I got closer to the end.
I knew I was building a broad foundation of confidence a pyramid where the pinnacle would be Maslow’s phase of actualization. I had to go through the process. I realized that I had the confidence that came from hard work and perseverance. Every day I knew I did everything I could to be the best I could be. I worked on every single category of necessary development. The pieces of growth were coming together. They came together within each category and soon I was integrating and blending the categories for greater efficiencies. Economics of scale in all categories increased.
My first move from a shelter was to a room on San Julian St. I would visit the roof top and look west. I viewed my physical distance from the core of skid Row to the Skyline as a measure of progress. I was closer to the buildings. I had the feeling I was almost within grabbing range. However, mentally, I was still light years away from understanding. There was a huge mental moat that separated me from freedom, a moat as formidable as the bars in the skyline that separated me from the clear blue skies that I could see from my bunk in the county jail.
I moved to my present location. And yes, I was even closer to the Skyline. I was closer to the border of Skid Row. I realized that over a period of time, it made no difference to me where the physical border was. Mentally, I was crossing the moat. I was building my own bridge across the murky waters of mental imprisonment.
On Decemer 19, 2008, I went to my last class. It was over. I reached the end. I was free. I no longer had to do anything to fulfill the court requirements. I also realized that I no longer worried about if the felony would be reduced to a misdemeanor or not. I was going to make it. I had built a foundation of various sorts that insured me a future. I knew it. I believe it. I earned it.
Early this Christmas morning, I decided to look up John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success. I found a colorful picture of it and studied each building block. I read them. I never really studied them when I saw them as a young adult, in corporate training sessions, where the instructors made the pyramid a standard handout.
There it was. In front me was everything I had experienced from the moment I jumped into the pool at USC to train for the triathlon, purging my dependency on drugs, to crossing across the moat of mental and emotional freedom.----the path to self acceptance. FREEDOM. I had to develop each part of me as a team member and integrate each part of me into a team and push forward. I had to smile.
I looked it at the buildings on Christmas morning. The sky was not crisp and blue. It was cloudy. It was dreary but to me it was bright. It was cheery. Physically, I had not moved any closer to the buildings that used to be the Great Wall. However there was no more mental moat. I crossed it. I was embedded in the buildings. I was a part of them. I was on the other side. I was free. I stood there and looked at them and realized how grateful I was to have had the privilege of going through this journey, forging my mental steel in the raging fire and crucible of Skid Row.
I made a copy of the Wooden’s Pyramid of Success and it is now the background of my desktop. I stood in the window and looked at the cloudy Skyline. It was beautiful. I was out of the storm. I thought of everyone who helped me along the way, from the person in jail who kept screaming at me to keep writing, to the person on the street who screamed at the demons inside of himself. I learned from them all.
It no longer mattered whether I left immediately or stayed a while to do some work. I knew my blog was successful in that it helped me and it is a model for those to follow who are on that quest for freedom. It is not the elusive Holy Grail. It is attainable. I proved it. I knew without a doubt one very important fact.
I had graduated from the University of Skid Row.
I walked out of the door. I went to see my mother It is Christmas.
MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE.