I pulled my last armed robbery 18 years, three months and 29 days ago—but who’s counting? It was a totally botched job. I was too high on drugs and afterwards the cops came to my house and arrested me. When I look back on that time in my life, I don’t recognize the person that I had become. What rational person really goes into a bank with a loaded gun and demands money? Usually not well-educated-middle-class-alternative-arty-type dudes, but that’s who I was. Only I had slipped deep into heroin addiction and life had become as they say, unmanageable.
After an agonizingly uncomfortable weekend withdrawing from heroin in county jail, I was brought before the judge for my arraignment on two counts of armed robbery. I was weak and disheveled. I hadn’t brushed my teeth or showered in days. I was dressed in orange and there were chains wrapped around my waist and ankles that were attached to the handcuffs on my wrists. I imagined that I looked like the caged wild animal that I felt like.
Totally uninterested in my surroundings, I sat in one of the chairs along the wall of the courtroom reserved for those in custody. Every one of us looking quite guilty in shackles and handcuffs, biding our time before we were called in front of the judge. On the other side of the railing were our family and friends. I tried to see if anyone was there for me, but it was so crowded I couldn’t tell. None of my family had bailed me out over the weekend, so I doubted if they’d be at my arraignment. The fact that my bail was a million dollars, and no one had that kind of money, or trusted me not to abscond, didn’t stop me from being resentful. Didn’t they know how horrible this was for me?
When it was my turn the bailiff grabbed me by my arm and dragged me over to the podium in the center of the room facing the judge with my back to the spectators. A Public Defender I’d never met stood next to me. A man across from us said he was the District Attorney. I really wanted a cigarette and wished this was over so I could go back to my jail cell. The judge said, “Mr. O’Neil, you’re being arraigned on two counts of robbery in the first degree, section 211 from the California penal code. How do you plead?”
I looked at the Public Defender who was looking at me like he didn’t know what species I was. Then I turned to the DA who was staring at me like I was fresh meat. Then I looked at the judge and said, “Not guilty?”
I thought that was going to be it and the deputies would now pack me off with all the other degenerates back to county jail. But the DA stood up and said that he was seeking a three strike, twenty-five-to-life conviction, and I was like, “huh?” The judge asked me if I understood the charges.
“Are you fuckin’ kidding me?” I responded.
When I eventually did make it back to the cozy little cell I shared with an alleged serial killer, I realized my life was over. Drugs had taken me down a road there was no coming back from. And that night, when the rest of the cell block was asleep, I actually cried for the first time in many years. The next day out on the exercise yard, a caged-in piece of blacktop with a bent basketball hoop, I vowed that I was not going to spend the rest of my life in prison. I didn’t know how that was going to work exactly. But if there was anything I could do, it was not going to happen.
After a year and a half of plea-bargaining I was finally sentenced. I was convicted of two felonies—two strikes. The DA told me that I was simply not the kind of drug addict that was going to go straight. That it was only a matter of time before I committed another felony and that would be strike three. “This way is so much more cost effective then a long drawn out trial,” he said.
I did my time in prison, but I had a release date, which is more than most of my fellow convicts had. When I got out on high control parole I checked into a drug and alcohol rehab. I didn’t exactly know how rehab worked, but I knew that if I stayed out on the streets, the DA would get his wish and I’d be doing life. I’d like to tell you that the first rehab worked, but it didn’t. It took another stint in another rehab before I found the rooms of Narcotics Anonymous and started working the 12 steps with a sponsor. It wasn’t easy at first but I kept at it, the alternative was too horrific a future to not follow through.
When I completed treatment I got a job working as a counselor at another residential rehab. It was a scary facility for parolees and the mentally ill straight out of jail. I worked there for years, giving back to a community I had only taken from before. I’d like to think that my work there made a difference. It was definitely a humbling experience for me, and ultimately working with recovering addicts and alcoholics kept me clean as well.
Eventually I went back to school and got my masters degree. A few years later I moved to another city and began teaching college. In between semesters I wrote a memoir about my past and getting my life together. Last year it was published and I went on a national book tour to promote it. I now teach at two different universities, I facilitate writing workshops, I’m a contributing editor for a literary journal, I write for numerous publications and once a week I run a creative writing group in a recovery center. My life has turned into something I never imagined it would be. I continue to attend meetings, work the steps, sponsor others, and be of service—and I can truly say that I have never been happier.
On September 24th, 2015 I stood in front of a judge in Department 100 of the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center, Superior Court of California for Los Angeles County. I had been working with my pro-bono lawyer to request my felonies be expunged and my record cleared. Only the State of California doesn’t grant expungement for felonies where the offender served in state prison. So we were trying for an alternative. I had filled out all the required paperwork, written out detailed explanations taking full responsibility for my part in all my crimes, submitted letters of recommendation and copies of my diplomas and other evidence of self-improvement since 1997.
The judge looked at my paperwork, asked the DA if there were any objections and when there weren’t, signed a California State Certificate of Rehabilitation, which automatically applies to the Governor of California requesting a full pardon.
“Congratulations, Mr. O’Neil,” the judge said, “and good luck.”
Standing at the docket with my lawyer, looking around at the DA and the lawyers arguing the fates of others—it all felt surreal. I got a little teary eyed and experienced an emotional level of calm and wellbeing I’d never felt before.
Last week the certificate arrived in the mail. It may not be a full pardon, yet. But it is recognition of all the work I have put in to changing my life for the better. Today I’m a far cry from that drug-addict-armed-robber sitting in a jail cell, who thought his life had ended. And yeah, I feel pretty damn grateful to have survived all of that and to come out of it not only alive, but a better human being.
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This post is dedicated to Natasha Deón without her hard work and support I would probably have never even attempted to navigate the complexities of California’s Criminal Justice system, nor would I have been able to write this essay. Please, if you haven’t already, show some love and buy her amazing novel GRACE.
Originally published by AfterPartyMagazine November 6th, 2015
I go to a lot of meetings. I tend to go to the same ones, see the same people and listen to the same shares. I do this because I know what to expect, and they know what to expect from me. There’s a familiarity in the incestuousness of repetition. It’s almost like going home to your insane family.
Yet every once in a while I get the crazy notion that I need to switch things up and hit another meeting or two. I usually come to my senses fairly quickly. Because when I venture out of my familiar territory, I almost always run into the dreaded “recovery” stereotypes that made my first few years of meetings almost unbearable.
In the beginning I had a hard time with the concept of “principles before personalities.” Overzealous Big Book thumpers would push my buttons, rigid rule adherers caused me major anxiety and chronic relapsers sent me into a judgmental free-for-all. But nowadays I have fine-tuned my bullshit radar and instead of letting those people and their behaviors get under my skin, I gravitate to those that do not make me cringe. In other words, I make a point of hanging out with the “winners”—those that actually have a program of recovery—and in doing so have found the support I need to stay off of drugs and alcohol.
Now I don’t usually tell people what to do, or give out unsolicited advice, but I’m going to share with you how to recognize these folks so that you too can avoid them.
1) The Over-Sharer
You know those people; they’re the ones that have no problem telling the entire meeting way too much information about themselves and what they’re going through. They usually sit up front by the speaker so that they’ll get called upon to share. Before the speaker has even finished qualifying, they’ve got their hand raised. Then they’ll stare down the secretary until they get picked to share and unload all their dirt. After a few meetings you’ll know more about them then you do about yourself. The only problem is that they never do anything to actually change their lives. Somehow they have missed the part about “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Run away or expect to hear them yammer on about the same issues for eternity.
2) The Bible Thumper (not to be mistaken for the “Big Book Thumper”)
These poor souls are easy to recognize because they usually have their “recovery” literature in some weird faux leather book cover that’s strapped to a bible. Most likely they will begin every share with something like, “First off I would like to thank my Higher Power who I choose to call Jesus Christ.” They will then mention their church, their pastor or priest, and how the only way to stay sober is to get on your knees and pray. After the meeting they will endlessly pester you to come to their place of worship “just to check it out.” Now it’s nice that they’ve found what works for them, only nowhere in any 12-step literature does it say that you have to follow a organized religion—in fact it clearly states “God as we understood Him.” Sounds like a personal choice to me. So when someone starts shoving his or her brand of “salvation” down my throat under the guise of recovery, I feel like I can smell their crack pipe just minutes away from being lit. I have never met anyone that stayed clean and sober with just religion. No matter if they were a Buddhist, Jew, Muslim, or Christian, a religious program is not a program of recovery.
3) The Excessive Highlighter
Ever look over at someone’s recovery book and see that every damn sentence has been highlighted with that same day-glo yellow marker? Yes, there’s a ton of pertinent information in the literature, but to highlight every word is nothing short of overkill. Can you say OCD? Same said for the “dictionary definitioner”—these people look up every word they read as if the definition is somehow going to unlock the “recovery” mystery. I could be wrong here, but how about you just read the book and do the steps with your sponsor?
4) The 13th Stepper
Even people outside of recovery are familiar with this term for smarmy men and women with a lot of time under their belts that prey on a newcomer’s vulnerability. Under the guise of “support,” these people strike up a relationship solely for the purpose of having sex. They are not your friends, nor are they following the principles of recovery. If you still need another reason to judge them, keep in mind that the arbitrary “no relationships for the first year” rule was surely instigated because of them. Really, you can’t work on your issues if you’re busy trying to not come off as undamaged goods to that hottie with a lot of time that keeps inviting you out for coffee after the meeting. So if that cool old timer is coming onto you after you’ve just introduced yourself as a newcomer, tell that predator to keep it in their pants. Not to state the obvious but having sex with someone with double digit sobriety will not keep you clean.
5) The “Prescription Drugs Were Not My Problem” Dude
We’ve all met him. He’s the one that smokes medical marijuana, or takes a ton of Xanax because a doctor prescribes it. He usually starts off his spiel with some line about how bad illegal street drugs are, but these other substances are “medicinal” and they’re what keeps him sane. Sadly, dude is in denial, like big time. He has just switched addictions and unfortunately he will be taking along anyone who starts to believe his misguided ideas. You can usually identify him because he’s slurring his words. This is what we refer to as “Keith Richards clean.” So dude, just do us all a favor and stop lying about your clean/sobriety date because you’re using.
6) The Sponsee Collector
You know the mega-sponsor that thinks the more sponsees he or she has, the better the program of recovery? I’m not talking about the legitimate awesome sponsors with longterm sobriety that naturally attract sponsees. I mean the folks with only a medium amount of sober time who actively collect people. “I’m your sponsor,” you’ll hear them say to a newcomer. But that new sponsee needs to probably get in line and take a number because the sponsee collector is too over extended to actually sponsor anyone correctly. You can spot them because they always share about the amazing step work session they had with their 20 sponsees just before the meeting.
7) The Over Committer
Having a meeting commitment is awesome and a really good way to get involved. However having a commitment at every meeting you attend is a little overboard. If someone is a GSR at the Monday meeting, the secretary for Tuesday, Wednesday’s treasurer, the literature person on Thursday, H&I at the county jail on Friday, chip person at that really large Saturday meeting, and the coffee maker for the Sunday book study, well, she’s over extended herself. Usually this is someone that doesn’t want to actually work a program. Though they’re actually help out a lot, just don’t follow in their footsteps or you will never get your step work done.
8) The In the Rooms Dater
I have a friend that dated so many women that he had to switch fellowships. He didn’t want to leave—he actually really liked the fellowship he was in—but he once told me there was nothing more terrifying than walking into a room where you have had sex with 90% of the women and they all hate you.
9) The Judgmental Writer
You know this guy. In fact you’re reading his stuff right now. He thinks he has this whole thing figured out, and for him, maybe he does. Just don’t take his word for it. Go out there and see what works for you. Maybe oversharing is the right way for you to get it all out so you can move forward? Maybe you need to date an entire meeting, or get a ton of commitments, or find “your lord and savior”? Who knows? Definitely not you, and until you explore every possibility and decide for yourself, you’ll never know.
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Originally published by AfterPartyMagazine April 14, 2016
It was at one of my first NA meetings, when I was newly clean off drugs, feeling really awkward, and all I wanted to do was use. I had just walked down the wheelchair ramp into the large basement meeting room of the church and, recognizing no one, immediately wandered over to the table with the coffee and cookies. There was a large woman setting up the paper cups, stir sticks, little packs of sugar, and that horrible powdered nondairy creamer. I went to grab a cup but before I could, the large woman handed me one.
“Hi I’m Melanie,” she said. “You new?”
“Thanks,” I mumbled as I filled the cup with steaming hot coffee from the metal urn. “Um, yeah, I’m new.”
“Welcome,” said Melanie. “You never have to use drugs again.”
I wanted to tell Melanie to shut the fuck up. I wanted to scream that I loved using drugs, I just didn’t love going to jail, or getting abscesses on my arms, or being homeless, or the million other consequences from using that I couldn’t think of but had lived through too many times over the years. Yet the best snappy retort I could manage was, “Uh huh. Is that so?”
“I know it’s hard right now,” continued Melanie. “But stick around. We’ll love you until you learn to love yourself.”
Her words were so foreign I couldn’t comprehend them. Learn to love myself, I thought, what the hell does that even mean? All I wanted to do was to be left alone, but at the same time I wanted sympathy and understanding. It was the typical conflicting duality of addiction at work in my brain; I need a hug, but don’t touch me.
Still I couldn’t understand why Melanie, a complete stranger, was being so nice. Plus all my relationships with women had been about sex, not love, and any kind of talk about love, self or otherwise, with a member of the opposite sex was really awkward. Feeling incredibly self-conscious, I avoided her attempts at eye contact, grabbed a handful of cookies and ran away without saying another word.
Over the years I would hear about self-love at meetings and my reaction would always be the same: I can love you, I can love the entire universe, my cats, my girlfriend, my family, even my damn car, but when it comes to loving myself…well, that was a deal breaker.
There was something just too foreign about the concept. Like that astral plane one achieves by mediating in an ashram for 20 years, it felt out of my league. I had no idea how to achieve it, and really I didn’t even want to try.
Back when I was a client in rehab, I was required to attend a few sessions with a therapist and when we stumbled onto my lack of self love, she insisted that every morning I do positive affirmations where I was to look in the mirror and tell myself what a great person I was and that I deserved love. The one time I tried it, I balked. It felt so disingenuous that I couldn’t do it. My usual morning mantra consisted of a much different sentiment: “You’re fat, you’re stupid, you’re ugly and nobody loves you.” There was no room in that crowded stanza of negativity for loving myself, so I just gave up and never really dealt with it again.
Yet today, a decade-and-a-half later, I was at a meeting and this scrawny girl who said she was detoxing from Suboxone was reading from Just For Today and there it was again: “We’ll love you until you can learn to love yourself.” Just hearing those words “love yourself” gave me great pause, and after I stopping judging the scrawny girl for not getting herself addicted to a real drug, I thought about what that concept means to me now. Even though listening to it being read out loud is still uncomfortable, it is no longer as confusing or just an ethereal goal that I will possibly obtain at some point in the distant future.
These days, through the principles of recovery, whether I’m conscious of it or not, I actually practice self-love. On a physical level, I take care of my body. I see my doctors and dentist on a regular basis. I work out at a gym and run or ride a bike daily. Twelve years ago, I stopped smoking and became a vegetarian. A few years later I started meditating, and recently I have begun the hard work of addressing my eating disorder and unhealthy obsessions with food.
On a mental level it goes much deeper. When before I was in too much fear to make any internal changes, dismissing them as being wussy or stupid, somewhere in all the step work and meetings, I began to grasp the concepts that made no sense at the time. Practicing small principles such as maintaining boundaries, being of service to others and giving from a place of caring and not ego built up my self-esteem, even when I didn’t realize it. After a while it all became second nature and while I no longer think of myself first and act accordingly, I do take care to not cause more turmoil by grabbing for those meaningless moments of immediate-gratification that two minutes later I’ll be regretting.
Those principals of recovery might seem like small things, but actually they’re huge and it’s what keeps me clean. Of course, I still need to work on my adverse knee-jerk reaction to hearing the words “self love.” When that scrawny girl at the meeting said those two words I actually shuddered, and I know that’s because deep down inside I still do not feel I am worthy. Maybe it’s the negative body image and personal baggage from my eating disorder, or perhaps I’m just not capable of saying that I love myself out loud. But, like taking care of my health and maintaining my self-esteem, I’m working on it.
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Originally published as “How Does a 50-Something Rocker Guy Learn to Love Himself?” by AfterPartyMagazine March 25, 2016