Wednesday was like any other day; I was running late to work, scrambling for a parking place, had five back-to-back meetings with difficult clients and a staff meeting that went on for entirely too long. By four o’clock I’d just about had it, and if I wasn’t in recovery I would have been parading out with the rest of humanity to hit a bar for happy hour for that “over the hump day” celebratory cocktail (or, for me, 20).
However, these days I’m not only in recovery but I also work part time at a rehab, so I don’t even have “normie” co-workers to entice me into cocktail hour (not that I’m easily tempted, but you know what I mean). Instead, I just packed up my meager belongs and walked the three blocks to retrieve my car to head home.
My job is located in a highly-populated neighborhood in Los Angeles, and finding parking is always an ordeal—even when I’m not running late. There have been a few times when I’ve left work not able to remember where I had parked, and walked aimlessly until it came back to me. This time, when I got to where I was sure I had parked, there was another car in that spot. After a few strolls around the adjacent blocks, I concluded that my car had either been stolen or towed—the latter being more likely because my car is old and undesirable. But even with this knowledge what was I to do? It’s not like I’m versed in either situation, and after a few minutes of stress bordering on a panic attack, I pulled out my phone and called the number listed on the numerous and confusing city parking signs posted throughout the neighborhood.
“West Hollywood sheriff’s department,” they answered.
“Yes, I’m wondering if my car’s been towed?” I tried not to panic.
The helpful, yet surly peace officer gave me a number for the “parking enforcement” department, who I then called, where an equally surly voice told me that, yes, they had towed my car—although this person wasn’t sure exactly why. Now I needed to call the tow yard.
“Why did you tow my car?” I demanded.
“It was in a tow-away zone,” he replied.
Standing on the block where my car had been parked I looked down a long row of parked cars that obviously hadn’t been towed and then glanced up at the parking sign. There was nothing on there about this being tow away zone.
Then it started to rain.
“You coming in to get your car?” He was getting impatient.
An overwhelming rage erupted in my soul and I wished for days gone by where I could slam the phone down for that satisfyingly abrupt disconnect, but instead I mumbled “Yes,” and stumbled toward a busy intersection while fumbling with the Uber app. It was now rush hour, raining (which in LA is close to Armageddon) and traffic was at a standstill—plus the Uber app showed me that we had moved into “surge fare,” meaning three times the normal rate. This day was just getting better and better.
Defeated, I walked to the closest bus stop and waited. When the bus finally arrived, I made my way to the last seat, an uncomfortable aisle seat in back. Soaking wet, I sat there feeling overwhelmed and depressed. I didn’t have the money for whatever the tow and traffic ticket was going to cost (which caused me to mentally calculate how close I was to being destitute) and all my financial fears rose to the surface. Then my phone rang.
The area code indicated that it was a Sacramento, California number, and I don’t really know anyone in Sacramento—but what the hell, my day couldn’t get much worse, and so I answered abruptly, “What?”
“Hi, is this Patrick O’Neil?” a woman asked.
“This is the Office of Governor Jerry Brown, we’re calling to let you know you’ve been pardoned.”
Suddenly an overwhelming warmth erupted in my soul and I felt incredibly calm. For once I was at a loss for words, my eyes misted over and a tear ran down my cheek. Looking up, I noticed a tough-as-hell Cholo staring at me across the aisle, when our gazes intersected he diverted his eyes. Crying on the bus was probably not acceptable in his world—nor would it have been in my former world.
Twenty years ago, I made the bad life-changing decision to commit a series of armed bank robberies to support my heroin habit. At the time, I was mentally and spiritually as low as I could go: strung-out, desperate, in fear, self-centered and deranged. I saw no way out from where my addiction had taken me, and I decided that my life was over and whatever I did didn’t matter as life just wasn’t worth living.
I was eventually arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison. Then one day, on the yard of San Quentin, I realized that unless I made some drastic changes, that this would be my life from now on. Upon my release, I entered rehab and started attending NA meetings. When I graduated from treatment, I became a drug and alcohol counselor. Then I went back to school and got my Master’s degree in creative writing. I wrote and published a memoir, began teaching college and continued my involvement with my fellowship.
Without my noticing, the days turned into months, the months into years and my life continued to evolve into the most wonderful existence beyond anything that I could have dreamed of—except my criminal record kept following me. Teaching gigs and appointments to full professorship eluded me. I applied for positions and the application always had that dreaded “have you ever been arrested” box that needed checking—and when I did, I never heard back. I’ve also been denied apartments, volunteer positions and bank loans.
Then, two years ago, an amazingly generous pro-bono lawyer took on my case. After a mountain of paperwork, six months of waiting and a court appearance, I was granted a Certification of Rehabilitation by the State of California which automatically made me eligible to apply for a Governor’s Pardon (“automatically” meaning another mountain of paperwork and another year of nervously waiting).
So on a day when I wasn’t feeling grateful for anything that has been so graciously given to me, a phone call made my immediate problems disappear.
“Mr. O’Neil?” she asked after my long, silent pause.
Jolted out my memories, I told the woman about what a bad day I’d been having, and how I was on a bus to get my car from the tow yard. She told me how sorry she was to hear that.
“You just made my day,” I said.
“Is there anything else I can help you with?” she asked.
“I know this sounds cheesy, but would you give my best to Governor Brown?”
Since my first day in recovery, I have never once regretted making the commitment to change my life. I am eternally grateful for all that has been given to me, and in return I try to be of service to others, carry the message to addicts (and alcoholics) and practice these principles in all my affairs. It has been a long journey, but worth it. And the pardon for my past behavior is another in a long line of gifts that confirms I am doing the right thing and that I’m not alone.
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Originally published as “The Day I Was Pardoned for Committing Armed Robberies” by AfterPartyMagazine February 9th, 2017
When I started out in recovery, I was testing the waters. I came late to meetings so I didn’t have to deal with what I felt was insufferably happy small talk between members. I didn’t want to hold hands, I didn’t want a hug and I sat in the back of the room, glaring at everyone, wondering why no one was reaching out to me. After all didn’t you all say that the most important person in the room was me? At the time I couldn’t correlate that it was my horrible attitude and demeanor that kept everyone from approaching me. But hell, I was there—in a meeting—and I came to get help. Couldn’t everyone see that?
I was a typical self-absorbed addict. I thought the world revolved around me. So why should recovery be any different? Yet sitting in the back of the room afforded me an unobstructed view of all that was going on. I may have been self-centered, but I was also a fast learner and very observant. I quickly sussed out the chips, the sobriety anniversaries and the not using in between deal. I understood that I needed to work the steps, read the literature, and find a sponsor—not that I did any of those immediately. But what I had the most trouble with, what really confused me, was what people shared. From the guest speakers to the secretaries, trusted servants and my fellow members in the audience—people in recovery said the weirdest shit.
I could overlook all the bumper sticker sayings like, “Easy Does It,” “One Day at a Time,” and “Keep It Simple.” While slightly patronizing, these statements made some sense. I needed to slow down, do the next thing on the agenda and not make it complicated. It was the tired and trite clichés that mostly annoyed me, and had me questioning whether or not I could actually stay clean. When I heard some guy with 20-plus years say, “The longer I’m in recovery, the less I know,” I flinched. You’ve been sober for two decades and that’s the best you can come up with? So what you’re saying is recovery makes you dumber—really? This just didn’t make sense, nor did it instill a lot of faith that the 12 steps actually worked.
Then there was the woman that said, “Relapse is a part of recovery.” And I’m all, “Yes!” Because in my mind she’d just given me the green light to go relapse. It was now okay if I go use. Well, as long as I came back and said I was a newcomer again. I thought anyone with more time than me (which was practically everyone) was incredibly amazing, and that if I just hovered in their hemisphere I would get recovery through osmosis. Obviously they had figured this scam out, because up until now everything in my life was a scam of some sort, so why should getting clean be any different?
I also remember the first time I heard, “My worst day sober is still better than my best day using.” At that very moment in my life I couldn’t see it. I had a ton of what I felt were “good times” using drugs and I wanted to get high really badly and relive them again. In all actuality this was the worst my life had ever been. I was homeless, penniless, weak from withdrawal, unhappy, tired and resentful. That all of that was of my own making due to my addiction didn’t matter—of course all of that was someone else’s fault—it’s just that a statement like the best day/worst day didn’t ring true. When it was so causally thrown out and folks around me nodded their heads in agreement, my internal dialogue started pointing out the various reasons this program wouldn’t work for me. Throw in all that talk about the “shitty committee,” the “pity party,” a newcomer’s “pink cloud” and that annoying “Don’t leave before the miracle happens” and I was about ready to scream. I didn’t do cute before I got sober, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to be doing it now.
Perhaps the worst part was all the God talk. I had a really hard time accepting that I needed to have a power greater than myself and that power had to be called God with a capital “G.” My first AA sponsor had me read the “Chapter to the Agnostics” part of the Big Book, which basically said, “You might not believe in God now, but you will.” Which really didn’t help, in fact it had me worried I was in a thinly veiled religious cult. When I jumped ship to the less bible-quoting fellowship of NA I still had a resentment with the literature’s insistent referral to all things “Him” and “God.” And then at an NA meeting I heard, “Let Go and Let God,” I just about lost my shit. There was no escaping it.
Of course all of this had more to do with being a newcomer than what people were actually saying. Back then I wasn’t capable of putting “principles before personalities.” I judged everyone harshly, including myself. As I gained more clean time, what people said annoyed me less and less. Today I rigorously practice the spiritual principles of honesty, open-mindedness and willingness. I am more accepting of others, but I have never forgotten how it felt to be a newcomer and my initial reaction to what I heard in meetings. You will never hear me utter “It was a God shot,” or “Fake it till you make it,” or even “Take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth.” Instead when I share what I am going through, I stay away from the cute, and talk about how my solution is always in the 12 steps. I may not be the most sterling example for the newcomer, but I try. After all, “We only keep what we have by giving it away.”
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Originally published as “The Stupid Stuff We Say to Newcomers” by AfterPartyMagazine September 26th, 2016
2016, what can I say? You were a dog from hell, you were the best thing that ever happened, you were a combo of both that had me stressed out and hopeful. So much upheaval and change occurred that I barely had time to contemplate a reaction and instead I just went into autopilot. More than once I found myself heading toward some “unknown” destiny repeating the mantra, “there’s nothing I can’t handle, there’s nothing I can’t handle, there’s nothing I can’t handle…” And you know it turns out that there’s nothing that I can’t handle. Which is much better then in the past when I just avoided everything (although I admit I still haven’t been able to read an entire newspaper, or watched any political summary of our upcoming administration’s deplorable self aggrandizing and inhuman political atrocities). But the harsh reality is that the universe in a constant state of flux and nothing stays the same, no matter how hard we wish it to. So here’s to you 2016 as I once again share a little gratitude for all that has transpired.
After seven years of trudging away in the educational trenches my part time (in salary), but really a full time teaching position (in how much time I put in) abruptly ended and I was left scrambling to figure out how I was going to make a living. Really I’d been wanting to do something different for a long time. I was burned out and slightly disillusioned with teaching at a community college. But I was pulling in a paycheck and probably would have just stayed, too fearful to make the change. Luckily I still had an even more “part time” second job facilitating groups at an inpatient rehab—and you know what they say, when one door closes another opens—and a part time position opened up and I was given the opportunity to combine writing with recovery while utilizing my teaching skills and my former drug and alcohol counselors chops. I’m now a clinician/writing therapist/group facilitator and I conduct one on one writing sessions with individual clients and facilitate educational recovery groups. It has been ten years since I worked in the recovery field and I have to admit that I really missed working with addicts and alcoholics—well, at least the ones that are trying to get better—half my damn students at LAVC were stoned out of their minds, but that’s another story.
I turned 60 this year, something I thought would never happen – yet here I am. No other birthday was this hard. I’m not talking about the shallowness of vanity or worrying about being youthful physically. At 60 you cannot escape the fact that you are old, no matter what stage of denial you are in: 60 is the new 50’s; you’re as young as you feel; it’s just a number; blah, blah, blah. You’re not middle aged, or having a mid life crisis – because there’s no “mid” involved here. I am not mid way to 120. Nope. So yeah, I’m that much closer to my death, which sucks as I have so much to do before that happens—but all that really means is I don’t just get to sit on my ass and relax.
Last year, due to the hard work of Natashia Deon, I was granted a “Certificate of Rehabilitation” by the State of California – which automatically made me eligible for a Governor’s Pardon, only “automatically” means, a mountain of paperwork, letters of recommendation (thank you, you know who you are), and a year of waiting with fingers crossed. The Friday before Christmas Governor Jerry Brown pardoned me—which is like winning the lotto—I actually broke down a cried.
Jenn and I have been living together now for over a year. It was a really big move for the both of us. But oddly it seems like we were just deciding where the couch was going to go in our living room and then we were signing the next year’s lease… Which obviously means that the year went by so easily that us being together was meant to be, and somewhere in the middle of it all, I proposed—uh huh, yup, we’re engaged, with a wedding date yet to be set. Best decision I ever made.
I finished the first draft of my novel. My car died several deaths. Jenn’s car was totaled. Jobs were lost. Debts were incurred. There were several trips to the ER. A big vet emergency to the tune of a few thousand—but a really sick cat we almost lost is healthy and busy ignoring us as usual. A ton of friends and family stayed with us. I read at numerous events, guest lectured at several universities, and was asked to coordinate the Los Angeles chapter of the Why There Are Words reading series. I taught several online courses at AULA’s I2P (and still do), and the good folks at PEN USA allowed me the opportunity to mentor a really amazing new writer, Jian Huang, for the Emerging Voices Fellowship, whose talent and energy were so contagious that I was forced to look at my own writing practice and up my game (hence the first draft of my novel).
And last but not least, yesterday, January 8th was my clean date (sober date for you AA’ers) and I got to celebrate it with Jenn and our two lumpy Maine Coons, Jagger and Shepard. I know I’m writing about 2016. But I couldn’t have done any of this, or gotten through any of the hard times, without being in recovery for the last 16 years. A big THANK YOU to all of you for being in my life. Just knowing you all has been amazing and supportive.
Here’s to 2017. Believe it or not, I’m looking forward to what the future holds.
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Art Work by Joel Landmine