Staying Present

Anthony sat on the floor, mindful of his breath, getting ready to meditate. But there was no room. He was all squeezed up by the front bars, his knees below the bunk, his back bent sideways, and he cursed the damn cell for being too small. Less than five feet away, on the back wall, was the steel toilet, and he didn’t want his face anywhere near that shit, so he had no choice but to be uncomfortable where he was.

In general population your commode was sparkling clean. Hell, dudes even stored food in them like free people on the outside with their insulated beer coolers. But here in the Segregated Housing Unit—known to one and all as the SHU—it was nothing but snitches, “J” Category crazies, and stone cold killers like Anthony doing “administrative detention” and none of them, Anthony included, kept a tight house. Especially seeing as how you couldn’t get any quality cleaning products. Correctional Officers considered them contraband, meaning they could be used as chemical weapons. Last thing a CO needed was some overly depressed sociopath drinking bleach or tossing Ajax in another maniac’s face.

Still, Anthony wanted to get his meditation on. He’d been stressing like a motherfucker and thought if he could just get in a fifteen minute sit he’d be all right. Only Rebel, Anthony’s cellie, had a different agenda and wouldn’t shut up for one minute, let alone fifteen. His newest outrage, another example of disrespect; the oatmeal crème pie was missing from his bag lunch. Which of course elicited an ongoing verbal rampage.

“Know them mutha-fuckas in the kitchen stole it, ” said Rebel.

“Just a damn cookie,” said Anthony.

“How can ya say that Ant? Oatmeal crème’s my fave, bro.”

There was no consoling Rebel. He wasn’t going to just say “oh well” and forget all about it. In fact nine months from now when they finally released him from the SHU, he’d take his time getting reclassified and then reassigned to food service. Until he too was part of the assembly line putting together the bag lunches every convict got for their mid-day meal. And then when Rebel looked down that long line of men, each with their own integral assigned dietary segment in their hands, that when put together made up a state certified nutritious 750 calorie meal, he peeped cookie dude all the way at the end. Feigning he’d run out of plastic sporks, Rebel made his way to the boxes of supplies that just happened to be at the end of the line. But as he got up close to the shelves containing dry goods, instead of grabbing a new box, he sided up next to cookie dude and said, “hey, motherfucker.” While slipping out a slim piece of steel he’d managed to get loose from one of the food carts, and for the last four nights scraped against the concrete floor of his cell until it was as near pointed sharp as it was going to get. In one fast fluid ultraviolent movement that everyone else in the room was going to swear they didn’t see, he drove that honed piece of steel through cookie dude’s neck, killing him dead. No matter that the jobs were rotated and it wasn’t the same man that had failed to put the little cellophane wrapped baked good into Rebel’s bag lunch that day, way back when he was in that cell with Anthony.

“Fuck with my oatmeal crème, you die,” he said as they led him off in handcuffs, his kitchen whites covered in blood. Everyone else just staring at him—because like who really cares that much about a damn cookie.

But right now Anthony didn’t know any of that was ever going to occur and besides he thought Rebel weak, not to mention a dumbass, so he just told him to shut up and went back to staring at the cement slab wall on the other side of the bunk.

“Gots to get my nirvana on,” he whispered.

“Gots ta get my oatmeal crème,” replied Rebel.

Anthony’s eyes were half closed. Deep in meditation he was letting go, feeling an overwhelming sense of relief from his anxiety. He saw himself leaving prison, dressed in street clothes, his mother hugging him, an unknown child at her feet. In the center of his chest grew an emotional knot. Anthony was doing life without possibility of parole. He knew that moment would never come. Returning his concentration to his breath, he let the images fade, and wiped the tears from his eyes.

Anthony’s life had been a series of disappointments and this recent prison sentence was no different. At his trial he had just barely escaped Death Row. Murder One was no joke and the DA was hell bent on making Anthony another trophy in her collection of high-profile-low-life convictions. But in their over zealous bravado the cops had really fucked up Anthony’s case. The investigation was shoddy, witnesses coerced, and the evidence was so tampered that even the judge got indignant. Anthony’s PD had all but said it was a mistrial, and it would’ve been if Anthony’s DNA hadn’t been all over the deceased.

“Ever heard of gloves?” asked his PD.

It took the jury 20 minutes to return a guilty verdict. Anthony’s life would’ve flashed before his eyes had he been paying attention. Instead he just concentrated on the DA’s tight skirt and round ass and knew that was the last piece of trim he was ever going to see.

Then it was shackles, a one-way ride on the grey goose up to SQ, and 60 days in R&R. No cigarettes, no showers, no chow hall, just bag lunches and 24-hour lockdown with a noise level that would block out a 747 taking off.

“Winner winner, chicken dinner, we gotta room with a view for you,” said the CO. “Next thing smoking to Folsom, roll it up.”

“Oh, you a funny man,” said Anthony.

Anthony didn’t know shit about Folsom, and that afternoon he sat on the bus in leg irons handcuffed to a serial killer from Tulare and watched the San Joaquin Valley slowly roll by. It was twilight and one could even say a bit beautiful. The sun setting behind them as the bus drove through a small town. A dark building with a huge wall rose up in front of them. It was old school creepy and looked like Dracula’s castle. And something inside of Anthony’s stomach twisted a little. But it was back to another month of R&R before he’d see the joint for real.

His first day in Gen Pop Anthony hit the yard dressed out in his pressed blue bonaroos and freshly scrubbed white Adidas. He was cool, he was popping, he had his stroll down to perfection as he made the handball courts. And then some J-cat going all spaz-mode for the ball stepped backwards to make a long shot, and stomped on Anthony’s brogues. All the dudes in the clique went silent as Anthony inspected the offending scuff on his shoes. He had been up all night with a state issue toothbrush getting those fuckers ready and in one second flat whacko boy had fucked them off.

Anthony’s anger grew up inside of him and it was on. The J-cat never saw it coming. Anthony has been in the SHU ever since, and Rebel was there waiting for him.

Opening his eyes, Anthony is stuck with the futility of it all. Amongst the constant screamed conversations that bounce off the cellblock walls there is a silence in his heart.
Originally published by Out Of The Gutter December 29th, 2016

This entry was posted on Saturday, April 1st, 2017 at 9:29 am. Leave a comment. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

Pardon Me: Even On My Worst Day, There’s Something To Be Grateful For

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.
Originally published as “The Day I Was Pardoned for Committing Armed Robberies” by AfterPartyMagazine February 9th, 2017

This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 1st, 2017 at 12:32 pm. Leave a comment. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

The Stupid Shit We Say to Newcomers

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.”
Originally published as “The Stupid Stuff We Say to Newcomers” by AfterPartyMagazine September 26th, 2016

This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 1st, 2017 at 12:31 pm. Leave a comment. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.