You Can Borrow My Higher Power

I often hear people share in meetings that a Higher Power is a tough concept to deal with. Like many folks, when I first came into the fellowship, the “God” parts of the 12 steps repulsed me. All my life I resented the hell out of what I felt was the hypocrisy of organized religion; with their unyielding stance against abortion, premarital sex and homosexuality. Not to mention the creepy “he’s always watching” aspect of a god on high. I really didn’t want to be damned to hell for my sins, (not that that ever stopped me from committing a plethora of them) but wanting an avenging merciless god in my life just never made sense. So why would I want to become involved in a religious organization?

At the time, everyone I talked to assured me that wasn’t the case, AA wasn’t religious, it was spiritual. Which made about as much sense as saying drugs weren’t addictive, they were just habit forming. Worse, everyone always told me to read the “We The Agnostics” chapter in the Big Book, because all my answers were there. Unfortunately all I got out of reading it was something like, you might not believe in god now, but you will. Which didn’t instill a lot of faith in me.

Later on, I jumped ship to NA because their literature and concept of addiction appealed to me more. Although, before we go any further let me back that up by profusely stating I am not someone that talks badly about another fellowship. I found what works for me. If another fellowship works better for you, then I support you wholeheartedly and I hope you do the same. So please, do not mistake this as some angry diatribe about why NA is better than AA—because it isn’t.

Even though I changed fellowships the NA steps and literature are just as full of that damn god again and it caused me to have a resentment. Certain aspects like the capital “H” in him and the BIG “G” in god could send me off on a cantankerous denunciation against religion. Even though there was no pretense that I had to worship Christ, there was still an undue amount of “prayer” talk. Sadly this kept me from working the steps for over a year. Unfortunately that year was horrible. I was a resentful newcomer judging everyone. It wasn’t until I was in so much emotional and spiritual pain that I literally said “that’s it, I’m done,” and began working the steps.

Now I had no problem with Step One. I was powerless and my life was truly unmanageable. I had lost everything. My family had practically disowned me, and due to committing crimes to pay for my addiction to heroin, I had been to prison. In fact, if I ever got busted again I was going back to do 25-to-life behind bars, yet I still wanted to use. So yeah, that step was pretty easy and I totally agreed with it.

Then I got to Step Two where it said, “a Power greater than ourselves,” and I got all twitchy again. Here was that damn “Higher Power” crap raising its ugly head, which I was more than convinced was a thinly veiled reference to God. Although I did appreciate that it was labeled a power and not a god, so I gave it a go. First listening to other addicts at meetings talking about the fellowship being their Higher Power, or nature, or the ocean, or… and this is the best thing I ever heard, “anything can be your Higher Power as long as it isn’t you.” And I was like, “now that makes sense.” Besides at the time I was on parole with the State of California and at the whim of my parole officer I could be sent back to prison. Uh huh, now that was a power greater than myself, so okay, next.

But then I was faced with Step Three: “We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him,” and I freaked. There it was again, that “God,” and “Him” and well yeah, I hit the recovery skids and I wasn’t sure I could continue my step work. I think I actually told my sponsor that I’d have to reevaluate this whole “recovery deal.” I was totally disillusioned and I dropped into a prolonged state of depression. Luckily, I hit a lot of meetings looking for answers. One night at a particularly gnarly one in the depths of San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, I heard a homeless man describe his Higher Power as a naked goddess with three breasts (he was really adamant about the three breasts part). I thought he sounded crazy and his Higher Power absurd, yet the rest of that man’s share was spot on perfect. The clincher was, at the end of the night, he left serene and calm to find a place to sleep in the streets. I headed home to my three-bedroom apartment, in a trendy sought-after neighborhood, totally angst ridden with a symphony of self-doubt playing in my head.

It was not long after that that I worked this “Higher Power” issue out. I don’t do God. I do a god of my understanding. Which is a power greater than myself. I do not have to name this power. It does not have to be an entity. It is more encompassing because it is the universe, and when I turn my will over to my higher power I am in rhythm with the universe. Also it doesn’t matter what your god is. If you chose to call it a name, more power to you. You can even capitalize its name. I do not care. Because your Higher Power is not my higher power and it will not keep me clean.

I know this sounds incredibly simple. But the reality is that recovery is simple. All you really have to do is do the right thing and be of service to others. Everything else is just worry and regret. I spent too much time stressing about the small things like language and labels, when all I had to do was turn it over. Not so strangely the minute I actually did, something as mundane as reading the word “God” stopped bothering me. So if you were like me and the god thing was interfering with your recovery, just let it go and borrow my higher power. That way you can stop trying to define it, until you have one.
Originally published by AfterPartyMagazine April 26th, 2016

This entry was posted on Saturday, October 1st, 2016 at 9:50 am. Leave a comment. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

Fan Mail From The Inside

Patrick O’Neil was just another name being thrown around by this world class namedropper in my Creative Writers Guild. He meant nothing to me, just another name in a long list of names that Boston, captain namedropper, kept regurgitating week after week in our group. Patrick this, Patrick that, Patrick’s a punk rocker, Patrick’s an ex-junkie, Patrick wrote a book. Next thing I know Patrick is coming to speak to our group. Okay, now I’m interested. I knew Boston received a copy of his book and unlike 99% of the members of my writers group I wanted to be hip to the dude’s book so I got it and read it.

Gun Needle Spoon, Patrick’s memoir, wow! It’s a brutally honest telling of a tragic life as a junkie. His life is a horrific fatal car accident you can’t just look away from. From the beginning, a disconnected youth with no place to call home, a father leaving, and mom’s suicide attempts. It is clear he felt lost and abandoned. He struggled in academics striking a blow to his self-esteem. Only then did he find solace in sugary treats. Unfortunately, this led to extra pounds, body image issues, and an eating disorder. All these troubles of youth and still to come, punk rock, addiction, crime, and prison. Patrick’s story sounds all too familiar to us prisoners. I now look forward to Patrick’s arrival.

Patrick made it out to CMF and he’s for real. A genuine dude with a fuck you if you don’t like it attitude. What I liked most is he’s so casual and easy to understand. When he began to share with us his experience writing a book, I thought there’s no way he can fill the time. Not only did he fill the time, but some of us skipped dinner just to enjoy his company a little longer. Patrick came to see us prisoners and he shared openly. His personal experience enlightened us to the pro’s and con’s of writing a book. He inspired all, made us laugh and smile, and was a joy to listen to. I’ll never forget that scumbag.

Punk Rock Billy
California Medical Facility
Vacaville, State Prison

This entry was posted on Thursday, September 1st, 2016 at 8:07 am. Leave a comment. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

My Last Armed Robbery

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.

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

This entry was posted on Monday, August 1st, 2016 at 9:39 am. Leave a comment. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.