The following is what I wrote for a magazine who heard of my story and requested a small, self-written feature. I wove my macro-level story in with the idea of what creates kindness and compassion for others. People aren’t born altruistic or compassionate. They are either raised or made that way.
by Daniel Reichwein
Drug-dealing parents busted in a raid, bad foster homes, child abuse, sexual abuse, a negligent and hateful adoptive family, working as a gravedigger, and a failed suicide attempt while growing up. After growing up, years of homelessness living out of a bag while in a shelter, the street, or a tent, multiple arrests and incarceration, police harassment, bipolar disorder that ruined over half of my 20s, failure despite ample ability and opportunity, and the incessant feeling that I never fit in with people.
A friend remarked that I was “such a kind soul” as I doled out Christmas gifts to the friends I made last year during an internship helping DC Central Kitchen’s Culinary Job Training program for the unemployed. My reply to her was simple: “Miraculously.”
Miracle is the only descriptor for the concern and kindness that I now have for others when I have learned from a world of neglect, hatred, self-gratification, exploitation, misery, and isolation. It’s the only word that comes to mind as I relive the loneliest I’ve ever felt – when the 16 year old me was ready to give up on life, tried and failed, and nobody even noticed.
I often thought to myself “Why me?” as I experienced those tragedies. The thought that enabled me to survive those hardships was this: “I am not supposed to be here. This is not how it’s supposed to be.” It’s a confidence in yourself that enables you to survive and reminds you that the best of you is yet to come. When I was in eighth grade digging shallow graves under the moonlight for puppies that didn’t survive or weren’t profitable at my adoptive parents’ puppy mill, I knew better days were in my future, but I never would have considered being a 30 year old undergraduate college student better days. I would have considered that a failure and still do.
But, that is okay because failure is what drives success. Failure strengthens us, it teaches us, and it’s what enables us to change. When I was 21, I had returned to university after dropping out (the first time) and losing my scholarship. I wanted to become an investment banker because they made a lot of money, and I wanted a lot of money. I wanted to be a model because I was a good-looking, young man, and I wanted the narcissistic attention and the young women. I also wanted to feel like I mattered because I felt empty inside, so I joined the Army Reserve while in school. I didn’t want to learn Wall Street finance, didn’t care about high fashion, and didn’t join to die for my country. I did all those things for — me.
A few years later I became homeless after undiagnosed bipolar disorder had demolished my life. This is when I really started growing up. From all that time being in the shelters, soup kitchen lines, shower lines, the street, the alleys, the bus stops, the parks, and the woods, I began to empathize with the struggles of others. The world was not mine. I didn’t matter much.
I helped changed an old homeless man’s life in a weekend by helping him find a job. I talked my street friend out of selling his prescription drugs for money. I visited a friend I made in a shelter while he was in the hospital. These moments helped develop my kindness. A half day going through the phonebook and typing up a resume enabled someone to move out of a homeless shelter. I may have been successful in keeping a 25 year old kid out of jail with a conversation. And an hour visit in the hospital made a seriously ill man smile and laugh for the first time in a month. I had made a difference. It wasn’t a six figure salary, the attention of beautiful women, or a medal of honor. It was worth more than all of that – it was true fulfillment.
That’s what I want now in life – my Pursuit of Happyness. I worked my way out of homelessness after three years with the help of a social worker. I completed my associate’s degree in a year while working nearly full-time – for a time doing this out of a tent. I befriended, fell in love, and later fell out of love with a kind woman who opened her home to me. I will graduate with a B.A. in Public Policy & Business from the College of William & Mary in May 2015 and have worked for W&M’s Office of Community Engagement for 1.5 years. I also mentor former felons in United Way’s felon reintegration program in Williamsburg, VA. The best of ME is yet to come though. I’m just getting started.