The following is a transcript of a monologue I prepared for a recent campus event called Movements during which select W&M students shared their personal stories and spoke about various challenges they have faced in life from autism to poverty to embracing their sexuality. The goal of my monologue was to share the imparted wisdom I gained along my non-traditional path to W&M and to reassure people (and myself) that failure is okay.
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, mental health problems 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 co-workers I befriended during my internship last year where I helped the unemployed become employable. 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 disappointingly 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 brighter days were in my future, but I never would have considered being a 31 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 and losing my academic 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 beautiful women. I also wanted to feel like I mattered because I felt empty inside, so in order to embody the values American military symbolized, 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 the military to die for my country. I did all those things for — me.
A few years later I became homeless after depression and what I recently learned is “adult attachment 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 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 a true sense of accomplishment and fulfillment.
That’s what I want now in life – my Pursuit of Happyness. After three years of homelessness, I got off the street with the help of a social worker and the kindness of a stranger who opened her home to me. I completed my associate’s degree in a year while working nearly full-time – for a time doing this out of a tent. I will graduate from one of the best schools in the nation in May with plans to pursue a lifelong career in public service. The convergence of my personal happiness and desire to work to protect and empower others required many years of suffering to develop. But, it is not a requirement for you. Experience parts of society you would not normally experience. Talk to people you would not normally talk to. Learn from people you would not normally learn from. Doing these things will allow you to think and feel from a perspective outside your own, and that is where true empathy lies.