When I was One and Twenty


My son is going to be 21 next month and I'm going to be sober for 5 years. Last night, at age 39, I was honored as one of fourteen teachers in my district as Teacher of the Year. On my 22nd birthday, I checked myself into a rehab program. At 23, I spent the night in jail the day before I moved to Florida. Three years later I graduated with a bachelor's degree. It's likely I wasn't sober for most of the 7 years I lived in Florida. By age 29, I had a master's degree and became a high school teacher.

I'm humbled by how far one can come in life. I made mistakes so profound they could have cost me my life. I stewed in my own self-pity so frequently that soaking in my own hatred felt like home. There is a certain comfort in addiction. It filled me up in such a way that I needed little else. When I quit, which wasn't just all of sudden, it was an upheaval of a way of life I'd created for myself and I grieved the loss of a close companion. 

Instead of rehashing all the terrible, stupid things I did and said before I quit, I try to reflect on the metamorphosis that has taken place in that five years. However, the past is never far behind. It surfaces in the form of emotions I can't handle, shame I can't shake, and anger I've always had difficulty letting go. 

In numerous attempts to shed the past, I've sacrificed my future and almost died.  Yet, somehow I managed to survive and not only survive, but become somewhat successful doing something I never thought I do, teach.  I'm not even sure what I thought I was going to be, but I knew more clearly what I didn't want to be and who I didn't want in my life. When I recount some details of my death defying life to others they ask things like, "Why would you do that? What were you thinking? Why did you go there?" and things like that to which I reply, "I don't know. I didn't know what else to do" which is a sorry ass answer, so if I had indeed died, it would have been for no reason but out of sheer stupidity and for lack of anything better to do at the moment. 

I see my son now and he is a bit of a shit show these days. He will have periods of calm but then all of a sudden everything turns to crap. Surprisingly, it's even hard for me to understand and I'm the queen of downward spirals. It seems like he always has a problem and is eternally angry. His life is constantly in some state of turmoil either internal or external, self-inflicted or not. I want to be able to tell him my inspirational story of triumph and how I went from nothing to teacher of the year. But, the thing is....he knows. Because he was there. He was there in the small apartment. He was there in the bedroom we shared when I was highlighting The Iliad while he was trying to sleep. He was there at all my college graduations too. It was my hope for him that my ferocious desire to be more than a loser would seep into his pores and stick to him. Instead, he became just as much of  a magnet for disaster and inherited my lust for everything terrible and dangerous. 

I thought I'd paved the way for him to not be such a dumb ass. I showed him hard work and perseverance. I showed him success and triumph over obstacles. But nope. He is going to forge his own path of shame and redemption. It's agonizing for me to watch because I have the answers. I'm full of inspiration and advice. I lived my whole life feeling like I didn't belong anywhere, feeling left out on purpose by others who were smarter or richer or both. I felt defeated and less, hopeless and devastated. I didn't want that for my son. I wanted him to feel empowered. But he didn't. 

When I was twenty and one and twenty and two and twenty and so on, I didn't know who I was and I thought it was because of my past. I didn't know what to do and I thought it was because of my parents. I wanted to be better but I thought other people were keeping me down. Now though, more than ever, the past is letting me go. Oh, it's still there, keeping a nice simmering anger alive, but it no longer consumes me or sends me into a spiral of self-destruction as it once did. Bitterness and anger are both places I reside in comfortably, and can feel myself easily seeking them out as a place to hide. The past loomed over me for years threatening  to drag me back under and remind me that I was, in fact, what I'd always feared, nothing. I am much more equipped now to recognize pain, anger, and sadness for what they are: fleeting. They will wash over me with voracity, but just as swiftly leave again. 

Watching a child struggle with life lessons is heartbreaking.Mostly because I know the answers. I know what to do. I can help you. But I can't help him. I can only nod in his presence when I'm wringing my hands in private and scanning the news for a glimpse of his name. An accident. A robbery. I'm worried he will die and I didn't get to help him the way I know I can. I want to swoop in and save him from himself the way I wished someone has tried to save me. I thought I needed someone to help me, but what I learned instead is that I had to help myself. He will have to help himself. Bitterness and anger can be powerful if used towards building resilience and fortitude, but bitterness and anger are also comfortable places to lose yourself and die. 

 This is a poem I teach in my classes, or used to teach, you can't really know what you're about until you're older so the message is lost. 

When I Was One and Twenty

by A. E. Houseman

When I was one-and-twenty

       I heard a wise man say,

“Give crowns and pounds and guineas

       But not your heart away;

Give pearls away and rubies

       But keep your fancy free.”

But I was one-and-twenty,

       No use to talk to me.


When I was one-and-twenty

       I heard him say again,

“The heart out of the bosom

       Was never given in vain;

’Tis paid with sighs a plenty

       And sold for endless rue.”

And I am two-and-twenty,

       And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.




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