Imagine a normal summer night: children’s laughter fills the air as a young boy and his sister play tag in the front yard. The children’s parents watch as they rock gracefully on their porch, periodically checking on dinner. The house is large and luxurious with a two-car garage, and two children play inside of the white picket fence that protects them from the street. Both parents work while the kids attend school. The kids load up in mom’s minivan three nights a week for soccer practice and church on Sunday. This is what most people might imagine when they picture a normal life, but my question is, who decided what normal really is? Why is there a constricted image of the normal American lifestyle? If this is normal, then my life is the complete opposite.

In my household growing up it was my older brother, younger sister, my mom, and me. We played in the streets in the streets until the streetlights came on. Sometimes we would play even longer until we heard mommy yell out of the window that it was time to come in. this was normal to us. Our food selection was sub-par: McDonalds three times a week, the occasional under or over cooked meal that mom would make, and the always-delightful mayo on bread. On those nights around the table together, arguments erupted until someone stormed off in a hurry. It was normal to come home to a padlock and a note on our door that would force us to crawl through the basement window. During the winter months, a sheet would hang on the kitchen threshold to trap the heat coming from the oven. On the first day of school, we wore old shoes and clothes from last year. This was my normal life.

The average American lifestyle seemed a fantasy. My skin suit was always uncomfortable and never fit. I had a lot of pride but never the confidence to go with it. There was a constant nag of something crawling inside of me and I never understood why. I could not stand up in front of a classroom without being embarrasses because my outfit was not like the other kids. I could not speak my mind because I thought my opinion was stupid. I would not approach girls because I thought I was ugly. Normal people didn’t deal with these problems, so I thought went on for years going through these difficulties, these emotions, feelings, and terrible thoughts.

I felt myself changing, because of these thoughts, and not for the better. By the seventh grade, I started not to care about anything anymore. I would fight back with the people who called me names or made fun of me. I disrespected teachers at the school, and resorted to violence when talking did not work. I loved the new me. I loved the way if felt. I loved the negative attention. I loved being infamous. No one had any idea what was bothering me. I saw various doctors across the state who only used me as a lab rat for their new medication. I went to countless of out of district schools because no one wanted to deal with my behavior. I went to a few psychological treatment facilities, all of them pointing their fingers at my mom. And for what? A child screaming for help, but too scared to ask for it.

When I started hanging around the wrong people, despite being warned, I never looked back. When I started using drugs, I found my own self-satisfaction. Drugs made me feel normal. Being under the influence was normal. Being comfortable around a bunch of women was normal. Selling drugs was normal. Having massive amounts of money in my pocket was now normal. Doing the wrong thing every day became my new normal. I thrived off the negative attention. Everybody who was somebody would come up to me to shake my hand. I loved it. I also loved drugs. As the money in my pocket grew, my addiction got worse and worse. This went on for a number of years, the parties, selling drugs, getting high, and robberies.

I was more of a user so trying to sell drugs and get high at the same time did not work out as I planned it. I was about fourteen when I caught my first robbery charge, but I was not sent away considering I was so young. The judge downgraded my offence to a misdemeanor and gave me probation. It was not until I turned seventeen, I caught another robbery charge that I found myself facing time. Even though I have gotten away with more than I have been caught for, I was still trying to work the system. I checked myself into a rehab but did not complete it. The same judge who sentenced me to probation heard this case as well. Taking into account that I was at least trying to work on my addiction, the judge gave me leniency and sentenced me to one year in the New Jersey Training School for Boys. Going in and out of these facilities became normal to me. A year at this place, a year at another. It was a vicious cycle for me that I could not break away from. I would tell my mom hopeless lies to get her to believe that I was ready to change my life around. When I was released, I started out on a positive note. I got my driver’s license, went back to school, earned my diploma, and worked legitimate jobs. I thought I had it under control. It was not until my partying once a week became an everyday event, which I eventually lost my jobs, and went back to how I was. I started selling drugs again, and I started using again. My life was now back on a downward spiral that I could not control. However, this time it was much worse. I returned to the violence; I started playing with guns.

On a very cold night in December of 2012, I did something that I am still paying for today. As I opened my eyes, after a nap, I found myself sick, broke, and just tired of living the way that I was. I reached for my gun, loaded it, and went on a mission without no destination. As I walked down a well-lit main road through town, getting colder and colder and more restless by the second, I saw a man outside of a gas pump who just finished attending to a car. I approached him and asked for directions. The second I saw him turn to point down the road, I pulled out the pistol. There I was cold, frightened, my heart racing faster than two lions chasing gazelles in the jungle. I felt alone. This man at the end of my gun and I were the only people who existed. It feels like yesterday, holding a forty caliber Sig Sauer in this man’s face, demanding what was in his pockets. Without hesitation, he handed over the money and I ran off. I will never forget how he looked at me, so innocent, so scared.

I received a six-year sentence for a thirty-second act of violence. My very first adult charge and I was slammed with six years in prison with zero chance of early release. Do I regret what I did? Absolutely. Do I think it was a blessing in disguise? Absolutely. If I had kept going down the path that I was going, something much worse could have happened to me or somebody else. I had a lot of time to reflect on my life and I am proud to say since that night, I have not done any drugs. During my incarceration, I lost friends to overdoses, family due to age and car accidents, and loved ones who have passed away. Through all the pain, I have been through nothing compared to the feeling I felt a few months ago.

My life changed forever on November 3rd, 2016. I was in a program in Trenton connected to DOC. I got a call from my sister around 4 am on the cell phone I was sneaking around. All I heard was pain, sniffles, and sobs in the background. Even though I knew what was coming next, nothing could have prepared me for her next words. “Mommy passed away.” I was speechless; I could not think. I remember just a week before kneeling beside my mother’s bed, tubes all over her, and countless morphine-filled syringes being fed to her constantly. I remember praying with her, crying, feeling her very soft touch, and hearing her voice. Little did I know it would be the last time I ever heard it. I remember telling her,” God will take care of you mommy.”

“Yeah he will,” she said. “But not today spankey. “ This goes to show you how tough she was. It was what I admired most about her. My mother battled lung cancer since 2014. It got worse and worse as time passed and spread too fast, even though she was on chemotherapy. I promised her while holding her hands and looking into her eyes that I would never do drugs again. I promised her I would get my life together and make her proud. That is how I ended up in this class. All she ever wanted to do was help, now all I want to do is help somebody the way that my mom tried to help me.

I have dedicated myself to earning my associates degree in addictions counseling. I want to help other people who battle this disease the way I do. Even though my mother tried her hardest to help me, she was not an addict. She did not understand how it feels to be hopeless, lost, and discouraged. She did not know how it felt to have a constant tapping on your shoulder to remind you that you are not comfortable in your own skin. I know how that feels. If I can prevent one person from going through that experience, then my purpose is served. I have big dreams and plans for my future, and I will not stop until my ambitions are fulfilled. I can use both sides of the fence to my advantage. I can walk with my head held high, y chest out, and both of my feet planted. I can also put on the collared shirt to attend the clinical meeting. I am still incarcerated to this day, I am just in a school and work program. I want to help someone who feels like they do not belong. I want to help someone who is tired of being negative. I want to help someone who does not feel normal. I can never say that I am normal because I’m not, but honestly, I don’t think I would have it any other way.