The above is a summary of my life, all 50 years of it, on a 22 x 27 piece of poster board. It’s not one of those “inspiration boards,” used in team-building or ice breaker exercises. In many ways, it’s the opposite–the sort of “anti-inspiration” board not seen and replicated on sites like Pinterest.
I work as part of a team that leads a 14-week employment program for homeless adults, most with serious addiction issues and criminal pasts. The goal is that by the time the students graduate, they will be employed and ready to start rebuilding their lives with pride and a great sense of accomplishment.
Each class starts with 14 students, 7 men and 7 women, as young as 21 and as old as 65. The first couple of weeks are spent on self-reflection and group interaction, and culminates in the creation and presentation of something called a “Life Map.”
I had heard a lot about this project during my first week of work and had the opportunity to see some completed ones on the walls of the classrooms where the students had moved on to the next phase of the curriculum. The images and words, clipped from magazines or written out in pen or marker, were very similar– syringes, bottles of alcohol, prison bars, and words like “loser,” “sex,” “hope,” and “God.” As soon as I learned that all staff have to create their own, and then present them to a class, I was compiling my own, isolating themes and images that I would share.
Without question, my life is interesting and I wanted the students to know that. I wanted them to know that I too have experienced trauma and tragedy but that I have managed to succeed and maintain a wonderful and incredibly happy, full and fun life.
Without going image by image and word by word here, my map has four pivotal dates, highlighted in yellow; my date of birth, the day my mother was found dead, my daughter’s birthday and the day I married for the second time. I presented a pretty happy childhood, the luxury of growing up so close to Manhattan where my father gave me access to wonderful cultural experiences. I moved on through boarding school, college and landing in Boston, sprinkling the hard truths about my mother’s serious mental illness (and eventual suicide) and my parent’s divorce into the narrative and moved onto the present day. The students were pretty stunned and surprised and incredibly gracious in their comments. But, this isn’t really about me. It’s about them, and their lives.
One by one, the students presented their maps, required to speak for at least 1/2 hour and not to go longer than one. Many things struck me as each one bared their souls, flayed open to their deepest nerve. Most of them had lovely childhoods, much like mine, going on family vacations, eating together as a family each night, learning the value of an education and hard work. A couple of them grew up vacationing in rented summer cottages in the mountains or on a lake, camping and fishing with their fathers, and laughing with their mothers. And then, again, in most of these cases, a sudden switch in their narrative, in at least 4 out 5, the death of a parent while the students were still teenagers lead to a lifetime of drug and alcohol abuse.
I’m blessed not to have an addictive bone in my body. I certainly would be hard-pressed not to fall to pieces if I had my coffee taken away, but drugs have always scared me. I’ve smoked plenty of pot in my life, tried coke once, and as much as people say I would love it, would never dream of taking hallucinogens. I tend to STOP drinking the second I feel a little tipsy and was able to quit smoking cold turkey. So, when my mother died when I was only 21, I turned to other things like music, writing and friends without ever feeling the urge to numb the pain that I never seemed to experience.
The drug of choice in almost all of the students is heroin. In some cases they started with other opiates like pain killers, but when they became too expensive switched over to the widely available and cheaper heroin. Most swore they would never shoot-up. Most ended up doing so, multiple times a day. When the youngest in the class, a 21-yr old walked us through his timeline, he described this transition by pointing to a picture of a syringe and said, “This is where the crumble of my life began.”
In what will seem like an utterly selfish reaction to these presentations is my wondering and fear of what my 13-year old daughter would do if I died. She has the addiction gene in her bloodline and it terrifies me to think of how missing me, how tragedy of any sort could trigger the similar reaction as these people have had. She has shown me absolutely no reason whatsoever to have this fear, but she’s at the age where I tried pot for the first time and where a lot of my friends had started sneaking sips of booze from their parents liquor cabinets. I naively believe that this isn’t happening in her middle school or that she is nowhere exposed to those temptations. All I can do is pray that she’ll turn out okay, that she’ll make the right choices, and that her life will never crumble.