When you were born, you were the youngest of four and the center of attention. As a baby, you enjoyed playing peek-a-boo with your own reflection in the mirror, a picture worth a thousand words. But that boyhood into which you grew so carefree and curious would soon be snatched away by the plague of addiction.
You could not help what you were born into, nor was it your fault. Mom tried her best to make things right, but Dad could not escape his fate, no matter how hard he tried. You may not know it, but the few pictures that exist do show it. He loved you baby boy, don’t let it get you down.
Inside the chaos, you grew up way too quickly. At three years old, when “X” blew meth smoke into your face, your childhood was over, your memories forever incomplete. By that time, you were a young man — proud, wild and free, but you would be fractured by that experience.
I know this to be true because you are me.
This letter is not to shame, blame, or fault. “X” will remain anonymous, because they were lost, and we have come so far. This exercise is for you, and for me, to rid ourselves of shame and guilt over what happened to us, things that were not our fault. “X” knows we will forgive them, and that we will always love them for who they are.
But this is for you Clay; this is for me.
When the addictions got out of control, Mom gave Dad an ultimatum: clean up or leave. So he did what any caring father would do: He left for rehab and tried his best. Little Clay, what you wouldn’t experience until later on in life is the fierce, raw power of addiction, its claws sunk deep into your identity. When Dad left with that woman, his fate was sealed with a syringe full of heroin.
I’ll never forget what happened next, so I better warn you. You came home from church to find everyone crying, a new norm in the Addleman house. Sis said, “Dad is dead.” At only six years old, you not only felt the pain, but also that cold, numb panic in the center of your chest which you would later realize was anxiety.
Just remember to breathe, the worst is yet to come.
His open-casket funeral traumatized your mind. For decades to come, it felt like yesterday when you touched his pale, cold, lifeless body. With everyone around you depressed and withdrawn, you took on the role of comforter, further stealing your boyhood from you. While I wish I could tell you this is where the tragedies ended, the truth is that they had just begun.
Do not pick up that knife at night, contemplating the end, for at seven years old, your life has barely begun.
Remember that anxiety I told you about previously? It will grow in your chest as you get older. As I write to you, it thumps hard against my chest. Its firm grip continuously constricts the flow of blood, making it hard to breathe sometimes. It will come and it will go, my dear sweet boy, and one day you will use it to inspire and create, so do not give into those self-harming thoughts.
Just as addiction will plague you, death will always be near: R.H., cousin T., G-Pa, Little B, S, J, R.P., RON, J.P., J.C., L, G-Ma. This last one — Grandma’s death — will hurt so bad, and make your addiction spiral out of control. You will find yourself cursing God, blaming everyone in your family, breaking the law to stay numb. You will do some of the very things you swore on Dad’s grave that you would never do.
Years down the line, you will find yourself broken, empty, hopeless, and in prison with a life sentence. Life will foreign to you before it ever begins to make sense. I am sorry to have to be the one to tell you this, but we did all of this to ourselves. We allowed resentment, hatred and anger to fester deep within us, suppressing it with toxins and chemicals.
Your family, whom you blamed and pushed away, are the only ones who stuck around when all those “friends” for whom you would have died, disappeared. The girl you were in love with for eight years, and who was there for you when Grandma died, will abort your child and break your heart after your arrest, only to get pregnant by another man a couple years later.
Yet here, in such an unlikely place, you will find true and life-changing freedom, a gift from God that not many are as fortunate to find. In due time, all of this will add up in such a way that will result in self-discovery. You will adopt a three-step formula that I am now sharing with you, which you will use to help others heal. In short, it reads: “Once I accepted, I then forgave and through forgiveness I took responsibility for my life — past, present and future.”
All that love you craved so desperately to give and receive from others, you will finally give and receive from yourself. You will do, write, and say some remarkable things. On September 27, 2020, you will close the book on that plague of addiction once and for all.
Experiences like yours would cause a grown man to fall, but you have survived by the grace of God. He will be with you in your darkest hour, and will reveal himself in an apparition of your recently passed father. You will recognize this moment way later in life as the moment you received your Heavenly Father. While you won’t be able to fully explain it for years and decades to come, you will feel secure, protected and never alone.
One day, you will sit and write a letter to your younger self, from the concrete floor of your two-man cell, hunkered over your rusty metal bunk. This will help you in ways you cannot yet dream of, and I will be waiting within you, to inspire you as we continue our journey together.
I love you, baby boy.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.