January 12, 2006.
It’s a cold, but snowless day in Western Massachusetts. I’m between substitute teaching and directing the high school musical. I stand in the doorway of my parents’ house. One foot in the bristly cold air, one in the warmth of home.
I stop. This is the emptiest I’ve ever felt. I’m at a loss.
As I stare at the front light post, the fresh memory of the night before flows through my mind. Three years of sweat and toil might be headed down the drain. A threat has been made. Sabotage has occurred. And my name has been dragged through the mud behind my back.
I think, “I can now see how someone might get to the point of killing themselves.” I don’t think that for myself. But I understand it. Unlike with the impersonal swiping of a credit card and credit score, my identity is being stolen in person by someone I know, someone I think is an ally. My reputation, carefully crafted through hard work for almost no pay, is almost trash. Why? I don’t know. It just is.
There’s little I can do about it. Very little. The person bad mouthing me and actively putting up road blocks to stop me from staging my show is tight with the higher ups. Though this is the school I went to, graduated from with some acclaim, and had served in for four years, I am the outsider looking in. Watching as gasoline pours on life as I know it. The match lit. In his hand. Ready to drop.
And here I stand. In the doorway. Understanding the desperation of so many in our society. Wondering how it could get this bad. I’m a good person. Why me? Why this?
I call a meeting. That’s one of my privileges. Except my well is poisoned. I can’t call a meeting. I lay things out on the table. My ally, the saboteur, pretends not to know anything. The school official seems to be in the dark and seems to be mad at me. I watch as a convoluted explanation again makes me look bad. But I’m the outsider. I leave.
I call my Superfriends from the program I built from the ground up. I explain everything in more detail than I care to know. The well is poisoned, so why should I aim to please? I spend the next month doing it my way. Ignoring directives. Ignoring the saboteur, who is still attached, though I send document upon document to the school officials showing what this person has done. My well is poisoned. It doesn’t matter.
The show goes on. The show does well. The students do well. Instead of ruining drama in the school, the school expands its program. Two shows per year. For the past seven years. Success.
But I’m not allowed back. My well is poisoned. It’s poisoned in the baby I birthed, the other program, too. I’m about to leave that one in six months. Heart ripped from body. Mine not its. I leave to save it. To spare it. It continues. Success.
I’m a shell. I’m lost. I’m exhausted. I get sick. I get sick in Hawaii. In Hawaii, my truest ally in the system has me direct a show there. He has moved on. Brings me out there. I don’t get to see that one. Because I’m sick. Very very sick.
I lie in bed. Thousands of miles from home. Paradise outside. Hell inside. Will I swallow my tongue tonight? Will I choke on this mucus? Stop breathing in my sleep? Insomnia hits. I’m a good person. Why me?
Something has to change. Something. Has. To. Change…
I experienced the worst days of my life seven years ago. By far. I had thrown myself into my dramatic arts projects so deeply that they had become one with me. I was Mr. Theatre in my hometown. With the day job included, I worked 18 hour days during show season. I was younger, unattached, and didn’t have much overhead. I enjoyed the artistic process. And I was very good at it. I had found a connection with children, but treated them like adult professionals. My identity was my job.
Like a cutlass to a watermelon, that identity was guillotined with one crisp swing. The bleeding took a while to stanch, so the identity died a slow and painful death. But the night of January 11, 2006, was the day the fatal blow was struck. When the person ostensibly helping me revealed his true colors (and a friend helping me out revealed the true actions), I summoned what little emotional strength I had to at least make this forest fire a controlled burn. I did it my way and was successful. But my fate was sealed. I still don’t really know why.
Because my job was my identity, I held on to a lot of anger for a long time. The anger did not serve me, but I didn’t know what else to do. I wasn’t really anybody without this program I’d built, you know?
When the economic downturn hit, many people lost their jobs. Out the window with their jobs went their hard earned identities. Consider the lessons we’ve learned (or have had shoveled down our throats, depending on how you look at it) since we were very young: Hard work pays off. If you don’t work you’re lazy. Consider the first question we’re asked when we meet someone for the first time: “What do you do?”
Often, what we do has become who we are. We’re never asked, “So, who are you?” Are we? Culturally, we define ourselves via the external thing we do to make money. Money is survival. It’s also status. The physical ducats become spiritual ducats we use to justify our existences, to feel like we are something. Are something. Take that away and what is left?
An empty shell. Unidentifiable.
It happened for many people when the economy tanked. Folks were buried in sadness. Some were buried in coffins. And yet we fight about whether unemployment benefits should be extended or not.
On January 12, 2006, I lost a huge chunk of myself. Escape didn’t seem possible. The long view was quite cloudy. My hurt was so bad that it didn’t feel like I’d make it to January 13, 2006. Let alone January 12, 2007. 2008. 2009. 2010. 2011. 2012. Or today.
In these seven years, I’ve shaken many of the coded lessons of childhood. Work is not the be all. Or the end all. I am a full fledged human being who happens to have a job. It’s a job I like. It’s meaningful work. And it’s a million miles away from drama.
When I was stripped of my identity as I knew it, I didn’t see the opportunity at hand: to create a new identity. To shake a lot of the presumptions I’d and others had made about me for a lifetime. To become authentically me. In the parabola of life, where there is a nadir, there’s a zenith. Sometimes two. I had nowhere to go but up.
Losing and withdrawing from my gigs, Autumn and Winter 2006-07 were the first in-session seasons in four years that I had free. Sara walked into my life. We had time to get to know each other. Without the attendant stress of putting on a show, it was a relaxing time. She helped me relearn smiling. Going easy on myself. And having fun outside of the stuff I “do.” I hadn’t really created my full identity and it was nice to have my future wife creating it with me.
We then created our Little Buggy, who just turned 16 months old. Who wouldn’t be here if I’d not had my identity stolen seven years ago.
January 12, 2006, sucked for so many reasons. And if life hadn’t shredded in that moment, I might not have been in a place to meet my wife. Or, I would have met Sara, but I wouldn’t have switched my work path a couple times. We might have married sooner. Which might have led to a baby sooner. Maybe that child would have been great. But it wouldn’t have been Kalia. And I cannot trade her for anything.
In the holistic world, there’s a lot of talk about forgiveness. About creating artificial bygones. About the lion laying down with the lamb.
I have not forgiven the person who did this to me. I have definitely not forgotten. Nor do I let this person off the hook for his actions.
But I have wriggled off the hook he attached to me.
I have peace. I have my wife. I have my daughter. I have a great family. I married into a great family. I found a passion to study. I have great new friends. I have richer friendships from the past. And I have new meaningful work.
Seven years ago, I was put through the wringer for a reason. I am not happy that it happened. But I’m happy with where I am.
If I can pass along the biggest lesson I learned to you and especially to my daughter, it’s simple: Our worth is in the very fact of our existence. It’s not about externalities: people liking us, the work we do, if we have clear skin.
We exist, therefore we have value. No one can take that from us.