The World Breaks Everyone: 3 Steps I Learned In Prison to Put Myself Back Together
I was arrested by the FBI, pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud and was sentenced to two years of Federal Prison.
I lost everything. All because of the choices I made.
It’s been an incredible, challenging, frightening journey. A massive part of that journey was the fall to my personal rock-bottom.
That fall led me to write the following on New Years Day, 2015, my TEDx chronicles that journey in even more detail if you are interested.
“I cannot shake the image that 2015 is going to be the year I put a bullet in my head. I see myself making it through prison, making it to halfway, and the next vision I see is a pistol in my mouth or at my temple. I want to tell someone but I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed of being weak. I know how much it would hurt my loved ones. But the way I feel, the self-loathing, the amount of shame I carry, I have a hard time being in front of my loved ones. I’m no good to them, I can’t even face them. Why won’t it just end?”
I wrote that in a federal prison library, just about four months into my two-year prison sentence for committing fraud against one of the world’s largest technology companies.
With every ounce of my being, I believed I would never be worthy of love, joy, happiness.
Hemingway wrote, “the world breaks everyone..”
The power of shame is undeniable, being consumed by emptiness and unworthiness.
Shame breaks us.
The journey from writing what I wrote, “why won’t it just end” to writing this post has been a long one.
Filled with many ups and downs and lessons learned.
Putting myself back together has been a process, I’d like to share three critical practices that got me here.
I spent my days in prison, wishing I wasn’t in prison. I spent my days wishing I didn’t make choices I made that landed me in prison.
I wished and dreamed for life to be anything other than it was. I was fighting against a past and circumstance that can’t be changed.
I would never have the freedom to start over and reinvent if I continued to fight what can’t be changed. I had to do what I was so afraid to do.
I had to accept reality.
I didn’t want to. It felt like giving up; it felt passive. Fighting equals progress. But does it? What was I fighting against? As much as I wish there were, there is no such thing as a time machine Delorean.
Accepting reality isn’t giving up, it isn’t passive. It was an act of courage for me to say,
“I accept that I betrayed myself and chose to commit a crime. I hit the “enter” button, the single keystroke that started it all. I accept I made the choice to continue in the face of the universe screaming at me to stop. I accept that I am in prison. I accept that I hurt the woman I love, my family, my friends….”
A weight lifted off of me when I wrote that. I wasn’t trapped in the past. I felt something I thought was impossible in prison, freedom.
When you accept reality, you give yourself the gift of freedom. It is the freedom that comes when you are no longer locked in the past and regret.
The past can’t be anything other than what it is.
Embracing reality means being honest with yourself. We align with what we know to be true, not what we wish were true. It’s the first 1st step out of rock bottom and shame.
Accepting reality is a starting point. It opened the door for me to ask myself,
“Ok, this is my life now, what am I going to do with what is left of it?”
Forgiveness is the antidote to shame.
I was consumed by shame the moment I was arrested by the FBI, it wrapped its fist around my heart and squeezed.
I was consumed by regrets and judgments of things that cannot be changed. I never fully processed any of it, memories running silently in my mind’s background, dictating my life without my conscious knowledge.
Intuition took over, telling me what I need to do. Forgive.
I forgave myself silently, a gentle whisper in my mind. I forgave the seven-year-old me for being scared of the dark. I forgave the twelve-year-old me for not punching the bullies who tormented me that hot summer afternoon. I forgave myself for the lies I’ve told when the truth would have set me free. I forgave myself for the dreams not pursued and the projects not finished. I forgave myself for the women not spoken to. I forgave myself for believing that I am not enough. I forgave myself for not having courage. I forgave myself for not loving myself. I forgave myself for not listening to my heart. I forgave myself for the pain I caused my wife and my family. I forgave myself for committing a crime.
Finger by finger, knuckle by knuckle, the fist clenched around my heart is slowly releasing its grip. My heart has room to breathe, for the first time in a long time. It’s adapting to its newfound freedom, my heart is stretching its legs.
When we forgive ourselves, we extend one of the greatest acts of love and compassion we can to ourselves.
Forgiveness helps put us back together. Forgiveness is freedom.
3. Embrace our Cracks
There is an ancient Japanese art form called Kintsugi.
When a piece of pottery is broken – a plate, a bowl, a vase, it’s not thrown away, it is carefully and meticulously put back together – piece by piece.
The artist uses a lacquer mixed with silver, gold even platinum.
The reassembled piece is more beautiful than the original.
The reassembled piece doesn’t hide its cracks – It celebrates them – It puts them on display for all to see
As part of the human condition, we spend so much time trying to hide our shame, our cracks – it becomes like a full-time job – crafting and maintaining a persona we think people want to see
When we hide our cracks, whatever they may be, not being enough, not being worthy, insecurity, fear of failure- whatever, we give birth to shame.
Shame lives and breeds in the dark, it is an insidious disease that will eat us alive from the inside if we try to hide it.
We need to be like the ancient art of Kintsugi.
As we put ourselves back together, we need to shine a light on our broken places.
Something happens when we shine a light on shame, we take away its power – when we shine a light on shame, it doesn’t even cast a shadow.
This thing that consumed me, that led me to plan my suicide – doesn’t even cast a shadow – it is merely a machination of the mind.
Saying the things I am afraid to say provides freedom, unlike anything else.
I am not proud of my crime, or of the suffering I caused
But to deny it is to deny a piece of who I am.
As I put myself back together, how will I ever be whole, how will I ever be enough if I deny a piece of what has made me, me?
I know some of the most beautiful souls that I am grateful to call my friends – the world broke them too.
They share their cracks, they do not hide them – they are poets, writers, coaches – they write poems and books so beautiful, so raw and vulnerable – when I read their work I feel as though I am peeking behind the curtain, seeing something the world isn’t used to seeing – something the world trains us to hide – I catch a glimpse of their soul –
Coaches – Working with their clients – openly sharing their experiences – their cracks – in the service to others
I share this story because I have an obligation too.
Shame, unworthiness, the feeling of not being enough – These are universal – our paths to them are different – but the emotions are the same.
When we learn to practice acceptance, forgiveness, and shine on a light on our broken places, we put ourselves back together.
Piece by piece – we make ourselves whole.
Perhaps, selfishly, I shared this story – because I know this to be true – My greatest moment of joy is going to come the day I help someone – who feels now, how I once felt.
There is a second half to the Hemingway quote,
“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, many are stronger at the broken places.”
Our cracks do not define us – they are what make us whole.