In my last entry, I mentioned the inevitable crash that results from the “wheels falling off” of an opportunity. Here I talk a bit about that crash, about the toll it is taking on me. I admit upfront this blog entry is probably aimed more toward personal catharsis than toward enlightening the reader. I suppose it may come across as wallowing in self-pity. Perhaps it is. Perhaps I’m entitled to do that for just a little while. Honestly, I don’t know.
After serving three years in prison, I decided to go back to college. I began working towards my master’s degree in 2004. Since then, I have built my world around my relationship with my colleagues, many of whom I now count among my dearest friends. I believed I had found some measure of success, despite the horrible sins of my past. Those who were close to me knew that I was on the sex offender registry. Few ever asked me for any details, choosing instead to accept me for how they knew me today.
When the “wheels fell off” of this week, I lost everything. Of course, I lost my source of income, along with my insurance, benefits, and financial security. This has left me frightened, afraid of losing everything I own, including a place to live. I have spent 12 years since being released from prison building a decent life for myself, and it sickens me in my gut to think of losing it all.
But my financial ruin is only the tip of the iceberg. Underneath that is the indescribable sorrow of being cast out of my community, of abruptly losing contact with people I have grown to know, respect, and care about. Granted, I am not irreparably separated from them. I am still a student, I am still allowed on campus, I can still reach out to them. But the paradigm has shifted in a way that I can hardly even describe. Where once I saw myself as a colleague, a respected member of their community, a trusted friend, now I feel like a fool, a phony, a charlatan who tried to fit it, only to fail miserably in the end. In an instant, I went from being an insider to an outcast. Yes, I realize this is only in my own mind, a misconstrued reality I’m constructing for myself. I’m struggling. Struggling to make sense, struggling to land on my feet, struggle to find a reason to push on.
I wake up in the morning crying on my pillow. I pace the floor, tears streaming down my face, fear permeating my soul, weighed down by a woeful sorrow so real that my body droops. I long to be with friends, family, people who know me and like me anyway, people I’m comfortable around. Instead, I withdraw, wrap myself up distraction, afraid to reach out. I’m depressing right now, I know. Who wants to be around someone so gloomy and sad?
It’s a strange sensation, watching other people’s lives swirl about in fast motion while my own life seems to be trudging on in stop-motion. It’s like watching a movie. I see all the action going on, I understand what people are doing, I hear them talking, but I’m so totally disconnected from it that it doesn’t even seem real to me. None of this seems real to me. I feel so empty inside right now. Everything I do is a motion, propelled my years of repetition, the memory of what I’m supposed to do. But none of it means anything. It’s just what I’m supposed to do.
I’ve been here before. I’m crashed hard like this more than once in my life. Intellectually, I know that the only way to the other side is through the chasm. But seriously, how many times can a person trudge through the mire before he decides he’s just too tired to do it again?
Earlier this year, I wrote about the perpetual precipice, the trauma of constantly standing at the edge of potential disaster, a situation those on the sex offender registry know all too well. It takes so little to push one over the edge of the proverbial precipice, so little to upend one’s life so completely, so little to send one reeling into the abyss. I am sad to say that this week, I experienced such an event.
Last month, I accepted a full-time permanent position at the university I have been attending and working at since 2008. I was upfront about being on the registry before I even began as a grad student in 2008, and I was honest on the application for a full time job when it asked about felony conviction. My status as an RSO was well-known to the university, well-known to the department, and well-known to those at the university that knew me well. Like most of us, I rarely shared the grisly details of my offense, and I was almost never asked. People seemed to accept me for the way I am today, rather than rejecting me for what I did in my past.
You can imagine my excitement when I received the phone call offering me the job. Decent pay, great benefits, and a chance to work at a place where my background issues were already known. It took over a month between the interview and the time I was made an offer, and I assumed that this was because it took a while to do the background check and get everything cleared. I was so thrilled to be given a chance.
My first day of employment, I was emailed two forms to sign. One was an authorization for a background check, the other stated that my employment was contingent on the successful completion of the background check. I couldn’t believe it. They waited until AFTER I quit two jobs and AFTER I already started to do a background check? And they were just NOW telling me my employment was contingent? I talked to my HR representative who assured me that since the department was already aware, it wouldn’t make any difference. The department, she told me, was the one who would make the ultimate decision.
I’m no stranger to stress. Or anxiety. Or worry. I have yet to meet anyone who is on the registry who doesn’t experience SOME level of stress, anxiety, and worry. I’ve been on the registry now for over 10 years, but until now, I’ve never experienced actual panic attacks.
I used to think that panic attacks were just the way people described their anxiety, perhaps when they were dealing with sever anxiety. But then I experienced the reality of a panic attack for myself. My heart raced as though I were having a heart attack. I found I couldn’t breathe. My world closed in on me, suffocating me, sending me spinning in a freefall of dread. And I couldn’t control it. All I could do was to wait for it to pass. Which it did. Eventually.
I recently started a new job. No, this isn’t what brought on my panic attack. I’ve been working part time at the university for seven years, so working there full time now was not that great of a stressor. My commute, however, is now two and half hours each way. Far longer than I had anticipated. But, no, that didn’t send me into panic mode, either. In fact, the commute, now that I’ve gotten used to it a bit, isn’t so bad. I sit on a train for an hour and 10 minutes, so I actually have an opportunity to read, get some work done, or write a blog entry, as I’m doing right now.
But because I started a new job, and because my commute is so incredibly long, I decided to think about moving. In the past 12 years, I’ve only moved once. It was just last year that I finally took the plunge and moved out of my late mother’s house where I had lived since my return from prison. I got very lucky. A co-worker had a great friend who had a place to rent, and this co-worker made the introduction and even handled the initial disclosure about my background issues. Any move is stressful, but all things considered, this move went about as well as any move can. I was lucky.
I thought perhaps I’d have similar luck this time. I mentioned to a co-worker in my new job that I was thinking about moving, and she immediately put me in touch with an organization she works with that helps people find apartments in the town she lives in, about seven miles from where I work. She made the introductions for me and even the initial disclosure to this organization. Turns out, though, that all this company really did was to provide me with listings in the area, and then send me off with a hearty, “Good luck.”
I actually went to look at two of the apartments. One was in an excellent location and was a decent apartment in a decent price range. But unlike the two-flat building I currently live in, this one was in an apartment complex. And that’s where the panic attacks began.
Disclosure, in my mind, is a given. I can’t imagine trying to rent an apartment without disclosing my background to the potential landlord. Oh, I know people do it. I’ve talked to a number of people who have told me that they believe it’s nobody else’s business. But for me, I couldn’t be comfortable knowing that at any moment the landlord might find out and make trouble. No, I’d rather put my cards on the table right up front than to live with the uncertainty
And it’s not like I haven’t had to tell people about my complicated past before. I’ve done it many times. Employers, co-workers, friends, colleagues. Despite my fear and apprehension, it almost always turns out for the best when I tell people. To be sure, they are disconcerted to learn my secret. They certainly don’t like or approve of what I did. But they know me today, and they judge me based on that rather than on my past.
So why am I so terrified to tell potential landlords? Why does the very thought of it bring on a panic attack, cause my heart to race, force me into labored breathing? I suppose my over-active imagination is part of it. I imagine an angry landlord rising from his or her chair, ordering me out the office, telling me that they don’t rent to perverts like me. Understand, this has NEVER happened to me, despite the many times I’ve disclosed. And yet, the fear that it could, lingers like a persistent cough after a bad cold.