Everyone experiences traumatic, life-altering events. The sudden loss of a loved one, the unexpected layoff from work, the unthinkable announcement that your life-partner has found someone else and is leaving you. These are powerful events that tend to pull us out of the spin of our normal daily existence, causing use to reel, to flounder, to panic, almost as though we were drowning. These are shattering events that plunge us into deep depression, cause us to question the purpose of life, bring on uncontrollable crying spells, and evoke panic attacks. These tend to be the lowest points of human existence.
Fortunately, for most people, these events are rare, occurring only a few times in life, with an opportunity to recover between them. Recovery time is critical, because people need a sense of stability in their lives, a basic belief that tomorrow will be quite similar to today, the certainty that things will get better. People who teeter on a perpetual precipice of disaster struggle to hold on to reality, find little reason to hope, and worse of all, give up on caring.
Sometimes, as a registered sex offender, I feel like I’m teetering on the precipice of disaster way too often. The most significant event happened a couple years ago, when on the eve of completing my 10-year registration period the state invoked a retroactive law to change my status to “predator” and put me on the registry for life. This was one of those events I wasn’t sure I’d recover from. Perhaps I haven’t completely. If I allow myself to think about, I will feel the wave of depression start to roll over me.
But it’s not the tragic events that make life so difficult for me. No, the truly disastrous events are still actually relatively rare. It is, however, the potential disaster lurking around the corner that keeps me in a constant state of worry, that keeps me on the brink of panic. The fear that someone at work will find out and cause me to lose my job. The thought that people in my neighborhood might discover me on the internet and force me to move. The knowledge that forgetting any of the many, many rules of registration could cause me to violate, sending me back to prison. These are the threats that never really leave my mind.
Are the potential disasters real? I have found from talking with many, many registered sex offenders that the imagined threats are generally far greater than what they actually experience. And yet, all it takes is for one of these to come true, and my life will be, once again, shattered, crumbling around my feet, leaving me in a dust of despair. To me, it’s like standing too close to the edge of a cliff. Sure, chances are slim that you will fall. But the consequences if you do are so dire that most people will avoid the cliff at all costs.
Every year, lawmakers in Illinois get together to do what lawmakers do best: make laws. And every year, they set their aim on registered sex offenders as they ponder what new laws to make. And every year, I find myself once again standing at the precipice of disaster, waiting to see what new law they might pass that will upend my life, that will complicate my existence, that will once again heap additional punishment on me for my past transgressions. Since legislative session runs from January to May, it seems I only get about six or seven months at most to try to recover from this trauma each year.
This year is no different. I, like all RSOs in Illinois, find myself staring down the barrel of several bills that, if they become law, would radically alter my life. One bill would cost me my job, since I work for a university and some lawmaker is trying to make that illegal. Another would require me to register four times per year, instead of just one. (This, of course, comes with the knowledge that forgetting just once, missing the deadline by a single day, would constitute a violation that could mean imprisonment.) Even the bills that amount to little more than a nuisance are nonetheless reminders that at any moment, in any year, lawmakers can pass a law that retroactively and negatively impacts my life. To me, this is the epitome of insecurity, the quintessential “edge of the cliff” analogy.
So what do I do? How do I go on? How do I hold on to some semblance of normality, of reality, of stability? Some of my friends tell me to stop worrying so much, that the chances are too slim that any of this will happen for me to be so worried. I appreciate their support, but I can’t help but think that they just don’t get it, that they don’t live it so it is not “real” to them. Others are empathetic, commiserating with a heartfelt, “That sucks.” While there is nothing they can do, I do appreciate their thoughts. I talk to others who, like me, suffer the consequences of the registry. There is a real sense of solidarity in sharing with each other, though in the end, we do a lot of “preaching to the choir,” telling each other what the other already knows. There is, without question, something to be gained from knowing that I am not alone in my struggles.
In the end, though, the one thing that keeps me going is heeding the advice of the therapist I see occasionally. When I was in the depths of despair, floundering to find meaning in my life, struggling for a reason to go on, he guided me toward my own value system, encouraging me to look deep within myself, to define myself based on who I am today, not based on what I did in my past. Clearly, the two are connected, but they are not synonymous. This level of inward circumspection is not easy. It takes work. It takes effort. It takes time.
But here is what I know today. I have done bad things in my past. My definition of “bad” is not based on some label. Yes, it’s “bad” to be a registered sex offender. It’s “bad” to be a convicted felon. It’s “bad” to be a criminal. But for me, what makes my past behavior bad is that I hurt other people, people who did not deserve to be hurt, people who I should have protected and cared for instead of hurting. It’s important that I define what I mean by “bad” because this is what defines my current value system, what determines what is important to me now and for my future.
Of course, I don’t want to be a registered sex offender, but this is a pragmatic issue and not a values issue. And I don’t want to be a criminal, though I do tend to drive a little over the speed limit and I occasionally talk on my cell phone without using the hands-free system. But the most important goal in my value system is that I don’t want to hurt people anymore. Obviously, I don’t ever want to sexually offend anyone ever again. But it’s more than that. I don’t want to hurt people in any way if I can avoid it. I work very hard to avoid victimizing people, and that includes verbal victimization, objectifying, or stepping over people to get ahead. These are my values. And this is how I go about deciding that I am not a bad person. I am a good person who did bad things. Politicians can label me as recalcitrant, as a reprobate, as a pervert. People can shun me because I’m on the registry. People can hate me because of what I’ve done. Does it hurt? Of course it does. Does it complicate my life? Without a doubt. But does it define who I am? Only if I let it. And I fight constantly against letting external forces define who I know I am today.
My inward reflection does not solve all my problems. It does not alleviate every fear, every anxiety. It doesn’t even prevent my occasional bought of depression. But when I need it most, it does give me meaning, purpose, and a reason to go on. Today, that is what I need most.