I was in a rehab center from July, 2011 to July, 2012. Now, I didn’t end up in this facility in the traditional way. I wasn’t dealing with drug addiction; I wasn’t struggling with alcohol addiction; and I wasn’t seeking treatment. In fact, I’m being a bit coy here…I needed a job.
In May of 2011, I graduated from the MFA Program at Florida International University — have you heard about our great alumni: Richard Blanco, Dennis Lehane, Joe Clifford and Patricia Engel! — and I moved out to Southern California to live with Heron. I didn’t know anybody out in L.A. I bugged my teachers endlessly for contacts until they threw some names at me, and I cherished those names like lifeboats on a sinking ship.
Of course, when I moved out here, I reached out to those contacts, and I learned a lot from them and continue to benefit from their knowledge and experience, but I didn’t find a job…at least right away. So I scoured the city, looking for something to pay my rent and bills, and I came across an ad on Craigslist to teach creative writing at a rehab center. Well, I was a teacher, and I was a writer — Could there be anything better?
I applied and got the job. I couldn’t wait to start, but as you might have read before, I had to drive 44 miles through the worst traffic in the country from Long Beach to Woodland Hills. That’s beyond the point. I’m not here to bore you with the same story of transportation.
Well, after I started working at the rehab center, I realized the drive was killing me, and I wanted a job where I was writing more. I loved teaching, but I was dissatisfied and wanted to write all the time — or at least more and get paid for it. I became frustrated. I became anxious. I became impatient. Suddenly, I felt stuck in a situation.
Everyday I listened to the counselors talk about the steps and the Big Book, and initially all this jargon just washed over my head. What did I care? Of course, I wanted to help the kids — oh, more than anything in the world — but I wanted to teach them through words and writing and other sunshine bullshit that I still believe in.
Then one day, something changed.
One of the counselors there — he was this huge guy with a mullet — caught my attention. He took me aside and basically told me to look around. Be a part of this team. You’re trying to run your own show, man. Be here with us. Be in the moment. That’s what this is about. You’re going to move onto something better soon, but for right now, be here, be with us.
He woke me up. I was so fixated on the next step, being a writer, and moving on that I wasn’t in the moment. I began to listen to him more when he spoke to the kids. He used to walk around the room, flicking his mullet, smacking kid on the back, hugging people who walked into the room. His personality was so large you couldn’t help but pay attention. And his mantra was always — be in the moment.
I’ll never forget this story he told about being in jail. He talked about being overwhelmed by the amount of time he had to serve. That it became impossible to not future trip and let your anxiety spin out of control. And he said the only thing that mattered, his only comfort, was that the second-hand on that clock kept ticking.
That was a really profound moment for me. Sometimes, I live like I’m in jail. No, I’m not comparing my life to an actual prison, but I’m saying that I can feel stuck; I can feel trapped; and I can forget about that second, that moment, because I’m so disconnected that my own impatience and ambition can be a trap. That’s the greatest lesson I learned. That I needed to struggle, to fight to be in the moment. To remind myself that this very next word is the next word I’m going to type and this very next thought is the next thought I’m going to think and this very next breath is the next breath. The rest, to a certain extent, is out of my control.
This was humbling. I’m an ambitious guy, and I’m never satisfied. But when I forget to focus on what’s in front of me, well, that’s when I slip up and lose control. How hard is it to be present? How hard is it to remember nothing in the future is guaranteed? How hard is to believe that the path you are on is guiding you to a place of happiness?