Yesterday I sat in my last final, filling out a scantron that will likely be my last. It hadn’t settled in yet, but 20 minutes from that moment I completed college. As I bubbled in my info I couldn’t help but think back to a Psychology 100 final I took over 4 years ago in community college. That was my first college level course, and I couldn’t have been anymore different then than I am now.
I was flushed, nervous, and completely uncomfortable in my skin. It was a 100 question final, and I was just a loser high school dropout. I don’t know if I ever got higher than a C before college. The professor was a brilliant woman named Toni Blake, and she had the master sheet up front and allowed us to self grade when we finished. I got 98/100. I was completely unknowing to what a vital role this woman would play in my life, how influential she would turn out to be, or that she would end up helping me escape the stigma of guilt, doubt, and addiction. All I knew was that she was nice to me, and it felt really good to be treated like a human again.
A year later, just weeks after completing another of her courses, I stood in front of the mirror in my room fumbling with a tie. Nobody had ever showed me how to tie one, so I just stood there like an idiot unable to figure it out. Toni had hired me as an intern at her company. That morning I must have quit in my mind 5 times before I left the house, but I didn’t. I left the tie on the ground and walked out the door and drove to her office. When I got there she opened the door and laughed; she said, “Dude, you’re way overdressed.” I was wearing slacks and a collared long sleeved shirt.
I finished my final today and was super hungry, so I went to this Thai spot just off campus. I guess it was kind of like a celebratory dinner. When I walked in it was a drunk and chaotic celebration of students partying to the end of another year of college. They were chanting and screaming and ordering more rounds. I sat in a booth by myself, trying to eat my dinner as my eyes flooded with tears. It was just overwhelming. I don’t think I ever expected to succeed.
So let me tell you about my upward spiral…
When I was 19 I was raided by La Mesa S.W.A.T. I was caught and charged with Sales of a Controlled Substance, among a long list of other offenses. Weeks later I stood in front of a judge in El Cajon; I was facing a 15 year sentence in a California State Prison. The DA called me “the angel of death.” I never really felt like an angel, or like a dealer of death. I just liked to get high, and the way I stayed high was by selling drugs. I was willing to put everything on the line to keep from getting sick, and in the end I lost everything.
In late May 2009, after my refusing to accept a 15 year sentence, or sign for 10, we had one last chance before going to trial. They offered up 7 years. Before I signed, I mumbled to my public defender about Drug Court, something I knew nothing about but had only heard of. We made a deal: I sign a 7 year conviction right then and there, and I get released on a 30 day OR (Own Recognizance) Within that 30 days I would subject to arrest for any reason or at any time, no crime or violation needed, and on June 18th I was to report to El Cajon Courthouse and would then be accepted or denied to Drug Court. If denied, I would be taken into custody to serve out my 7 year conviction. If accepted, I would sign an additional plea bargain of 2 years concurrent with my 7 year conviction. What it meant was that if I was accepted into drug court and failed, I would serve 9 years in prison.
I was accepted into drug court, and I didn’t fail. I was 19 years old.
Yesterday was December 18th, 2017. I was convicted on May 23rd, 2009. Yesterday was 5 months shy of my release date, but there I was, a free man eating dinner having just earned a college degree.
When I got into that program I had a counselor who was really kind and influential and he urged me to get my health taken care of. I went to a family health clinic, the ones that are often accused of manipulating the welfare system, and received free blood and STD testing. A week later I was informed that I tested positive for Hepatitis C. I was devastated, but at the time there weren’t any treatment options, so I accepted it and moved on with my life knowing that someday it would kill me.
When I signed up for college I was immediately eligible for my moms insurance, so I made use of it when I could. As I neared 26 I felt a sense of urgency to get as much medical care possible because at 26 I would lose it. I went into Gastroenterology for a scan on my liver. The doctor who walked in appeared to be a good man, and he started asking me all these questions about these progressive new drug combinations coming onto the market. I didn’t know anything about them. He started throwing around words like, miracle and cure. He then told me, “It is my goal in life to treat and cure every patient with Hepatitis C that walks into my office.”
One month later I received a shot of peginterferon alfa-2b, along with a combo of Ribavirin and Harvoni–the miracle drug. That night, only two weeks into my last semester in community college, I turned grey and green and nauseous. I went up at the break and asked my professor if I could be excused. She didn’t question my integrity and excused me. I hadn’t smoked a cigarette in two years, and the only solution I could think of was to find a cigarette, so I got a pack and started smoking. It relieved the sickness temporarily.
I continued to deteriorate rapidly for the next 3 months. I got so sick and anemic that they threatened to stop the treatment, but I begged to continue. All the while I was working 40 hours a week as an electrician and attending college full time. I started to contemplate suicide, and lost my will to live. Those are side-affects of the treatment. Natalie stayed by my side and supported me as I continued to unravel. I considered dropping out of college, but didn’t. I stuck with it and passed the semester.
When the treatment ended, the Hep C was gone, but the depression stayed. My relationship with Natalie was falling apart as I struggled to get by in life. I doubted school, and doubted the work I was doing, and questioned why I was even alive.
And then, one day I opened up an email from San Diego State University. It was an acceptance letter. I started to break down I was so happy. I called my family to inform them, and they were excited and proud beyond my comprehension. It got me through that rough patch.
What followed was a complete collapse of who I was, the values I had, and the life I once lived. I went into San Diego State in limbo, and that’s when I started climbing. With the climbing and shift in values the desire to try hard and pursue my education continued to falter. Each semester was a chore, unlike ever before, but I made do.
And holy shit… here I am. It’s surreal.
I am healthier and happier than I have ever been. I’ve been working with Toni Blake for over three years now, and am not an intern, but instead an employee. I wrote a grant to fund our nonprofit, and we’re submitting it so we can advocate for new evidence-based science regarding Shaken Baby Syndrome and reform the policies and assumptions surrounding it. I have been cured of Hepatitis C, and have climbed mountains all over the United States. I learned the electrical trade, and then started general contracting, and now I’m working on building my own landscaping business and all of this in the time it took to get a 4 year degree.
Listening to the growing children in the surrounding restaurant I can’t help but be grateful that I didn’t have time to enjoy the college experience. There was no partying it up or chilling with my college buddies. I was working my ass off. I was investing in an enriching experience called life. I didn’t have time for all that shit.
So yeah, maybe completing college isn’t all that significant to some people, but for someone like me who believed that I’d never amount to anything in life, these little occasions are very significant. For somebody who should still be serving out his conviction, I can’t even convey how truly happy, relieved, and proud I am to have seen this thing through.