I thought I had suffered at 5 when the garage door slammed on my tiny hand. Ouch! I thought I had suffered at 10 when my bicycle hit a rock in the middle of the road and I flew through the air, hit the ground, then the bicycle landed on top of me. This was WAY before helmets. And WAY before severe concussions were classified as traumatic brain injuries.
I thought I had suffered later on that 10th year when my beloved Grandmother was ravaged by breast, lung, and brain cancer. And I watched her hallucinate, disintegrate, and take the name of her Lord God in vain because she didn’t know who, what, or where she was.
I thought I had suffered at 13 when my father was killed in a car accident and I watched my mother collapse and I had to shake the hands of hundreds of NYPD officers offering their condolences.
I thought I had suffered at 14 when I completely lost my faith and drugs and alcohol started to replace football, baseball, track, weightlifting, wrestling, being an altar boy, and every other healthy physical and spiritual pursuit.
I thought I had suffered at 15 when I really began my criminal career. Stealing everything that wasn’t tied down including that 1600 dollars that landed me in juvy.
I thought I had suffered at 18 when the dean of students and disciplinarian came up behind me on graduation day and whispered in my ear that the only reason I was graduating was that he didn’t want my stupid ass on campus anymore.
I thought I had suffered again at 18 when I wound up in Navy boot camp in the Great Lakes in the dead of winter. 30 below zero freezes EVERYTHING.
I thought I had suffered at 20 when I wound up in military prison for my defiance of authority and continued criminal activities.
I thought I had suffered at 23 for my musical dreams being dashed by too much booze and aligning myself with people who didn’t have the same drive.
I thought I had suffered at 23 again when the beginning of 2 full time jobs began because I became a father for the first time.
I thought I had suffered at 25 because I found myself in France, married to a person I no longer loved, having a 2nd child with her, and watching her mental illness begin to destroy everything in its path.
I thought I had suffered at 26 because I destroyed the literary chance of a lifetime by drinking and drugging myself deep into addiction.
I thought I had suffered at 31 because I was still married to a severe mental illness, and I continued to think I could fix it by drinking, drugging, and having more children.
I thought I had suffered at 34 when I watched the loss of innocence of the entire world go down in two fiery, smoking heaps. And the close friends who died on that fateful day in 2001.
I thought I had suffered at 35 when I witnessed close friends and family members begin to drop like flies from the disease of addiction. And I almost died in a series of drunken drug addled car accidents that a lesser soul would have succumbed to. Suicide, murder, mental illness and the final accident where I was hit by an industrial snowplow in the middle of a blinding snowstorm and left for dead on the side of the road.
I thought I had suffered at 35 again when I had to give up my precious drugs and alcohol. Guinness, Jameson, and Cocaine. And the Weed. Yeah, that non-addictive marijuana that I smoked for 25 years.
I thought I had suffered at 35 yet again when I had to leave the very lucrative bar business for the regular workaday world. From approximately 80,000 a year to 25 a year in one fell swoop. I thought my first 40 hour paycheck was some sort of cruel joke. I remember looking at the HR lady like she had gone insane.
For the last 13 years of sobriety I thought I had suffered. A succession of low paying jobs in the para-medical professions. A constant, grinding, lack of money. Just a breath away from complete financial ruin. The loss of my entire extended family due to a combination of lies, mental illnesses, and the inability to forgive.
Then suddenly I realized something.
I began working with the least fortunate souls among us. The developmentally disabled. The brain injured. The blind, deaf, and dumb. And I saw them smiling and happy. Excited about something as small as a hug or a cookie. They had overcome tremendous obstacles just to continue to exist. And they were smiling!
I thought I had suffered throughout my entire life at different intervals. But all I had done was have a life.
Something not everyone gets.
My greatest teacher was not a man or a woman with an advanced degree. It was a small, deaf, dumb, and blind man that held both of my hands last Christmas morning because he trusted my severely broken heart.
And he could feel.
That I needed it.