15 years ago, a teacher saved my life. I would like to share my story.
Yesterday I read about the suicide of a Wisconsin teacher, Jeri-Lynn Betts, and I cried my damn eyes out. I fell to the floor. I prayed for her and her loved ones. Thinking of Jeri-Lynn Betts, a flood of emotions and memories washed over me, memories that I have fought against all my life. I know the agony of major depression, because suicide claimed the life of my father 15 years ago. I almost died with him. Writing saved my life.
You are fat. You are poor. You are ugly. No woman could ever love you. You are a loser. Pathetic. Hopeless. These are the thoughts that often repeated within my head. It took me until I was 30 years old to learn how to cope with my depression. Depression has cost me love, friends, opportunities and more. It is a real disease, and it almost killed me several times. Were it not for writing I may not be alive today.
On Valentine's Day, Feb 14, 1996, my father shot himself in the face. He was survived by my brother, sister, my mother and myself. I was 16 at the time. I spent the next 14 years depressed and mourning him, even if I did not know it. I did not recover until I turned 30. All my life I have had to earn everything I had myself. I am a self taught man, yet there is still so much to learn! Without a father I had to teach myself how to be a man, a real man. Today I am 31, I have no job, no girlfriend, no money, my phone is going to get shut off very soon, I have no computer, no family (I always thought I'd have a wife and kids right about now), I have no savings, no way to pay the rent, and I honestly do not know what life will bring my way next. Years ago this would have crushed me. Today, I have the strength and self confidence to fight back.
I have never attempted or really considered suicide. Two things have prevented me from doing so. One is my firsthand knowledge on the permanent pain that my family and friends would feel. I would never wish that upon anyone. The pain of my father's suicide stays with me still, fresh as the morning I found out that he had killed himself. The other reason that I have never attempted to kill myself is that a teacher once taught me about poetry and gave me the self confidence to be creative and pursue a love affair with the written word, and that muse is who I turn to when my world is in doubt.
At the time before his death my father was unemployed for a long period of time. He had fought depression himself all his life because my step-grandfather would beat and ridicule him unmercifully. My step-grandfather was a miserable man who drank and was abusive. My father and his step brother each grew up with major issues, my father's resulting in depression and eventually suicide, his step brother, my Uncle, has such severe phobia that he is incapable of caring for himself or holding a job, my Uncle is a crippled man. My step-grandfather was a tyrant who would make my father and his brother eat their own vomit to be certain that they would finish a meal. My uncle today does not feed himself, he has a phobia of food of some sort. My step-grandfather would call my father and my uncle faggots in front of whatever friends they had, he would insult them and beat them, I imagine that the house was a living hell, so I am not surprised that my dad fled the place at a young age to join the Navy. My step-grandfather passed away a few years ago. I did not shed a tear at his funeral.
My mother was and is a raging alcoholic. Back then, she was a bottle of vodka a day kind of verbally abusive drunk. My father withstood much of her rage quietly, but clearly it wore upon him. At the time prior to his death my father and mother were separated for the first time in their 15 year marriage, he had moved back in with my step grandfather and my grandmother, whom my father was devoted to. My father showered love upon his mother and step father, often my family would make the long drive up to Wurtsboro, New York for Christmas, Thanksgiving and other holidays. I loved my grandmother and still do (87years old, liberal as hell and still kicking), but in my eyes my step grandfather was and always will be a monster. I could never fathom how my father could stand to be near him.
I imagine that having his marriage on the rocks, being unemployed and then having to live with the man who terrorized him in his youth was just to much for my father. We all need someone to turn to, someone to love who will love us, we all need support and hope.
I did not shed a tear at my father's funeral. I felt that I had to be strong for my family, my mother and younger brother and 6 year old baby sister. At 16 years old I was the man of the house now, and it was waaaaay to much for me to handle.
I started drinking all the time. I dropped out of school. I went out of control for almost a year. I wore a lot of black. I bit all of my fingernails off. My heart may have healed over the years but my fingernails have not. Some things will never be the same.
Drunk, drop out, 17, I used to free style rap with my friends. I had always been a big reader even at that age, since I was 15 until today I read several books a month. Between reading and writing out rhymes I found an outlet for all of my pain, my anger, my loneliness and fear. Writing became a release valve, a punching bag, a way to tear down the walls around me and a way to seek shelter from the storm. At the age of 17, for the first time, writing saved my life. It would not be the last time.
That year I got my first job, working as a cook at a local restaurant. I would do dishes, bus tables, I would do basic prep cook work and eventually work my way up to line cook. I worked 50 hours a week and gave my widowed mother part of my paycheck to support my family. There, I learned a valuable lesson, and that was that a man should always work hard, but it is better to sit and learn than to stand and toil. 10 years later I would write a book about my experiences at this first job. It is titled "Scrapple" and I hope to sell it soon.
While working at my first job I got the urge to go back to school. I didn't like working as a cook, the pay sucks and the pressure is enormous. So I went back to school, a 17 year old junior, and my first period class was Poetry with a teacher who would praise my talents and expose me to all different kinds of literature that opened a world to me. Shakespear, Solzhenitsyn, Joyce, worlds opened to me, and lacking self confidence of my own I dived in. Books became my refuge, writing became my voice, and I, a shy, overweight, boy in mourning would use these tools to eventually become a man.
For the first time in my life I looked forward to going to school. If my family life was a wreck, if I did not love myself and fought depression off on a minute to minute basis, I always had my books, I always had something I was writing, something I was reading, some way to cope with it all.
That year I got straight A's. I had always been a C+ student. I remember running down the hall after getting my first report card since dropping out and calling my mother on a pay phone with tears in my eyes, saying "I did it! I can do this!". My mother was hungover.
Years later my mother would go to AA and become sober. 6 years she has been totally sober now. 4 years ago she had a massive stroke. Life is full of heartbreak and setback after setback. Again, depression and frustration took me over, as it had so many times before. Today my mother lives in a retirement home with limited care, but I try to help in any way I can.
Years of loneliness. Years of tears and salt. Years of telling myself the things that my father told me, the same things his father told him. You are fat. Years of hearing my mother's words screamed drunkenly at my father in my own head in my own voice. You are a loser. Years of trying to understand why no girl had ever loved me. No woman could ever love me. Years of being beaten up, beating myself up. My step-grandfather's tradition was still being carried on in my heart, only without an elder in my family to beat me up I had taken the job on myself since the day my father died.
It took me years and years to discover myself, to learn how to fight back against my own Great Depression. I have learned that it takes exactly the same amount of energy to be happy or sad. The truth is, in this life we can create our own happiness or we can make our own misery. The choice is ours, we only require someone or something to let us now that you are a good person who is loved. But you can't be loved if you do not love yourself.
I had to start at the bottom and learn to love myself. Loathing myself had been all I had ever known since Valentine's Day 1996 when my father killed himself. 14 years later, last year, I finally learned how to love myself, and that has taught me a world of new things I never thought I'd achieve, not the least of which is how to love and be loved.
I remember graduating high school and being accepted to college at the age of 20. I went to St. John's and had a 3.4 GPA. I was miserable, constantly miserable and lonely. I was not prepared to be on my own yet. The next year I procrastinated filling out my financial aid papers and was unable to re-enroll. At the time it cast me into another deep bout of depression. Now I look back on it as a blessing in disguise.
Over the years I have made myself into a self made man, yet I come from a family that is broken and I have never had the support that other young people have when they go out into this world. During college I wrote term papers for rich kids for money. They always got 4.0's on the papers I had written for them. I was learning, and learning has always been a life jacket for me amidst the stormy seas of the world.
I am ugly.
Somehow, I convinced myself that I was ugly. Hideously ugly. And fat. Truth be told I was fat then, but I was never obese, I just had no idea how to take care of myself because no one had ever taught me how to. To this day I am still learning. Even when I had experiences with women I was always hesitant and shy, ashamed of myself and uncomfortable in my own skin. This hurt my relationships, few and far between at the time, and it saddened me that even to this day I have never had a girlfriend on New Year's Eve or Christmas or Valentine's Day. Every Valentine's Day, the day my father killed himself, I am reminded that I am alone, and it hurts so bad even now. In the past I would add that to the pile of reasons to be depressed and it would stab my heart, the ever constant reminder that you do not have this or that. Losing things is part of life, but it doesn't have to make you a loser. This took me a long time to learn.
I am fat
Years later, about a year or two ago, I lost a lot of weight. My face thinned out, I dropped two pants sizes, and even though I still have a belly it is shrinking. I learned how to take care of myself, I learned about hygiene and why it is so important, and that may sound silly to read, but for someone who spent 14 years telling themselves over and over that You are fat. You are poor. You are ugly. No woman could ever love you. You are a loser. Pathetic. Hopeless. What's the point? this is very important. I made it a point to shower and shave every day. I started taking better care of my clothes, and even buying nice new clothes that fit me well. Losing weight was my first real step towards building self confidence. I had never had self confidence, the only thing that ever gave me confidence before was my intellect, but I needed more, and I was beginning to learn where to find it. Even today, having lost much weight, I still need to remind myself that I am NOT ugly or fat or hideous, that people do like me and that I am attractive. Being in a healthy frame of mind requires a lot of work for me, but I have discovered that positive energy creates more positive energy, and thus I have learned how to stop my depressive cycle before it begins, I have learned how to create my own self confidence and how to nurture it. We can create our own happiness or we can make our own misery. Once I really understood this idea things became easier because the answer to the question I was asking myself; "Would you rather try to make yourself happy, or would you rather continue doing things that make you miserable?", well, the answer is pretty obvious. What I had to learn next was what kind of things make me happy.
Writing makes me happy. Talking to people makes me really happy. I am a people person, an odd mix of introvert and extrovert. Doing kind things for people makes me happy. Sharing with people the things I care about and am passionate about makes me happy. I have broken this idea down into a simple catch phrase: "Give Love". When I give love to others freely, I create love within myself, and that allows me to give others even more love. Positive energy creates more positive energy. Try it out yourself today, if you like. Give someone a compliment, help someone with something, lend an ear to someone, do something selfless, even if it seems trivial or minute, and you will find that you feel better for it and more capable of doing things than you were before. Find what makes you happy and do that when you feel sad or overwhelmed or depressed, something healthy that makes you and others feel happy and better. One way I fight depression is by doing things. I know that sounds dumb and simple but it is the truth, even if it is nothing more than cleaning something up or making a phone call to someone I haven't spoken to in a while or just taking a walk around the neighborhood, my point is that doing things makes us feel capable of doing even more, and that helps us feel less overwhelmed by the world. Wouldn't you like to feel less overwhelmed? Start by finding something to do that is healthy for you and that makes you happy and then go and do it. Sometimes the answer to the BIG THINGS in life can be really that simple.
Not that "Give Love" and "Do things" is the real answer. They are just steps, steps on a long road to self discovery and healing that I am still walking down.
I remember going to bars late at night in the East Village with a book under my arm and a pen in my pocket. I would go to a bar, order a beer and sit down and write, thinking to myself that some girl might become interested and ask me what I was doing, and that somehow I would talk to her about my writing and she would become attracted to me and be my girlfriend. I had no idea what the hell I was doing. In my mind it would be romantic and natural, and she would fall in love with my writing and then fall in love with me. Needless to say, this never worked, and I would go home drunk and by myself. I did not love myself at all then, I loathed my appearance and thought that my only good feature was that I was really smart and I have a good heart with a lot of love to give.
I did not know that I deserved to be loved. This is step one, and it only works if first you are able to love yourself. We can not truly be loved or love another until we care enough about ourselves that we can give ourselves love. Only then can we give that love to another.
In the past, any setback or rebuke would begin the mantra of depression in my head of You are fat. You are poor. You are ugly. No woman could ever love you. You are a loser. Pathetic. Hopeless. I buried my emotions in books, in politics, in my writing, in poetry and prose. I had no one to share these things that I have passion for. The one thing that kept me slightly sane was my writing, the books I was reading, and the knowledge that any pain I caused myself would be pain that I was inflicting on others. It was not until I started losing some weight and taking better care of myself that I could understand that I was not ugly. I did not have to be fat. A woman could love me. I could love myself. I am not pathetic. I am not hopeless. All these things that befall us in life, all of our misfortunes and setbacks are placed before us for a reason, a reason that we can not comprehend, but it makes me think of the old saying "Whatever doesn't kill you only makes you stronger." It was at this point of my life when I discovered the true meaning of that phrase when I discovered Daily Kos. That moment, discovering an outlet where I could not only write my thoughts but also have them read and shared with others, was a pivotal moment in my life. Writing has not only saved my life, that Poetry teacher who befriended a mourning 17 year old not only saved my life, but you and every one here on Daily Kos has helped to save my life. Writing truly has saved my life over and over, and it will do so again, as it always has.
Today I am 31 years old, I have no job, no girlfriend, no money, my phone is going to get shut off very soon, I have no computer, no family (I always thought I'd have a wife and kids right about now), I have no savings, no way to pay the rent, and I honestly do not know what life will bring my way next. Years ago this would have crushed me. Today, I have the strength and self confidence to fight back.
And when I think of people like Jeri-Lynn Betts, people like my father and the countless others who have been ground under foot by the iron heel of the super rich, those who have had their jobs outsourced, had their pay frozen or cut, those who struggle to keep a roof over their head, those who are driven into poverty despite all of their hard work, those who fear what the next day may bring and can no longer cope with the setbacks and losses doled out by the world, when I think of all these people, suffering needlessly despite their best efforts, when I think of all of this needless pain inflicted upon working class Americans while the super rich demand more tax breaks, more war, more wealth for themselves and more pain for everyone else, I understand why so many people who have tried to raise themselves up by their own bootstraps when the odds are so clearly stacked against them give up and lose hope. All of our poverty and suffering is a by product of the rigged game that benefits only the rich at the expense of everyone else. Those bootstraps were never meant for you to pull yourself up with, but they were never meant to hang yourself with either. The game is rigged. The hope I have is to FIGHT BACK, and to give the rich who have given us only misery and poverty for over a decade and longer hell for what they have done to people like Jeri-Lynn Betts, people like my father and the countless others whose suffering goes unreported and whose families are not Too Big To Fail.
Writing saved my life. A teacher saved my life.
In the last year I have gone from being homeless to saving up and getting my own apartment. My writing has started bringing me some recognition and respect. I worked my ass off, using them thar bootstraps, and all it took was a boss who would rather pay someone less than me so he could pocket the difference as profit in exchange for inferior labor to halt my momentum and put me back at square one. I am but one of millions and millions of Americans who is just one income-less month a way from poverty and homelessness. In the past this would have left me devastated. But not now. Writing has saved my life before, and it will do so again.
I have written two books in my life. One is titled "Scrapple" as mentioned above and recounts my experience at my first job shortly after my father's death, the other is titled "Americana" and is a collection of short stories I have written over the years. I am currently working on a third book. I have always worked in restaurants and other low wage paying businesses, and I have always started on the bottom and worked my way to the top, but my true dream has always been to write for a living, because writing is what I love. I would like to ask you to help me make this dream come true.
So, here is my proposal to you, kind reader. As I type this diary I hold in my hands a copy of one of my books, titled "Americana". The book needs to be typed up and edited, all 185 pages of it. I intend to publish it myself as an e-book. I am hard pressed for money right now, so I have decided to use my writing as a way to make my dreams come true, but I need help, so what I would like to do is offer you the opportunity to buy my book. All you need to do to buy my book is follow this link for my paypal account and make a contribution, and I will save the email addresses of each person that makes a contribution and will send them an e-book copy of my book once it is typed and edited. If I am able to raise enough money the money that I raise by doing this will go to paying my rent and buying groceries so that I have a place to live and food, paying for my cell phone bill and a subway card in New York City so that I can continue to look for work, and the remainder (if there is enough) will go towards hiring someone to type up and edit my book, or, if I can't raise that much, then I will do it myself, though that will take me a very long time. I would prefer to hire someone else to do this, (Though I have no idea how much it costs to pay someone to do this) so that I can continue focusing on new writing projects, but one way or another if you make a contribution you will receive a copy of my book. In exchange for your contribution I will send you a copy of my book and my love to you and yours, and the only condition that I will add is that you do some small act of kindness to another human being, because that small act of kindness, to the right person, might just save their life.
You can purchase your copy of "Americana: By Jesse LaGreca" by making a contribution of your choice to me with Paypal
The book is full or romance, regret, comedy, action, dreams, liberal hippy bullshit, love, loss, hope, struggle, sex, suffering and healing. There is even a musical number in it (My homage to Mel Brooks). I am certain you will enjoy it.
Today I am 31 years old. I have no job, no girlfriend, and six dollars to my name. But I am stronger than ever. Whatever doesn't kill you only makes you stronger. I wish I could have told my father that years ago. I wish I could have given him love. I wish I could have saved his life, as one kind first period poetry teacher did for me many years ago. But I can not go back in time, I can only go forward. With that said, I hope to go forward and succeed, and I want my writing to do that for me, not my ability to cook or sell products I don't really care about or whatever other menial job comes my way before my dream of writing for a living is achieved. I have hope. Hope for myself, hope for all of us. I will give love. I have been homeless, hopeless and down and out before. No more. I have strength now, a self confidence I never knew of before, and I will not fail, but I need your help. So please, consider buying a copy of my book, and if you do I will gladly send you a copy as soon as I can get it typed up and edited.
Thank you for helping me vent. Any and all help is greatly appreciated, but even if you can not help, may I ask but one thing of you, good stranger? Do some small act of kindness today for a stranger or a loved one, it might just save their life, and it might just save your life too.
Peace and love to you and yours,
You can follow me on Twitter @JesseLaGreca