JOE C.

In opening, let me say that I don’t believe my lived experiences or unskilled decisions give credit to or validate my story, but I hope that the context and humanity of my relationships to those experiences aids another being in finding true freedom from suffering. 

I was raised in western Massachusetts in a rural town, across the river from one of the larger cities. I have 6 brothers and sisters, from a mixture of my parent’s previous marriages. My father was 51 when I was born, and my mother 22 years younger, suffered with back pain from an accident some years earlier. For the most part my childhood was that of an only child and my siblings were much older and had moved on, but occasionally 1 or 2 of them would need a short stay at our small home.

Due to my mother’s back injury, much of my life has consisted of seeing her medicated with opiates. She had numerous surgeries, was constantly in pain, and it was difficult for her to have the level of parental engagement other children experienced. My father was a service mechanic, specializing in video machines like jukeboxes, arcade/pinball and other various barroom amusements. The work with those machines was a front for the real moneymakers, video poker games, which was an underground economy driven by the New York based crime family, operating across the river from our home. There were no casinos in Massachusetts, so the gambling underworld was very lucrative for criminal enterprises.

With my mother laid up in bed recovering or medicated, I spent countless hours with my father running service calls to bars and clubs to either collect money or repair equipment. Given the nature of those environments and that of the one at home with my mother, I usually saw folks seeking external solutions to internal dilemmas. My mom accessed pills easily, and the folks at the bars were generally medicated or gambling, coping or trying to fill some void that I was yet to experience or understand. 

Given the circumstances of my mom’s condition and father’s age, I spent many weekends with my cousins on the lake close by. My aunt and uncle were younger than my parents, and loved to take us out on the boat and it was really enjoyable as a young kid.  Around the holidays and big events, my household would be overrun with family and friends, mostly of Irish and Italian backgrounds, lots of good food and booze. Drinking was the social lubricant at all family gatherings and I began to associate alcohol with care free spirit and camaraderie. 

The line of work that my father was in, compounded with the age of many of his family members, had me attending many funerals and Catholic services. Everything from murder and alcoholism to cancer and old age contributing to someone’s demise. My first direct contact with alcoholism/addiction related death was seeing my Uncle Bobby in the hospital shortly before he lost his life to substances. I was 9 or 10 years old. Experiences of loss and suffering would shape my beliefs for years to come. 

By the time I was 12 or 13 I had become a great piano and guitar player, was getting good grades and spent any other free time skateboarding. Though I thoroughly enjoyed all of those activities, I was really getting my sense of self from them. Spiritually, I was done with Catholicism, at least church and Sunday school for that matter. I was coming into myself, but couldn’t understand how my mother could suffer so much yet have such devout faith. Regardless of my opinion, that faith would outlast my doubt. 

Skateboarding was life. We went to small punk shows on the weekends after skating all day, and I remember getting really fired up about my first copy of Op Ivy’s Energy album and seeing Sublime at the Van’s Warped Tour, as well as embracing the other early 90’s cultural genetics. With that came marijuana, and the occasional keg party in the woods. I’m not of the variety that came to drugs and alcohol and at first sip was screaming “This is it! This is the solution to everything!” My relationship with drugs and alcohol changed when I used them as my attempt so solve my problems.

By junior and senior year of high school I started running into issues with my social circle. My cousin started dating the girl I was really into, and we had all been really close, so that shit hurt. I also had a close friend that had moved in at my parents due to some issues he was having with his family. See my house was the kind of place a lot of people liked to spend time….there was minimal supervision, my dad was frequently gone evenings, and my older brothers and sisters had paved the way for smoking pot and drinking to be acceptable as a teen, so long as the police weren’t involved.  At this point I had been seeing a girl again for about a year, we did prom and the whole bit. My friend and I graduated, and he moved out. The night before my graduation party she was with another guy and I found out, and both she and my friend ended up getting together.

This is the point that my social circles had been disrupted, and I felt betrayed by my tribe. Looking back, I know that they were acting on their human condition, but it quickly turned into my personal hell. My peers were very important to me, and the trust that was once a foundational element to my well-being and community was gone. I was introduced to cocaine and immediately dove all in. Everything that came with the cocaine crowd was new, dangerous and exhilarating. I was now surrounded by a brand new community. I’ve come to understand that community is important for this existence, regardless of what I am doing or how bad it affects my life. My delusion became that if I could only keep cocaine around, I could keep this new community also, not understanding the impermanence of highs and lows. My seeking refuge in drugs and alcohol would continue to destroy my life and opportunities for 14 more years.

Shortly after graduation 9/11 happened and I joined the Navy, and I would throw that career away a year earlier than expected due to a failed UA. During my service I had married a heroin addict (unbeknownst to me), and the turbulence of her addiction and breaking of trust, I medicated the only way I knew how and it cost me. I returned to MA, got divorced and engaged in criminal activity and drug dealing until my friend died of an overdose before my eyes. The losses and forfeitures would continue and become increasingly worse through a move to Colorado, Wyoming, Washington, California and back to Washington. 

I believe in the concept of experiences shaping the brain and in turn the brain shaping experience. For a while, drugs and alcohol worked. I found solace in them in desperate times, but it is necessary to wake up to the reality that pain is unavoidable, but we do not have to suffer. I invested so much time medicating with substances that I didn’t see the suffering they created in my endless search for endless highs. 

By 2014 I was strung out on heroin, homeless on the streets of Seattle. I was the father of a beautiful 3 year old little girl. I put drugs in front of my desire to parent. Using had become such a normal response to my human condition that I was now in bondage to a drug I believed I had sworn off. The fact was that the pain became too great, and opiates are not just good for physical pain, but they briefly do wonders for emotional pain also. 

The 12 step rooms describe what I was living as physical, moral and spiritual bankruptcy. It was just that. I was 35 lbs underweight, rarely bathed, smoked cigarette butts off of the ground and slept in doorways. I stole food, ripped people off and served heroin above everything else at all costs. I had been selling small amounts of dope on the streets to support my own habit for about 6 months when I was arrested in April of 2015 for having sold to an undercover Seattle police officer. Throughout that 6 months I had occasionally been picked up for warrant violations and other matters and my ability to stay out of custody was narrowing. I was repeatedly going through the turbulence of opiate withdrawal in county jail, only to be released to the same avenue I was operating on as an addict. Finally by May I had been arraigned in drug court, and they weren’t all too interested in my promises of showing up to court if they released me one more time. Successful completion of the drug court program (ranging from 12-18 months) would result in my felonies being dismissed. 12-18 months seemed like an eternity, given I had learned to use drugs in response to all of life’s up and downs. My existence had become too painful in or out of jail, and the temporary relief offered by drugs was better than any relief I could access elsewhere, but that seemed really out of reach with 2 felony charges holding 3 years over my head. 

Drug court offered me an in-custody treatment program at the county jail south of Seattle. It was a 60 day program with an overall stay of about 4 months when I was going through it. While there, we had a couple AA meetings weekly, a sort of intensive outpatient regimen and the regular jail programming. I started reading the bible and the big book of AA, and was realizing that my absence of faith had started to evolve into a conception of a higher power or consciousness, but I really wasn’t totally sold on the god in the sky idea. Now I know that the higher power concept can come and exist in many forms in everything from the fellowship to Jesus, but growing up Catholic and around churches and such I wasn’t ready to fully invest in that.

Around this time I had remembered my daughter’s mother telling me that she met this heroin addict at a yoga class she was teaching, and he mentioned the only thing that truly helped him recover were the spiritually deepening practices of yoga asana and meditation. In all of my drugscapades and using around my family, I had never taken her advice of trying those practices for my benefit. I was so uncomfortable with myself and the fact that I was basically starting my criminal career at the age of 32. I started committing to trying to sit for 5 minutes at least 2-3 times a day, using mantra or breathing, but I really didn’t like spending more than 30 seconds alone with myself, so progress was minimal. All of the fears and self-pity that came in the wake of addiction and the damage I caused presented themselves during my sits. By my second month in custody, I had become a trustee worker in the jail and had first access to books coming into the unit. I came out one morning and saw a copy of Dharma Punx on the shelf and the photo of Noah’s tattooed hands immediately caught my attention. I opened it after breakfast that morning and think I had finished reading it by lunch the following day. I clearly remember one of the AA guys telling us to identify or listen for our story in the pages of AA, but I didn’t find my culture in the big book like I found it in Dharma Punx-the music, skating and graffiti. More importantly, my current circumstance seemed similar to Noah’s on a few levels and this book gave me a vast sense of relief. I felt like it was written just for me-and that book became my jail gem.

Suddenly, more spiritual books started coming into our unit, one by one, Thich Nhat Hanh,  Bo Lozoff’s book on asana practices for incarcerated populations, and a couple of pieces on Zen. I began doing brief sits and a daily yoga practice. I found that through the physical practice I was able to foster a better meditative practice than my first attempts.  I was participating in a program for incarcerated veterans and they started offering a meditation and MBSR class on Saturdays and I found books on compassion and forgiveness.

When I was arrested, I had been part of a huge narcotics sweep in downtown Seattle, called Operation Crosstown Traffic. About 40 of the people in my jail unit were people I had ran the streets with, some of us friends, some of us enemies. I was still reading the big book of AA and had some understanding around the 9th step amends, and was told to trust the process and take the steps with a sponsor upon my release, but I felt some couldn’t wait. I had about 3 weeks left in the jail when it dawned on me that I held a lot of resentment towards some of the guys I was in there with; some ripped me off, others I ripped off, one of them was even the guy who brought the undercover officer to buy off of me. I believed that if I stood a chance at recovering, I’d better start sooner than later. I’ve heard not everyone has magnificent experiences with their amends and that’s understandable, but there was a lot of healing that took place around making some while behind bars, in my experience. I felt “why wait?”, the nature of life, and surely that of addiction doesn’t promise me another chance to forgive or ask for forgiveness with some of these folks.

I was released out of custody services with King County Drug Court August 31st 2015. I immediately got involved with AA. Sober support was part of my court requirements, I got a sponsor and went on a tear through the steps. Not to get through them to say that I finished them, but because I was chasing recovery like I chased dope. During that entire time I had read all of Noah’s books and was working regularly with the meditative practices outlined in them.  I was told I would have a spiritual experience as a result of the steps and yoga practices, and I felt I had some spiritual connection while inside, so it began to seem I was getting loaded on that stuff now. The obligations of the court, and re-engaging as a parent helped me to find a tone of balance with my relationship to recovery so as not to engage an unhealthy relationship with it.

I was meditating regularly, and practiced a lot of yoga. I got interested in becoming an instructor, and attended a couple insightful workshops to the nature of yoga asana teacher trainings. I had just realized the cost of most trainings and had kind of shelved the idea, when I became a member at the Recovery Café in Seattle. Unbeknownst to me, they have a gentleman there that owns a local studio, and he offers a free 200 hour level teacher training to members of the café, and you can work at your own pace, so I got started. 

I had since made a pass through the 12 steps, was working with others and life had improved significantly. I was now a small business owner making kale chips and selling them at farmers markets, and was close to graduating drug court. My father’s health was declining tremendously, and I began frequently taking trips to California to see him and help my mother. Through asana and meditation I found much relief and understanding surrounding the impermanence of life and the thought of losing my father.

In September 2016, I graduated drug court. In October I graduated yoga teacher training, and in November, the day after the election of Donald Trump, my father passed. The deepening of my meditation practice around losing my father and the injustices of the world were weighing in on my life heavily. Though injustices have been present long before I was willing to acknowledge them, I now needed to be part of something that took radical action on a daily basis. Nationally, it seemed we were headed in a worse direction and I was in a state of disbelief with the people in my family surrounding their political choices and the discourse became that of racism and hatred. Addiction, as well as my practices in recovery, allowed me to see the interconnectedness of beings and to understand that we all want to experience joy and happiness. I found myself really digging into practices of forgiveness and compassion, as well as the foundations of mindfulness to navigate the hardships of disagreement with family and friends. Above all, the practices and sits around death were some of the most integral pieces to dealing with the loss of my dad about a year and a half into my recovery process, and through that I didn’t find it necessary to use drugs or alcohol.

In 2017, the fruits of my practices and work with the recovery community exploded into unbelievable realities. In April I was hired by a treatment agency to work as a Resource Case Manager at the drug court I was a graduate of. By May, my business was going into its 2nd year. Noah was in town, I attended one of his talks and had the chance to speak with him afterward. I have a daily meditation practice for evaluating my experiences, and it has encouraged me to skillfully engage social activism, real food movements and my recovery. Many, if not all, of my experiences that brought me to recovery and the life I live today ignited around coming into contact with that Dharma Punx book in jail. 

Around the end of 2017, I saw Noah speak again and found my Refuge Recovery community and Rebel Saints Meditation Society. I’ve spent a lot of time in the rooms of AA/NA and have a lot of gratitude around the 12 steps, yet meditation practice and studying Buddhist psychology in conjunction with my daily yoga practices, have brought me the most equanimity as of yet. Refuge Recovery and the Eightfold Path have allowed me to personally expound agency over my actions, while embracing the community and teachings necessary for all of our happiness and freedom from suffering.