Having completed my twenty-four month sentence in Federal prison I am at the beginning stages of supervised release. Essentially probation. My supervised release will run for a period of three years. During this time I will report to a probation officer. As part of this process I am required to complete financial disclosure documents. I understand why I have to do this and accept the responsibilities of my actions.
I received the documents during my initial visit to the probation office. I didn’t really look at them at the time. When I got home I decided to start working on them. Grabbing my pen I turned the page and found myself staring into the past.
These were the same forms I was required to fill out before I was sentenced to prison.
Instantly I was transported back in time. Fear and uncertainty shadowing my every step. The dark cloud of prison looming over me. Moments of joy snuffed out like a candle in the wind. Unaware of where I would be going, my safety a perpetual concern. I feared that I had permanently destroyed my life and I would never recover. As I filled out the documents I was consumed by the same exact feelings I had two years ago.
Shame. Guilt. Sadness. Embarrassment. Self-loathing. Worthlessness
My heart rate increased and my breathing became labored. A panic attack only a few pen strokes away. I would put the form down, the pressure too much. The memories so strong and powerful. The emotions as clear as the day I first felt them. The gigantic hole that I have worked so diligently to fill returned. I felt empty inside. My confidence shattered.
After a week of torment I finished the documents. Only to find out that I did not have to. The week of anxiety didn’t need to happen. I was relieved and pissed.
I have been asked to complete the forms again. My heart skipped a beat, my breath became shallow. My initial reaction a carbon copy of the first time.
The forms are very detailed. How much to the penny do you make, how much do you spend and what do you spend it on? Individual lines for each and every expense, groceries, phone, clothing, transportation, everything. A financial dissection of ones life.
I have an acquaintance who is buying a home. She is filling out similar paperwork, but obviously for much different reasons. Every expense under a microscope, your every purchase analyzed. We commiserated about the process. About how we feel that we are letting somebody see us in a way most people don’t.
She said how she had put her entire life on those pages. I agreed with her. I think so many of us who have filled out similar forms have felt this way.
Exposed and vulnerable. Pulling back the curtain.
How quickly a life can be distilled from all that is into nothing more than a number.
This is how I am being viewed and this how I have viewed myself. I have been complicit in this myopic viewpoint.
So many of us have. So many of us have filled out similar paperwork for whatever reason. We feel exposed as though we are showing our true selves to whomever is on the receiving end of the form. All because of a number, we fall prey to the judgments of ourselves and the judgments of others. A competitive measuring stick, in a competition that can never be won.
In prison I was a number, 22052-014. I didn’t like it. Now as a free man I once again find myself being perceived as a number. So many of us fall into this trap. It might not be a number written on paper, but the car in our garage, the watch on our wrist or the clothes we wear.
When did we take such a wrong turn in associating our identity and self-worth with how much we make? And in turn how we spend that money? When did a number and things become who we are?
I have been working diligently to change this perception of myself. To fill myself from the inside and not seek external things to fill the holes inside of me. It’s a long road, but one worth walking.
I cannot change the perception of others, nor do I want to try. Whoever wants to view me this way can view me this way. Who ever wants to judge my current self against my past self can.
This train of thought has led me to the eternal question:
Who are we and why are we here?
I don’t know the answer to this question. How many people do?
But what I know is this:
These numbers are not me. What I wear, what I drive, where I live are not me. They are not a snapshot of who I am. They are merely things.
Providing details of what I make and how I spend it may feel personal, but it shouldn’t. This is not being exposed. This is not what matters in life. This is not who I am. Being authentic, being honest, sharing your fears, your loves, your ideas, your passions. Writing, painting, singing, doing work you love, opening your soul and showing your true self, warts and all. Experiencing life, not purchasing life. This is being exposed. And through this exposure comes courage. This is what is important in life.
I am a guy who is trying to keep his head above water. I am a guy who is scared of plenty of thing. I try everyday to do something I enjoy. To add whatever value, big or small to this world that I can. Trying everyday to help somebody. Stranger, friend or loved one. Some days I succeed and other days I fail. But I will approach each new day and try again.
I am not my past.
I am not a number.
I am a free man.