Words by: Chris O’connor
Mike was my first cellmate. He had tattoos from head to toe, or more literally, from neck to ankle. The homemade prison ink had faded and ran together. Consequently, Mike had almost no exposed white skin. From afar his complexion resembled a graying bird turd. Mike had a lengthy blonde goatee and thinning hair on his scalp. His arms and legs were wrapped in thick coats of old muscle, muscle that was obtained from countless confined workouts. Mike was forty-two and had spent eighteen years of his miserable existence behind a fence, iron-gate, or plexiglass door.
I’ll never forget our first handshake. The loudspeaker barked my cell assignment, “O’Connor, cell #6,” and I sauntered up the stairs to the upper tier. The door clicked open moments before reaching it. Mike stood alert and very present awaiting my entrance. We met eyes and executed an exceptionally formal and silent handshake. It simultaneously conveyed mutual respect and obligation with a twinge of defensiveness. Years later, I had a similar handshake with a Japanese girlfriend’s father. Both times I was terrified.
Over the ensuing months Mike and I got to know each other incredibly well, perhaps better than anyone I had known in the previous few years. Twenty-two hours per day in a six by fourteen foot space will do that. We laughed at each other’s farts, traded Star Trek books, cooked meals (mostly just top ramen and refried beans), and critiqued the weekly soaps on television.
Mike’s upbringing was infinitely worse than mine. He did not stand a chance. While our familial histories were vehemently different, we shared the common bond of addiction. Many of our talks centered around romancing the drug or reliving an intoxicated adventure. Occasionally, he would caution as to where my life was headed with such behavior, but I didn’t heed his warnings. I’d generally dismiss such speak with a “Yea, yea” or “ I know, I know.”Then I would ask him to tell another story. I was fascinated by his life. I loved listening to him talk.
My adulation for Mike and his experiences was typified best by one occasion. Let me explain. Mike had a deluge of court paperwork that he traveled with throughout his incarceration. It was one of the few ways that he could add some resistance to his workouts that the guards couldn’t curtail. In other words, Mike would do bicep curls and tricep extensions with loads of legal papers because the prison could not dispose of them. His crimes literally made him stronger.
One day Mike shared some of his paperwork with me. One line in particular hit me hardest. It was in brackets and it read: (Defendant laughs). It was Mike’s recorded reaction to the judge’s sentencing of fourteen years in prison. The legal system decreed many, many years in prison and Mike took it in stride. He laughed! I still remember looking at him after reading that line and thinking, “This guy is the man. He has got it all figured out. He is untouchable. Nobody can hurt him.” I desperately wanted to be like Mike. I wanted to laugh in the face of despair. I wanted to not care.
I recently told this story to my sponsor and his response was that I probably have a year worth of work to do on this alone. He was half serious, but it got me thinking. And it motivated me to write this article. Why was it so important that I don’t care? Why is my immediate reaction to run from most feelings?
At some early point, every human being experiences a judgment that has a devastating and lasting effect on his or her ego. For most of us this occurs before we hit the big milestones. For instance, picture the child surrounded by his loving parents and siblings. Everyone exults in his newfound awareness of personal anatomy. He touches his ears and everyone merrily shouts, “Ears!” Then he touches his nose and all rejoice with “Nose!” Next come the feet and “Feet!” It’s only natural that he finds his penis, except this discovery invokes a “No!!” and maybe worse. At that very moment something changes within this child. He learns not only that he shouldn’t touch his genitals, but that his natural inquisitiveness… his natural tendency to explore… his freedom… could result in punishment, pain, or fear. His self is stifled in that moment.
Am I saying we should celebrate when our two year old grabs his dick? No. Well, maybe. I really don’t know. My point is to communicate a message by attempting to answer the problem of why I so badly wanted to be like my cellmate Mike. I want to shed some light on my delusional desire to “not care.”
I believe this desire was born in judgment, or more aptly stated, in my reaction to judgment. Being chosen last for a pick-up basketball game, acne on one’s face, rejection, failure, or embarrassment can weigh heavily on an individual’s psyche. It weighed heavily on mine and resulted in costly enduring changes to my ego. It didn’t have to, but it did. Worse yet, when my ego couldn’t cope, I further lost myself by ingesting chemicals. The disease loves this situation. It is a fast track to personal hell.
A mentor of mine strongly advocates “radical freedom.” This concept was foreign to me until recently. I’m beginning to grasp it’s meaning which is essentially just freedom. He added the word “radical” because we need it to flaunt whatever judgments have bogged us down into conditioned behavior and responses.
Radical freedom is the key to happiness in life and sobriety. When a group of us gather and share such freedom a beautiful thing happens: wounds heal, bonds form, and the present arrives. I envy those of us who are able to release their inhibitions with ease and experience this freedom on a more frequent basis. These are the people I choose to surround myself with in sobriety. And these are the people who truly want the best for me (and themselves).
My initial reaction to the idea of radical freedom was flippant. I retorted, “Should I pee my pants when I gotta go and snatch purses instead of working?” I love to poke holes in things. But the truth is that I don’t like the feel of wet britches or purse snatching. Furthermore, “poking holes” is probably my most conditioned response. I do it when I’m scared. And nothing scares me more than radical freedom. Careful examination has reveled this may be a good thing. I tend to resist everything that results in growth. Everything.
It’s ironically fitting that an assessment of my incarcerated mentality led me to this notion of radical freedom. Ultimately, the prison of my mind was what held me in a prison of brick and mortar. Experiencing love and compassion between human beings is what keeps me free today. This means not judging, feeling feelings, and letting go. It requires suppressing suppression until all that is left is radical freedom. Be free. “ True autonomy arises when we have broken free of all the old structures, all psychological dependencies, and all fear. Only then can that which is truly unique and fearless arise within us and begin to express itself. Such expression cannot be planned or even imagined because it belongs to a dimension uninhabited by anything that has come before it.
“True autonomy is not trying to fit in or be understood, nor is it a revolt against anything. It is an uncaused phenomenon. Consciously or unconsciously all beings aspire to it, but very few find the courage to step into that infinity of aloneness.” -Adyashanti