Once locked away in a prison cell for 25 years — one extraordinary man discovers how to heal his own pain through the service of others
Usually, people think that I’m a strong, happy person…but behind my smiles they just don’t know how much I’m in pain and almost broken…”—CoolNSmart.com
Pain. How can a person understand life when life was crushed before living it? And what about the crude impact on the development of such a person? To answer this, I have to go back to ask my 7-year-old self this very question. He remembers.
I’m a curious life observer. I have learned to witness and read others. I have tried many times to study and understand the mind of others — in an effort to understand my own. I have tried many times to visualize this feeling of happiness or elation that others may feel; yet in the end, I still come up with the same conclusion: The grass is not greener on the other side.
And this coming from a man who has spent 25 years in prison, means something.
I wonder if there is such a thing as everlasting pain or sorrow. I truly want to believe that the answer is No. That it can go, fade, become something else. Yet, I can attest firsthand that there is such a thing, that there is such a space where pain is felt. It resides, thrives and creates indelible scars.
At the age of seven, I was taken from my parents and placed in a foster home. Before this, I lived in countless environments that were not beneficial to any child. I lived in a shelter with my parents and my brothers, I lived in a hotel, I lived in a tiny apartment — and I also lived on the streets.
So, at the mere age of seven, when police and social workers told me that they were taking me from all of this and placing me in an environment that was deemed productive for my growth and development, one that would be safe — I was confused and unsure of what any of that really meant.
Some part of me felt grateful to be taken somewhere safe; a home with a warm bed to sleep upon, hot meals to eat and a notion of comfort I was unfamiliar with. However, the very ‘comfort’ that I was given also quickly revealed the price I would pay for that. Survival became crucial. And this same home where I was intended to be ‘safe’ and cared for was the same place where innocence was removed and molestation wore a face that smiled.
Now I know what pain is.
I learned that pain exists both physically and mentally. My young mind was left to navigate the pain and the choices before me. This small boy must decide; Do I stay and face the pains of molestation in the name of ‘comfort’ or do I leave and go back into the abyss of the unknown? And between the ages of 8-10 I would be confronted with that very choice over and over again. That young, vulnerable self concluded that the unknown was worse than what I was enduring. Besides, who could possibly understand the unspeakable dilemma — a choice between abuse or discomfort?
From the age of seven to sixteen, I remained in foster care. 9 years. During this time, I lost my grandmother and my uncle — the only two people in my family who had helped ease the pain of my young life. My grandmother was able to pull me from the system and adopt me — though that didn’t last long. When she died, my uncle did the same…and then he died.
This was an unimaginable series of losses for me. I didn’t question their love. That love made me feel that there was light at the end of the tunnel. It gave me connection and a sense of belonging to something, someone. It was someplace I could bury my pains and find my smile. But losing the only two people in my life that I loved more than anything or anybody only added to the pains that I thought I once buried.
I thought of my pain almost as the ‘Internal City’ described by Plato in The Republic where men build cities on top of cities.
Those cities were my wounds — new levels were being reconstructed upon them, compartmentalized. I couldn’t fathom just how deep pain could go. Yet, I wasn’t quite done adding layers.
At the age of sixteen, I was headed to prison for a crime that my misguided mind helped commit and I was being sent away for a very long time — longer than I had been alive. What do you mean that you are charging me for the murder of a man? This cannot be right because I know to my core that my actions did not cause the death of anyone.
When you are locked away in the cell, all of your days begin to look the same; the dreams you once had begin to fade quickly.
The memories that you try to hold onto begin to crawl away, and the only thing that remains is the pain — a constant companion. My cell wasn’t big enough to contain it all.
In the novel The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, the protagonist was locked away in a dungeon. He had no friends. He had no visitors. He heard no words. He saw no faces. He dreamed no more — all the protagonist knew and had was pain. It was the solitude that made him decide that life within these circumstances was simply not worth living.
When the day came to finalize his plan and end his life because it had all become unbearable — he heard a sound. The sound told him that he was not alone, and it was this belief that gave him the will to want to live again. He needed to know where that sound was coming from and by whom. That sound is the recognition needed for a person to understand that humanity still exists, that humanity is still alive even amidst the darkest hopelessness.
The prison cell resembles that solitude; resembles that space where thoughts of humanity have faded. It was in these prison cells that all I had was my pain, and my pain became the noise; became the thing or the element that made me want to live; the pain became the force that guided my body; the pain transformed into something totally life-saving. I lived and slept with pain.
Pain became my best friend because it stayed with me every day; each day I cried on the inside, but no one would ever know because on the outside I smiled — something I learned to do a long time before.
But what do we do with it? How do we contain it and carry it? More importantly, how do we transform it? I wasn’t sure it was even possible…but I knew it was worth a try. Like the Count, I heard a whisper; my soul.
As the years passed in prison, I began to observe the younger generation of inmates coming in and listened to their complaining about how hard life was or how they just wanted to give up because they were not able to do so much time — I knew what it was. I knew what they were experiencing like a familiar ghost. They were filled with anger and rage they didn’t know what to do with. They wanted to fight the system because they were mad. I knew that it was their pain that they wanted to let out; they wanted to remove it, but they couldn’t — they couldn’t identify it and didn’t know how to release it.
I understood the signs because I saw them as clear as day. I lived them. I was them. I understood these young men so well that every time I saw them show up I would try to tell them, “I know the road that you’re traveling and it’s not a good one. This path has a fatal ending and sucks your humanity, leaves you numb and unwilling to love, unwilling to trust ever again. It will close you down. Harden you and make you forget your heart. And for this reason, I ask you to leave your pains with me. Give them over to me because I can bear them. I know what it’s like at the end of this road, and I’m willing to take your pains as long as you are willing to make changes — and are willing to witness happiness.”
You should’ve seen some of their faces when I muttered these words. It wasn’t your typical prison chatter. But I know them to be true to the core of my being. We all need a place to lay our pain down.
Do I tell people who complain or think that life is unfair, that they really don’t understand what’s unfair? Of course not. Life can be hard and I’ve certainly learned that the hard way. I promise you, few would want to walk a mile in my shoes. So, when you think that life is killing you, is so unfair, or unfavorable — I want you to understand that there is a man who saw and lived more traumas and witnessed more pains than I hope you ever see in a lifetime. But it is possible to allow yourself to heal from it all — to lay it down.
Healing is a choice, a hard choice.
I don’t want people to be driven by sorrow or by an ocean of anger — or all the things that have happened to them along the way. I want them to understand that pain exists in this human experience. However, we can do something with it. We can use it instead of being used by it. And mark my words, it can crush and crumble us.
We are not weak because we can’t handle the pain. We become weak because we relinquish our power and allow the pain to destroy us.
And this is what I try to help people see — we can remove ourselves from the equation of everlasting pain. I know this. I stare pain down every day, so give yours to me and be and live free. And perhaps one day, you too will shoulder the pain of another and help set them free. When we see each other’s pain, we see a reflection of our own. Imagine the world if we could just shift our relationship to pain and each other. Imagine how nice that would be.
Never underestimate the pain of a person because the truth is everyone is struggling.It’s just some people hide it better than others.—CoolNSmart.com
In March 2020 I was released from prison after 25 years and have begun the healing journey of releasing my own pain. My broad shoulders have held the pain of my life and that of others — it has been a part of my calling, but I am allowing myself to receive right now. I like to believe that in learning to heal my pain, I am a part of healing that of the collective. I also had my very first birthday party. Pain still whispers to me, but you know what? Life is good and I am free in more ways than one.
You may also enjoy reading Life After Death Row: How Magick Saved my Life, by Damien Echols