January 1, 2012. New Year’s Day. New Year’s Resolutions. Time for change. For me, it began with a binge on wine and vodka, the middle included a gun in my mouth, and the end included me in a jail cell.
I was an elected official in the third largest city in Missouri. I was an Iraq Veteran. I was a father, husband, homeowner, college graduate, full-time employee at a well-known law firm. It seemed as if I had it all. Yet, over the course of just a few weeks, I had racked up five felonies: three assaults, Unlawful Use of a Weapon, and Tampering with Evidence. 22 years is what I faced. 22 years in prison.
That night, as I sat in the jail cell, I had to ask myself: Am I a bad person, or am I a good person who is perpetually making bad decisions. I concluded the latter was true. I had a good heart, but it was a heart that nobody could see because on the outside I smelled of liquor, depression, and anger.
Then came January 2, 2012. Day 1 of sobriety. I made bail that day and I made it to my first of hundreds of AA meetings that day. But it was the first day of a very long road ahead. Two years of experiencing the legal system, 120 days incarcerated, and years of therapy for PTSD.
Since that day to this, nine years later, the lessons learned about life and about myself are too many to mention, but I want to discuss the top three.
Humility: There is no better place to learn humility than a jail cell and smeared on the front page of media. At some point, I had to recognize that my choices and decisions were owned by me and only me. My dad and brother died when I was 13. My mother was on drugs for years after that. I was in foster care. I saw the horrors of war. But to pawn my decisions off on my experiences in the past was not humble, nor responsible, nor was it going to get me where I wanted to go. By taking responsibility for my actions I become more aware of my decisions in real time and even ahead of time. Responsibility made me more aware. Responsibility made me more humble. Responsibility made me more responsible. It was my attorney at the time, who is now a friend, that said to me in the midst of my darkness: “Nick, at some point in time you are going to have to realize you made some really bad choices.” He was right. And I’m glad he was that frank. Had it not been for those words spoken, I may have never realized the power of humility.
Forgiveness: It’s amazing how hard it was for me to learn to forgive prior to my rock-bottom of January 1, 2012. I was very much of the mind that you made your own bed and part of that bed was suffering the consequences of scorn without end. What I never realized is that the power of forgiveness can truly change two people: the person being forgiven and the person doing the forgiving. My charge of Unlawful Use of a Weapon stemmed from me pointing a loaded weapon at my now-ex-wife. That happened right before I put that gun in my mouth. The thought of my children not having a father and my mother losing a second child is what saved my life that day.
In the years since I put that gun down, I have been forgiven by my ex-wife. We have holiday dinners together with her current husband and my current wife. We work together when our now-grown children need us. We have become good friends. But that would have never happened had she not forgiven me. Forgiven me for pointing a gun at her. Forgiving me for being a drunk husband for 13 years. Forgiving me for being a cheating spouse.
Having been forgiven by her for those horribly embarrassing things led me to the question I always ask myself: “What right do I have to not forgive others for their trespasses against me?” The answer is that I don’t have any right to not forgive.
Forgiveness is the most powerful gift I can give a person. And it is the most powerful, empowering, and liberating gift I can give myself. When I forgive, I’m released of the burden of anger and resentment. That is liberating.
Perseverance: It would have been easy for me to throw in the towel on my hopes and dreams after I had to resign from office and was painted as a maniac in the media – after incarceration, public scorn, and left to deal with the demons in my life and skeletons in my closet.
But I didn’t. Not once did I even consider settling for a life of mediocrity. If I could overcome war, family death, drugs in the home, and foster care, I could manage this. I remember getting out of jail and starting work all over again. Minimum wage, part-time, working as a prep cook at an Indian Restaurant. I had nothing to my name except a car that would break down on the way to work. My kids were distant from me emotionally, I was in an unhealthy relationship, and things were looking dim.
But I never quit. Decisions were hard and at times I was scared to death that I was going to be stuck in the rut I was in. But I did not quit. Ever.
Today, I own my own business, I am remarried and live on a good side of town, and I make a very solid income. None of that is to gloat or brag, but to show what is possible when we don’t quit. There is always room for improvement and I believe the only person in my way of getting there is me.
In sum, what it comes down to is this: be humble, forgive always, and never quit the fight. No excuses.
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