When the Sharp Reality of Regret for Your Actions Starts Setting In

For the longest of times, decades really, I lived by the philosophy that it was better to go ahead and live life the way I wanted and to apologize to people if I crossed any lines than it was to ask permission about crossing those lines in the first place.

I don’t know exactly where subscribing to this way of thinking came from. My parents, both elementary school teachers, were not “rock the boat” kind of people. My friends were usually not in line with that philosophy either.

My guess is that it has to do with the manic side of my bipolar disorder. I wasn’t put on medication until my mid-20s, and there were times I pulled myself off of it in the last 15 years, including the year or so leading up to my arrest. I think it could also do with the development of a warped set of survival skills as a small child. I can thank an abusive babysitter for that.

I’ve been struggling a little bit lately with depression. It’s the second time this year I’m dealing with it. Surprisingly, I haven’t had a lot of depression to deal with over the last five years. My therapist believes that I was probably in more of a manic state during the 22 months I was waiting for sentencing, 6 months I was in jail and several months after my release as I began to see how my life played out. She suggests my mind was occupied with anxiety and manic energy, shielding me from the reality of what I was going through.

Now that I’ve made my way to the other side of the legal process, she says my body’s defense mechanisms are probably going back to the way they were before I went off the deep end with the porn and alcohol. I’m back to normal, but normal includes bouts of depression.

When I’ve gone through these cycles of depression in the past, I know they end in one of four ways: I basically sleep it off and let it pass, something extraordinary happens to shock me out of it, I figure out what is at the root of the depression or I up my medication. These cycles typically can last anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 months.

I went the medicinal fix root earlier this year, but would prefer to avoid it this time. I’ve been sleeping a lot extra this last month or so – about 9 hours per day vs. my usual 6 – and it’s showing a few signs of working, and the extraordinary option is out of my hands.

That leaves me with figuring out the root problem, and I think I made a big stride last night as I was lying in bed, fighting off tears of which I couldn’t identify the source.

Then it dawned on me: I have been letting regret smother me and I don’t have the tools to fight it off.

That earlier philosophy I mentioned is the root of my problems. I clung onto it during the worst of my addiction, when business partners were leaving, as I was becoming increasingly estranged from my family and while my world was crumbling. I stopped taking the bipolar meds, hoping to tap into the manic side of things during this time and continued to play by my rules, which included treating women like shit in chat rooms on the computer late at night.

I don’t think most people understand manipulating women to my will on the computer – often ending in them taking off their clothes – had very little to do with sex. Yes, it’s a sex crime, but it was an activity I engaged in to assert power. If I wanted porn, I knew how the internet worked. I wanted to control these women.

I don’t remember if I ever thought it was wrong at the time. My mindset was a mess at the time. I just needed that fix of power and control and I was going to get it anyway possible. If it occurred to me that it was despicable behavior, I certainly didn’t stop. I was going to do what I wanted to manipulate these women and I wasn’t going to ask if it was OK.

Then, the police knocked at my door. It turned out that one of those women I treated so poorly was a teenager. There was no saying sorry to get out of this situation.

Now, nearly five years since I was arrested and six or seven years since I was thinking straight regularly, I’m finally starting to understand the real wreckage I caused. I’m not going to run through a list of damages because frankly, it’s too long, involves too many people and it’s mighty painful.

My actions forever changed the course of my, and my family’s life. Someday, I will have grandchildren who discover what happened. Someday, I will want to move from my home and have to adhere to any residency restrictions a town may have in place for sex offenders. Someday, I may want a loan from a bank, but because I’m a former felon, it will be denied. Someday, I may want to get a job outside of my house and will have to cling to the hope they don’t perform a background check. Someday, I’ll want to travel out of the U.S., but dozens of countries won’t let me in. Someday, I’ll be a frail, elderly man who needs somebody to help him get to the police station four times a year to check-in as part of a restriction for a crime he committed decades earlier.

The philosophy I lived by led me to one place, a locked closet of regret and right now, I don’t have the key.

I’m not asking for pity or to be seen as the victim here. I did horrible things and deserved to pay a price. This is what I have coming to me. I thought that mentally, life would be easier the further I got away from it, but the regret just grows deeper.

Also, I’m not just starting to live with the regret. That started on the day I was arrested. What I’m living with now is the knowledge the regret will never go away.

Regret is knowing you did the wrong thing, knowing there is nothing you can do about it, and living with the fallout. It’s a fallout I’m coming to terms with more and more every day and it’s a painful process.

I lived my life without regret – and it’s the most regrettable thing I’ve done.

 

Feeling human again, if only for a moment

Lately, I feel like I’ve been in a place where I recognize just how few people, especially where I live, are ever going to be ongoing parts of my life again. As time marches forward, and the reality of the situation sinks in, it’s made me a bit depressed. That negative feeling was broken, if only momentarily, last night and it felt wonderful.

As I’ve said in the past, I’m a loner who doesn’t like to be lonely, but since I was arrested back in March 2014, I’ve been living in exile – just as much in my head as in my home.

I know people have short memories, but I also know how prominent I was in my community, publishing the regional magazine and serving on the City Council. It’s been 4.5 years since my arrest, but there are still the moments I’m out in public, see somebody I recognize, make eye contact, and watch them hurry away as quickly as a roach when the lights are turned on.

Because of this, I don’t approach people. I don’t know what people’s true opinions of me are and I don’t want to nurture an awkward situation. I also stay away from places that I know are well-populated. I go out to dinner with my family on Wednesday or Thursday nights, leaving Friday and Saturday for the non-convict crowd.

Last night, I was at one of the two decent independent Italian restaurants in town with my family.

When I was given my seat, I recognized a couple who were sitting with a larger party about 15 feet away. They were the parents of my high school girlfriend. We were together for about a year-and-a-half if I recall, maybe a little longer. I became much closer to her parents than she came to mind.

Family was priority at her house, and while my nuclear bunch were good, these folks had the market cornered on what family meant and they welcomed me into their arms back then. I haven’t had a set of parents as cool since, including my wife’s. When we eventually broke up our junior year of high school, I remember telling people I’d miss her family more than her.

I knew I wasn’t going to get up and go say hi, and part of me hoped that my features changed enough in the last 25 years and they wouldn’t recognize me.

At one point, when my wife and daughter went to the restroom, my ex-girlfriend’s mother came over to say hello.

“Josh, do you remember me?” she said.

“Yes, Mrs. L, I do. How are you? I responded, although I used her real last name.

“How have you been doing?”

“Very well. I’m healthy and keeping everything in balance. This is my son, Kaden,” I said.

“Hi Kaden. Your dad and my daughter were friends in high school,” she explained.

“I think she was my only girlfriend in high school,” I told them both. She was. No thinking needed.

We exchanged a couple pleasantries of a memory she carries about me and where both of us were living now, then she said the most important thing:

“We got your book and read it. It was good. How are things going?” she asked.

“I’m at four-and-a-half years sober from both addictions. I’m working on a new book for partners of porn addicts,” I said.

“We’re so proud of you. I’m glad you’re doing well, give me a hug.”

I hugged Mrs. L and she made her way back to her seat.

My wife and daughter returned and I told them about the exchange. I think my wife could tell it really stuck with me through dinner and into the night.

It’s the first time I’ve talked with anybody who I was once close with, read about my ordeal in the media, made the decision to read the book, and either as a result of the book or my confirmation of doing fine now, literally embraced me back into their life.

I’m not going over for dinner anytime soon. Hell, I may never see them again in my life. But that lifted my spirits in a way they haven’t been lifted in a long time. So much of my life is spent waiting for people to make me feel bad about myself that having someone come and provide a boost of confidence is unfortunately foreign.

I know Mrs. L doesn’t realize just how much that meant to me, but I hope that I can return the favor to someone else someday.

The manicotti was good, too.

Does committing a crime make someone inherently bad?

When I was arrested, I went from a “good” person to “bad” person in the blink of an eye for many people.  I still wonder if in revising their opinion, they came to the conclusion that while they thought I was a good person, I was always secretly bad or if my illegal act eliminated everything I’d accumulated in the good column. Did the good disappear? Was it ever really there?

Are people inherently good or inherently bad?

Neither. People just are. Social norms, acceptable behavior, laws and regulations all change over time. The behavior of someone in Year 317 or 1317 may seem to stand in stark contrast to modern day behavior labeled as acceptable. Were those people bad and didn’t know better? If we’re so advanced, will the people in 500 or 1000 years after we’re gone be all that more enlightened?

One of the more interesting evolutionary traits of humans (and I’m talking over millions of years, not hundreds) is the increasing need for order, averages and the status quo. We crave to know where to set the bar when it comes to every product, behavior or thought we produce or consume.

People are inherently fearful. They are scared that they will fall outside of their desired norm – and that’s even true of the most alternative anarchist. We go with the crowd, even if that crowd is a minority.

When people are looking through their black and white lenses because shades of gray are scary, I’m reminded of the oft-used phrase, “Hitler loved his dogs.” Can somebody be pure evil if they still love dogs? If the person who is the gold standard of evil has a soft spot for puppies is anybody 100% bad?

Well, no and nobody is 100% good, because again, those are labels that I’m using with my own unique definition. Hitler existed. His behavior has never been accepted as OK. But what if the Nazis won? There’s a good chance we’d be living in a world that looked back on Hitler through very different eyes and reached a very different conclusion about his place in history.

When I was arrested and convicted for my crime, I know that many people took an eraser to all of the things I had ever done that were seen as good. I raised tens of thousands of dollars for and brought awareness to plenty of local causes. I regularly volunteered my time or donated advertising space in my magazine. I made dozens of filmmakers’ dreams come true with the film festival I ran for three years. That all disappeared when I went from being a “good” person in many people’s eyes to a “bad” person because the one act of convincing a teenage girl to masturbate online trumps everything else I’ve ever done.

Should it? It’s not up for me to decide. I accept and live with the punishment I was given. I’ve come to understand what happened and for me, it takes place beyond good and bad. It was more an issue of sick vs. healthy. But I can’t stop people from viewing me as bad.

People are not one-dimensional enough at their core to be inherently anything. Labeling and stereotyping makes things easy. I think it was George Carlin who said something like, “There’s no reason for sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. If you just take a few minutes to get to know somebody, you’ll have legitimate reasons not to like them!”

I want people to like me and I want to feel like I’m contributing something to society. I think I achieved it in my life prior to my arrest, even if I was secretly a porn addict. I want to be seen as good. With what I did, that may never happen for a vast majority, even if I find the cure for cancer.

What’s most important for my recovery is that I know that I once had the capacity to do bad things that most people would never do. I was very sick when I made the decision to talk to women in online chat rooms. Even most sick people don’t do that. Then I made the decision to urge several to take off their clothes. Even more sick people don’t do that. Then I ignored the fact that there were females who might not have yet reached the age of 18, but continued the behavior. We’re now getting into a small number of sick people…but it’s what I was capable of, sick or not.

Does the fact I have the capacity to sink this low make me inherently bad? I think statistics suggest it makes me inherently rare and someone society correctly punished with a jail term and has determined tabs should be kept on for a while through probation. I understand the need for it, I really do.

There is no one-word, conditional-for-the-world-we-live-in-at-this-moment-in-time label that can apply to anyone. If we are inherently anything, it’s complex.

Keep Your Friends Close, and Your Good Friends Closer

I know I’m writing a bunch lately. Whatever the opposite of writer’s block is, I have it, and you’re the victim. One of the things that my 15-year-old son doesn’t seem at all interested in doing in life is creating or maintaining close friendships with other people. I guess it’s OK, but as somebody 27 years his elder, I worry that he’s going to come to regret it, especially if he finds himself with his back against the wall like I did when my pornography addiction was revealed in a very public way.

For those of you who follow this blog, forgive the next few sentences. You’ve read them too many times, but I’ve got to bring the newbies up to speed.

I was a prominent member of my community six years ago. I was the editor/publisher of a popular regional lifestyle magazine, was co-founder of a film festival that was finally getting national recognition and I’d just finished a term as a City Councilor where I lived.

I also had bipolar disorder, alcoholism and a porn addiction. Through a series of bad choices, I ended up engaging with a teenage girl online, convincing her to perform sexual acts on-screen. This is obviously illegal, I was arrested some months later in early 2014 and within an hour of my arrest it was the top story in Maine media and remained so for a few days. I ended up serving six months in jail for it in early 2016. I’ve been in recovery since April 1, 2014 with no relapses.

I was never the guy who formed deep bonds with people going back to my youth. I didn’t have a large group of friends. I had a large group of acquaintances in school. I had four or five good friends, but nobody rose to the “best friend” status.

I did a year of college in Rhode Island, made some friends, but never stayed in touch with them. Same thing happened at several work places I’ve had. I can be very, very close to you in November, but if you’re laid off in December, there’s a good chance we get together once in January and then never talk again. And for clarity’s sake, liking a photo of a “friend” on Facebook doesn’t count as friendship.

When I was running myself into the ground with the many full-time jobs (not to mention being a husband and father) six years ago, I thought I had more friends than I did. Since I had a big hand in the local media and the local government, I didn’t recognize exactly how many pretended they liked me much more than they ever did just to get my ear.

When I was arrested, about six people from that world of hundreds dropped messages to me on Facebook. When details – many that were incorrect – were in the media, even a few of those dropped by the wayside.

By the time sentencing rolled around in the first couple weeks of January 2016, I was left with two friends. Two. One had been around since 7th grade. The other was the ex-husband of a co-worker I met back in 2000 or 2001. Neither really had anything to do with the fast-paced life I created. They were around well before that time.

These two guys are not high-maintenance. We can go six days, six weeks or six months in between talking. It’s not a lot of effort to stay friends with them. It’s probably a big reason it worked.

I’ve reached out to a handful of other people who I thought I was closer with than most, but have received unanimous silence. When I see somebody in public who I know, I don’t go up to them out of courtesy and say hello. I allow them to come to me. Why create an awkward situation? I think people have said hello to me twice in 4½ years.

I understand there are a lot of things at play here. I was accused of a heinous crime, convicted on lesser charges and most people don’t know the actual details. I am probably more of a bogeyman in their eyes than is factually correct. If I am now just my crime, who wants to be friends with that crime?

I also understand many were never my friends. I do understand how friendships come and go while few stand the test of time. I thought that I had at least a half-dozen others out there that would last through everything.

I believe most people locally don’t actually despise me because of the crime. I think they despise the fact I presented myself as one thing while behind closed doors I was something else. I think there’s a level of betrayal there. If I were truly a monster incapable of change, I don’t think I would have sold any copies of my book or have been invited on so many radio shows and podcasts for interviews.

I have sold around 50 copies of my book locally. I was actually thinking I’d sell more, if for no reason other than people wanting to see if their name was in there. Honestly, I thought I’d sell a few hundred here. Thankfully, the higher-than-expected sales elsewhere made up for it and I’m still further ahead than expected.

I’ve not heard a review from anyone local other than my family. I wonder how many of my former “friends” have even read it.

The flip side of this is the idea that this is just part of my punishment. I shouldn’t be given a moment of pity over losing any friends I had and it’s all part of the package that comes with doing something as heinous as I did. I hope people recognize how much of the punishment and consequences of a crime don’t come from the legal system, but from society in general.

In the end though, I know it comes down to the fact I just wasn’t the kind of person who valued friendship for a lot of my life. I was content to let people go and I think because I gave off that vibe, others were content to let me go. I’m sure for many, I’m now just a guy they used to know.

I doubt my son is going to do anything as stupid as I did, but I worry that if he does, he’s going to have as little a support system outside of our family as I wound up having. I wouldn’t be this far along if it weren’t for my two friends, but I also wonder if I had four or five friends if I’d be even better off today. It’s one of those questions there is no answer for.

Cultivate friendships and nurture them. You’re going to be thankful they are there when you need them.