Walking out of prison was a powerful thing. December 5, 2014 was cool and gloomy and brisk and glorious. My wife and I both shed tears of joy when she hugged me on the outer-border of Winfield Correctional Facility. The long drive down the winding road away from the prison seemed surreal, as though I was breaking some sort of rule. But as we left the prison property, then made it to the outskirts of Winfield, then to the Kansas Turnpike heading for Wichita, the reality seemed to solidify under my feet — even at 75 miles per hour. My wife and I stopped at the turnpike rest stop outside of Wichita and went into the gas station, just because I could. I took my $50 cash “gate money” that the prison had given me, walked over to the gas station refrigerator, pulled out a Gatorade, walked up to the counter, paid for it, took my change, and walked out the door – just because I could.
That was my first act as a free man, and it needed to be done, just so that I could see for myself that the world hadn’t changed. But it had. My world had changed. Because the whole time I was in that store, I looked at everyone with the thought, “Do they know who I am?” Logically, of course they didn’t. Emotionally, I wore a giant Scarlet Letter. Thanks to America’s 24-hour news cycle, no one remembered me. No one remembered seeing me on the news, sitting at that courtroom table in my blue shirt and tie, awaiting the fateful ruling that would take me away from my family for two years, one month, and three days. No one remembered my depressing mug shot or my humiliating walk through the courtroom, away from my family and into Hell. In retrospect, most of the people in that rest stop were likely not from anywhere near Wichita (considering we were standing on the turnpike), but logic and emotion rarely coincide in situations such as this. Regardless, it was my baptism into the reality of my life: To those who knew me, I had become a villain. I wear the black hat.
I would have been deserving of the ridicule, the insults, and the dirty looks that I expected from anyone who remembered me for one reason or another. And even in an impersonal store full of strangers, I felt like I wore my tattered reputation and history on my chest like a poorly-printed slogan t-shirt. After paying for the Gatorade, I found myself walking with a bit of swiftness toward the door and to the car.
I got in the car — on the driver’s side — with my wife at my side, and wondered if, after over two years, I remembered how to drive. I pulled out of the parking lot, onto the highway, and merged into traffic seamlessly as though I hadn’t missed a day. It wasn’t “like riding a bike,” it was just the simple act of driving a car. And it felt glorious.
So as we barreled toward my hometown of Wichita, Kansas at 75 miles per hour, I wondered what new world I would be going home to, I wondered what would my new life would be, I wondered if people would believe that I wasn’t the same person who’d been led away in handcuffs two years earlier. There was no way to “show” anyone who I had become; all I could do was hope to live a testimony to my new-found values and identity.
I left the free world two years earlier thinking that I was just a regular guy who screwed up. I re-entered the free world knowing that I was a recovering addict whose life had become unmanageable, and the choices I’d made as a result of being a sex addict had resulted in my banishment from society. But over those two years, I grew to understand that I did indeed have a problem, which was the first step in addressing it.
The new world — the free world — hadn’t changed all that much. But the way in which I saw the world — and my life — could not have been more different. That was one of my greatest blessings.
We kept driving.