I was in Federal Court on Monday afternoon…

Tuesday morning’s air smelled like the past. The past really does have an aromatic quality, and sometimes the breeze rushes it into your nostrils like a powerful jolt of remembrance and reminiscence.

Or maybe it’s just me.

The pale-grayish Wichita highway spun like a giant treadmill beneath the wheels of my car this morning, as it does every morning. Just as it does in the Flint Hills, the scenery that passes me by creates a highlight reel of memories from a long-passed past as Highway 54 takes me through west Wichita, then between the two private colleges, then through downtown, then next to the high school where I was a student, a teacher, and a criminal; until I finally reach my office. And even more than the highway through the Flint Hills, Highway 54 (known as Kellogg to those of us stuck living in Wichita) holds a scenic scrapbook of my past.

I reminisce too much. 

I don’t particularly believe in the theological concept of Purgatory, but as my life unfolds – specifically in the manner which it has – I’ve begun to feel like I’m in it, right now, in my own head.

The Catholic faith believes that Purgatory is where a soul goes after death to “purge” for all the unforgiven sins committed during life. And once that time is complete (contingent on the quantity and quality of sin, I suppose), the soul can move on to Paradise. Admittedly, this may be a simplified and somewhat misconceived understanding of Purgatory, so I’m not saying this is indeed 100% factual, it is merely my interpretation.

That being said, I am in my own Purgatory, right now, in my head, held captive by my bygone reminiscent memories, and I feel like there is no escape, no relief, no release in sight. But yesterday, I fully came to understand how much I truly needed to: a) let go of the past; b) live in the present; and c) appreciate what I have now and where I am now.

I remember sitting in the courtroom at my sentencing hearing on November 2, 2012. I remember how it felt to sit at the defendant’s table next to my attorney as the prosecution laid-out his case against me. I remember being separated from my family by the divider which separates the attorneys and defendants from the gallery of spectators. I remember the harsh feeling that accompanied the sound of words entering my ears – and my soul – telling me I would be going to prison. I remember how much it hurt to stand up at the conclusion of my hearing, looking back at my family and friends who attended my hearing, seeing the tears in their eyes, and saying goodbye.

I don’t “remember it like it was yesterday,” I remember it like it happened an hour ago. That moment is burned into the deepest depths of my memory, because for the first time, at that moment, I looked into the faces of the people who cared about me and saw just how much I’d let them all down; and I looked back at my former student with whom I’d had the relationship that led to that hearing, and saw how much I’d let her down too, and her parents; and I felt the weight of failure fall heavily on my shoulders; and my eyes were filled with defeat.

I remember standing there as the jail deputy put handcuffs on my wrists – standing in front of my family and loved ones – hearing the barrage of clicks behind my back as the iron bracelets tightened around my few remaining feelings of freedom. I remember feeling the slight tug in the front of my shoulders as my arms were pulled behind me. I remember looking up and seeing the tears in the faces of my sister, my parents, and my wife. “I love you all,” I said to them, and I dropped my head in failure.

I remember too much.

Yesterday, my wife and I sat in Federal Court. Understandably, sitting in another courtroom wasn’t something I was thrilled about doing, but it’s something I wanted to do – something I needed to do. And this time, I sat on the other side of the divider – the  spectators’ gallery side.

On Sunday night, my wife and I sat in the living room of my friend, Joel. We sat and talked for three hours with Joel, his mother, his sister, and his priest. And we talked about prison. We talked about prison because, the next day, that’s exactly where Joel would be going. Prison. Federal Prison.

I met Joel in Sex Addicts Anonymous – a fact that I am writing about with his full  and expressed permission. He started attending SAA after being arrested for transporting child pornography (having underage material on a laptop that he took from Kansas to Colorado – crossing state lines made it a federal case). And the night I met Joel at SAA, it happened to be one of the nights my wife attended the group with me. And at the conclusion of the meeting, he approached me and asked if we could talk. He told me about his arrest, his charges, and that he knew he would be going to prison. So he asked me a series of questions predicated on his knowledge that I’d been through the situation, the stress, the torture of being in prison, and the finality of being released. I did my best to tell him as much as I could, based on my personal knowledge and experience, with the hope of easing his stress a little, but also knowing that he had a very long road ahead of him.

I have never met a more remorseful and repentant individual than Joel. He was never merely sorry he got caught, which is a sentiment to which I greatly related. I think his perspective was the same as mine: I’m glad I got caught, because it broke the cycle of self-destruction and forced me to face my demons head-on. We are both deeply remorseful for what we’ve done, the people we’ve hurt, and the damaged we’ve caused, but we both understood that we’d reached such a level of personal depravity that being caught was simply “what it took” to pull us out of our own self-imposed Hell.

However, I will readily admit that Joel handled his arrest and his court hearings exceedingly better than I did. I handled mine with guarded apprehension. Joel handled his with (as Gene Wilder said in Young Frankenstein) “quiet dignity and grace.” Sitting in that federal courtroom, watching how he handled himself, I wished I’d handled myself in the same manner when I sat in a similar chair, on the other side of a similar divider, November 2, 2012.

Joel’s Purgatory began yesterday.

During his sentencing hearing, his family and friends were given the opportunity to address the court. Part of me regrets not speaking. His priest spoke, his neighbor spoke, his SAA Sponsor spoke; but I didn’t speak. I wanted to, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to stand up and be the felon who was speaking on his behalf. I didn’t want to make his situation worse. I knew that remaining silent could not worsen the situation. But I knew I could have said some very positive things. I could have said that I’ve known guys who have gone through prison and treatment and have made far-less progress than Joel made before even going to prison. I could have said that, and so much more, but I didn’t.

At the conclusion of his sentencing hearing, he was sentenced to 75 months in federal prison. When the hearing was adjourned, Joel and his attorney stood up. And at that moment, he looked into the faces of the people who cared about him and saw just how much he’d let them all down; but his eyes were filled with encouragement.

He stood there as the Federal Marshals put handcuffs on his wrists – standing in front of his family and loved ones – hearing the barrage of clicks behind his back as the iron bracelets tightened around his few remaining feelings of freedom. I again remembered that slight tugging feeling in the front of my shoulders as my arms were pulled behind me at my hearing, and I knew he was feeling it too – right then, at that very moment. He looked up and saw the tears in the faces of his sister, his friends, his family, and me. “I love you all,” he said to us, and he held his head high, knowing the next step would be tenuous and arduous and difficult – but in the end, he would be the best possible version of himself.

I’m proud to say, I taught him that.

Last night, at different points throughout the evening, I kept thinking about where Joel was sitting at that very moment – the holding cell, the evaluations, the questions, the waiting, and more waiting. I hope and pray that he did not have to endure the Hell that I had to live during the first 72 hours following my sentencing hearing.

But I kept thinking about my past – my time in prison – and about how at that very moment, someone I knew and cared about was living it. And suddenly, being held in the Purgatory of my own reminiscent memories didn’t seem like such a bad place to be after all; I knew someone who was sitting in the physical Purgatory of prison, just as I did, and having lived that particular Purgatory myself – and being released – I became much more grateful for the air I was breathing, the sounds I was hearing, the bed in which I slept, and the office where I began my Tuesday morning.

I will continue to be haunted and somewhat confined by the Purgatory of my reminiscent memory – I’ve accepted that this is just part of who I am. But Joel has taught me something important: Being confined by something – memories, addiction, or even prison – does not make me a slave to something. My memories, my addiction – these are things with which I can cope (just as I coped with prison), and I can continue to be successful and continue to live this better life, regardless of the obstacles (many of which are self-imposed, admittedly) that are stacked against me.

Helping Joel during these recent months has been encouraging and inspiring. He took his transgressions and immediately sought a better life for himself. He knew he had problems that were (and are) far beyond anything he could fix himself, so he sought the support of his friends, his family, his church, and Sex Addicts Anonymous.

Joel’s story will eventually be a small byline in the media and people will comment on the internet about how he’s sick and twisted and should be immediately executed and castrated and beaten and raped in prison. How do I know this? Because that’s exactly what was said about me. But I am fully confident that he will do what I’ve done: Walk out of prison as the best possible human being imaginable, ready to be force of good rather than evil.

As Joel was being handcuffed by the Federal Marshals, the prosecuting attorney approached him and said, “Joel, if you’re still wanting to do presentations when you get out, get in touch with me and we will make it happen.” Even the prosecutor saw the encouraging changes in Joel’s life and sought to assist him in doing something productive to combat the evil which he’d previously perpetuated. And even though I’d had similar ambitions when I was sentenced, my prosecutor was only out for blood and could not have cared less. So for me, this was extremely encouraging.

Joel will be in prison for at least five years. Of the 75 months he must serve in prison, he can earn 15-20% “good time.” And I have every confidence that he will be as encouraging to his fellow inmates as he was to me as I sat in his living room on Sunday evening trying to encourage him, while being inspired by the manner in which he was handling his situation.

Joel committed a terrible crime and deserves to go to prison.

So did I.

But as a person, he is already far-beyond where I was when I began my Purgatory in prison. I am encouraged and inspired by the progress he has made as a person. I’m not sure if people can (or will) see the progress I’ve made, but seeing someone else stand up and say I refuse to live this life anymore, further enables me to live my own life of self-improvement, striving to be the opposite of the man I was, and embody the man I can be. The Purgatory of my memories will always be there but what I must teach myself to do is use those memories as benchmarks for who I am now, not regrets for who I was then.

Joel has already figured that one out, and his Purgatory is just beginning.

God Speed, Joel McClure…