Why do I do this to myself? I don’t enjoy feeling this way; I don’t try to feel this way — it just . . . happens. Granted, there’s always a trigger, but I can never see it coming. By the time I realized what’s going on within the confines of my own mind, it’s already too late.
This afternoon, I was digging through a few stacks of old records when I came across a set of five storybook records from when I was a kid — records that told the story of the 1984 film, Gremlins. The records came with storybooks and were dramatically read, even complete with a chime sound to turn the page.
I sent a picture of the records and books to my wife — who teaches special education — and asked her if she ever used audio to do read-along stories with her students.
I thought of this because, when I taught, I did this.
When I was teaching English, an effective way to work through the short stories in the freshman textbook with my regular-ed/remedial was to read along with the dozens of audio CDs included as teaching materials from the textbook company.
I downloaded the audio of each story we read to my iPod Nano (which was cutting-edge technology at the time), and from my podium, we followed along for a while, then I’d pause the story, we’d discuss something poignant or pertinent, clarify a few things, then I’d press play and we’d continue reading.
And I still have that little iPod Nano.
I found it today, hiding in the back of the bottom drawer of the giant desk in my home office. And when I found a charger for it — an old, wide Apple charger — and plugged it in. Sure enough, it lit right up and worked. Not only did it still function, but it also had the audio versions of every single short story I taught during my six years as a high school teacher — before I ruined my life. And, sure enough, the first thing I did when I found these stories was (obviously) listen to them.
I’ve heard people talk about how certain songs take them back to a certain time or place in their past — and I suppose I have a few of those songs tucked within the archives of my personal history — but for me, the sounds of the stories I taught, read in the voices of these narrators — that is the music that takes me back to when I was teaching, when I was doing the right thing, when I was making a difference, before I ruined everything. So, in essence, the sounds of these stories are the sounds of my life’s deepest regrets.
While I certainly carry deep remorse for the crimes which led to the end of my career and my subsequent 25 months in prison, I subsequently possess an equally painful regret.
Often, regret is based on something we’ve done.
Sometimes, regret is based on something we’ve lost.
The audio readings of stories are the sounds of what I lost. They are the sounds of my regret.
There is no pain worse than knowing I’ve ruined my life, hurt people, made destructive choices, and now must live in the tattered wreckage which remains.
My wife is an angel and tries so hard to keep my spirits up. She continuously reminds me that I’m not living a broken life, I’m living a new life. She reminds me that I’m not a literature teacher anymore; now I am a literature writer. She is so proud of what I’ve become, both professionally and personally. And while it feels good to know I’m a completely different person, sometimes I can’t help but dwell on the life I’ve lost. In many ways, I have a better life now than I did before prison. But the reality of what I am and who I was and where I’ve been is too much weight to carry. I grieve for my past life — the life I’ve destroyed. And on top of that, I carry the undying guilt of knowing I’ve hurt so many people for so many years — ever since college.
I am not who I was. But because of who I was, I’ve lost many of the dearest and most loved people in my life. And if I’m honest with myself, I know I deserve it; I know they all deserve better.
Five years ago, I was released from the prison of the justice system. However, I am serving a life sentence in the prison of my own regret. There is no pain like the pain I live with on a regular basis. I don’t care if therapists and psychiatrists can pin a name on my pain — “Clinical Depression” | “Trauma-Induced Anxiety” | “Post Traumatic Stress” — but official-sounding labels and endless varieties of prescribed medication will never change the past.
I hate this deep depression. So why do I do this to myself? Why, when I find myself in this dark depressive state, do I continue to listen to these stories? Why do I sit here remembering what it was like to teach literature, lead engaging discussions, and guide students toward epiphanies about literature and life? It is only a pleasant memory in-and-of-itself. But within the context of my life; they are memories of what I’ve lost — and it’s all my fault.
Maybe I keep listening to these stories because I know I deserve the agonizing torture of this hopeless regret. Maybe that is my lasting punishment — being haunted by reminders of the pleasant life I ruined.
So, what is the sound of my regret?
- “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell
- “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant
- “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe
- “Full Circle” by Sue Grafton
- “Wasps’ Nest” by Agatha Christie
- “The Beginning of Something” by Sue Ellen Bridgers
- “The Scarlet Ibis” by James Hurst
- The Odyssey by Homer
- Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare
- Animal Farm by George Orwell
It hurts to hear the audio of these stories, like painful songs of sadness, reminders of a life lost. If I close my eyes and listen to these stories, I can see the old podium from which I taught. I can feel the old wobbly stool I sat on when I taught. I can smell the constant aroma of the old wooden floors; I can hear the floors squeak when anyone stepped into my classroom. I can feel the feeling in my soul, the peace of knowing I was doing what I was meant to do, doing something I was good at, doing something I loved.
But inevitably, reality pours down like a monsoon. I open my eyes and I am reminded that I’m nothing but a disgraced criminal trying to make the best of the life I’ve ruined.
Nothing in my soul hurts worse than the gaping chasm of my bygone past.
There is no pain worse than regret.