When I was seventeen, I was in the world of juvenile delinquency, and my mom and dad were really in the throes of their addiction. Watching them do their thing—and then my mom subsequently dying—was one of the most difficult times in my life. It really threw me into a whirlwind of addiction and going off the deep end. There was a lotta shame and grief and pain and everything that happens when you’re that age, seventeen years old, and full of drugs. It was a surprise to me how far I could push it all away—so far I wouldn’t even think about it. I would just, you know, do whatever I could do to get away from that pain.
The night it happened, I was hanging out on the corner, just like every night, selling drugs and stuff. Then I saw an ambulance at my house. My mom had fallen, and she had a really bad bruise on her face and her eye. She had hit a radiator. I asked my mom if she was all right. She waved me off, and I left. About two hours later the ambulance was back. She was already being pulled out on a stretcher and . . . I never got to say goodbye to my mom. I never got a chance to tell her how much I loved her or that she was like my best friend.
My mom’s funeral was so hard for me because, you know, I was this popular punk in the neighborhood and all these people had come. I remember being at the funeral parlor with folks just handing me handfuls of pills, saying, “It’ll be okay, Vinny. It’ll be okay.” This was the way we looked out for each other. You know, this is what really taking care of each other, what we thought it meant.
After that I was seriously out of control. I thought I knew what loneliness was, but nothing could compare to losing Moms. With every crack hit I took, I prayed for death, hoping to be reunited with her. Then Pops got out of prison and came to find me. It was kinda like a dream—like when you know somebody well yet they’re different. He had gotten clean and started talking to me about doing the same, but this was 1987 and people hadn’t even started making fun of the Twelve Step programs yet! I went to my first meeting pretty reluctantly but saw some junkies there from my neighborhood and thought, Well, if they can do it, there might even be a chance for me.
In Twelve Step, they started talking to me about my pain. Pain was the reason for all this use, all this drug addiction. You know, nobody had ever cared. Nobody had ever asked me, “How are you?” You know, like, “What’s going on? Are you okay?” Sure, I wasn’t okay! I was strung out. I was locked up. I was homeless. I was all sorts of things to all sorts of people, but nobody had ever asked me about me.
A little later I was about to become another recovering drug-and-alcohol counselor at the local rehab when a pivotal thought flashed through my mind: I gotta get outta this neighborhood; I want to see something besides this. So I drove cross-country to Cali, where I hooked up with Noah Levine at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. We became friends, and he helped turn me on to Buddhism.
I remember feeling so ashamed of my life and everything that had happened. Then my friends told me about the volunteer youth program called Challenge Day. I didn’t really have a good idea of what they were doing, but it sounded cool, you know, just gettin’ real with kids, talking to people really straight. So when I first came to the program, they told me, “Everything you’ve ever been ashamed of—those are your credits, those are your degrees. Those are why you’re gonna be able to relate to more of these kids than any of us.” Three months later I was leading my first Challenge Day. I kept thinking, Here’s a kid just like me, with a look in his eyes like you could see his whole life. My shoulders were soaked with tears. Since then it’s been over 25,000 kids. We do this exercise where we go around the circle and each complete the sentence, “If you really knew me . . . ” I give them an example: “If you really knew me, you’d know that even though it’s been eighteen years, I still really miss my mom.”
Facing something is never as bad as you think it’s gonna be. Especially, facing inward. You know, I was carrying so much baggage with me. The bottom line is that it was more painful to carry it around for all those years than it was to face it. If I had known that earlier, I would have totally faced it then, instead of dragging it through seventeen years and twenty-five relationships.
I’m convinced that it’s a great step to accept death and grief as a part of things. The impermanent nature of life makes it so much more precious. How many more full moons will we see? I dunno, but I’m not going to waste any of them. We have no idea when the first day of our last year begins. Man, what I would say to my mom if I were given that dreadful night again. I didn’t have those last moments. These kids might. So many people say, “Well, I don’t want to be around no pain. I don’t want no hurt, it’s too much for me.” But it’s a part of life; we need to be able to see it for what it is. I’ve watched a lotta beautiful things come out of the opportunity to get real with pain. It’s a force that happens, and facing it sets us free. That’s the critical thing. “It’s okay.” Can we accept that? I don’t want to pay the price anymore for not accepting it.