Photo by fidalgo_dennis, via Flickr
My name is Kiffah. I grew up in a small city in the East Bay. In 1998, my life as I knew it was crashing to an end. I found myself in the Alameda County Juvenile Justice System. Fear and anger set the tones for the struggles I faced. Up to that point in my life, I dealt with my dad's suicide when I was four, abuse for years, and a willingness to end my own life.
Growing up through the system, I got my GED, after dropping out of high school. In my second group home, I learned how to live my life and survive in life. It never set in - it seemed. That is, being molded by the system to be what? A productive citizen? It seemed that their agendas were to keep me off the streets. Not really informing me of how to live and deal with the demons that plagued my mind.
I stayed in the group home for a year-and-a-half. It was a time of definitions. Defining who I was.
Growing up, life seemed to be untouchable to me. I was too young to remember my dad’s suicide. Yet it plagues me to this day. Turning eight, I was transplanted to the suburbs. From the time I could remember, I knew my life was different from my classmates. It was a bit weird as I was testing at higher grade levels in second grade. Yet I was behind my classmates. Unable to form friendships, a desire to not do my schoolwork. It was the beginning to a violent stage in life. I became physical against others and yet held in all the struggles. Looking back, the stresses from the abuse were taking form.
Somehow, I made it through elementary school. As middle school arrived, so did the urge to cut classes. I gave what I could to the popular kids to be accepted. My weight played a huge part into not participating in physical education class. My first year was set in Special Education classes. It just wasn’t enough. Then one day, I met my first girlfriend. She was beautiful. As she stood on the table handling a large snake prepping for the cage to be cleaned, she dipped her head down and asked me to tie her shoe. Corny huh, but it was at that point that our lives became intertwined. We were on the Critter Crew. An opportunity to hang out. Take care of the animals and get to know each other. It was a great time to escaped from what was my shadowed life. It seemed like destiny that she lived around the block. It was my time away from my family and all that consumed my time.
At the end of eighth grade (first year), she moved with her family back east. I remember asking her dad if she had to go with them. It was futile. I was losing my first friend. I lost my first girlfriend. I thought that it was the beginning into the unknown.
For the years leading up to my second year of eighth grade, I was teased, picked on for my weight. Quietly shutting down. Retreating into my drawings. One of my drawings was picked by my classmates to be used as the dungeon scene in the school’s production of the Phantom of the Opera. I was elated. For the first time since (S.A.M.), I was enjoying life.
Being teased frequently. And then… rage. A boy who was making fun of me in math class went on a flight. I picked him up and used his back to break a student’s desk. I was suspended only to find out later that word spread over the town that I was not to be messed with.
During that time, I had my eyes on another classmate. I never imagined that they also liked me. We sat across from each other. Casually, I glanced over to find him glancing back. A fire drill. As we walked out of the class, he came to me and told me that I looked good in my tank top. Briefly I said thanks. I tried to enjoy his words as a popular kid chimed in my ear on how would I let him talk to me that way. I knew that he was the one of my dreams.
It began slowly. I followed him home only to learn he lived a few houses down from Sam. Was it meant to be? We were unofficially together just in the closet from everyone else. How could I have mentioned our romance when I was the black sheep of the family? As summer came around, Mark helped me through summer school. That was where life began to make some sense. I think it did, at least. I was voted Valedictorian. A surprised move. I spent most of Freshman year and Sophomore years with Mark. We did so much together. When it came to be that he too was moving away, I got the sense that I was losing those I cared about and that life was casting that dark shadow once again.
I hung out with the outsiders. When they moved away, I hung around the popular kids. Trying to make friends. It was more as I was a prop for them to use in expressing jokes. I didn’t know why I put up with it. My grades had a stutter. DFFFFFF. School was not for me. Reluctantly, I was sent to the Continuation High School. Pryor to being arrested, it seemed as though life was turning around.
When I was arrested, a small sigh of relief that the abuse would end. Thrown into a time of the unknown. I was an overgrown teen put in a world controlled at every point. I just wanted to survive the experience. I tried to fit in - in juvy. It was surprising that one of the other inmates saw my weakness in the workout program and stepped in to help. As I began to fall back, he helped push me to help me work through the program. I didn’t know I would be able to say that I met some who could have been my friends on the outs. It was a turning point.
When I went to the second group home, I was looking for answers. I told lies of sorts that later had implications beyond my control. Dealing with those “clients” (we were called), was a challenge at first. I told lies to gain status. As the harder clients left and new clients came in, I became an OG (Original Gangster). A status symbol. I was the one to look to for answers, help in school, help learning how to read. It was honestly the first time I felt like I had a purpose for that path of my life.
That was when things changed. It became a manipulation game. I worked the system and was a client of higher status. I began to see that my life in SoCal was meant to be lived. I had friends. That was the most important thing to me. I was no longer the older teen who feared everything around them. When I had my knee surgery, I saw a side from the other clients that they cared how I was. I miss that. I miss the interactions with people in similar situations I was in. A form of accountability was learned.
When I reluctantly returned home, I went to work. I partied and saw the jobs come and go. It all started with bargain basement jobs. Warehouse work, merchandising. A chance encounter helped mold my work history. One of the staff at Juvy, a retired Oakland Raiders football player, C. Oats, helped me break into the beverage industry. It was through his contacts that I managed to work for Budweiser, MGD/Coors, and 7up. I had found a field that I enjoyed. I made a lot of contacts that I still know today, some 6 years after layoffs from the economic bubble burst.
Here and there, I found myself in trouble with the law. Lying to be a part of everything around me, even when I could never stand tall. It was a pattern. For every step I took, I fell two behind. When I returned, I didn’t have any friends. I felt like I was out-casted by my family. Reluctantly, I lived with my parents. I became homeless on my own will for independence. Starting over. I don’t believe that they were there to support me, seeing that some never came to the hospital when I overdosed on over-the-counter aspirin. Over two-hundred pills. When I came back it was just another day. Get a job they’d say. I was a young adult. I had everything that I could have wanted in SoCal…. yet I came back (up North). As I got into trouble here and there, I was ostracized over and over again. Judged by those who were supposed to not judge me. Those who were supposed to be in my life for moral support. It is a driving force for the anger I have towards them.
For the next few years, I struggled with who I was. I found ways to get in trouble with the law. Never enough to warrant a trip to prison, but I found myself in and out of county jail lockup.
I only spent a few months at a time and yet it was just another day. I craved to go home. Sitting there by myself with my thoughts. Wondering if…. wondering when I could leave.
For a majority of my time back home, I spent it on probation. I began my descent into alcohol to ease the pain in my heart. It seemed that every time I found myself in trouble, I ran to hide. Hide from everyone that would eventually know of my situation then judge me. I retreated to the Sierra Nevada, on my own, with no forms of food or drinks, without telling anyone that I was leaving. Just ran to die. I just didn't care about living. Once I was lost in the woods, I thought about what my life meant.
How I managed to screw everything up just when I had a handle on life. The hope was to just waste away into the mountains. I would reluctantly come back to face my problems. Upon coming back, I began my trek into mixed drinks that could have killed me. I soon began my trip into prescription painkillers. Just enough to sleep life away. Job after job. It never seemed to end. I didn’t feel as though my life was worth anything. No friends. Family was a black spot on my life. I just didn’t feel that life was worth living anymore. I fought the demons for years. Occasionally, I still have the thoughts of what if I just died? Who would it truly affect?
Then a change in my life. A change that seemed to point me in a positive direction. I met two kids that ultimately caused me to be a positive role model for two young minds. I was taking on temporary jobs left and right just to be working. I was offered a job in a box plant. They made boxes. While there, I met and hung out with another worker. He turned out to be the kids’ uncle. I hung out at his place on the weekends and met the kid’s dad. Later, I met the kids. I pushed myself into their lives. I became a role model to them. I later met their mom.
Being friends with their mom has given me a chance to live my life, away from the tragedies. When their dad created a situation that compromised his daughter’s health, I pulled the plug. Some would say I snitched him out. I say it compromised her health and it was my obligation to let her mom know. I wanted to do something for someone else that I couldn't do for myself. I gave up the medications. I have always been able to quit things instantly. I never had a problem with addiction controlling my desires to stop. To this day, (how many years?) I have been drug and alcohol free. I do find solitude in smoking a good cigar when stressed.
The suicide attempts were ceased, but never truly out of my mind. I found a purpose in my life. They became the “hope” in my life. They saved my life. I still couldn't hold down a job, but we went out on exploration trips together. Never a dull moment. I began finding the keys to living without the pain. I never had someone look up to me for guidance. I thought to myself…. what would make me a role model? They looked to me for guidance. Their mom looked to me for guidance. Putting their lives with mine, made me strive to be a better person around them. Meaning that they know of my trials and tribulations and know that I am always there for them. I hadn’t had that since leaving the group home. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
(One day) I was out hiking, gear-less every waking moment it seemed. I had taken the younger child hiking in Pinnacles, CA. I had a rock climbing accident that began a trip into the world of chronic pain. Sciatica, discs out, Spinal Arthritis. I took pain pills, migraine pills and energy drinks to survive. I took two steps back and relapsed.
I couldn't bring myself to let them know that I failed. That I wasn't the role model they needed. I ran away. I sent a note. Explaining my need to die. I drove to the Sierra Nevada. I simply put that I hope they can forgive me for leaving them like I was planning.
I later talked to the older kid (about my attempt) and she expressed to me how much the letter affected her. How much she looked up to me. She was crying. I told her that I never meant to hurt her. I also promised her that I would never do anything like that again. Their mom and I decided it wasn’t the right time to explain the thoughts and actions I had, to the younger kid. He was just too young to understand. Years later, I had a one on one talk with the younger kid about past attempts, and the last one. Visually and verbally, he expressed to me how much I mean to him. I also made him the same promise. It sent me deep into depression.
Forged a moment when I affected others. I came back to face this life I set up for myself. I have been on probation for 3.5 years. I have 1.5 years left. It has altered my life drastically. I found that my actions hurt the kids (now young adults). I fight to show them that I am not perfect, but I do know the struggles they fight through.
Looking back on the life I had been through.... I began suffering from severe migraines day after day. I played hard, partied hard and now began showing the results. I knew something was wrong.
Thanksgiving, 2011, began my fight to live. A drastic change from my previous actions. I suffered a mild stroke, pneumonia, and a Pulmonary Embolism (blood clots in both lungs). After being released from the Intensive Care Unit at the Hospital, I was given 2 weeks to live. I have been fighting to live. Surviving the many health issues that I have been plagued with. I still battle with depression and anxiety attacks often. It is a struggle, with my legal responsibilities.
As I sit here, I have learned from the doctor that I am having trouble with my kidneys and my spleen. I am on a diet. I have lost ten pounds in two weeks. Exercise is done on a basis of when I am not in pain or suffering from migraines. My health has spiraled out of control. Who can I blame? I partied hard. I played hard.
Everyday, I get up to start a new day. The kids and their mom are still a vital part of my life. I work to give the kids life advice. I have made it clear to them all that I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them all. I would have given up the fight. Continue with a promise that I will continue to fight to stay away from illegal situations. I rely on mentors who have been in my situation. I rely on myself to maintain a checked position in life. I am getting older. Life is never easy. It is the efforts to make a change. Not for the sake of others, but for the sake of my own health. I am disabled. It is an unfortunate way of life, but I am reminded from a close-friend, that no matter how hard your life is right now, there is always someone worse off than you. It is when we reach out for help, that we begin to improve our lives. We find religion and reasons to live a productive life. I know I am not perfect. Nowhere near. I am being given another chance on life.
I have been trying to find a sense of who I am. I was put here for a reason. To spread what I have learned through my writings and to be that positive role model for those in my life. I have hit extreme lows with my health. If I don’t change what I have done in the past, I may never get to see the rest of what this life has to offer.
Throughout my life, I have struggled. I learned to write poetry and to teach my life story to others, so that they may learn to improve their lives. It is the little things that give us the hope for a life after the system. As some find it through religion, associates, work, education or the will inside us to make the change.
I never thought that I would make it to my thirties. I never imagined that my life, my health would define who I am. I am open about a lot of things these days. Not with others, but with myself.
Since 1996, The Beat Within's mission is to provide incarcerated youth with consistent opportunity to share their ideas and life experiences in a safe space that encourages literacy, self-expression, some critical thinking skills, and healthy, supportive relationships with adults and their community. Outside of the juvenile justice system, The Beat Within partners with community organizations and individuals to bring resources to youth (between the ages of 11 -17) both inside and outside of detention. We are committed to being an effective bridge between youth who are locked up and the community that aims to support their progress towards a healthy, non-violent, and productive life. The following pieces come from our weekly workshops which were recently held in one the 18 juvenile detention facilities – from Hawaii to San Francisco to Washington DC – we venture into each week. From the writings we produce the national publication, The Beat Within. For more information please visit us at www.thebeatwithin.org.