On the night of my daughter’s graduation from high school, I felt heartache and joy. My baby, now a beautiful young woman, was leaving the nest. Alone at my computer, I discovered an e-mail from “Ese,” a once gang-involved young man who completed a Sandplay process with me eighteen years prior. We worked together over the months that he lived at a group home for troubled youth. The time period of our work paralleled my pregnancy with my daughter. In fact, I gave birth within days after Ese experienced a profound moment of grace in his therapy. His process impacted me such that I published his case in the Journal of Sandplay Therapy. ( See Ese’s Emancipation. ) We had a powerful connection.
When Ese emancipated, he had no family support and scant resources. Sadly, we lost contact. I often worried about him and the violence he endured. I wondered how he found his way in life and what he thought regarding the article I wrote about him.
Facing the transition of my daughter’s graduation, I was delighted to read Ese’s e-mail and amazed by the synchronicity of its timing. I learned that Ese achieved success in a very challenging line of work, and developed true strength of character. He detailed his life’s journey since leaving the group home, and his words affected me deeply. He asked me to share his story with others, particularly young people, so they too, could be inspired. With his permission I offer his words (slightly abridged):
Good Morning Dr. Freedle,
I am currently in Afghanistan working as an expert in prison security operations. I mentor officers in the Afghan Army and have been here for over 18 months with plans to stay till the end of next year.
Wow, where do I begin? I am very happy first and foremost for the great success that you have found in helping others. You have developed more opportunities for youths to receive treatment even if they think they don’t need it. As I felt that I didn’t need anybody’s help when I was younger.
I did read Ese’s story, and I can’t tell you the flood of emotions that I felt when I read the story. I felt sad, angry, upset, and most of all happy. To read it gives me even more hope that I can overcome any challenge.
So here is the update of my life. I did end up getting back involved with the gang lifestyle after leaving the group home, everything from committing crimes, partying, fighting, to sleeping with numerous women. I had no sense of self-worth and became violent several times. The one thing I was always able to do was go to work and work hard. For some reason I think this also saved my life.
One night several of my friends who belonged to the same gang as me decided to leave town to party. I was supposed to go with them, but had to work a double shift at the last minute. They went without me and nearly killed someone in an armed robbery. Everyone involved went to prison. So there I was alone again.
But I soon found out because of my self- indulgent lifestyle, that I had a son. At 19, I decided that I was not going to make the same mistakes as my family. I wanted to be there for him and let him know who his father was. I did not want him to grow up thinking that my lifestyle was ok, or that his father was a loser, or in prison, or even worse dead.
This is when I heard there was a prison opening up. I thought that this was a respectable career, something to be proud of. What else was I going to do? All I knew was criminal activity, gangs, thugs, and violence.
Within the first year of working I saw 4 killings, numerous fights, and went through a riot where I had to watch one of my co-workers get murdered by the inmates.
When I went into the unit to get him I felt anger because here he was, a decent guy who had a wife and three kids and seemed to love life. As I tried to save his life I asked God to trade my life for his. I did this because I felt that I had lived a bad life, and no one in my life would miss me anyways.
Well, as you can see God did not answer my prayers. Instead, I received a medal of valor for bravery. A year later, I went through another riot and was commended for bravery.
I have been through so much in my life, and surrounded by violence and gangs and drugs by working in this career, and for some reason I have excelled.
I still do not speak to my family and to this date I have achieved everything on my own. My oldest son who is now 14 made me realize I wanted something more, and even though it took me time to love myself and find peace, I did manage to find someone. We have been together for 6 years and have a 2 year old boy. We will be getting married this September where we met as teenagers working at the same fast food restaurant that you wrote about.
I have been able to use my past experiences to help my career, teaching and training for over ten years in corrections, and now as an expert here in Afghanistan.
Once I left at 19 to work in the prison– it was the first real step I took toward becoming a man that was a part of the community and that was respected for the good things that I did.
Even though I hear from my fiancé all the time that I am unemotional and detached, I feel I am leaps and bounds better than I have ever been. Plus don’t all women say that about their man……
Please continue to share my story so that young kids can learn from me that there are other options and roads to travel even when we can’t see them.
Sometimes it takes a grain of sand to make a lifetime of changes.
When I show my newfound friends your story of me they are very shocked can’t believe I used to be like that. I am the complete opposite of who I was. They are saddened by my family life, but understand that it has made me determined in my life to not repeat my mother and step father’s mistakes.
Again, thank you for everything, and for not giving up hope on someone who saw no hope. The future is bright for me and for the first time, I am excited to see what comes next.