Army of Voices

I get it. I really do.

I’m the worst.

I’m the dregs of society. I’m a scourge on your community. I’ve wasted your resources. I’ve consumed your tax dollars with my selfish attempts at detox. I’ve stolen your money. I’ve overdosed in your hotels. I’ve shot dope in your bathrooms. I’ve left needles in your yard. I’ve ridden in your ambulances. I’ve worn your handcuffs. I’ve been locked in your jails. I’ve died repeatedly, always with the greedy expectation that you’ll be there to save my life. And then, after you have, I’ve opened my mouth and swallowed another handful of pills that I stole out of your medicine cabinet.

The audacity of addiction.

And yet.

I’m the hardest worker you’ll ever meet. I can write your love and your life with my words. I’ve helped raise money for your causes. I’ve been a grand marshal in your parade. I’ve accepted your awards. I’ve collected your trophies and certificates. I have been given a key to your city. I’ve shined a spotlight on your passions. I’ve commemorated your loved ones after they’ve been taken from this earth. I’ve cried for people I never knew and will never meet. I’ve documented your dreams, your hopes and your aspirations. I’ve rooted for your success. I’ve contributed to your well-being.

The duality of addiction.

When do the scales become balanced? When do I achieve equilibrium?

The answer is never.

My story, like the stories of many addicts, includes criminal behavior, hospitalizations, multiple attempts at detox and treatment, and finally, imprisonment. I was indicted on federal charges in 2004, arrested and incarcerated at the Federal Detention Center (FDC) in SeaTac. I served some time and transitioned to a locked drug and alcohol treatment center, where I stayed for 60 days.

It was like summer camp after FDC.

In late 2005, I was sentenced in a federal courtroom. In addition to more prison time, electronic home monitoring and three years of federal probation, I was ordered to pay over $7.4 million dollars in federal restitution. About a month later, a Snohomish County Superior Court Judge – who seemed amused by the amount and proclaimed in court that he had “seen worse” – informed me that “this is not a free ride” and tacked on an additional legal financial obligation of over $7,000.

Today, I owe $10,000.

He also gave me jail time on top of my prison time, and refused to run my sentences concurrent.

It is disconcerting to me. There I was, a pathetic, nonviolent drug addict who had somehow managed to accumulate a year of sobriety as I traveled all over Snohomish and King counties on the bus clearing up warrants and completing community service. There I was, trying to build some sort of life, and in less than a month I was given a financial life sentence, an additional legal financial obligation on top of that, and was expected to report to Snohomish County Jail after I completed my federal time.

I never did.

I refused on principle. Who knows, maybe Snohomish County will knock on my door one of these days and take me to jail, like that weird kid in “Better off Dead” who wants his two dollars.

At the time of my federal sentencing, I was more concerned with how long I was going away than anything else. The prosecutor was seeking a much longer sentence than I received. I was more concerned with staying in school, as I had begun taking classes at the Seattle Vocational Institute and had a 4.0 GPA. In that way, my federal judge was compassionate. I was to turn myself in after I completed school, in April of 2006.

The restitution was an afterthought.

Actually, it was a non-thought. I didn’t think about it at all.

I had absolutely no idea how detrimental having $7.4 million in restitution would be.

Knowing what I know now, I would have happily stayed in prison indefinitely, if it meant I would not have this extraordinary debt. If given the choice, I would have the U.S. Marshals come for me right now and lock me up for however long it took.

There are endless ramifications.

No one will ever marry me. Guys don’t even want to date me after they find out. I am truly loath to broach the topic of companionship because every time I do, people take it the wrong way. And if I hear, “your time will come” or “you’ll meet someone when you stop looking” one more time, I’ll projectile vomit from here to eternity. I’m not saying I’m less of a person because I’m single. I’m not saying that my proverbial singleness is a bad thing. All I’m saying is that sometimes it sucks to be alone.

All I’m saying, is that having $7.4 million in federal restitution makes it harder to find someone.

All I’m saying, is that sometimes, when it’s late at night and it’s been a really hard week, I wish somebody was there to hold me and tell me that everything is going to be OK.

But, in terms of the money, there are worse complications.

I will never travel outside the country. I can never own property. I can’t receive an income tax refund. I can’t be a recipient of an estate, and in fact, I am fully expected to live in poverty in order to make substantial payments towards my debt. And therein lies the crux – the dept can’t ever be paid. Any payment I make to the U.S. Department of Justice is meaningless. It does nothing for me.

It does nothing for me.

It does nothing for my victim.

I’m not saying that what I did wasn’t wrong. It was horribly wrong. It is difficult to reconcile that behavior with who I am today. I betrayed trust, disappointed my family and deceived those who did nothing to harm me. If I could take it back, I would. I can, and have, consistently demonstrated meaningful remorse.

It is real. It is from my heart.

I’ve lost my freedom – in every conceivable way – to pay the price.

I was caught. I was imprisoned. I was sentenced. I was imprisoned again. I completed electronic home monitoring. I completed three excruciating years of federal probation, during which I was repeatedly set up to fail by a crippled justice system that has lost its way. There is no desire for “rehabilitation.” I had to fight to do the right thing and even when I did the right thing, my probation officer was there like a self-guided missile, seeking to destroy everything I’d worked for.

I was denied the opportunity to utilize a full, two-year college scholarship. Even though all the research clearly points to the blatant reality that education is quite literally the only thing that can halt recidivism, I was denied the opportunity to go to school.

I forced to “get a job” in order to pay my “restitution.” Because a two-time felon without a college degree has such a promising career future. Miraculously, I did find a great job, and once I had it, my probation officer did everything she could to sabotage it.

With a few rare exceptions, I was treated like dirty criminal by the federal judicial system throughout the entire process – and still am today.

Once I made it through probation, without a single violation or dirty UA, I was continually treated like a sub-par, less-than-human, disgusting, nasty felon. Anytime I’ve made the mistake of getting caught on the phone with the U.S. Department of Justice, I’ve been treated like a revolting, mentally-challenged nonentity.

I stopped answering the phone.

I’m terrified to own a car. If I owned a home, they could take it. I am not safeguarded by common protections afforded to those facing bankruptcy. Honestly, nobody knows what they’re capable of and I am quite sure they can do anything they want.

They’ve managed to completely sidestep the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

Because of the federal government’s mastery at slight-of-hand linguistic intricacies, my “restitution” apparently falls outside the scope of the U.S. Constitution. Instead, it falls under the Mandatory Restitution Act of 1996, a cookie-cutter law meant to compensate victims for monetary loss. Which is well-intentioned, and in certain circumstances, the right thing.

Like when a victim is financially harmed and when the justice system is able to quantify the loss in a way that is not entirely subjective.

I didn’t cause my victim financial hardship. The loss was quantified in a way that is subjective. My victim is better off than all of us put together. Not that I’m excusing my behavior, because I’m not. And if that’s what you think, you haven’t been paying attention to what I’ve said, and you don’t know me at all.

I will never be safe. They will take everything from me. They always have.

I underestimated them.

After my most recent stint in rehab in 2012, I got a job. I was lackadaisical about my federal withholding. I didn’t really think the federal government was that organized. In 2013 when I did my taxes, I was excited to learn I was getting a $1,000 refund. My boyfriend and I were moving, and I really needed the money. But they took it. That $1,000 was sucked into the black hole that is my federal restitution. That $1,000 had zero impact on the debt. It had less than zero impact. It evaporated into thin air.

Everything evaporates in the face of $7.4 million.

It bends my mind. It’s unfathomable. It’s the most hopeless thing I’ve ever endured, and I endure it every single day of my life.

Nobody understands the ramifications. Nobody knows what can potentially happen. The situation is uncommon.

I have tried to research it countless times, but the things I learn are always worse than what I already know. One time, I read that even if I was able to have the amount reduced to a more manageable number – for the sake of simplicity let’s say $100,000 – I would be taxed on the difference because the IRS would view it as income.

Contemplating that makes me crazy.

So, I do the worst thing of all. I don’t pay.

I mean, why would I? Where is my incentive to make payments?

In my defense, I haven’t made a livable wage in over a decade. When I was hired by the city of Sultan in 2017, I made $13 an hour for roughly a year. That’s about half of what I made in 2008. I legitimately haven’t been able to support myself since 2008.

Until very recently.

Any time I meet somebody “in the system” with legal financial obligations, they tell me I’m insane. They tell me it’s insane that I don’t make payments. Particularly with the county, as that debt does have a visible finish line. It’s tangible. I can pay it off in this lifetime. But, as a “punishment” it was so uselessly superfluous, that I struggle with it.

I’ve heard from countless government officials that the overall goal is to remove us from the “system.” To help addicts like me become contributing members of society. If that truly is the goal, why make it so relentlessly impossible?

I’ve tried to mediate it in my brain, but I can’t.

If my money helped law enforcement in some way, that would be one thing. If my payments actually helped cops, that would change everything. But that’s not the case.

I know I’m insane. I know I should pay. But I still don’t.

That’s why it wasn’t too surprising when, a few weeks ago, the inevitable happened. I stopped to get my mail on my way home from work, grabbing the sizable fistful of envelopes from my mailbox with impatience. I hate checking my mail. It’s as bad as the phone.

I sifted through the stack quickly, trying to figure out what I could immediately toss.

And there was a letter from the Snohomish County Superior Court Clerk.

Huge waves of dread and panic started washing over my body. I couldn’t breathe, my chest tightened, and my heart started to pound. For a few seconds, I thought I might pass out. I tore the envelope open and unfolded the letter with shaking hands. Words started rising up off the page, becoming large and bright and ugly. I was like John Nash breaking a top-secret government code at the Pentagon.

Garnishment

Legal Financial Obligation

Warrant

Payroll Deduction

Anxiety took over my entire body like a hurricane. I thought I might cry or start hyperventilating, but instead, I got mad.

Not just mad. Furious.

A little voice in my head whispered, “Don’t you know who I am?”

I really thought that. I really did. I know how that sounds. I do. It sounds entitled and petulant. And maybe it is, but I don’t care. I love that little voice.

That little voice is constantly drowned out by the army of voices in my head that tells me I’m worthless. The army of voices that tells me I’m not talented at my art. The army of voices that screams at me that I’m unlovable.

When that little voice chimes in and I hear it loud and clear…  I cherish those moments. Those moments of pure, unadulterated confidence in my goodness. Those moments of confidence that I have valuable and important things to contribute to the world. Sublime confidence. I know who I am in those moments. It’s magical.

I am a person who would rather die than lie, cheat, steal or inflict harm on others. I am a person who will bend over backwards for people I don’t even know. I clawed my way over every single hurdle placed in front of me by the federal probation department and cleared those hurdles without knocking them over.

I am an asset.

I am perseverance.

I frantically checked the date of the letter. I rarely check my mail, so the possibility that I’d already missed some key preventative deadline was very real. I hadn’t. I made a payment and set up another payment for next month.

But I’m terrified. This came from the county. The feds have been deadly quiet.

I paid them too, out of fear.

I can’t be garnished. If that happens, it’s game over. I’m done. I won’t play anymore.

There is too much happening right now. My job is great, amazing, rewarding and challenging. I’m endlessly grateful for it. It’s a dream come true. But it’s only one thing. Right now, there are so many other things that I’m terrified to face – especially alone. I really need someone to hold me and tell me that everything is going to be OK. Even though I know it’s not, I need to hear that so desperately.

Call me entitled. Call me obstinate. Call me spoiled. Call me whatever you want.

I already know. I told you from the very beginning.

I’m the worst.

 

Author’s note: Army of Voices is the title of a song by the Seattle-based band Witchburn. I have used it in this blog with permission. 

army of voices image

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