Part I – Behind the Fog, Gratitude Persisted; Musings Before I am Incarcerated 

By Matthew Van Nuys, Legacy Division, Western Region, Team Penetratorz 

Gratitude can be a real bitch. Especially elusive when you’re a wobbly, lightheaded mess in a three-piece suit standing in front of a Federal Judge and hearing the words “14 months” echo and cut through your soul. I felt my knees buckle, my mind numb and my stomach lurch in fear of the stark reality: on August 1, at age 44, I am to report to Federal Prison for the first (and last) time ever. And yet hiding behind the fog, gratitude persisted … gratitude for all that my life has become through this experience and gratitude to all the men who stood up and spoke out for me this day. 

Over the following week, as the shock wore off, I reflected: How had this happened? As a functional addict, I’d successfully survived on forbidden fruit for years, tweaking from one sack to the next, all the while keeping the same job for six years. And as long as everything ran smoothly, it worked… until things went sideways. When the economy tanked, I found myself laid off and facing a 60-day eviction notice, with no job and an addiction to feed. So when I was offered a salaried position to work as a “currier,” I jumped on it despite the chorus of voices around me all saying the same thing: “You’re in over your head! Don’t do it!” In my skill set, “listening” has always ranked a distant second behind “talking,” and this time was no different. “Don’t worry,” I told everyone (including myself); “It’s only temporary, then I’ll walk away.” 

I never had the chance. Two months in I was busted with a ¼ pound of methamphetamine and taken to County Jail. I saw State Prison in my future, a place I’d never been before. I thought my life was over. When the DA dismissed all charges due to “insufficient evidence,” I was dumfounded but considered it my second chance from God. I immediately walked away from that life, lost my apartment and moved my little family back in with my mom. 

A year later I’d become legitimately employed again and was on the verge of moving out when I got the call at work that would forever change my life. The DEA and FBI were at my mom’s door. Turns out those charges were dropped to account for superseding Federal charges. Like a hand from out of the grave, my past grabbed me to pull me back down. That was the single worst day of my life. I turned myself in to discover that I, along with 24 codefendants, was facing 10-to-life in a Federal Penitentiary on a 56-count Federal RICO indictment. “In over my head” indeed. Ten days later, thanks to God and my mom leveraging her house, I was granted bail.

I didn’t know where to go or what to do. I was lost and hopeless. Then I remembered a man named Dennis Speer. He had introduced me to a circle of men many years earlier, a Division called Legacy. I’d been too strung out back then to stick around long, but I wondered if they might take me back. I knew I needed help, so I went to him and asked for it. He didn’t flinch and he never judged me. He answered my calls and invited me back. Within a week I was at a division meeting and on a men’s team. True to form the men accepted me with open arms.

Since then, over these past 32 months on Federal Bail, my life has changed entirely as I’ve come to discover and accept my own natural drive to pursue excellence and help others. I’m a 4.0 Alpha Sigma Pi Honors student majoring in Drug and Alcohol Counseling, I’m a Peer Counselor at Cabrillo College, and I served as Legacy Division S1 in 2013. Additionally, my wholehearted dedication to community service has helped many and resulted in the Legacy Division being awarded the 2013 California State Legislature’s “Angel of the Year” Award and a US Congressional Certificate of Recognition for several record breaking food drives I managed. And topping it all off, in 2012 I personally received the “Presidential Volunteer Service Award” for my extensive work with Second Harvest Food Bank and Walnut Avenue Women’s Center.

Along this road I’ve struggled plenty. Between the loss of my job, fallout from the pain I’ve caused loved ones, the humiliation and turmoil of having to live with my mom as a condition of bail and the ever-present specter of prison repeatedly rearing its head through an endless succession of continuances, at times my head has felt like a runaway spinning top!

But there is a funny thing about being perpetually spun around and around ever faster in concentric circles over a long period of time … eventually you can’t help but find your own center because of it. 

Through the help of my experience, my team and my division, I now know who I am. I am the man who answers the call. I am the man who shows up. I am the man who gives of himself. And I am the man who will not merely endure this, but grow from and use it to better humanity. In short, I am the man determined to be my OWN best result. I will carry that into prison with me and thus inspire those around me to do the same. It is what I was meant to do. It is who I am.

And yet none of these changes would’ve likely happened had I not been invited by one man, years ago, long before I was actually ready, to join a circle which I didn’t appreciate at the time and soon left. Never give up on those men. You sow seeds in their hearts that often take root later only to grow beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

And if you’re the one struggling, however dark it may get, you need look no further than your own heart and the men standing around you to find the strength and courage you already possess. Choose to see and affirm it in yourself, even if you don’t believe it at first. Try telling yourself a new story and see what happens – what do you have to lose?

And for those of you who have successfully traversed your own dark times with your men at your side, never forget and never stop giving that away. Because you never know what that man – at the store with whom you often chat or that gardener who tends to your lawn or that dude you see holding back tears in public – might be going through, nor what they’re capable of becoming with the support of the men. 

On July 14, 2015, when my time has been served and I am released, I will go on to do great things with my life. That certainty along with the intent, drive and discipline I’ll use to make it a reality, all stem from one gift: being in a circle of men. That’s a gift well worth paying forward to the next man with whom you keep meaning to speak. Speak to him. Take the chance. Make the time. Earn the gift you yourself were given. Because you’ve gotta give it away to keep it, or else you never deserved to have it in the first place.

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