When I took my first breath in this world, it was while being placed into the arms of a child herself. A drug-addicted and alcoholic mother at the age of just 16 and, needless to say, my mother was a very reckless, sad, incapable parent.
It took a lot of years for me to be able to look back and begin to truly accept my childhood and learn from it. I would later use my afflictions as normal. It began to feel when the neighbors would call 911 and the police would show up to whatever run-down project apartments for low-income families that we were living in at the time, that this was routine for me; I got way too accustomed to watching my mother being hauled off to jail for possession of drugs, or whatever other child neglectful charges there would be as a result of her shortcomings as a parent to my sister and I.
Although occasionally a family member would come to the rescue, this I knew would always be what I knew before they came — that this was only temporary.
So as my mother sat in the county jail forced to kick whatever drug habit she had created for herself, my sister and I bounced from foster home to foster home without ever knowing what permanence or stability would be as a child. In the end, whether it was a relative or a foster parent, it seemed everyone became burdened by children that were not their own.
My father who was absent himself, due to a lifestyle that kept him in and out of state prison, was no better than my mother where taking care of his responsibilities was concerned. Between the two of them it was clear that neither one of my parents deserved to raise children, let alone bring them into the world.
Still, I remember looking forward to getting his letters from the California Department of Corrections, despite the fact that every one of them came filled with one empty promise after another.
Quality time with my father
"When I got out this time I promise I'll stay out," and “when I get home I promise that you can come live with me." Those were words that held less and less weight after each letter that arrived. As a kid, like any other that is left behind to fend for themselves, I wanted to believe that my father would fulfill those promises because that's what kids do. They dream of something better when things are so bad.
I do, however, remember how my father attempted to make good on those previous promises one time. I was in a foster home as he paroled from prison one year, and he had contacted the social worker in charge of handling my sister and I. Being successful at convincing the social worker we would be safe and looked after in his care, my sister and I were intoxicated with happiness to finally be going where we thought was going to be a place of refuge and stability from all the dysfunction that we had for so long been exposed to.
That was short-lived, nonetheless, as we began to be even more exposed to negative influences surrounding my father’s lifestyle. I remember the very first time when I sat there, him staring at me, as I watched him smoking weed on the couch. "Do you want some?" he asked me, and like any kid that wants to please his father and spend quality time with him, I did what I thought was going to be something, anything with my dad that would bring us closer.
I said "yes," and took my very first tokes of marijuana. That day and days after throughout the years, yes, my own father, my own flesh and blood gave me my first experience with drugs and encouraged me to keep on using them.
Before long I was expelled from school and right back into foster care at the request of my father. Fearing that my living with him would jeopardize his parole conditions, he thought it best I return where he had initially rescued me from.
Failed but forgiven
Shortly after, I dropped out of school without as much as completing the eighth grade, and stability for me was even further pushed from my life as a kid. Even though I would not admit it out loud then, I was left to feel unloved and unwanted by the same two people that were supposed to love me and protect me from all the heartaches of the world. My parents failed me.
It would take a lot of years and a lot of personal growth before I could start to accept all that they had wronged me for. But when I did, I realized that it was necessary if I was ever going to become who I am today.
Right now, I can tell you that although it did not come easy, I have been able to forgive my parents because there is a process of recovery that is essentially important if you are going to truly recover.
This process asks us to consider others outside of just yourself and the life that they have had to endure with these types of afflictions and battles just to survive as well. You see, both of my parents — I learned later on in my life, after really learning about how they had been raised themselves — never had parents that gave them all the love and support they needed.
That lack of became a gift that keeps on giving because that is what dysfunction does, it keeps on giving and affecting lives from one generation to the next.
When I look back, I can tell you that the pain and resentment that used to poison my heart and soul toward my mother and father has nearly left my body. My heart is no longer heavy with the heartache of what they did or did not do for me, and through my own mistakes and poor decisions throughout my life I have finally made that necessary peace with myself that permits me to forgive them.
Though I know that I yearned for love that was missing, a family that I could not have growing up and stability that comes with knowing that you have a safe home to go to bed at night safely, I no longer let those childhood years to define who I am today.
Searching for family, stepping back
Living on the street may have left me searching for those things, a family that I did not have as a kid or gravitating toward a subculture of lost youth that looked toward role models that would become gang members and drug-dealers but, as ironic as it may sound, I believe that having gone through those chapters of my life, it was what was necessary in order for me to see the world through what I know today as fresh eyes.
At the age of just 19, I was arrested and convicted of a gang-related/drug-related shooting and sentenced to 25 years to life here in the California Department of Corrections.
By the calendar taped to my cement slab wall here in this prison cell it is my 20th year waking up to the harsh reality that I once chose to live my live according to my own rules rather than persevere a lot sooner that I have.
I can, however, tell you this. The last five years have been the best five years of my life. Yes, though I still wake up surrounded by cements slabs decorated with the occasional picture of my wife and I, I have found that inner freedom within myself that many have yet to find.
I made a commitment to step back from my criminal lifestyle, sober up from a life of addiction that was destroying my relationship with the woman I love, get a college education that would enable me to go further in life and focus on the dream that I have had for a long time to become a recording artist that promotes music with a positive perspective. With the hard work that has went into these areas of my life, I am a better man for it now.
You too can change
When you are caught up in the afflictions of your past or living a life that is induced by the criminal lifestyles that many of us find ourselves in due to our own self-destruction, it's hard to see a better future, and I know how that is completely. To think that I could come into this type of environment, earn a GED, pursue a California degree and then get as close as I have gotten where I will be graduating with an associate’s degree in business from college often feels surreal even though I have made these dreams come true because I chose to not be defined by my past and the childhood that I was brought up in.
It's humbling, to say the least, and I think it's easiest to say that through all of this I have learned what life is all about, which is to realize that none of us is perfect and being of service to others around you is what makes all those imperfections okay.
I know that many of you, young boys and girls sitting in juvenile halls across California (and the country) will read all that I have written and actually see yourselves tucked away into parts of my life story that remind you of your own. But I want you to understand something: Just because some of us may come from a terrible background, our past or present does not define who we are.
If you are willing to see past your present circumstances, no matter how bad they may appear on the outside, I promise you that every single one of you can change the course that you are on and become bigger than you thought imaginable. You just gotta BELIEVE.
I want to leave you with a verse from one of my songs.
When I reflect and look back in the rearview it's a weird view
Seeing all the drama that I steered through
A messed-up childhood,
Parents gone, streets appeared to
Be the peers who taught the rules adhered to
One day in the yard conversation with this cat
I can tell from his gang tats we had the same past
asked him what his aspirations were like,
"What's your game plan?"
He said that he couldn't read or write,
I felt anxious, I could’ve been that same man,
I could’ve been aimless,
I climbed out of that category, I overcame that
Broke the same mold holdin’ on to most folks
Lesson one listeners, so go hard or go home
What if I die?
What if tomorrow never comes?
What if success disappeared like it never was?
I'm my own worst enemy, obsessed on my past
But tell me I can’t do it and I'll prove that I can!
Michael Carter is serving a sentence of 25 years to life for a gang-related/drug-related shooting at Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga, Calif. He was sentenced at 19.
The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.