From Adversity to Authenticity

What happened to me and what did I learn from my prison journey?

This blog post is based on my “From Adversity to Authenticity” speech I gave this week. I discuss the circumstances of my criminal charges and my personal and spiritual transformation. I thought I would share it in the blog.

My World is About to Change

Imagine being on a plane landing after a business trip. Like everyone else you turn on your phone and notice numerous missed calls, and then your phone rings almost instantly.  It’s your corporate attorney. He tells you he needs you to shut up for minute while he reads a press release to you.

The press release states that the State Attorney General just sued the company that you work for and all its officers, WHICH INCLUDES YOU, for alleged fraud.  The press release also states that there is a criminal investigation. A criminal investigation run by a U.S. Attorney’s office.

You know that your life will never be the same. There is a good chance that you will lose everything that you worked so hard for.  Now, imagine having to tell your wife all this.  Well, this happened to me in June 2007.

For Better or For Worse

My wife’s name is Christine. She picked me up from the airport to go to pre-arranged dinner with an overseas guest.  In the car, I told her about the lawsuit and the criminal investigation. I also told her that the whole ordeal will go on for 10 years – our lives will never be the same.

I said, “Honey, I love you too much to put you through all that is ahead. It will be agony. I will give you a divorce and everything we own. You can have it all.  And she replied, “For better or for worse”. Now, that is true love. At least I knew that I was doing something right. But, for better or worse sums what our lives were like for the next 10 plus years.

Case Background

To give you a little more background, I was a financial executive for a real estate company. One of our projects was a large mountain land development in North Carolina that failed – for a number of reasons.  However, the company and its officers were accused of defrauding lot investors and banks.  I was not involved in the sales and marketing, or in the lot financing – but I was an officer, and I was listed as the “Treasurer” on the North Carolina corporations’ registration filing. The state Attorney General simply picked up my name from the public registration.  The FBI and the US Attorney’s office assumed the criminal investigation.

This was a project that I had been trying to save, and we had a shot to save it. But, investors complained to the state authorities, and, now, there was no chance to save the project. The state shut us down. My time, and that of the other officers, needed to be spent defending ourselves.  Since there was national press on the case, my reputation was shot.  I was now unemployable and all I had had to go to paying for my defense.

The state case was problematic, but, the big problem was the federal criminal investigation.

Criminal Investigation

Criminal investigations drag on for years, and you feel helpless in the meantime.  The fact is a prosecutor can find some charge to stick you with, no matter how small, just to make an example of you. They will bleed you dry in the process.  Conspiracy and obstruction of justice are the two most popular charges that white-collar targets fall into.

I wasn’t being accused of directly defrauding anyone. Instead, the feds were accusing me of conspiracy. Their claim was, as an officer of the company, I should have known that there was fraud being committed and therefore I must have participated in the overall scheme.

The law doesn’t differentiate between someone who actively defrauded someone and someone who conspired with them. The penalties are the same. The feds only had to show that I “touched” the conspiracy in some way to charge me with the entire conspiracy.

To give you an idea of the gravity of this accusation: There were about 345 lot sales totaling $100 million. The feds said that each of those 345 lot sales were fraudulent, and each carries a separate criminal count with a five-year prison term.

Time to Decide

Two years into the investigation, and $250,000 in legal fees later, the feds told my attorney that I had to plead guilty to one count to avoid an indictment.  So, I had two options:

My first option was to go to trial.  I wanted to prove my innocence, but the odds didn’t look very good.  My attorney advised me that he would charge me an additional $1 million.  He wanted $350,000 now and I had to prove that I had the other $650,000.  If this wasn’t enough, he also thought that my chance of acquittal was less than 5%.  I was looking at 20 to 30 years in prison.  Given my health problems, I would probably never get out of prison alive. Even if I wanted to accept these odds, I couldn’t afford the legal fees.

My second option wasn’t very appealing either. But, I could cut my losses and stop the bleeding.  I could plead guilty to one count with a likely prison sentence of five years.  With good time and a little luck, I would serve 36 to 50 months.  Even though I believed in my innocence, pleading guilty would stop the stress of uncertainty and the bleeding of legal fees.

I decided to plead guilty to one count. It was the best business decision I ever made in my life.

Seven months later on March 1st, 2010, I stood in front of a federal judge with my whole family present to have my sentence imposed. The judge said, “Five years in prison!” It was the most humiliating day of life.

Time to Report to Prison

Two years after pleading guilty and four years after the initial complaint, I would report to the Low security prison in Butner, North Carolina.  It was surreal. I felt like Alice dropped down the rabbit hole. Strange land, strange people and strange customs, but this would be new my home.

Slammed into the Hole

About two weeks after entering prison, I was placed in solitary confinement for “protective custody”. This was the “hole”. It was a cellblock that looks much like this.

Inside the cell was dreary and sparse. Only a small window to the outside. I had no one on either side of me but could hear voices of other inmates down the hall.

 

The only interactions I had was with the morning guard to ask for an additional milk carton. Being very lonely and totally out of my element, I was mad at the world, at the justice system and at myself. I was literally going crazy and my mind couldn’t keep up with all the negative thoughts.

After about two weeks, my case manager came to see me and I blew up at him. I yelled all sorts of vile things at him. He looked at me like I was crazy, and I was.  He walked away. I knew I had to change. This was not me. How could I go on living and thinking the way I was?

I decided to reframe the experience and imagine myself in a silent retreat.  Shifting my thinking to finding meaning for my experience calmed me considerably.

Transferred to the Camp

 

Finally, I was transferred from the hole to the minimum-security prison camp at Butner. This is what I looked like after the 28 days in the hole. It looks like I could have a starring role in Breaking Bad. Pretty gruesome, huh?

Chris visited me shortly after my transfer. Don’t I look much better?

I would spend the following 36 months at the prison camp and I devoted myself to finding purpose in my journey.

How Does My Adversity Relate to Others

You just read my story of adversity. But, you have all probably had your tough times, right? And, you do look for meaning in your life, don’t you?  In many ways, my physical incarceration is a metaphor for those who have been imprisoned by circumstances in their lives, such as addiction of any kind, troubles at work or in a marriage. You name it.

In my search for meaning, I had to look at myself first.  It became clear to me that I was operating out of the ego. I had scared myself when I was in the hole, so ego was a good place to start.
Does anyone know what ego is? ………….how about, “Edge God Out”.   By this, I mean some believe we are separate from God.

Meaning of Ego

In our society, many of us define ourselves by what we have and what we do. Before going to prison, I defined myself by my job, the money I was making, my houses and cars, the size of my bank account, my relationships with others – who I knew and who knew me. These things were all important to me, and they seemed to give me a sense of purpose – mostly to perpetuate more of what I already had, but bigger and better. Notice that none of this included any real form of spirituality. I had done a pretty good job of edging God out of my life.

The problem was that I could no longer to lay claim to anything in my pre-prison life. It was all gone except my marriage and family.

I knew that I had a false sense of myself from my distorted ego.  Everything that was once true in my life was now a lie. I had a feeling that I needed to make a shift, and that shift had to be something greater than myself and it had to have spiritual meaning.  Most of us probably don’t know how to make a shift to a meaningful phase for our life, and I certainly didn’t. My legal problems forced me to kickstart my shift – a shift that never would have occurred unless I reached the abyss that I was now in.

Hero’s Journey

Not long after I went to the camp, I met a fellow camper who introduced me to Joseph Campbell’s book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”. Campbell was a 20th century mythologist who found a hidden pattern in every story ever told ….. that includes our personal stories.

Campbell’s pattern is an archetype of the human condition.  Sometimes that human condition involves suffering. I found that life is not about avoiding suffering, life is about finding purpose in spite of, or through suffering.  It is in this human abyss that we find our true self, our treasure of life – that part of us that we never really knew existed.

Life doesn’t always work out how we planned it.  Campbell is telling us that we must be willing to change, to grow. As such, this growth is beneficial. Campbell also used to quote the Native American saying, “a snake must shed its skin or perish”.

On this spiritual path, doors will open for us that are closed for others. We will meet people and be introduced to experiences that are synchronistic. There are no accidents or coincidences in life, only synchronicity. This is what happened with me on my prison journey.

I was where I had to be. All my life events brought me to this point for a purpose.

Life Conspires With You, Not Against You

What I learned was that life conspires with you, not against you. Belief that life conspires against you paints you as a victim. Who wants to be a victim?  This was a difficult lesson for me. I wanted to blame everyone but myself. It was convenient and my ego would not allow me to blame myself.

The Course in Miracles teaches us that we either move towards fear, which is a feeling of loss, or towards God, which is love. God longs for us to move closer to him, and we do that by moving towards love.  All that happens, good or bad, provides valuable lessons, that if learned, advance our souls. We then become our true authentic selves as God intended.

But, being a victim keeps us in a state of fear, and I was in a constant state of fear.

In my case, life conspired for me to bring me to prison. It was in prison that I could transform my old-ego self to my new authentic-self. So, the irony is that I had to be incarcerated to find my freedom.

When you look at your problems in life, these are opportunities to grow. As I look back on the past 10 years, it really wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. In reality, how often has it happened to you that the fear of the moment never materialized to the extent you thought it would?

Embrace all that happens to you. Embrace everyone you meet. They are all there for your growth. God bless you all.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.