Since so many people are at least partially responsible for me having the guts and the ability to apply for grad school, I thought I would share my statement of purpose with y'all.
I agonized over how to do this for weeks before I finally sat down Thursday afternoon to start writing it. Six hours (and 600 breaks and distractions) later, I had 800 dreadful words written. On the advice of a friend, I decided to just start writing it like it was just another blog post. In two hours I cranked out 2100 words. Success. Ish.
I turned it over to a couple of friends whose opinions I respect totally and asked them each to edit it. Here's the thing. I have almost never been edited in my entire writing life. When I worked at the newspaper I was the editor and the only one with a journalism background, so I had to edit my own stuff. At the HR website, I was the editor and did very little writing. And of course no one edits the stuff I write for my blog.
So when suggestions came back that required me to rethink parts of what I'd written, to say I was freaked out would be an understatement on par with “Lindsay Lohan is a bit spoiled.” I spent about two hours needing to be emailed and talked off the ledge. Ultimately, I took the suggestions (because they were good) and the end result is probably 30-50 percent better than the original. So here's what I submitted. It's basically my whole blog in 2000 words.
Until recently, I never really considered going back to school for an advanced degree. It's not that I had anything against grad school – I just didn't think it was for me. I'd love to say it was because I had done so well in my career that I thought I had nothing to gain from it. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.
I’ve had some obstacles to overcome in my life for sure. Still, here I am ready and more confident and excited than ever to take on the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. As it is with many people, this confidence was won only through adversity.
Shortly after getting my degree in communications from Temple University, I went to work as the editor of a weekly gay and lesbian newspaper in San Diego. It was a dream first job. By all accounts I was excellent at what I did, winning local awards for outstanding writing. It might have been the start of a long, prosperous career in journalism.
It wasn’t quite that seamless. Looking back, I see the problem clearly: fear.
I struggled with fear throughout my life. One minute I'd be receiving accolades for my writing, the next I'd be certain I would never write a coherent sentence again. This went on for years. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that my life spiraled into drug addiction. I lived in near-constant fear – fear that people didn't like me, fear that I was on the verge of being fired, fear that my life would amount to nothing. Drugs, crystal meth specifically, removed that fear. For the first time in my life, I was likable, talented and ready to succeed. Except I was high.
Most of my life the three-and-a-half years I was using meth was a disaster. I was making choices that had the potential to put me in prison for a very long time. I distanced myself from any friends who weren't also meth addicts. I ended up homeless and alone, with the added bonus of continuous auditory hallucinations induced by my non-stop using.
I say most of my meth-using life was a disaster because there was one area of my life that seemed, at least relative to the past, to flourish. In 2005 as I was becoming a daily meth user, I started a blog, Psquaredtothenth. While I was in no way prolific (it was not uncommon for months to go by without posting), it was the first time in my life I wrote with anything even approaching consistency. Over the two-plus years that blog existed I wrote somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 posts. Until then, I had never written more than a half-dozen things that weren't required for school or work. Fear had almost paralyzed me in that regard.
When I got sober in 2007, the writing stopped again. Giving up meth was, at first, like giving up my confidence and courage. I convinced myself that I could only write high, that without drugs I had no talent.
It's certainly true that my work in 12-Step programs has helped restore (restore might not be the right word since I never really had it) my confidence in my abilities. At five years sober, I have tools to deal with the world in a way I never could before – head on. However, that's only half the story.
Right about the same time I was trying to put my life back together, social media – Facebook specifically – was gaining momentum as a means of bringing people together and creating online communities.
I had extensive experience with online communities long before Facebook. In 1993, with a lightning-fast 14.4 kbit/s modem, I entered the world of the Bulletin Board System (BBS), by joining one dedicated to connecting gay men in San Diego. I would have to judge it a rousing success. Almost 20 years later, my roommate is someone I met through that BBS.
Over the next several years, I stayed connected to gay online communities via AOL and Gay.com. But these modes of communications lacked the ability to really connect you to people in any meaningful way. Facebook was a completely different animal.
Less than 15 minutes after creating my Facebook account and signing on, I received a friend request from my best friend from high school. I hadn't spoken to her in probably five years, but that night we talked, catching up on five years of our lives in real time, right there on Facebook. Instantly, I knew I had found something special. I had all but written off the notion of ever reconnecting with the friends I had abandoned when I was using drugs. Even if they were interested in rekindling our relationships, I had no idea how to find most of them. Since I changed phone numbers like most people change shoes during those years, the idea they might find me wasn't even worth considering.
Now, here was this medium tailor-made for just such reconnections. Within a week I had 50 Facebook friends. Many of them were people I knew from 12-Step meetings in New York (where I was living at the time), but a not insignificant number were those people I had abandoned. This was my first real experience walking through fear rather than being immobilized by it. I had no idea if these people had any interest in being in my life again. I really couldn't blame them if they didn't. But I sent the requests and tried not to think about the result. Every time I got a notification of a confirmed friendship, a little of my fear subsided.
Many people consider social media trivial or inconsequential. That hasn't been my experience at all. Six months after joining Facebook and growing tired of the question “Are you still writing?”, I decided to experiment. My profile had about 200 friends by this time. I also had what probably bordered on an obsession with American Idol.
So, using the Facebook notes section, I began writing recaps of American Idol episodes and posting them. My expectations were low, if not non-existent. I still had this notion that I couldn't write sober. I also still suspected that no one cared much what I had to say about anything, least of all some reality show/singing competition. I was wrong on both counts. By the end of the season, about 30 people were regularly interacting with each other in the comments sections of the notes. Even disregarding the likely probability that there were at least half that many people reading and not interacting, I quickly calculated that I had engaged 15 percent of my potential audience.
Emboldened by this, in November 2009 I resurrected Psquaredtothenth. Only this time, instead of writing about American Idol and whatever nonsense rattled around my head, I decided to face some fear. Not only would I write, I'd write about me. I often told my drug-using friends that the things happening to us would one day make a great book. Here was my chance to find out if that was true.
Over the past three years, I've written 175 posts for Psquaredtothenth – 49 of those about my experience with addiction and recovery. I had been so proud of myself for writing an average of less than one post per month on the original blog. I have completely blown that away this time around, with an almost five post per month average. I'm not overstating when I say I'm certain this wouldn't have been possible without the support of Facebook's online community.
While this was happening, I was also watching good friends and acquaintances in sobriety return (or go for the first time) to school, but I didn't really give the idea much thought in those first few sober years.
Over the past year or 18 months, however, I've watched the power of social media and online communities grow beyond anything I had imagined when I started writing my blog. Where I used to only see the internet as a means of social connection or business networking, I now see opportunities to influence people and interact with them in ways conventional media could never have done regardless of advances in technology.
I was in Los Angeles visiting a friend a few months ago and he asked if I'd ever consider going back to school for an advanced degree. Without even thinking too hard about it, I told him that if there was a master’s program that focused on online media – blogs, social media, etc. – I'd absolutely be interested in getting that degree. Other than that, I couldn't think of any field of study I would be passionate enough about to make such a commitment. I guessed there were probably many undergraduate programs with that focus, but I doubted there would be many graduate programs for such a degree.
With that seed planted in my head, I began investigating to see if there was a program in Southern California similar to what I was interested in studying. I typed the words masters, online media and any other relevant words I could think of into the search engine; the results showed virtually nothing that even remotely resembled my imagined program. On to plan B. I would just go to So Cal university websites and see what graduate programs in communications they offered. Perhaps I could shoehorn my interests into an existing program.
Because I always like to start with my ideal situation, I first went to the USC website. The only word I can find to accurately describe my reaction to finding a program that was almost identical to the one I created in my head is flabbergasted. After the initial surprise subsided, I started checking other universities in San Diego and Los Angeles. I imagined that since I scored on the first try, there were probably programs like that at most of the schools. In fact, that is not true. In addition to being my first choice, it appears to be the only school in the region that offers this program. This is important because I have in the past talked myself into going for something less difficult on the assumption that I would probably fail if I tried for what I really wanted anyway.
So now the decision to be made was, “Am I really going to do this?” Fifteen minutes earlier, the whole exercise was theoretical. Does such a program exist? Will it be something I'm interested in? Now it was real. I frantically texted the friends I turn to for counsel. The answer was a resounding, “Of course you're going to do this.”
Whether you believe in providence, fate or simply coincidence, the confluence of events that led me to apply to USC was, if not unbelievable, at least jarring. I celebrated my fifth sober anniversary in August and have, in the last several months, become far more confident and ready to expand my life to include a career that challenges me to realize the potential I've left untapped for so many years.
It's been a mad scramble to go from thinking about maybe going back to school on October 5 to submitting an application due December 1. But I've spent more than 40 years selling myself short and missing opportunities because of fear. I chose this time to just start moving forward and to give myself a chance. Maybe it's my time to go back to school. Maybe it's not. But for once, I'm not going to be the one who says no to me.