This is the full transcript of clinical director of Strategies for Change, Dr. B.J. Davis’ TEDx Talk: Freedom from Self-Doubt at TEDxSacramentoSalon conference.
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Dr. B.J. Davis – Clinical director of Strategies for Change
I work as a co-director at a substance abuse and co-occurring mental illness treatment agency. And not a day goes by that I take that for granted.
In 1999, I paroled from prison for the second time. For the second time. Apparently once wasn’t enough for me. Yeah, it’s pretty scary. That’s me.
All told, I spent over eight years in prison on probation or on parole for numerous felony drug charges. For 10 years, I woke up smoking crack every morning and went to bed smoking crack every night. I spent most of my time trying to escape the helpless, hopeless reality of my life by getting high.
On the worst day, I remember selling an $8,000 car that my mom had given me, that I’d left to my crack dealer for  $20 rocks. That memory is so painful that actually this is the first time I’ve ever shared it publicly. I came as close to giving up on life as one can without jumping off.
But something extraordinary happened to me the second time I went to prison. About two months into my sentence, I got a letter from my ex-wife telling me that my mother, the person I professed to love and care about more than anyone in the world had had a heart attack and was likely going to die. This wasn’t my biological mother who had abandoned me shortly after I was born. But the real mother who had raised me as her own for all of my life.
I was forced to look at what kind of person I had become and the person I had become was not easy to look at. Because I had become the son who would not be there to comfort his 77-year old mother laying all alone in a stark hospital room when she needed him the most, because of my selfish need to escape my realities by getting high.
In a moment of brutal honesty, I had to — it meant I had been living a lie. I was not the loving son or the faithful partner or the supportive father or the good citizen that I had been telling everyone including myself for years. It was then that I decided that I needed to try to change my life into something that I and my mother, wherever she might be, could be proud of. And a tiny seed of change was planted deep inside me.
So after my release from prison, I decided I would go back to school. Because I figured what better place can a middle aged 240-pound black ex-convict go to blend in then a white bread community college, with a whole bunch of twenty something coeds. But I was fortunate — I was fortunate because at the local junior college where I landed I ran into two instructors that changed my life. It was my interactions with these instructors that helped me to regain the self-worth and purpose and meaning and confidence that my drug use and drug related lifestyle had stolen from me.
I’ll never forget the moment that I realized, that I understood, that I could create my own miracle. It all started when I went up to one of Professor [Cena’s] office hours fishing for some special praise because that had become my new drug of choice. She listened to me describe some super cool thing I had just done and with no pomp and circumstance she looked at me and said, “Isn’t it amazing, BJ, what a person can do when they start believing in themselves?” And then as if nothing special had happened she turned back to her desk in what she was doing.
Well, I walked away from that office hour dazed and confused and wondering what had happened. I was also a little pissed because she hadn’t fed my new habit. But I was forced to think about what had happened and what did it mean. And importantly, that seed of change that was deep inside me started to stir.
A couple months later, while taking a test. Professor Miller walked by my desk and dropped off an application that I later discovered was to the master’s of counseling program at Sacramento State University. So after the test, I hurried up to his office hour and run into his office and held up the application and very obtusely said, “What’s this?”
And without hesitation he responded, “I’m quite confident in your ability to read. So I’m sure you can figure that out on your own”.
So I brilliantly followed that up with an equally obtuse question. I said, “So do you think I can do this?”
And with patience but no special fanfare, he looked at me and said, “Of course”. Of course. And then he too turned back around to his desk signaling that we were done.
And again I stumbled away from an office hour dazed and confused. But this time the seeds of believing in myself that had been planted in my garden of self-doubt took root and started to grow. In a moment I realized that the only person left to believe in me, that needed to believe in me was me.
As my tears started to well up in my eyes, for the first time since I had left prison I felt free. After three years I finally felt free of the mental and emotional shackles caused by the shame and the pain and the despair of my years of drug use.
For years I had been — I and people like me had been told once an addict, always an addict, once a criminal, always a criminal, once a loser, always a loser. But I realized that was only true if you believed it.
I have learned the hard way how paralyzing self-doubt can be. It contributes to people choosing misery over joy and emptiness over fulfillment and imprisonment over freedom and unnecessarily so.
In 2006 only seven years after I walked off the yards at Corcoran state prison, I walked across the stage, and I was conferred my doctorate in clinical psychology. And sitting in the middle of the third row was a woman who had spent countless sleepless nights worrying about her son. That woman was my then eighty-five year old mother who did not die while I was in prison, but lived to see me become the man she always believed I could be.
Prior to 1999, this was my life: without hope or purpose. Today, this is my life.
Now I want to say here that I’m often frustrated when I hear people attribute a person’s successful recovery or rehabilitation to a miracle, as if their hard work and perseverance had nothing to do with it. I needed to say that because it was regaining my belief in myself that gave me the power to change the direction of my life and is what allows me to now provide hope to others facing similar challenges, because I’m living proof — I’m living proof that a person’s past does not have to define their future.
Now you don’t have to go to prison to learn the lessons I have. In fact, I really wouldn’t recommend it. But know this, we do have a choice whether we want to have our past define us or refine us. And as I tell the thousands of individuals struggling with addictions and other painful life challenges that come through our clinic, you don’t have to wait for a miracle. You can create your own.