The Highest High

By:  Craig Stanland

In 2013 I was a successful sales executive in New York City.

I was married to a woman whose eyes I would look into every single day and tell her she was the most beautiful and amazing woman in the world. And every day my conviction in that statement grew stronger.

Photo by Jill Fiore

I owned four homes, three cars, I wore expensive watches and ate outrageously expensive meals.

I had all of this and yet I was blind. Blind to what truly matters in life. I was sacrificing internal peace for external things. So caught up in keeping up with the Joneses. I missed the beauty and reality of what was right in front of me.

Chasing the next thing, the next swipe of the credit card and the temporary high that accompanies it. Always chasing. The high is the highest of highs.

Each swipe of the credit card was a validation of my self worth. Of who I was on this earth. My self worth was tied to my net worth.

My possessions growing ever higher, I thought I was standing atop them, when in reality I was being buried underneath it all.

With a high comes a low. So onto the next purchase. And thus the cycle begins.  Chasing the horizon in a race that can never be finished, and can never be won.

I had started a new job, our biggest competitor had wooed me away, internal turmoil in my old company made the decision easy.

I kissed my wife goodbye and drove from Connecticut into the city.

I arrived at my office, unpacked my things, hung my coat, and settled in. Saying hello to my new colleagues, trying to remember everyone’s name. I had only been there for two weeks, I was still the new kid.

My cell phone beeped. One missed call and a voicemail.

Putting the phone to my ear I heard the message that would change everything.  I will never forget these words…

“Mr. Stanland, this is special agent McTiernan with the FBI. We have a warrant for your arrest, you need to call us and come home immediately or we will issue an APB with the US Marshals for your immediate arrest.”

The words were English. I understood them individually, but the context took a moment to settle in.  My heart dropped and a void spread through me.

I thought of her. My heart cried for her. I could only imagine how scared she must be.

I drove home in a state of shock. Making phone calls I never thought I would have to make. Telling my family. Trying to find a lawyer.

As I pulled into my parking spot, I was surrounded by agents. Their hands on their weapons, ready to draw.  I was not allowed to see my wife. I was read my rights, handcuffed and placed in the back of an unmarked car.

As we drove away I could see my home getting further and further away in the rear-view mirror. A symbolic moment in hindsight. My old life shrinking, fading as we drove away.

For just under a year I had committed fraud against our partner. I was sentenced to two years of Federal Prison.

My wife divorced me and rightfully so. I had treated her as less than me, not given her or our relationship the respect it deserved. I destroyed trust.

I wanted to die. Every night I wished that the hand of death would reach out and touch me. Every morning I was disappointed when my eyes opened to the light of a new day.  My mind continually raced with ways that I could do it.

I do not mourn the things I lost, but the pain I caused.

I see what I sacrificed, and for how little. And that nothing can equal what I sacrificed. Love and trust does not have a price. And the moment we attempt to put a price on them, they’ve already been lost.

Adversity can either destroy us, or make us stronger. The choice is ours.

Adversity, if we allow it, distills what is important to us. All the noise, all the bullshit, disappears.

I know what is important to me now and the life I want to live. I have a second chance, and I’m grateful for it.

We can stay in the burnt ashes of what was, content to let the smoldering ashes envelope us. Eventually drowning us, we no longer live, and yet we are alive.    

Or, we make a choice. We choose to break free. We emerge from the ashes. Stronger than we were before.  And all it takes is one step. Followed by another, then another. Just one at a time.

Leonard Cohen said he “liked the cracks, they were what let the light in.”

I received a visit from a friend, followed by a visit from my family while I was incarcerated.  These were the first cracks in the mental prison I had placed myself in. The first bit of light made its way in, and I have not looked back.

It is here that my next journey began. This was the first step, the first of many, that eventually brought me here. With just one step.  

I learned what I had lost and what is critical for my life. I call them my pillars. They are what support me.

Love. Freedom. Choice. Trust. Joy. Ego. Fear.  

Love: For myself. For others. The beautiful gift it is.

Freedom: Not only the physical, but the mental. Freedom from the past and the future.

Choice: Everything is a choice. Everything. We just have to accept the consequences

Trust: Losing trust within myself and the trust of others. Trust is the cornerstone of any relationship.

Joy: Understanding that true joy comes from within. Nothing external can impact my true internal self.

Ego: Ego offers false protection for the mind. Learning to let go of ego ties directly to freedom.

Fear: This may seem like it does not fit. But it does. Fear is a compass of where I should go.  My friend Kamal once said, “If something scares me there is magic on the other side.”  I’m jealous he wrote that, god I would have loved to have written that.

Fear is what brought me here. Fear is a door on the path. We can choose to walk around the door, take another path, we can avoid it, or we walk through. Big or small, when we walk through the door and face fear we are transformed. We come out the other side a different person. There is no way for you to not be transformed when you do it.

Each one these pillars is intertwined with the others. When all cylinders are firing, I feel unstoppable.

I have learned that time is our most precious commodity. And to use my time doing that which enjoy. Writing. Innovating. Creating. Family. Friends. Challenging myself.

I had the pleasure of having dinner with a friend a few weeks ago. An amazing woman, someone I admire greatly. She spoke openly and honestly, she was vulnerable. She shared her struggles, her pain. We all have them.  

She wanted to know, with all that I went through, how it is that I am so happy. A great question, and one I get quite a bit.

Her question has stuck with me for the past month, every day it popped into my head.  And I finally got it. It’s not a question of happiness.

It is a question of peace. Internal, quiet peace. Stripping away the noise of that which does not matter. Focusing on what is important.

I am more at peace than I have ever been. I am not my mistake, I am a product of my choices. And I have the power to make choices that are in alignment with my vision and my values.

I lost my freedom, I lost myself, I lost the greatest love I have ever know. This will stay with me. It is my teacher, my guide as I walk this new path. I can let the shame consume me or I can learn.

I am sorry for the pain I caused, and grateful for the lessons learned.  

What I have now, inside, can never be taken from me or lost by me without my consent.  It took losing everything for me to see how much I have.

No mountain is insurmountable, you just have to take one step.