Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans
- John Lennon
Tilton's own Scott Ruggles spoke to the community this past Friday as the October First Friday Speaker. Scott can certainly claim to be busy, since he is the Social Science Learning Leader, Senior Grade Level Program Leader, Head Men’s Varsity Soccer Coach, and teacher of four classes; not to mention, a single parent of five children. As a veteran of 18 years on The Hill, Scott has worn many hats. But his words Friday were not a gratuitous overview of adult responsibility in the hectic life of a boarding school faculty member. Instead, he took us on an emotional and at times tearful reminiscence of a turning point in his life. The speech, in full, is below:
Good morning Tilton School!
I am honored to stand before you today as the First Friday Speaker for October. You need to know that I stand before you as someone who has been bullied, depressed, angry, heartbroken, exhausted, a champion, defeated and so many other feelings and experiences that all of you have felt.
Today I want to talk to you about something I’m sure many of us have trouble with. That’s asking for help. It’s not the kind of help when you need someone to assist in carrying something heavy or the older woman who asked me to get a box of cereal off the top shelf at Market Basket last week. I want to talk about the type of help many of us need at times but are afraid to ask for. Help with personal challenges and situations that we feel might hurt our own pride or cause us to be embarrassed.
Let's start with a story about one of the most difficult phone calls I’ve ever had to make….
In early April 2009 I walked into the Hannaford supermarket over in Franklin on a Monday evening to get food for dinner. When you have 5 children it makes it hard to have a formal dinner table because there was no room for students. So our family had dinner at home on Mondays when there was formal dinner at school. I had all five of my children with me on this shopping trip. My wife, at the time, had disappeared again as she was battling with drug and alcohol addiction issues. She had been gone for 2 days and we didn’t know where she was. I never told the children I didn’t know where she was; I always covered it up so they didn’t worry.
The kids and I filled the cart with food for the night and week. We got to the register, the food was bagged, I slid my debit card through the machine. “Insufficient Funds” is what it read on the screen. “No way!’ I thought. I had been paid the previous Wednesday and I knew there was over $1500 in the checking account, I had checked it over the weekend. I ran the card again… “Insufficient Funds” again! It was so embarrassing. I told the checkout person and the manager that I was going to get on the phone to make a transfer from my savings account. I knew we had more than $2000 in the savings account so I called the automated banking line, there was no online banking or app at the time. As I went through the process of checking account balances I discovered that there was $1.23 left in our checking account and $0 left in the savings account. I started to cry in the car in the parking lot. $1.23 REALLY - the drugs were more important than feeding your children.
I had no idea what to do. The situation with my wife had been going for almost 2 months. I had only told two people, my best friends, just a little about the “problems” that were going on. I buckled the two younger girls into their car seats while the other 3 buckled up. We drove home, leaving the cart full of bagged groceries with the people at the register. I wasn’t even brave enough to go back in to tell them to put the groceries back….
Before I tell you the outcome of my dilemma in 2009 let’s back up a little bit...
I grew up in a household that would be considered lower middle class to middle class in Western Massachusetts. My parents were hard working New Englanders who had grown up in hard working New England households. They instilled that work ethic in me. It was a work ethic and set of ideals that would be both a blessing and a curse. The blessing was that I have never feared hard work whether physical or mental.
The curse was that I came to believe that asking for help was a sign of weakness.
I was bullied. Not all the time but frequently enough through elementary and middle school that it made me angry. Sometimes it was for the patches on the knees of my jeans. We didn’t always have enough money to go out and buy new ones. Other times I was bullied about my weight. I was a short, stumpy heavy set kid until I hit my growth spurt during my last two years of high school.
The experiences of my youth settled in and stayed with me for a long time. Some of what was ingrained in me was great, other parts not so much.
For years I struggled with the depression of being bullied. I never asked for help. There were numerous fights in middle school when kids would make fun of me. I became pretty good at fighting, which meant that the physical challenges from the bullies ended but the mental abuse continued. I never had much self confidence unless it was on the baseball field or with my school work. This lack of self confidence stuck with me much of my life.
I was brought up in an era and household that valued mental strength but it was old school mental strength. “Soldier On!” is the expression that comes to mind. “Boys don’t cry” too. Because of this I never asked for help with the bullying nor did I have any idea that the negative feelings I had about myself could be handled if I talked with someone.
Fast forward to 2007, the year I started counseling because of the repressed depression I was dealing with. It was time for me to handle it. It was time for me to understand that when it got really bad I should not be feeling like I should run away or end my life. Yes I just said it, End. My. Life. My counselor opened my eyes to many things over the next two years. What I had been repressing was now out on the table. I talked with a very select few about issues that were now coming to the surface. I was supported and found that others had gone through what I was going through. I didn’t feel alone anymore. I reduced the number of people I associated with and realized there were a couple I could really trust as my “inner circle”. Once in a while I would ask for help in trying to figure things out in my life. Most of those times were with my counselor but on occasion with my friends or family. I was still holding on to the “old school” 1970’s and 80’s idea that men needed to be “STRONG”. Honestly I had no idea what real strength meant. As I started to talk more about the negative thoughts or image I had of myself the better I felt about myself.
Now back to April 2009….
As I stood in the backyard at our house with my phone in my hand I was shaking. I was about to reveal the secrets that I had been hiding for more than two months. I was about to ask for help. In this case the most significant help I had ever asked for in my life. I was about to admit that my marriage was crumbling because of drug addiction and alcohol. I was about to admit I had been left with $1.23 in my bank accounts and I couldn’t buy food to feed my children. The kids were in the house having some toast and small snacks.
I dialed THE number…
It rang twice
They picked up. The call was to my parents. My voice was shaky. I spent the next 15 minutes explaining to them what had been going on since February. The number of times my wife had disappeared for a few days without explanation. The issues I had uncovered with the drug use, including oxycontin, that was taking place in excess now. The multiple sleepless nights and…. The now empty bank account.
At the end of my explanation of the situation I said three incredibly difficult words…
“I need help.”
My parents were awesome! They were incredibly supportive and guided me plus they were going to wire me money. The only problem that still remained was the immediate need for grocery money. My parents suggested that I go to one of my close friends and ask to borrow from them until I could get the wired money the next day.
To me this was a daunting task. I was scared. I was that “strong” teacher, coach, parent, who had been taught to stand tall and take care of yourself his entire life.
For my children I knew I had to do it. Let’s be honest with $1.23 to my name buying a candy bar for 5 kids to split for dinner just wasn’t going to cut it. I had to suck up my pride and ask for help.
So I did. I went to Tom DeRigo and his wife Elaine. They were my best friends along with former faculty member Tim Healy. I finally explained the entire situation to the DeRigos and asked for help. They were more than willing. The next day I had the same conversation with Tim Healy and his wife and they said I could ask them for help at any time.
I felt so relieved as I paid for the groceries about and hour later. The kids and I went home, ate dinner, watched some TV and they went to bed. I went to bed too, but sleep was not in the cards, the other side of the bed was empty… again.
While I did ask for help in that drastic situation, I had not really learned the lesson I needed to learn.
Another month went by and the situation at home had not changed. I was working, picking up the kids from school or daycare, coaching JV softball with all of my kids at the field during practice, managing the house, all while dealing with a spouse who was battling drug addiction and frequently not around. Between February and early May I lost 41 pounds and I was averaging only 7-10 hours of sleep per week, yes per week. I would fall asleep and wake up drenched in sweat from the stress and anxiety. BUT I soldiered on.
Then the moment came….
Tom Derigo was my best friend. Tom is not a large man. He’s a small bald Italian guy with a strong personality and he is one of the wisest people I have ever met. He is also one of the most opinionated. At this time in my life he was exactly who I needed as a best friend. He was straightforward, didn’t take any crap, but he genuinely cared.
Mid-morning on a school day he sent me a text that said “come to my office right away”. He knew my schedule and knew I was free.
I walked into his office and he closed the door behind me.
There he was, this short, bald Italian guy. He grabbed me by my arm with his little hand and stubby fingers. I looked down at him and saw IT! That IT was the tell tale sign that Tom DeRigo was angry. That IT was the vein that bulges on the side of his forehead when he’s upset. I had no idea what I’d done wrong but I knew from the vein and the death grip he had on my arm that I was about to get lectured.
He waved the stubby index finger of his other hand in my face as he gripped my arm even harder, and made a statement that I will never forget…
“You need to ask for help!”, he said, “Asking for help when you truly need it is a sign of strength, NOT a sign of weakness. You are being a stubborn New Englander and I know that’s how you were raised BUT it’s PISSING me off. Stop being so proud. You need help and plenty of people are here to help you. Start asking for Christ sake!”
That angry little man and that strong statement changed me. The part where he said “asking for help is a sign of strength NOT a sign of weakness” really resonated with me. It still does to this day.
Finally I started to understand that I shouldn’t be afraid to ask for support in situations that were truly difficult on a personal level.
Understand, I’m not talking about asking someone to bring me my cell phone when I’ve left it on the kitchen counter and I’m in the living room. I can get up and do that and so can you.
The moments I’m talking about, the help that we all need, are when we are most afraid to ask for it.
Those moments when we worry about how people will see us. Moments when we are afraid to tarnish our image.
I was that strong New England boy who was brought up thinking I needed to handle everything, shoulder every burden and “SOLDIER” on.
Guess what folks. I was wrong. I realized that Soldiers don’t fight alone, they have an army to support them.
From that moment on, after the death grip and the bulging vein of that tiny little Italian man who cared about me, I started asking for more help. Whether it was help picking my kids up at school or just asking to sit and talk over a cup of coffee so I could reveal hardships to my friends, cry and heal. I opened up. It wasn’t easy. Miraculously, something else happened too. I became more receptive to accepting help.
Before the death grip and the vein lecture there were plenty of times that people would offer to help me with small tasks and large alike. I would always say NO Thank you. Why? Because “I was strong enough to do it ALL by myself”. Guess what folks I now replace the word STRONG with STUPID.
I have realized that as difficult as it was for me to ask for help, it was even more difficult for me to accept help that was offered to me.
So what did I do? I started saying yes to help that was offered in addition to asking for more help as I mentioned. Neither is easy for me to do even now (Landy dishes example), BUT I have realized that people want to help and it relieves some stress from my life allowing me to be even stronger.
Ladies and gentlemen I stand before you as a man has been through lows that I wouldn’t wish upon anyone.
My message to you today is that asking for help and accepting help that is offered, is OK!
No matter what you are struggling with you DO NOT have to do it alone.