I HAVE KNOWN poverty intimately.
It was there when a family split caused a drastic change when I was a teen. It was there when bad habits upended my life as I entered my early 20s. It was in the ancestral memories of great-grandparents who fled Jim Crow South Carolina.
Poverty, you see, is generational. It winds through families like a twisted inheritance that reminds us of our ancestors' deepest struggles. Yet poverty isn't solely an accident of birth. It is often the result of bad decisions. I know because 18 years ago, when I overcame a drug habit that nearly destroyed me, I left more than a homeless shelter. I left the bad decisions that had taken me to that place, and I learned an abiding truth: Although there are many paths to poverty, there is only one way out - change.
I was identified early on as mentally gifted, and transferred from my neighborhood school to the elite Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School. Shortly after, I was transferred again - from a home with two parents and two incomes to an economic reality that was split by divorce. My mother, my brother and I moved from our working-class neighborhood to my grandmother's house in North Philly.
It was a place where I'd seen gang wars during childhood visits, where fragmented families had become the rule rather than the exception, where men guzzled malt liquor and smoked marijuana to dull the sting of poverty.
The streets were a dangerous place, but I survived them because I had an extended family of hardworking people, a church family that nurtured my spirit and an educational environment that built my mind. Those things held me for a time, but eventually I chose to let go.
Perhaps it was the desire to fit in, or an attempt to quell the ache I felt inside. Maybe it was an effort to be someone else, or someplace else, or something else. Whatever the reason, I began using marijuana and alcohol in high school, and although I graduated with honors and went on to study journalism at Temple University, poverty had convinced me that money was more important than waiting for a degree.
I dropped out of college and took a job. The money I earned sustained me, but it also supported a marijuana habit that led to harder drugs and darker places. Eventually, I lost everything, and found myself immersed in the very streets I'd managed to avoid.
I lived in my car at first, then in abandoned houses. I ate at soup kitchens and slept at homeless shelters, living a hardscrabble existence that eventually took me to a hospital bed with a case of bacterial pneumonia. After they put tubes in my chest to suck out the fluid that was killing me, a doctor told me that I was so sick upon my arrival I had only a 50/50 chance of walking out alive.
That moment changed me. But I knew I needed a bigger change, because the poverty I was experiencing went far beyond a lack of possessions. My poverty was grounded in a lack of hope.
I needed to know there was something bigger than addiction, bigger than poverty and bigger than myself. I needed the faith my parents had taught me as a child, and so I prayed. God answered. I'm grateful, because I learned in the ensuing years that poverty could be overcome, but only if I believed it could.
I began to set goals. The first and most important goal was to stop doing what had put me in that position. I needed to stop getting high, because when you've done something to adversely affect your own life, it's not enough to believe things can get better. You have to do whatever is possible to make them better.
My second goal was to start. I needed to start pursuing a purpose for my life, and to do so with a vision in mind. I envisioned myself as a successful writer, and I returned to Temple University to chase that goal. Along the road to graduating with honors, I learned much more than journalism.
I learned that when you are in a positive atmosphere, you encounter positive things. You learn that more is possible, you see that hope is tangible and you feel that success is reachable. College provided me with that atmosphere, and when I met the woman of my dreams there, it also provided me with a future.
But grasping that future took guts. It takes guts to leave behind those who don't believe in your vision. It takes guts to change course midstream. It takes guts to forget about the world's expectations and put new expectations on oneself. I did those things, and in quiet moments when I look back on my path, I smile, or grimace, or shed a tear of gratitude, because in escaping poverty I've learned an abiding truth: Nothing is impossible.
In the 18 years since I left behind drugs and the poverty they created in my life, I've written eight novels for two of the world's largest publishers. I've toured the country signing autographs for readers. I've married the woman of my dreams and had beautiful children. I've written award-winning columns about fatherhood and family. I've stood on Ghana's shores and called out to my ancestors. I've been in the presence of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.
Now every word I write is informed by the lessons I learned from poverty.
The most important of them is this one: Poverty can change people, but if we are committed to moving from words to action, people can change poverty as well.