“You don’t have to be us if you change the way you think.”
Paul Fitzpatrick stands in the center of the Amherst Junior High gymnasium, waving to three fellow inmates and shouting. The 44-year-old is angry at the poisonous thoughts that ruined his life — and those of his victims.
He’s worn a prison jumpsuit now for 18 years. He’s unlikely to walk free anytime soon, with a sentence of up to 50 years for aggravated robbery, burglary, and arson.
“I had many opportunities, I had many hardships. How did I become the man who hurt those people?” he asks. “It all began with the way I thought.”
From an early age, Fitzpatrick was a drug addict.
His was a situation sadly all too common, even in the suburbs. When asked who deals with drug and alcohol addiction at home, far more Amherst eighth-graders raised their hands than you might expect.
Fitzpatrick grew up in inner city Cleveland. His mother was a drunk. He never knew his biological father. And his stepfather was abusive.
When that stepfather took his own life, it was Fitzpatrick who found the body: “He didn’t think about my mother. He didn’t think about how it would affect us. He only thought about himself, and I don’t think he had the right to do that.”
His grandparents took him in. Fitzpatrick found himself transported from a poor neighborhood to the suburbs of Brooklyn, Ohio. With plentiful food for the first time in his life, he bulked up — and became a bully.
“That caused me more trouble. People got hurt. I got hurt,” he said. “I didn’t do what I was supposed to do. I didn’t use the tools that were in front of me.” Fitzpatrick started picking on those who had picked on him, turning his back on wrestling and football coaches who tried to make a difference in his life.
Calling for another show of hands, Fitzpatrick found a very large number of Amherst eighth-graders deal with pressure from bullies on a daily basis.
His story continued: Feeling unloved and unworthy, he dropped out of school in his senior year. He started doing drugs to feel accepted and comfortable.
Those feelings turned out to be fantasy.
He was recruited by the Marine Corps and even made a couple of ranks. Just when discipline was turning Fitzpatrick’s life around, he went back to his old ways, drinking and refusing to ask for help. A fight with his staff sergeant ended his military career.
“After that, it went south,” he recalled. He returned home to start his own business. His mother died. Fitzpatrick turned to cocaine and let his business fail, then started committing robberies — home invasions — to support his habit.
“Where it ended up was nine people on the floor while I robbed them to get high,” he said.
Sitting in a prison cell with nothing but time on his hands, Fitzpatrick remembered his stepfather. He tied a sheet around his neck and prepared to end his own life.
“Then I said, ‘I’m not going to do this. It wasn’t the end. I found my stepdad for a reason. I didn’t want to die,” he said. “I made a choice to live.”
Fitzpatrick joined a program that taught him to take one hour at a time, one day at a time. He didn’t clean up overnight — it was a long, hard journey.
“I took power over my life. Everything begins and ends with me, with my thinking,” he said. “When I started trying, my life changed. I found peace.”
Today his goal is to tell children how to change their thinking and save their lives.
No one can do it alone, he said. “You need to take the weight of the world off your shoulders by talking to those who love you, talking to teachers, talking to the principal, talking to those who are willing to not only listen but help,” he said.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.
Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times Prisoner Paul Fitzpatrick says his poisoned way of thinking ruined his life. He was a bully and a drug addict, and is now serving up to 50 years for aggravated robbery.