Prison is a State of Mind…

Archive for September, 2011

Volunteerism: A Most Powerful Anti-Depressant

Forget the overcrowded waiting room of the family physician, the most powerful anti-depressant may be found right beyond your own back door.

Life is Unfair and Uncertain

Life rarely reveals itself as consistent with our goals, dreams, or expectations. For most of us, there is a fork in the road which we feel powerless to avoid. For me, it was the telephone call I received after placing the final Christmas ornament on the tree. My husband would not be coming home for Christmas. This was not because he could not come home; it was because he was choosing no to come home so he might follow his heart and start a new life with a new woman.

With that call I realized my toddler daughter, in her fluffy pink footie PJ’s, and I would be spending the first of many Christmas holidays alone.

The Not-So-Perfect Picture

The shock of that news still reverberates through my life.  What had I done wrong? What signs of discontent did I miss? His meals were always cooked. His laundry? Done. His daughter was always greeting him at the door with open arms, and his bed was always warm.

What, I asked, was so wrong with our life? Depression can creep up on you like sunburn after a long day at the beach, or it can hit you like a bolt of lightning which has no mercy on any living cell in your body. Mine was the latter.

For nearly a decade after my husband’s overnight departure from my life, I struggled with the poverty which came from having focused on being a good wife and a mother; both jobs which didn’t offer a paycheck. Torn between knowing I wanted to be with my daughter to feed her mind and soul with good fuel and needing to pay the $60.00 electric bill, my depression ran deep.

What’s more, I didn’t have a marketable or a powerful resume of employment successes. Yes, I had graduated from college, but I would need to start at the bottom, at a minimum wage job paying $8.00 as a store cashier, or something. The biggest downside to entry-level work, I quickly realized, was the negative cash flow it would create. The local babysitter in the building was charging $7.00 an hour. Coupled with travel time and taxes, I would be in the red about $3.00 per hour if I went to work.

The Struggle to Make Ends Meet

Fast forward through sleepless nights and renting out bedrooms to pay the rent for the better part of a decade which was marked by debilitating depression and a clenched jaw, in my late 30’s I was becoming somewhat of a positive example to others who struggled with single parenthood. More often than not, I could give some sound advice on how to navigate through the ex’s most current wife, or the inconveniences of renting out bedroom #2 in a 2 bedroom apartment, or the resourcefulness of buying whole milk and mixing it with water to make my own version of skim milk at ½ the price.

I found a pamphlet posted on a community board while I was searching for any form of possible employment. The United Way offered a form of brief therapy for those struggling with loss or confusion. I was, undoubtedly both lost and confused. Their sliding scale rates determined that my 50 minute weekly sessions would cost me $5.00, and even that was a bit of a stretch for my nonexistent budget.

The value of the therapy sessions was felt immediately and the long-term benefits remain. The intern/therapist tasked with making my world livable suggested I explore continuing my education, that school loans might make it possible for me to gain an education which could offer some career options.

“Go back to school? At MY age?” I asked.

The Oldest Student

When I first walked into the classroom filled with eager faces, the students all grew silent and turned toward me. It was only later that I realized they assumed I was the professor, not a fellow student. Yes, I was, by far, the oldest student. And Psychology is not exactly the most career-direct degree. In fact, when I chose psychology it was with little understanding of any career options which might emerge once the Master’s Degree certificate was in hand.

All I knew was that I was getting pretty good at guerrilla warfare against the challenges of single parenthood and deadbeat daddies and my experience oftentimes helped others not feel so badly about their situation. This, in a weird way, helped lift my depression, if only slightly.

Psychology became the route I choose. Pepperdine University School of Education and Psychology became the institution of choice because it was close to my home, which meant less babysitting expenses. FAFSA loans secured, I turned over my mind and my money hoping that an institution of higher learning might help alleviate the heavy cloud hovering over my every move.

Extra Credit Prison Tour

It was an optional classroom activity offered by Professor Laurie Schollkopf, the university’s resident Drug and Alcohol Treatment professor that changed my life. The classroom of 30+ students was invited to tour the Federal Corrections Institution at Terminal Island in San Pedro, California.

The timing of the tour was perfect, as all my activities were navigated around my daughter’s pick up and drop off schedule. My daughter would still be in school and I had sufficient time to complete the tour and pick her up without worrying about who would get her or how to pay for the babysitter.

I signed up.

No Hostage is Rescued

The first time visiting a prison is jarring, even for the most logically minded individual who knows they will be “released” at the end of the tour. Maybe the most jarring part is that one bold-face line on the release form which states that in the event that you are taken hostage there will be no effort to trade your life for the release of an inmate. Basically, if you are taken hostage, you are on your own.

I signed on the dotted line and was patted down, wanded with a metal detector, and walked shoeless through the even-bigger metal detector. After the heavy doors slammed and the reverberation silenced throughout my body, what happened next could only be described as my very own little miracle.

Our tour group of students was led out onto the “yard,” which is the open space between housing structures containing thousands of men who had broken the laws sufficiently to land them as residents of the taxpayer-funded block buildings. When my eyes lifted from the concrete slab flooring onto the yard, it was as if the cloud was lifted and I felt an odd sense of comfort.

The prison walls and the men walking from one side of the yard to the next resembled how I felt inside. I, too, was trapped, in prison, and struggling in a quicksand of complications from which I could not find freedom.

Finding Freedom Inside Prison

That day was the first day I remember a genuine smile coming from deep within my heart and soul. I didn’t know what my career would be, but I knew I would be working with prisoners. They were, after all, a walking and talking emanation of my most inner feelings. We were both in prison. My prison was in my mind; their prison was one of the physical body. I wanted to help them find an internal freedom for which I had struggled for more than a decade. I had a hunch, that in being of service to them, that I, too, might find some peace in my life.

This year marks the culmination of a decade of volunteer service to the 2.3 million men, women and children in our nation who have abdicated the right to their physical freedom through their unlawful acts or their debilitating addiction or depression.

In total, since that first tour of a Federal Prison, I have unwaveringly volunteered more than 40 hours each week to the incarcerated individuals in prisons and jails, accepting a standard of living which most people may find embarrassing.

A Most Powerful Anti-Depressant

The most proven anti-depressant is that of being of service.  Service, in all its wide variety of forms, is the only guaranteed anti-depressant on the market today. In fact, living a life service has been the one remedy which not only lifted the cloud from my life, but has proven to provide a light at the end of the tunnel in the lives of the incarcerated. Through my service to those in prison I have, oddly, discovered my own internal freedom.

The Sweetest Pill

Volunteerism is undoubtedly the single most powerful anti-depressant available to any living human being, even those who feel they are confined to a prison from which they cannot escape. Signing up to volunteer and then putting your heart and soul into the service of others is the sweetest of life’s pills.

For those who volunteer at Getting Out by Going In, the organization I founded to empower inmates with the courage and tools to self-correct, the joy in the face of a mother who can be released from prison on a drug related offence and return to her children as a sober and sane presence in their lives makes all the sacrifices of volunteerism worth its weight in gold.

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Will I Be Missed?

Earlier today photographer Amir Ali took pictures of me for materials needed to promote Getting Out by Going In as the emerging leader in providing self-corrective education for our nation’s incarcerated men, women and children. As I sat at my computer reviewing hundreds of headshots, I took a long look at the image of the woman on the screen. Rather than focus on which hair was out of place, or the telltale signs of aging around the corners of my eyes, I tried to put myself in a place one hundred years from now, as a distant relative who might stumble across my picture while researching their family lineage. I wondered what they would think about the image they saw. Would the photograph be so outdated that the viewer couldn’t see the depth of my soul or the clothing I spent so much time choosing? One hundred years from now, will the fashion be as drastically different then as it is from what my ancestors wore in 1911?

When I look at photographs, even those from twenty years ago, I spend less time looking at the individual’s face and more time musing on how goofy and awkward they appear. Their hair always looks awful and their clothing looks uncomfortable. Is that the reaction my image might conjure up in the mind of a viewer twenty years from now? Is that what will happen with your own photograph; the picture of yourself you hope will reveal the best image of you?

Each of us hopes to be remembered when it is our time to leave this earth, as if being remembered provides a link for us to linger on earth just a moment or two longer. In the big scheme of things, however, most of us get forgotten within a generation. Your grandchildren, if you have them, are likely to know very little about you and their children may know even less. Ask yourself, what do you know about your great grandfather? Which ancestor was the first to travel to America? Before that, who were your people and from where did they come? Do you know anything significant about their lives? Do you even recall the details of their struggles? Does anyone remember anything more than the general historical brush strokes defining the five or six decades they walked the earth?

The image on the computer screen before me is one of a woman in the year 2011. I see an image of a woman who has faced struggles beyond her ability and yet, somehow, she has overcome them. Will the viewer see that in my eyes? Will they know of my frustrations, my struggles, and the injustices I faced? Will they even wonder what my life was like, what I chose to do on a Saturday morning, or how great my heartbreaks have been along the way? Will they understand the poverty from which I suffered? The education I struggled so hard to obtain? The school loans which will weigh me down for another 25 years? Will anyone see that in the image?

It is inevitable that we all die. It is also inevitable that future generations believe they are so much more advanced than those previous. It is inevitable that our photographs become nothing more than something to laugh at and clothing to criticize. As we become erased from the world’s awareness within 50 years of our passing, what, then, is the importance of our life? Will it matter what car we drive? What home we call ours? The clothes we wear? Will it even matter where we awoke each morning? Will our affiliations and homeboys and neighborhood truly miss us? Who will mourn our absence? Will anyone visit our gravesite year after year?

WHAT IF the finest life we can live is when we focus all our attention on being of service to our immediate environment? WHAT IF our every day efforts were turned toward making wherever we are just a little more peaceful? A little more tidy? A little more friendly? WHAT IF our every day was spent in a little more prayer? Just one more minute of meditation? WHAT IF we sat up straight and walked tall with the knowledge that our life is occurring this very second, not tomorrow and not when we gain our “freedom.”
When I watched my father’s body shrink to the cancer consuming his healthy cells, I was a 24/7 witness to the slipping away of the  unimportant. The ability to drive his car, for example. When that became impossible, he reluctantly LET GO. When moving about hi s home with freedom and autonomy became impossible, he reluctantly LET GO. When sitting up in the bed became a multi-person task, he struggled but then LET GO. And toward the end, when mint chocolate chip ice-cream spoon-fed to him no longer tasted good, he LET GO of that, too. At the very end, it was only those seated by his side that mattered and, of that he had no choice but to LET GO. One by one he LET GO of all the things he had held so tightly. In those final moments I believe he came to understand that all he would be taking with him was what he created inside his head and his heart. Everything to which he had a tight grip for so many years was being left behind.

A realization we eventually face is that life goes on and memories of loved ones fade until they disappear with future generations.

Yesterday a family member asked, “When was this picture of Dad taken?”

“2008,” I replied, in full knowledge that in fifty short years no one will even know that the image to which he referred was that of my father.

Will I be missed when it is my turn to LET GO? We are all so busy with “things” we cannot take with us that it appears as if the only thing which is missing is the choice to be present in living each moment to the fullest. We are so busy trying to make our mark, gain our freedom, change the system, impress our families, reunite with loved ones, do good in the neighborhood, seek revenge, get an education, get a good job, and be the boss. We are so busy that we miss the point.

WHAT IF all these things are a distraction from the truth; that none of it matters more than how we respect and embrace this very moment of our life? WHAT IF we will not be remembered in fifty years and that is the just way it is supposed to be? WHAT IF it is not about our legacy as much as it is our willingness to be present with our current environment?

WHAT IF we stop the chatter in our brain just long enough to see the peace we can create in this exact moment? WHAT IF our mind was still enough to hear the sounds which make up our surroundings? Would we hear the laughter coming from someone in joy? Could we hear the cry of another in need? WHAT IF all the trappings of leaving a grand legacy or grabbing the most out of life or fighting for our “freedom” for twenty years is exactly what robs us of our opportunity for inner peace?

Sometimes we are so busy planning for the future that we miss the point of the entire exercise of being human. To experience life with the absence of struggle, we must slow down and find the inner peace which only comes through contributing positively to the life of the individual right next to us. When we place our attention to being an example of integrity, peace, calm demeanor, helpfulness, as well as understanding and support, then we are helping to guide the way of those with whom we come into contact.

Will you be missed when you are gone? The better question is who misses the best of us when we are not present? And, what might happen if we really paid attention to the life unfolding right under our noses? Whose life can we make just a little bit easier today through our POSITIVE THOUGHTS? Whose life can we impact with a POSITIVE WORD? What POSITIVE ACTION can we choose which might serve as an example for others to follow?

I suspect it is not so important to concern ourselves with thinking about family going out of their way to visit, or society making it easy for someone to get back on their feet. Those are thought- consuming distractions to the single most important aspect of life; when you are not being of service then the best part of you is being missed. When you are blinded by the illusion of importance of certificates or groups or politics or legal paperwork it is then that you miss the point. Ask yourself, of the people right next to you, how many lives have you made better by a simple gesture, an act of kindness? With whom did you share something without requesting something in return? Was the best part of you missed today?

In one hundred years I will be forgotten. You, too, will be forgotten. And all your friends will be forgotten. I promise you one thing; you will be missed about as much as you miss your great grandmother. But, you do not need to be missed in your life right now. When you choose to be present, the very best part of your life will not be missed by anyone.

No matter how impossible it may appear at the moment, each one of us can choose to be present in the lives of every living thing with which we come into contact. If we are not making that choice, then we are missing our finest opportunity.

As I close the computer file with the images of a woman I recognize as myself, I am reminded that with every moment I am not focusing on the present, I am missed. The fact is; images fade and lives end. The world continues to turn with an entirely new crop of humans who, with each and every generation, struggle to make their mark, all the while missing the point.

Being missed is what happens when we do not pay attention to the subtle details of our everyday life. What matters most in all our lives is not the great works we do, or the great wealth or power we accumulate, or the physical freedom for which we strive. What matters most is how keen our eye is focused on identifying and assisting those in need; those who suffer right next to us.

We are missed when we are not making our immediate surroundings more peaceful, pleasant, supportive and positive for those who find themselves in our presence. When we practice being present to those things within five feet of our reach, it is only then that our legacy is experienced in real time. Rather than ask, “will I be missed?” we can ask ourselves, “what part of life am I missing?”

Not Broken Beyond Repair

Sitting at my kitchen table checking my email this morning, I heard a loud thump on the window behind me. My heart sunk. It was the unmistakable sound of a bird flying full force and colliding in a losing battle into the window, likely causing its instant demise. Pausing my typing for a moment, I looked at the window, but there were no marks which would indicate anything had splattered. I glanced outside, but couldn’t see the ground two stories below. After just a short consideration, I rose from my seat and made my way to the front door, ready for the unpleasant task of burying the dead bird.

From the top of the stairs I could see the white belly of a bird on its back. It’s never pleasant for me to find a run-over cat or even an insect which has died. I have buried countless lifeless critters since third grade when my family lived adjacent to a desert and I attempted to rescue a rabbit who had much of its left side chewed away by some hungry predator. I have accepted this duty in my life, an obligation to assist those in need, human or not. The question always pops into my mind, “WHAT IF that were me? What would I want done?” So, as I approached the belly-up sparrow, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “WHAT IF it were me, what would I want done?”

The bird had the softest looking new feather on its belly which looked like a fluffy cloud or a cotton ball. It was still alive, barely it seemed, as its heart was pounding furiously and its eyes were wide open in panic. Up and down its belly went at it instinctively struggled to get air into its tiny body. There was little doubt in my mind these were the final breaths of this little bird’s life. I began to wonder what the bird was feeling, thinking, and experiencing with this big strange being hovering over it with a curious expression on the human’s unfeathered and beakless face. I took a seat on the ground and was simply willing to witness the passing of an innocent bird because of one fatal flying mistake.

I prayed for the little guy, hoping its transition would be swift. Part of me wondered if it was more cruel to just sit and watch it die, or if I was better off putting it in a box out of the way of the encroaching ants. I spoke in a soft voice, knowing it was likely the bird with its little bird brain was not going to understand anything, but I felt compelled to offer something soothing, anyway. Maybe just for my own sense of doing all I could. “Ok, little guy,” I said. “I am going to pick you up and find a little box and I am going to be there until you leave this earth.” The little bird’s breathing and rapid heart rate spoke of the innate fear all living things have when shocked or knocking on death’s door.

Knowing the bird’s neck was likely broken, I paid particular attention to how I lifted it from the ground. Placing one finger like a splint against the left side of its body, I tenderly scooped up the barely breathing pile of broken feathers with my right hand. I closed my grip gently, just enough to feel its heartbeat and keep it from flailing in fear. Empty boxes are not something I collect or let take up space in my sparse world. I am not a collector or a keeper of things, choosing to get things off to their next owner as quickly as possible. At this moment, however, I was really wishing for an empty shoebox. Well, I reasoned. It would not be too long before the bird took its last breath. So I decided to take a seat on the hammock outside and hold the bird while it made its transition.

The sun was warm on this first day of fall and there were remnants of summer in the morning rays. The sun hit my body with soothing warmth that settled the situation for me. There was no need for me to do anything more than to just sit with this little creature and make it as comfortable as I could until that time when it was no longer alive. The music from inside the house was barely audible but enough so that I had a rhythm to rock to while on the hammock. Soon enough, I began to hum the tune and I placed my gently closed hand at my chest where the sun was hitting just perfectly. The bird’s heartbeat and breathing had slowed, almost undetectable. Six months prior, on March 10th, I had watched my own father’s heart beat slow until its undetectable beat stopped altogether.

As I held the bird gently at my chest, thoughts of my father crossed my mind; grieving thoughts of transitions. But more than anything, my thoughts were to the privilege we can experience if we are willing to help other living beings make transitions with all the tenderness and compassion which can be mustered in a time of pending loss. I hummed and gently swung the hammock back and forth. Now the bird’s eyes were closed, his heartbeat nonexistent and his lifeless body still cradled in my hand next to my beating heart. What a wonderful way to die, I thought.

Every living being leaves this earth sooner or later, but as bird-passings go, this had to rank among the best possible. Here was this little bird that had never had a human touch, never experienced touch at all, unless it was from another bird while tending to a nest or while mating. Here was this little bird, gently cradled in the arms of love, with a huge human beating heart so close to its own, and will the gentle warmth of the fall sun stroking its wings. I felt complete, as if I had done exactly what I would have wanted done, if I was the bird. If I was the bird, I would have been scared, and lonely, and hurting. While I might have been frightened to see a huge giant human approach, I would have liked to have heard a sound which was soft and tender, a voice of understanding or compassion. I would not have minded being placed in a box away from the ants, but would have been even happier to die peacefully as I rested my broken body listening to the heartbeat and gentle humming of someone who cared. Yes, as deaths go, this bird got the royal treatment. His death was better than any scripted plan which could have possibly been written.

My mind drifted to where I would offer a burial for the bird and I adjusted my position in preparation to get up. Just then, the little bird opened its eyes and its little feet moved against the skin of my chest. “Well, then,” I said. “You are going to be here a little longer?” The bird kept its eye on me, not moving its body, but I could feel a tiny heartbeat under my forefinger. “Ok, then. We will just sit here till you decide to go,” I said out loud, happy I didn’t have any neighbors walking nearby who would return home with the idea that they had seen Coach Taylor talking to herself in the hammock.

I think I fell asleep for a bit, or I just drifted off into a pseudo slumber. I remembered the last breaths my father took, and holding his hand. I thought about my own passing, and where would I be and who would be by my side. I thought of the inmates dying in prison and the family they miss and the support they receive from other inmates as they leave this world. I thought of the infants who die in the arms of neonatal nurses because their drug addicted bodies cannot win the fight to live. I thought of the grace which exists when we are of service to our fellow living beings, and of the blessings of stopping the email long enough to be present for an event important in the life of another.

When I awoke, the little bird opened his eyes as well. It seemed he had been napping, too. I loosened my hand from the bird’s body, wanting to assess just what might be broken. A wing? It’s neck, perhaps? I pulled my hand away and just observed. I was more than a little surprised when the little guy rose to its little feet and tilted its head just enough to look me square in the eye, eliminating the assumption that the loud thud against the window had broken its neck. My thoughts were now moving toward what form of a cage I would need to house the bird with the unbroken neck but broken wing or other broken bones which would eventually mean its passing, just not as quickly as I had suspected. Obviously, this bird was not broken beyond the ability to squeeze out a little more living, if only for a few hours or a few days.

“Well, little fella, what are we going to do now?” I asked. It tilted its head as if attempting to understand what the giant was trying to communicate.

I placed my hand back on top of the bird’s body, its legs went limp against my chest and we swung in the hammock a little bit longer while I considered some options. The sun in the fall morning is lovely as it makes its final attempt to keep the breeze warm. In a week or so, the sun will lose the argument and the breeze will make way for the snow which will make way for the spring and a new batch of sparrows in the trees.

It’s not really a matter of fighting against the course of nature, attempting to keep things alive or being angry at the perceived cruelty humans wield upon themselves and others. It’s not really about collecting stuff and squirreling things away, just in case. It’s not really about being busy or getting things done. As I swing on the hammock, I am keenly aware that the emails are of little importance in the grand scheme of things. What is important is this moment, this very moment, as the sparrow and I close our eyes and feel the warmth of the sun.

I am not sure I believe in miracles as I think at their very root, there is a logical and scientific explanation for most everything. This does not mean I do not believe in Divine intervention or the tender touch of an angel which guides our path. Some may call it a miracle. Some will say the sparrow was simply in shock from the unplanned encounter with a pane of glass. Whatever it is called, the unmistakable truth is that the little sparrow rose to its feet and looked at me with the clarity of a perfectly healed and healthy being ready to take flight.

“Well, well well, little guy. Aren’t you a lovely little miracle,” I said. The bird had every bit of strength in its body. I could tell by the way it held its head, its wings perfectly in place, its little feet ready for the next grasp.

I took the bird in my hand and made my way to a wood post. I wanted to set the bird there, just to see what it would do; just how disabled might he be. A smile came to my face when it grasped tightly to my finger, almost suggesting that it did not want me to go too far. I stayed there for a moment, but it still held tight to my finger as it looked at its once familiar surroundings. Then, the most remarkable thing happened; it moved its other foot to my finger so the entire weight of its body was on my hand.

“Is that so, little fella,” I commented. “Not too ready to leave the comfort quite yet.”

I took a nearby seat and just held the little guy on my finger as if it was a trained pet which was purchased at a pet store and knew no different. If the bird was able to say something, I was certain it was expressing gratitude and comfort, a connection between unlikely beings which would never be replicated in this bird’s life. It seemed as if the bird was growing increasingly comfortable with me as its new partner, firmly planted on my finger and not too anxious to explore beyond my care. I wondered what our world would be like if all humans were to treat all beings with a profound concern for their care.

What would be possible if all beings felt witnessed and understood, appreciated and protected? Could it be that man could live in harmony not only with the animals, but with themselves? Could color lines and religious barriers be eliminated if we would all walk away from emails just long enough to make a significant contribution to the life of another living being?

The bird and I both heard the noise that would end the moment we shared. To me, it sounded like the sparrows I had heard for the entire summer. But this time it was a slightly different sound. Call it my imagination, but it sounded as if it was a family member, a sparrow who knew this sparrow, as the call had a slight urgency or longing to its notes.

Both the bird and I looked to the pine tree to source the sound. The call was offered again. As the sparrow in the tree came into view, I had the profound feeling that these two sparrows knew each other and there was a world within the life of birds, a world of community to which I was now a witness. My little miracle of a bird looked at me, tilted its head to get a better look, and then looked toward the tree. I set him down on the wood railing, certain that this was the moment, this was the time. If he was to fly, it would be because he would not resist the call he received from one of his own.

“Go on,” I said. “You can do it.” He hopped two or three times, moving a few inches from me.

Then, at the sound of the sparrow in the tree, he took flight. I didn’t hide my tears. I let them stream down my face. I asked myself, WHAT IF I had not left my computer? WHAT IF I had not been still enough to hold the bird to my heart? WHAT IF I had been too busy to miss this magical moment?

I am now back at my computer, but not as the same woman I was a few hours ago. I realize the blessings in everyday life are there for us if we will only slow down and welcome them. Even inside a small cell of an over-crowed prison, the blessings can be found when we slow down and permit them to guide our every response. There are very few important things in life; being still enough to hear the call of a miracle ranks right up there at the top.

I have turned up the soft music playing in the background in my home. Behind me is the window and beyond that is the tree. My little sparrow has joined his family. I have a deeper knowledge that appearance can be deceiving. Even the most broken among us may not be beyond the repair which comes from love. My little miracle was not broken beyond the repair but he needed my participation in his recovery. And, as I sit down to resume my attention to emails, there is no doubt in my mind that it is I who receives the biggest blessing for my participation in his healing.

Orphaned by Opiates

The more I work with the  men, women and children inside our nation’s prisons and jails, the more convinced I become that there is a series of events which predispose individuals to commit unlawful acts or fall into a pattern of addiction leading to unlawful acts.  Through my work with Getting Out by Going In, the nonprofit leading the nation in inmate self-corrective education, I am able to explore the life reflections of thousands of inmates who are on the road to repairing the mistakes which led them behind bars.

One recurring theme in their communication, particularly in the material I receive from incarcerated women who by their very nature tend to be more emotive than men, is this concept of a childhood fracture.  I have titled it the childhood fracture because it seems that there is a traumatic experience, a singular event which happens and the individual is unable to recover fully which makes it possible for further injury to occur.  It is my experience that after the childhood fracture, the individual is never able to establish a wholeness which would enable them to make positive decisions in their life.  These fractures become, for the most part, a determining factor in the development of our personality.  It either destroys our self-esteem or fuels us to climb above the wreckage we have experienced.

Through my work with prisoners, I have also come to realize that much of my own spiritual growth occurs as I assist others; gently reminding me that I have my own personal prisons and I, too, have my own childhood fractures. The irreparable fracture of my childhood occurred on the morning of my 10th birthday. Tenth birthdays are big ones as it marks the passage of defining oneself beyond a single digit.  Also, I was keenly aware that at the mature age of 10, I was also nearly age 13. I would soon be an official teenager who had reached the magnificent demarcation point from child to the beginning of adulthood.   I remember the date of my childhood fracture as if it were yesterday.

It was a typically 100 degree summer morning in Las Vegas day on July 18, 1968 and I was sitting at the kitchen table eating the marshmallows out of my bowl of Lucky Charms when my mother descended the staircase.   As I led my spoon deep into the avocado-colored bowl on the search for buried sweet treasures, I kept an eye on my mother as she went about the routine I had come to find comfort in observing.  She always wore a zip-up robe; floral with two pockets. Her closet, the left side, had nearly a dozen of such wardrobe items for her to choose from.  Each Christmas her mother would present her with a meticulously and ornately wrapped box, always the same size, and in it would be the new year’s version of last year’s gift; a zip-up robe and a pair of slippers.

I watched in wonder as my mother seemingly floated, angel-like, into the kitchen.  Gently pulling a coffee cup and the instant coffee from the cupboards, she would set the water to boil.  Before long, the cup would be filled and the intoxicating and mysteriously adult aroma of coffee would find its way to my anticipating nostrils.

“One day,” I would say to myself, “One day I will drink coffee, just like my mother.”

Shoveling the cereal into my mouth with my eyes trained on the art of drinking coffee, I keenly observed every detail of the morning ritual.  First, you had to hold the cup just right with your right hand gently grasping the handle and pinky finger subtly extended.  You had to sip, not swallow.  And after the first sip, you had to look very relieved or satisfied.  I hadn’t completely figured out what the expression meant, but it was one which I hoped I could experience when I took my first sip.

This was the fine art of drinking the morning cup of coffee as taught to me by my mother.

But there was something else I always noticed about my mother.  Her physical beauty was unparalleled.  As she sat at the head of the table, I observed her perfect profile, the fine features which could have made for a movie career to rival the likes of Elizabeth Taylor.  My mother was the petite china doll who married the hotel and casino manager who was more than a decade her senior. Eleven months after their nuptials their first child arrived.

I, however, was not like my mother.  I was the fearless, athletic, energetic, and far-from-dainty offspring born to at 19 year old debutant and 30 year old confirmed bachelor.  I had enough energy to light up the entire hotel/casino which I called home for the first years of my life.  I danced on the hotel stages to the delight of the hotel guests, sat in the kitchen eating specially scooped ice-cream and watching the chef in the big white hat slice the beef for the dining room waiters to serve, and I frolicked poolside generating massive amounts of attention as my perfect-looking mother sunbathed nearby.

When my mother became pregnant with my brother, we moved out to the suburbs where I was joined not only by one brother but by a total of three siblings over the next six years.  I was the eldest of four and although there was only two years which separated me and my brother, we were decades apart in maturity level.  He was quiet and didn’t poke and prod at life like I did.  As time went on, this hunger for life experience placed me with the disadvantage of perceiving a world which was not understood by my younger siblings.  I saw things which escaped their life experience, and my traumas came from this keen awareness of nuances and unspoken communication exhibited by my parents.  I watched the morning rituals while my siblings were busy watching Johnny Quest on the family television in the other room.

“One day,” I said to myself, “One day I want to be as beautiful as my mother.”

But I quickly realized I was not like my mother and the older I grew, the less I was becoming like her.  I was an unstopped force of enthusiastic energy which was neither manageable nor containable.  My shoes, for example, were always destroyed within a week of getting them. I would climb, hike, build or just plain overlook puddles of mud or destructive rocks.  My mother’s shoes were size 5 ½ and lined up just perfectly in her closet with never a scratch, never a blemish. Her hands, too, were those of a princess while mine were hands which didn’t look at all like the magazine pictures of the models for nail polish and wedding rings.

Nor did my hands look like the hands on the dolls I discovered in my mother’s childhood closet when I visited my grandmother.  The fact that she even had a doll collection made her different.  I had troll dolls with fuzzy hair standing strait up out of their heads.  My collection of the oddly shaped rubber creatures was complete; a dozen or more trolls with every possible brightly colored afro.  I would give the members of my troll family warm and bubbly baths, would wash their hair, then braid or cut their boldly colored manes and make clothes for them out of napkins or toilet paper.

Oh, how I wanted to be like my mother but the sheer force of my existence was too great for me to be anything other than what I was destined to be.  I was “athletic,” my father would say, as if being athletic was an acceptable excuse for not being a “real girl.”  That, however, was not the fracture of my childhood.  That was simply the foundation on which the fracture occurred.  The childhood fracture came on the morning of my tenth birthday when my world was rocked; my heart split in two, and the ground beneath my feet began a subtle shaking which lasted more than thirty years.

The coffee cup had been placed on the table and my mother’s gentle hand drifted into her pocket.  This was not uncommon, as she might be reaching for a tissue or piece of scrap paper with a reminder note tucked away which she suddenly remembered.  But there was an unusual sound, a plastic sound of rattling which I heard very distinctly above the sounds of my brothers’ argument ensuing in the other room. Instinctively I knew this sound emanating from her pocket was not good, not healthy. And I perceived a threat at the sound of the rattling.  The pill bottle emerged, caressed in her alabaster hands with the gentle fingertips.  My focus intensified. What was this strange new element being added to the morning routine?

The cap came off the bottle with ease. She navigated a pink pill out of the collection, replaced the cap with expertise which comes from practice and lifted the coffee cup in her hand.  The pill was inserted into her mouth, her head was jerked back a little and then the coffee cup reached her lips.

The crack which happened within my heart at that exact moment in time was a visceral experience for me.  It was that day the world turned grey.  Colors lost their vibrancy and my innocence evaporated.  The crack deep within me was made larger and cut deeper into my world as I kept a keen eye out for anything which supported my new belief that the world was not safe.  Mother yelling at my brothers in a shrill voice was immediately shifted to a syrupy sweet, “Hello,” when she picked up the ringing wall phone.  What was real, I wondered.  Who was my mother?  Was she angry or sweet?  What did the pill bottle do that I could not do for her?

People now ask if my mother is still alive.  That is a tough question.  My brother states that my mother is nothing more than a remnant of the women that raised him.  I have come to terms with the idea that she is a walking pill bottle.  Her 40 year reliance on increasing levels of opiates has certainly diminished her ability to function in the role I wished she could have assumed.  When I think of my mother it is easier to think of her as the troubled and powerless little sister, the one family member who had lots of potential but never could quite pull it together. Consequently the lives of the entire family are altered by the drama with which the family rallies around.

As I type, this my family has called neighbors to go see if my mother is dead, lying in her recliner chair with her morphine patch attached to her arm and her Oxycontin bottle tipped over by her side.  Likely, she will be awoken from a drug-addled slumber and we will receive the report that she was just “resting” for the last four days. I am well aware and certain that one of these days we will get the call that my mother has worn her last morphine patch.

There was one time when I got to truly “see” my mother.  We had done our only failed attempt at a family intervention and she reluctantly agreed to go into a treatment facility to prove to us that the medications she was taking was for pain and not an addiction.  After three months of hard detox she was moved to a rehabilitative ranch.  She had been weaned off the hardest of narcotics and was being stabilized with medications to address the underlying mental illness.  When my mother met me outside the ranch home, it was as if I was meeting a stranger, a dream come true, and the mother I had always wanted.

For the first time, her eyes were clear.  Her speech was understandable, not slurred or forced.  Her mouth was not dry, her jaw did not twitch.  She didn’t wring her hands nor did she shake them back and forth claiming they didn’t work right.  She was not the hyperactive whirlwind I had come to tolerate but, rather, she was slow to speak and had a peaceful elegance about her every move.  It was the only time I remember getting a clear and present experience of my mother, one absent a steady stream of doctor’s prescriptions and rattling pill bottles.

During my visit at the ranch I listened and observed for signs that this was truly the new life she had sought to create.  I was neither disappointed nor upset when the words she spoke indicated this would be a short-lived experience.  I suspected her sobriety would not last; I suspected it was just a moment in time, a rare and precious moment to be memorized and burned into my heart and soul for constant reflection. She did not claim responsibility for her addiction nor did she have a plan for getting support to maintain her sobriety.  A week after our visit, she left the ranch and took a flight back home as a “cured woman” with the enthusiasm and promise of finally having the life she had dreamed was possible.  Within a week, however, she was back in the waiting room of the variety of doctors who willingly wrote scripts just to get her out of their offices.

I am more privileged than most children of addicts.  I caught a fifteen minute glimpse of the mother I might have had, were it not for the doctor’s prescriptions and her addiction to their remedies. That day at the ranch I actually met an extraordinarily beautiful and highly intelligent women who might have created a very different life experience.  Many children of addicts never get that; never see who their parent might have been… if only.

My childhood fracture could have broken me, and in a way, I must admit it did.  I suffered through a world of greys and depression until I reached well into my 40’s.  But this fracture, as disabling as it was, became the fuel in the engine of my life’s purpose.  It became the catalyst for my work with our nation’s incarcerated, 80 percent of whom have drug and alcohol related crimes.

Personally, it is still a challenge to think of my childhood as a blessing but as a result, I have a purpose which drives me to greater levels of excellence.  I feel compelled, driven and committed to identify and deliver a simplified way for any individual to make positive decisions in their life.  I suffered great emotional pain as a child, hoping and wishing for a mother who was not there.  And while my mother is less than 300 miles from where I now live, she cannot be there in the ways a child dreams and hopes.  She is preoccupied with carefully managing the cocktail of patches and pills and wandering her home all night and sleeping all day.  My mother left this earth long ago; escaping in the only way she knew how from the pain which was too great for her to bear. I am an orphan.

The blessing I now experience is that through my pain and suffering in my orphan-hood, others who suffer from a similar plight as my mother are benefiting.  I was orphaned at the hand of opiates on my 10th birthday, but I am a good sister to anyone seeking the simple tools for altering one’s addictive destiny.  I am an orphan, yes, but I have a family which encompasses a world of humans now better off for my suffering.  I made the choice not to be broken beyond repair and to use my childhood fracture as my greatest strength. This is the message I am compelled to share with incarcerated men, women and children.  You may be broken, but you are not beyond repair.  You may be damaged, but not beyond your ability to contribute great things to your brothers and sisters, no matter who they are or what their struggles may be.

I do not judge my mother harshly.  What if her role in this life was to provide me with the catalyst for my work?  If I did not suffer through her addition with her, would I have been motivated to seek a solution to our nation’s struggle with addiction.  Being an orphan is as painful as we make it.  It is also the privilege of strengthening a weakness until it becomes of great service to the maximum number of those who suffer.

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