Prison is a State of Mind…

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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