Erin spent the better part of 30 years caught in the wave and ripples of drug addiction brought on by what I suspect to have been a deep-seated self-loathing. When she first entered my world, it was in 2008 as a “student” placed in the therapeutic community housing unit called GOGI Campus at the Los Angeles County Jail. Erin had been arrested—again—and somehow had navigated her way up the waiting list of 100-plus inmates to claim one of 24 beds in this particular wing of the county jail dedicated to GOGI studies.
The fact that Erin was in jail was not a surprise to anyone. It was impossible to know just how many times cuffs had been slapped on her wrists. She represented the epitome of revolving door incarceration. As a participant in the donor-sponsored programming I was offering to the jailed women, I would not have thought of Erin as “most likely to succeed.” What she needed, I believed, before there was any hope at all, was no less than one full year in the GOGI Campus facility where she would learn how to make positive choices and where she could build a peer network I hoped would sustain her upon release from jail.
The judge agreed with my sentencing recommendation and Erin was sentenced to one year in the county jail in the GOGI program. When she came back from court that day and gave the other GOGI Girls the news, I was hopeful. With 365 full days of intensive training, miracles can happen; Erin could practice the decision-making tools with like-minded women and they would learn how to make positive decisions before she headed back into the cruel world with self-loathing as her calling card.
I went into campus a few days later only to see a new girl seated in Erin’s chair. Erin had been released, the women told me. As “luck” would have it, the jail was overcrowded and everyone who was not a danger to self or others and who were serving a year or less of jail time was automatically and unceremoniously released to make way for more hardened criminals. That placed Erin on the streets only three days after being sentenced to a year of jail time. I chalked it up to the flawed system and never expected to see or hear from Erin again.
When the phone rang and it was Erin calling, I was pleasantly surprised. When she explained that she was “GOGI for Life” and was going to do things differently this time, a ray of hope illuminated my perspective. I was supportive, but also understood that jailhouse talk of change usually disappears at the first call from a fellow addict. I offered volunteer opportunities and counseling. After all, the court had sentenced her to a year of GOGI, there was nothing in her GOGI program that released her until her 365 days were successful. I told her she still had her GOGI time to do, and she giggled.
Erin consistently inched her way toward stability and distanced herself from all things that could land her back in a squad car headed toward the jail. She began to lighten her load emotionally and this was reflected in her renewed interest to keep a tidy home for her and her husband, David.
“Coach,” she said one day with pride, “I can see my floor now that all the junk is gone and I have so much more room!”
The room of which she spoke was her physical living space, but I knew it represented the space within her heart and soul that was expanding, also. There were other changes, too. Subtle things like coming to realize that she could love others, and herself, as well. Or the fact that maybe she could even be a counselor. “After all,” she said, “I can do a better job than my counselor because I have been there.”
I watched her self-loathing diminish, slowly but surely, and bit by bit. Erin had grown accustomed living her life The GOGI Way and focused not on her past but on being of service to the new world in which the sober-Erin had emerged.
She would come to the GOGI mailroom and tidy up, or decorate for the coming holiday, always contributing and never complaining about the struggle inherent in overcoming addiction.
One Saturday, when Erin arrived at the GOGI mailroom, she was particularly lovely and radiant. Her eyes were clear and her smile was brighter than usual. She was bearing gifts: a rarely worn jacket and matching pants she wanted me to have, certain it would suit me just fine. She was, once again, cleaning out her closet to make even more room in her life.
Erin had her own way of looking at the world—a unique way she translated into thought-provoking poetry. One poem, about a gnat she observed while in a county jail cell, will be published in the new HOW TO GOGI book. Erin had a way of seeing significance in even the smallest things. Let Erin talk long enough and her unique lens with which she observed the world would find its way into the conversation.
After I folded my new clothes and returned to venting my frustration at the challenge of responding to the hundreds of letters flooding our mailroom with no funding and no staff, Erin gave my statements consideration before she replied. With her unbridled compassion for those suffering among us, she said something which I won’t soon forget.
“Coach, we are all like broken little toys, stumbling around with our crutches and our casts, just trying to fix ourselves and doing the best we can.”
Yes, I thought, as I pictured Toy Story or The Nutcracker. We are not unlike a bunch of well-meaning toys trying to make the best of this toy box of an existence.
I instantly had a new perspective on increasing number of letters coming into our non-profit in from prisons across our nation. It truth, we are all at little bit bruised and broken, limping through life on our crutches and with our arms in our casts, struggling for any remedy to cure our suffering. Thinking about it that way softened the dark shadow on what can sometimes feel like a heavy, difficult life-calling beckoning me to the mailbox every day.
That Saturday, less than 72 hours ago, was the last time I saw Erin. On Sunday, we were supposed to meet in my offices to review the hundreds of hours she had donated to GOGI so that I could submit a report to the court reviewing her progress. She canceled. She was ill. Vomiting, her husband relayed via email. We lobbed our meeting into sometime Monday.
The frantic call from a distraught husband came Monday afternoon. His words were barely understandable. “She died. She died,” he exclaimed in barely understandable tear-drenched and broken sentences. Indeed, at 1:00 our dear Erin was pronounced dead, succumbing to gangrene that had taken hold after a series of physical ailments and intense antibiotics. He was inconsolable, in sheer disbelief that after decades of wishing for his wife to be freed from addiction, she was gone just as she was finally healing.
Erin’s death has not become reality for me quite yet. I still expect Erin and her husband to stroll into the mailroom to offer their time in service of others. I have not yet completed the review of her hundreds of hours. And the jacket has not even been hung up in my closet yet. I will miss when a holiday rolls around and the decorations remain in their boxes. And, for certain, I won’t be able to wear the lovely outfit she gave me without a making sure I have a tissue in my pocket.
In my mind I see Erin sitting in the GOGI mailroom sharing with me her perspective of our fragile human race. I can’t help but picture her on a pair of crutches with a little cast on her arm, limping closer toward her healing. In my mind, her smile is a mile wide and her clothes – just so. In so many ways, our fragile Erin was a broken little toy and simply perfect in her imperfection.