Prison is a State of Mind…

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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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