When I was indicted for a federal crime (conspiracy to distribute five thousand hits of ecstasy) and facing a probable prison sentence, I was scared.
Fear was my primary feeling, but not because I was afraid to be shanked or raped or slapped in the yard. I was afraid that my baby boy was going to suffer without me, that some part of him would lose the feeling of security that a fully present parent provides. I was afraid he would miss me. I was also afraid, that after awhile, he wouldn’t miss me at all.
The other stuff didn’t bother me. In fact, I was a little fascinated by it all. Part of me felt like I’d been given a press pass into a closed arena. My curiosity – as a writer, an edge-pusher, a lover of all things dark, edgy, or justice related – was piqued.
I was afraid. But I was also curious. That curiosity has led me down some tricky roads. It has also led me down redemptive ones.
“I wonder what would happen if…” is one of the mantras I use personally, and if you are a client of mine, you know I also use it professionally.
“I wonder what would happen if you decided to believe that smoking is an opportunity to breathe deeply, to turn that breath visible, to illuminate your need for comfort. What if, instead of it being your personal failure, it is simply a mechanism to numb and/or stimulate your lungs, the primary organs of your grief. I wonder what would happen if you tried on a new story.”
Spoiler alert: Habits of self medication often lose their addictive charge when we mitigate the compound stress, the stories of failure, and the dive into oblivion that usually accompanies them.
So yeah. I wondered.
When I was three and my dad walked away, leaving me sitting next to his hunting knife tucked into its hide holster, with the firm instruction not to touch it because it would cut me… I wondered what would happen if I did it anyway. I wondered what “sharp” felt like.
I still have the scar on my hand.
I wondered what would happen if I connected the guy with my boyfriend and made some money selling ecstasy.
Then I wondered what would happen if I didn’t do that anymore, if I quit drinking and using cocaine, if I started doing yoga, teaching yoga…
And then, I was faced with Federal indictment, a situation that was so far out of my control that the only room I had to breathe was in relinquishing the desire for that control.
When you can’t change a situation, you have to go deeper inward. There’s always more space. Always.
I wondered what would happen if I said prayers that I would be able to handle whatever outcome I was handed, rather than saying prayers where I asked that I please don’t have to go to prison.
When I was, in fact, sentenced, my mind state was far more in acceptance than it would have been otherwise. And, considering what a traumatic moment of complete cognitive dissonance my sentencing was, that tiniest of cracks was profound.
I had allowed myself to wonder. What would happen if I went to prison?
What would happen if I took this punishment of “time” and decided it was a gift?
What would happen if I was able to upgrade my mental, physical, and spiritual health in this place despite, not because of, the system?
What would happen if I could turn this abandonment into the greatest lesson my son might ever learn (that I will always come back)?
Seriously, I didn’t know. Seriously, it was a total clusterfuck of suffering. But that curiosity added just enough flexibility to the hard, cold, bureaucratic facts of my predicament to cultivate creativity. And it’s that creativity that *has* been the answer to all of the “what if’s”. The answer to everything good that has happened to me ever since.
The skill of believing that there is always a way has carried me through.
The skill that helps me carry my clients through. And, hopefully, in some way, all of you.
Being allowed/invited to return to prisons to work with inmates has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
Because of my curiosity, I probably would have done it regardless of my lived experience, but that very experience has been the credential that opened the door.
I love being able to help moms find that mental space to regain some psychic control over their ability to utilize their time to the advantage of themselves, and their children, to step out of the confines of the given narrative of punishment, guilt, not deserving, owing, and shame, and into a greater reality where freedom is not granted – it’s grown.
But, I want to be clear. I do not believe in altruism. While I care very much and helping people is my way of contributing openly to a world that gives me so much, this work also closes a loop in me. It gives me a chance to round out my own grief and move from powerlessness to promise. It gives me credibility and interest. It fuels my career, my own continued freedom, and that of my son.
It’s been a weird balance during all the years I’ve done work like this. I want it so badly that I say “yes” to all of it, sometimes to the detriment of my own health. I’ve had to pull myself back many, many times. I’m sure I’ll have to do it again.
I’ve leapt in with both feet only to find myself in over my head, privy to stories that contain unspeakable suffering of women and children, wondering who the hell I think I am to try to help anyone at all. Wondering why suffering is so fucking arbitrary, and wondering if there’s anything any of us can do.
It’s made me want to give up. It’s made me want to keep going.
Primarily, it has taught me that all I have is what I have. If I start to think I’m ALL ABOUT GIVING, I get humbled really quick. If I start worrying that it’s ALL ABOUT ME, I get paralyzed by the fear that I’m doing more harm than good.
I’ve had to learn that it’s a dynamic balance of giving and receiving openly, a give and take that isn’t always a direct link, but it’s always present. I have to accept that I need to be healed, even in my offer of healing. I’ve had to learn that I can never play small or dumb or all-knowing around anyone, I can’t protect the women inside from my privilege by dressing down, or leaving out stories about my recent vacation. People need people to be real. I can’t ever step into a space where I believe myself to be “more fortunate”, use them as inspiration porn, or treat them like anything other than totally fucking human.
Leveled. All of us.
People always ask me about my work inside. “Prison” is a powerful hook. I believe those people are as curious as I am. Perhaps they’re hoping for stories of the danger, the shanking, the yard slapping. But I’ll tell you, the primary experience inside a prison is mind-numbing boredom. If I were to paint if for you, it would be a painting, all in grays, of a cinder block. Maybe a hard plastic chair. And you would be required to stare at it for nine hours without a break. Then maybe you would understand. The torture isn’t always the danger, it’s the lack of life.
It’s quiet, but loud. It’s calm, but unsettled. It’s monochromatic. It’s myopic. It’s full.
Inside, women move around the way creatures move when they have nowhere to go, when they know they’re trapped. Like animals in a zoo. Like residents of psych wards, senior care centers, prisons. The sadness is palpable, the laughing is loud – a mix of mandatory merriment and total surrender, the desire to overcome is more present there than in any group of humans I’ve ever encountered.
The truth is that I’m not sure how much I can really do, how much it matters, besides to me and my desire to be a person who does good, a person who needs to makes sense of her own often addled efforts to be loved. After a full day inside, I usually crash pretty hard. I have to shut it all down. I often do old comforting, self-medicating behaviors afterwards. I binge eat. I send texts to my ex. I move through waves of anger and depression.
And then I’m okay again.
And then I’m ready to do more.
Excited and full of hope again.
I’ve come to accept it as part of the process. Another thing to be curious about.
“I wonder what would happen if I allow this part of myself to be inevitable, maybe even welcome?”
“I wonder what would happen if all of this will help all of us get free?”
Yeah. I don’t really know. I do know that my life is better when I try.
How are you allowing curiosity to be a part of your most meaningful, or your scariest experiences? How are you allowing it to help you withstand uncertainty and elevate your certainty?
So grateful to be walking the planet with you. I see how hard you’re working, how hard you’re trying, how much good you crave to do, and to be. Of course there’s always farther to go, also, you’re there.
So much love,