This post is in support of “Working on Us” and Beckie’s commitment to Mental Health awareness. Addiction is the topic for week 21 and I decided to share my own story of exposure to addiction. Check out Beckie’s Mental Mess blog.
Addiction is a disease.
Addiction cannot be compartmentalized.
Addiction is a coping mechanism.
Addiction is contagious.
Addiction is not just about substances; it is instant gratifying behaviors.
Rarely do I come across a person that, in some way or another, has been unaffected by addiction. As a young child, my biological father was an addict. His choices eventually led him to prison. The first photo of my life holds a story of its own: my mom, lying in a hospital bed, gazing down at me in her arms and the only visible side of her face is marred with a black eye and swollen cheek area.
My mother saved us from that life of addiction and violence. Yes, the two often correlate. After that rough start I wasn’t exposed to or really affected by substance addictions until I was around 35. While I consistently worked for organizations that sought to serve these populations, those were never my specific department within the building.
Life happened and my own poor choices led to me spending ten months in a county jail. This experience led to an eye-opening revelation and new passion regarding addictions, incarceration, and the general goodness of a human being. My prior thought process was not consciously avoiding or judging those affected by addiction, but I certainly was not actively thinking, researching, and assisting. One thing to note about my personality and character. I am a helper. I enjoy and naturally gravitate to those that need support, guidance, or to just be heard. Over the years several young adults have stayed with my family as they started over, stepped out on their own, or just needed a bed to call their own.
While incarcerated I met roughly 60 different women, each with a unique story and each with an accentuated chapter or section in their lives overrun by addiction. The charges that placed them in jail ranged from petty theft to attempted murder. Each case driven by addiction. Each woman broken down, defiant, and most ready to start over, but unable to maintain any sobriety for longer than 1-2 days after release. Of those 60 women, I would eventually see 25 of them cycle through the system a few more times before my own departure.
What happened to me while incarcerated was a monumental shift in my own belief system and willingness to see an entire population of individuals that I had ignored for 35 years. I began talking to the women. I listened to their stories, learned about their families, and felt their desperate cries for help. They knew they were addicts. They knew about sobriety programs. They had been through them all, rather court ordered or by self-admission. What they hadn’t connected to was the foundation of their addictions, the tools needed to override the stronghold of addiction, and where to really start.
Addiction is pain.
Addiction is regret.
Addiction is loss.
Addiction is abandonment.
Addiction is personal.
My education in psychology and career in mental health treatments and program had equipped me long before this journey began. The more I listened, the more passionate I became about leaving behind a message, or a mark on these women. I had no desire to be just another inmate in their lives. Late one evening, as I struggled to sleep, I hatched a plan for the rest of my stay. I would seek out those in turmoil, not the ones that seemed more stable. I would dedicate my time to individuals that were left out, not the ones that were more socially exciting and intriguing. This wasn’t an easy path, but it became necessary.
My method? I would teach. After raising 5 teens and fostering/mentoring dozens more, I was familiar with angst, depression, trauma, and most importantly, the need to find purpose and promise. While I am a spiritual person, I did not wish to allow that to be my guide in discussions with others. I had read, and seen, how religion becomes a crutch for many incarcerated individuals. I didn’t want to build rapport on a base that may be temporary. I wanted to get down to the level below that. So, I asked questions. I knew nothing. I allowed these women to educate me on a way of life that simply blew my mind.
As stories flowed, and trust began to grow, I was able to work with women that were serving long sentences, awaiting trial, and those that were just passing through. I continued a model of behavior that I had lived my life by that included the absence of physical violence, processing of feelings and emotions, using words instead of only actions, and absolute transparency. Was this wholly accepted? Absolutely NOT. But this way of living was attractive. I do not actively hold on to anger. I do not surrender energy to negative forces, people, or opinions that have no chance of being neutralized or reversed. And of an even greater significance, I accept my situation and find joy. Yes, that’s right, I found great joy in my situation. I often refer to my time in the county jail as an extended stay at summer camp.
The transformation and realization that addiction is not the person was slow and steady. I began to see past damaged teeth, negative attitudes, controlling actions and words. What was coming out from behind these surface identifiers was the real human. Gradually lives began to take shape, and with about ten women, I was able to go deeper. We spoke of their past, traumas, emotions, feelings, and addiction.
I didn’t save everyone. I didn’t save anyone, to be honest. But I did offer myself as a resource and a light in what seemed to be very dark worlds. At the time, and even still today, my way of life is foreign to many of these women. It is not something they feel is ever attainable. But they think about it. The seed has been planted.
For those that I did reach. I was given the awesome opportunity to educate them and show them what coping skills that build a person up look like. We began to break up a damaged foundation and lay the new, stronger, grounding in its place. The new foundations were full of reasons. Reasons why talking, helping, coloring, meditation, religion, children, family, jobs, etc. are options in place of addictions. We spoke about feelings and how to describe them. Emotions, often misunderstood, were given names and causes. Above all, I was able to teach a method that involved seeking the reason for a feeling or emotions, and then processing that reason in response to the stress of their own body’s reactions.
I was not, and am not, the reason for anyone’s sobriety. But I do know I made a difference. That was what I set out to do. Sadly, 12 out of 60 women I was incarcerated with have passed due to overdosing in the last 4 years. These deaths serve as a reminder that the work is never done.
Addiction is about mental health.
Sobriety isn’t about simple abstinence.
Sobriety is about understanding why addiction became a lifestyle to begin with.
Recovering from addiction is acknowledging and accepting our own reactions and allowing them to be expressed or processed in ways that lead us to move on, not stay stagnate in a haze of substance abuse that blinds from the truth.
I walked into the jail ready to do my time and get it over with. I walked out with a new understanding of the people behind addictions. I walked out with respect for individuals that often get no respect. I forged friendships with women that haven’t had a true transparent friend for years, if ever. Since my release, my home has been a refuge. My kids are raised with a sensitivity to the struggles of others. And I wake each day with a reminder that addiction does not define a person, nor does it make them unavailable to love or compassion. In contrast, it makes them in need of it more than ever.