I often think about what is essential to the people we serve. As a person of lived experience, I think about my needs and the support I have in place to thrive post-incarceration. What changed my thinking, perceptions of people and the world around me, and my life? The environment around me changed, yes, but that was only possible once I changed internally.
As I reflect on my life, I see patterns of maladaptive behaviour, the inability to regulate emotions, the lack of coping mechanisms to deal with trauma, instead survival skills to try and protect myself from further harm in the absence of basic life skills I was never taught. The childhood years, where I was supposed to be nurtured and develop the skills needed to become a confident young woman, were marred with severe abuse and trauma. A broken, insecure, unworthy, scared, and angry child that didn’t know love, and was incapable of trust. The pain became my armour, the smile, my mask.
I strived to rise above it all, stating that my revenge was to be better than those that scarred me, but how can positivity grow when rooted in something so negative as revenge?
I did try, however. I worked hard to get an education, although a high school dropout. After studying for my International Business degree, I travelled internationally, working for major corporations. I surrounded myself with business professionals, professors, doctors, lawyers, and all the pro-social friends I made. I was in a relationship with a Professional Engineer. I changed the environment around me to include people that I looked up to, people that were better than me so I could make myself out to be better than I was, more than that worthless little girl. More than the nothing I was. I could only continue that façade for so long before it all came crashing down around me. The environment I made to fill the void within me was nothing more than an internal prison filled with loneliness and despair. The illusion of fitting in, a mirage in an empty cell. Where I deserved to be, echoing the words of my abusers, worthy of nothing, destined for the same. I wasn’t good enough for anything more than what they told me I was.
Alone with nothing, yes, back in my comfort zone. I felt free in this space, where I could be among those like me, the ones suffering. This allowed me to handle life. To turn away from my pain to help others, my empathy enabled me to bury my pain deep below theirs so I can only feel for them. I felt good about caring for anybody but me; they deserved love, but I didn’t.
Time to change the actor to get a different ending
Another relationship would come along, another chance to change the environment that surrounded me. Another attempt at being someone, anyone. Another path of self-destruction. Pause, rewind, repeat. This was the cycle of my life, 30 years of playing a movie on repeat. No matter how many times I tried to rewrite the plot, the movie was the same. It seemed time to change the actor to get a different ending.
While in prison, I took the initiative to change my character. Five years in a Federal Prison provided the opportunity to work on a new script where I was a different person, my own hero. Tired of merely being a survivor, I had to learn the skills to become a fighter, a thriver. I learned how to navigate the carceral system to gain access to the programming I needed to change. I had to fight to make a difference in my own life. Then I had to fight so everyone else could have the same opportunity as me; I became the voice.
I have spent five years searching to discover my purpose and whom I want to be. To accept accountability for me, to accept myself. Only then was I able to create a sustainable environment for myself. One in which I could continue to grow my skills. One in which I could excel now that I had those tools, I forged for myself. Confidence, worth, acceptance, and love. Most of all, I found the ability to trust. I built a network of support that showed me it was possible because they stood by me through the most challenging days when I would regress and celebrate with me as I progressed. They advocated for me, and most importantly, they taught me to advocate for myself. This was my beginning; this was my birth.
I took all I learned and on the day I walked out of that prison, I was finally free for the first time in my life. I turned around, looked at the walls and fences, and said with confidence and certainty; my freedom is yours to share; I will leave no one behind.
My environment is tailored by me for me, filled with the people I love, the people I serve. The difference now is that I know I deserve it, am worthy of it, and respect it. I trust it!