What happened at the prison..

The connections we make as we travel through life have more meaning to who we become than, I think, we realize. I am not speaking of our friends and family - I mean those strangers who are not beholden to us because of life or daily ties. The random person who shares a granule of sand in our hourglass of life. It is the lady who smiles at you in the elevator and comments on your eyes. The substitute teacher who doesn't know the drama in your life when she/he mentions how impressive the paper you turned in was....  The customer who complimented you on a job well done. Those people.

They are the connections that plant the seeds of hope in your head without you ever realizing that one day in the future, during a dark period, they will grow and help provide you the strength you need to plow forward...and all because a part of you is aware you're worthy of better days.

That all came to me last week, exactly one week ago and while I was sitting in a chair facing almost two dozen men, inside a medium security correctional facility, the New Lisbon Correctional Facility. 

It was there and when I was speaking about those connections and seeds of hope when I looked up at the eyes looking back at me and I noticed something, a rather large and muscular African American man was staring intently at me while I spoke. You could see it in his body language and in his face that life for him has been one hurdle after another - each one being tripped over...just barely falling short of being cleared. That man whose actions have most likely hurt loved ones and possibly strangers, he released a tear that was leaving a streak down his cheek.

In that moment a connection was made and a seed of hope was planted for both us - I think for him he may have reached back in his memory and remembered one of those connections - and for me, it told me I am on the right path to honor my own experiences, the days of struggle and pain.

Ten years ago I would have been repulsed at the thought that I'd be sitting in a prison speaking to a domestic violence group of felons, all of which were working on discovering why they were abusers. I was too raw with emotion. Ten years ago every moment of my day was a struggle to get through, I was living well below the poverty level, raising to young men on my own, and dealing with the nightmare of the last attack I had suffered just 6 months prior in August of 2007. The last place, a decade ago, I wanted to be was in the chair I was sitting in just 7 days ago.

About a month or so ago I was invited to come in and speak to the men in the domestic violence groups. A couple of years ago I had spoken at the prison during the National Victims of Violent Crime Awareness Week.  That first time was a bit terrifying for me, inside I fought a flee response to get past some of my own obstacles. It went well and I walked away feeling empowered so when I was asked again, I eagerly said yes.

Walking in last week I was calm. I didn't prepare anything because I wanted to get a feel for what they were working on in their groups, however, this time I knew I wanted to go about it differently than last time when I spoke from a podium - so, I asked for a chair. I wanted this to be a conversation and not just them listening to a speaker because there was nothing else better to do that day.

When I got to the room the men were already seated and waiting. I took my seat and introduced myself. The very first thing I did was ask them to raise their hands if they had a good childhood - not one hand went up.  I told them I had expected that as I knew that we had more in common as people than them being abusers and me being a victim. From there I started to tell my story as a survivor of child sexual assault, domestic violence, being sexually assaulted as an adult, and growing up around the poisonous effects of alcoholism and co-dependency. I spoke about my marriage, his active drinking and the years he attempted sobriety,  how we went from middle class to poverty basically overnight...and, how the children lived those young years not realizing their father was an alcoholic until they woke up one day and he had fallen off the wagon.

The room filled with laughter and knowing call outs to one another when I relayed how I became very adept at creating some unique meals with ramen noodles.

At one point they seemed shocked when I said I don't and had never carried hate in my heart towards my ex-husband and that I never actively spoke badly about him to the children. I explained that through the years and via common people in our lives, I did know he thinks otherwise. "I never had to say anything to the boys about what happened, they were there - they witnessed it all." That is when I also explained about the night I found the boys hiding under the kitchen table, fearful and holding on to one another- that was the night I knew I had to changes things or else, like me, their childhoods would be too painful, at times, to remember. The nightmare and the cycles had to change.

All of that led to the discussion about connections and seeds of hope. I truly did not even realize what I was saying as I said it...it all just came out. I explained that somehow, back then during the storm, I realized I was worthy of better tomorrows and it was all because of the seeds of hope that had been planted in my head by those random strangers - people who were not beholden to me in any shape or form.  The key to healing is realizing that you are worthy of joy.

We talked about quite a bit of other things, including the boys. I told them all about Kyle's music and the trek he has made. How once he picked up that guitar and Blues started oozing out that I knew he was destined to perform. I told them about Justin and all the strength he has in him, how he has conquered life while walking through it with mild Cerebral Palsy and how strong he was when he came out and told his truth, all while living in a rural conservative county. I explained how proud I was that they never caused me nights of worry a lot of parents face and that despite their young ages they took a risk and moved to Memphis for Kyle's music. They went together to support one another.

 I commented on how I truly believe we have all a God-given gift and when we focus and honor that gift we start to value ourselves and healing will come easier.

The men were very interested in the boys, their relationship with their father, and if I have had any contact with him. I answered all their questions truthfully, even though some of those I questions I imagine they were hoping for different answers.

Before I left, I reminded them of all the things we have in common and why it is so important to always remember that childhood we had. "We owe it to ourselves and that insecure child we were, to nurture ourselves and remember that child was and still is worthy of so much more - that is how the cycle gets broken."

An hour and half after I said my first word and after all the questions had been answered, my little speaking engagement was over. I thanked them for listening to me and I took my leave. As I got into my car to leave I realized I was feeling proud. Proud of what I had just done and proud to know that all that stuff...those once living nightmares for me had turned a corner and were now helping to pave a path of hope for others. Life made sense, my purpose was recognized, connections were made.

I am glad I said yes to going to prison.


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