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[ Personal Narratives ]

What Teaching In Prison, Taught Me About Recovery

I met a woman once, when I was volunteering in a women’s prison, who had spent the last 15 years of her life as a prostitute in active addiction.

She didn’t want to be at my meeting. She was one of the ladies who was required to be there. I could see it on her face the moment she walked in. She was hardened and probably took one look at me and thought, “What the hell does this little blonde lady think she is going to teach me about life?”

I wouldn’t be surprised if she thought that, and I wouldn’t blame her either. I don’t look like society’s picture of an addict, not anymore. Her feelings toward me were probably the exact same feelings I felt when I found myself in the rooms for the first time. All I knew how to do was compare myself to others at that point. Either the people in those rooms were worse than me, or better. There was no in between, so I immediately told myself I couldn’t relate to any of them. I TRIED to find reasons why recovery wouldn’t work for me. And then, after coming back for awhile, I realized I had been wrong. Recovery was the only thing that would work for me.

So when this woman walked into the room with her guard up and arms crossed in front of her chest, I could relate to her. She didn’t have to like me, I was just happy she showed up.

So on this night, I did what I always do; I shared honestly about my addiction, the negative impact it had on my life, and what happened to my life after I found recovery. I talked about my experiences being arrested and going to jail. How when those doors closed behind me, I thought they might never open again. 

She met me halfway every once in awhile. Quickly making eye contact and then looking away. Letting out a chuckle while the other girls laughed (because I’m pretty hilarious even when discussing something as absurd as my active addiction…) She eventually stopped looking down at the table and uncrossed her arms. And then she asked if she could say something…

It was one of the most amazing things I have ever experienced in my recovery. In those next moments, I felt my Higher Power’s presence in each word she spoke.

She introduced herself and began talking about her addiction. She explained that she had resorted to prostitution to make enough money to feed her kids (she had 8) and support her drug use. She looked down at the table while she disclosed that both of her parents died of Heroin overdoses within 6 months of each other, and how she doesn’t remember feeling much of anything besides the initial heartbreak, because she turned to her drugs to ease the pain.

And then she broke down, and sobbed. The kind of sob that catches in your throat. The kind of sob that you almost choke on when attempting to hold it back. And I saw her shut down.

I asked her if she was sad? She said yes. I asked her if she was mad? She said yes.

I said, “And that is ok. It’s OK! If you are sad, feel sad. If you are mad, GET MAD! You are allowed to feel those things! You are human, just like every other woman in this circle. I am mad that I have this disease sometimes too. I have lost friends to this disease, and it makes me MAD, because it didn’t have to happen. I am sad that I lost important years with my daughter. I am sad that I self-harmed. I am mad that sometimes I still want to use even though I know it might kill me. I am sad that I felt my life was so pitiful that I convinced myself suicide was the only way I would ever find peace. Sometimes I get mad that I am mad.

 I get so unbelievably mad at this disease, that I refuse to give into it. The important thing is that I am feeling something, and not picking up over it. No emotion is off limits in this meeting, the important thing is that you show up.”

She started to gain her composure again and shared about how as a prostitute she had her jaw broken, was beaten up on multiple occasions, had a gun drawn on her. She admitted she didn’t know who the father was to all of her children. She said she hadn’t been drug or alcohol free for more than one day in 20 years. She talked about how she missed her kids, how she felt so completely ashamed of her past. She said she was afraid to be released from prison because she didn’t know any other way to live.”

I looked at her, smiled and said, “I think you’ve just been introduced to a new way to live.”

This is the beauty of recovery. She didn’t know it when she walked in, but I needed her to be there that night. She may have been required to be there, but I needed her to be for my own recovery. To remind me of how cunning, baffling and powerful this disease really is.

When I talk with people who do not understand addiction, I always say, “Hate the disease, love the addict.” When I looked at this woman, I didn’t see a prostitute or a criminal, I saw a woman in pain who simply did the best that she could with the life she was given. 

I wish people understood that the women who find themselves in prison are not proud of themselves. They feel shame, regret and fear. They miss their babies and husbands. They feel the judgements of society burning into their skin. Many are comfortable there ONLY because it is the only way they have stayed clean in years.

In recovery, judgement falls to the side. I don’t care what a person has done in their past. I don’t care how “bad” they were. I care that they have a desire to change their life and I want to know what I can do to help them.

That woman may never come back to one of my meetings, but she has made a profound impact on my recovery, my life.

And that is why I keep coming back.

We do recover!  

Vanessa D. 

Milwaukee, WI

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