When I released for the last time in 2000, for my 27th parole violation, I didn’t know what to do. I knew that I would never be able to have a driver’s license in my name, build my credit enough to ever have a credit card, buy a car and I knew if I did get a car, it could never be in my name. With my criminal history, I knew I would never be able to rent a place of my own. I knew I could never have a job in my name- my résumé too spotty to say the least. In addition, I knew that my fines, fees and restitution would gobble up any of my paycheck – if I could ever get one.
I ‘knew’ a lot for being clueless!
I was 52 years old, been to prison five times, had 14 felony convictions and 27 parole violations. I was a heroin addict, my arms were so damaged, I couldn’t ever wear short sleeves and they were so weak, I couldn’t go back into the restaurant business. I needed dental work, a safe place to sleep and a way to support myself- a legal way to support myself.
I was so new to recovery and I didn’t know how to ‘act’ in the normal world, I didn’t know how to just ‘be’ in the world. I needed everything at once.
A safe place to live
I needed a job (hadn’t had a job since for more than 15 years)
I needed bus money and/or a way to get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’
I had nothing to wear (I came out of jail with a pair of jeans that didn’t fit, a pajama top, dirty socks and nasty tennis shoes)
If I applied for employment, what phone number would I use? Who would be my reference? What kind of work could I do?
A series of things happened very rapidly.
I attended a 12-step meeting after I got off the bus from jail, I met a few people and they took me home to eat while I waited for my most normal friend to get home. I thought I could stay with her, she only smoked crack on the weekend and I knew she wouldn’t share. I kept calling and finally her husband answered. She was out of town, but I was welcome to stay…as long as I stayed clean from drugs and alcohol.
WOW! I had a place to sleep-
My ‘meeting’ friend said, “Just get busy!” I attended two 12-step meetings each day and began to volunteer at a homeless shelter 4 hours each day helping to prepare lunch and dinner preparations. (and I got to eat two meals each day)
Some people gave me some clothes, not much, but now I had three changes of clothing, some makeup, a safe place to sleep and shower and something to do each day that made me feel good about myself.
I signed up for food stamps and got a bus pass. It was a little difficult being around weekend crack smoking, so I stayed out of the house as much as I could. I found out about a clean and sober house and there was an opening. My sister said there was some money left over from my mother’s end of life expenses and she would use it to pay my rent and help me. She would NOT give me cash.
The case manager from that housing program knew about a program that helped people just like me. She helped me with another bus pass for me to attend twice each week. I asked my sister if she could send them a check and she said, “Yes.”
I went to the office of Better People with the letter from my case manager, a permission slip from my parole officer, and that check. I received my workbook and the scheduled times to come in for group. I began to process of changing my life.
I was able to build trust with the people in my group, people just like me. I wasn’t able to ‘put one over on them’ – they knew all games. It was just me and my truth; they were a team of people to help me through to the other side. It had been so long since I had been on the “other side’ I really needed a team to help guide me.
I had a sponsor in my 12-step program and we were working ‘The Steps’ together. I completed the first 12 steps in MRT (moral-reconation-therapy) with my peers and sometimes it was very hard. Especially when they wouldn’t pass me, because they saw that I was not really invested in that chapter and I was just trying to slide by. Bam! Do it over! Do it again! I learned that it wasn’t just a test, it was a tool to change my life. I couldn’t have accomplished this without the help from my group and the accountability standard to which I was held.
So, where I am I today? Well, I still go to prison. However, I get out on the same day I go in. I try to attend a function or a group inside the walls a few times per month. I’ve sat on many boards, councils and advisory groups over the years. Currently I sit on a working group for the Governor’s Re-Entry Council, the board of directors for Bridges to Chance, Oregon CURE and Hands Across the Bridge.
This year I worked very hard with others to pass a few bills; Ban the Box for the State of Oregon, a gold standard ordinance banning the box in the City of Portland. I worked in collaboration to pass a Racial Profiling bill making it illegal for the police to continue to pull over someone just because they look a certain way. Police officers will now have a ‘report card’ and we are keeping score! I worked with Senator Shields’ office to reinstate a family program for the woman’s prison and will work hard to get one in the men’s prison.
How does someone like me climb out of a cell; go from a table bolted to the floor and end up at some of the decision-making tables in which I sit? Well we do it one day at a time, one goal at a time and we create our own yardstick to measure our own worth. I used to feel so defeated because I measured my worth by someone else’s measuring stick. ‘I don’t own my house, I didn’t finish collage, my car isn’t as good, my addiction, criminality and bad parenting skills hurt my family.’ All of those things really kept me down. My path was different-
If I measure my successes, calculate my win for that day, I feel better when I lay my head down at night. Maybe the win was very small; maybe it was as simple as I didn’t blame someone for something, maybe I bought that jar of spices (that could have fit into my purse) maybe I put my shopping cart back where I found it. Some days my growth was not lying, or I said to someone in a store, “Thanks for all of your hard work! You made my shopping day much easier.” Some days I add more than an inch at a time- but every day I keep adding on to my yardstick.
So today, I do have a driver’s license in my name, I have a great credit score, my problem is I have too many credit cards. Since I earned my driver’s license back, I have bought several cars, the last one is really fun to drive and they have all been in my name. When I left transitional housing after two years, I looked in the classifieds for someone who owned her own house to rent. I met with her and showed her a letter of discloser I had written, telling her who I am today and all that I have overcome. I had letters of reference; one from the transitional housing organization, stating I paid my rent on time each month for two years, a letter from my employer, letters from organizations I hadvolunteered with and yes, a letter from my parole officer. She took a chance and I got to live in my own place! My first job was doing laundry in a detox center where I had been a client six times. And from their I applied for and received the honor to serve as a VISTA Volunteer with AmeriCorps. That was a great place for me to get closer to the decision making table. And just a few months ago, I finally paid off all of my fines, fees and restitution – and not once have I been a garnishee. I contacted Department of Revenue and we made a new payment plan each year. I have been paying someone between $50 and $150 dollars each month since the year 2000. I stopped resenting it when I realized they didn’t want ‘my’ money- they wanted ‘their’ money.
And as the years pass by, I find I turned out to be who I was meant to be. I am a nice person, I have compassion for my fellows, and I am a good family member. I am a better person because Better People gave me a chance at a new beginning.
I have learned I don’t have to ‘act’ I just need to ‘be’ – and all of that is okay for me!