It’s been awhile since my last entry. I apologise for that, but to be honest, I have been struggling a bit these past few months. Most of my time and energy have been directed inward for a time of introspection and reflection (and reserved for day-to-day functioning). I also tested positive for COVID two weeks ago and have been recovering from that. Luckily, it was a moderate case and I only have a few mild residual symptoms. My partner was stuck indoors with me for a week and never got it. It’s such a strange virus.
Let me back up a little. When I last wrote I believe the prison had recently gone into COVID lockdown. While I am restricted to what I can share related to my job, I will speak in generalities for an environment like a prison. Lockdown is hard. Mental health in a prison in general is hard. You can’t tell someone to get out in nature more or eat a different diet (outside of limited options). Prison is not necessarily designed to support mental health; it’s role is of a different nature. However, there are some things that support mental health such as visits from family, educational classes, mental health services, going to the gym, etc. The problem is that during a pandemic, when you don’t want prisoners all getting sick at once, the very things that provide distraction/support have to be limited or stopped altogether. As COVID is in the community, staff get sick and can’t come to work. The results of these things lead to an environment that is difficult for all. To say it simply, work got really hard. In stress, people tend to revert to behaviours that aren’t always how we would ideally like to show up. If I’m burnt out, I’m probably going to be more irritable, less empathetic and basically in survival mode. If I’m a prisoner and don’t have distractions, I may not know how to channel my distressing emotions in helpful ways. The need for a trauma-informed approach in the prison systems seemed more apparent than ever.
Add this to month nine in New Zealand (still adjusting on that culture shock scale) and witnessing some pretty heavy news in the world, I started wrestling with some pretty big existential issues. Things feel heavy. I am keenly aware of multiple systems in serious need of change, but are so entrenched and ingrained that it makes me question whether it is even possible. I sometimes feel helpless as I understand enough to see the dynamics of why certain things have the outcomes they do, but I feel powerless to stop or change it. As it pertains directly to the prison system, I also fear that trying to provide education to shift the culture to a more trauma-informed approach will be dismissed as impossible and weak-minded. “How will anyone take me seriously when what I am suggesting is so opposite to how things are currently done?” is a re-occurring thought, despite the fact that I know what I would be sharing is based on a lot of evidence and research. By the end of the work day my energy was so drained the only thing I wanted to do was numb out. My self-care skills were the last things I felt like employing. I had to be very gentle with myself and try my best to balance discipline for self care, with allowing myself a break.
Luckily, things have begun to shift in a positive way. What has helped me has been starting back at the beginning. A reset if you will. I used to be way more disciplined with yoga and meditation. Over time, I have drifted away from it. The once consistent practices now rarely happen. Jumping into my normal level of practice felt too much, so instead I allowed myself to start small. A friend recommended Sarah Blondin, a person who leads guided meditations through the app, Insight Timer. I listened to a few of her 10+ minute meditations that appealed to me. There is a 10-day course I started called, Coming Home to Yourself, that she leads and it has been immensely helpful to me. When things got hard, I wanted to avoid the emotions. Instead, I am remembering to come back into my body and feel them. I have also started yoga again, small 20 minute sessions (in the beginning it was Yin Yoga, the more gentle form of the practice), to also aid with grounding back into myself. As I walked past my vision board each day, I noticed the sticker that says, “The most important person to keep promises to is yourself.” I knew that when all I wanted to do was to get home from work, grab a beer and watch shows about murder (don’t judge, lol), I was ignoring the part of me that knew I needed to feel my feelings and allow myself to grieve. I’d say “tomorrow I will exercise (or meditate or whatever)” and then tomorrow would arrive and I wouldn’t feel like it. This would make me feel heavier.
By starting small, and taking it day-by-day, my mood has shifted. I am slowly building back up to a more solid and regular self-care routine. As exercise is a big part of my well being, I am working towards making that a staple again (although this is a process). I also stopped buying alcohol to keep at the house for my nightly beer. I don’t think I will ever completely give up alcohol (at least that is my view now), but I noticed things were getting out of balance and I wanted a reset. I am not saying nightly beer is bad per se either, but for me, I had stopped feeling my feelings and was numbing. I was starting to get into a negative feedback loop that didn’t feel good. That was the practice I wanted to change and bring into balance. I want a glass of wine when I want it; not because I need it to tune out the stress from my day.
Now I am starting to reconnect to myself and rather than distracting, I am feeling. Work doesn’t feel as hard either. Part of it is because COVID restrictions are easing up some, but part of it is that I feel better within myself. I still have hard days, where I have to shift my focus to very small bits (one step at a time), but I don’t feel so empty. I wish I could say the world feels less heavy, but today the Supreme Court in the US overturned Roe vs. Wade, war is looming in the background and although it is Pride month, the LGBTQ+ community braces against the backlash that currently is affecting, or may continue to affect, it from the conservative alt-right. I don’t currently live in the US, but I am still a citizen and most all of my friends and family reside there. Having space adds an additional dimension, but what happens in the US still deeply affects me. My heart breaks for the loss of choice and freedom for people to make the choices that are best for them. The hypocrisy I often witness adds an extra level of anger. Difficulty passing gun reform (and the key word is reform; we aren’t even talking removal) when mass shootings are at an all time high, but legislation will tell me if I can use an IUD in my own body? Really? Am I the only one who thinks this seems a bit backwards? Don’t worry, I know I am not.
This circles back to a couple different issues. Let’s talk about change. To shift a culture or set of beliefs requires effort. I look back to history and see that rights and freedoms have not come easy. They have had to be fought for. I try to imagine the leaders of these movements when they were fighting systems and people directly opposed to them. Can you imagine how daunting and heavy that must have felt? The internal strength that must have been needed to keep pushing forward EVEN when it felt hopeless? Change came because they didn’t give up. The serenity prayer continues to echo in my mind. What can I control? Myself. I can choose how I show up in this world. I can choose how to apply my energy and skills. I can choose who and what I advocate for. I alone will not make a change, but a group of individuals can do powerful things.
All of that said, I have been working on creating a training designed for Corrections Officers to teach awareness and understanding about how trauma (including historical trauma) affects people and what trauma-informed care looks like. When things felt hopeless, I paused working on it. Not because I had given up, but because I couldn’t find the energy or flow needed to create it. As I come back to myself, I realise I am not responsible for how people react to the training. Nor am I responsible for what they think about me for giving it. I am responsible for designing a training, based on research, that echoes something I am passionate about and that I want to see change. While it still feels daunting, I know I can do it. It will take others to help deliver it, polish its message, and embrace the necessity of it. I am not alone; I am one of many that will have to join in to create the shift. I find comfort in knowing this.
As it is pride month, I have also decided to step into a larger position of advocacy in my small space. While my partner identifies as male, I came out as a member of the LGBTQ+ community in 2017. I identify as pansexual, which means I am attracted to the character of the person, not the gender identity of them. My most recent relationships before this current one were with women. In Oklahoma, I was an advocate and representative for the LGBTQ+ community. Due to my own identity issues and being in a new country, I wasn’t quite sure how to be an advocate here. To look at me, I appear heterosexual. Can I still be a representative when my privilege allows me to pass as the dominant culture? I have decided that the answer to this is YES. I am just as big a part of the community as I was before and embracing LGBTQ+ in all of its forms is important. Equality is equality. I may get to pass if I do not voice my stance, but that just means I need to work harder to voice my stance to advocate for my community and myself. I struggled with thinking maybe I didn’t belong anymore since I am dating a man. It’s funny what our own critical voices will say and how they will attempt to silence us and make us feel unworthy, huh?
This week I interviewed to be something called a Rainbow Champion at my prison site. That means I will “come out” at work and play an advocacy role to let people know how to access events and trainings, and generally be a safe space/advocate for others who may need it. I am on the list to become a trainer for LGBTQ+ training courses for those who request it at my site or general region. As it is Pride month, this felt like an appropriate way I can use my voice to be a part of something I find meaningful. I can’t control the outcome of any of this, but I can control how I use my voice. Big changes happen with small actions accumulated over time. Hopefully my meditation practice and nearby journal will help me when I hit the places that feel too heavy.
I also have found that scheduling events I look forward to have been hugely helpful. We have recently begun rock climbing with two of our friends and I had forgotten how much I enjoyed that in Tulsa. I think I may pause circus school except for the partner acro. What I am finding is that it pushes me a bit too much out of my comfort zone for the amount of energy I currently have. When I am feeling balanced and in a good place, I have a lot of energy to challenge myself and intentionally expand my comfort zone. When I feel out of balance or low energy, taking on a challenging extra curricular feels like more than I can do. That’s why I am shifting to yoga, which will help restore my energy, until I feel ready to tackle the more complicated things again. I have no doubt I may return in the future though. For now, the activities I am scheduling are things that give me energy. Like travel. For my birthday this year I will be meeting a friend in Ireland. It was coincidental it fell on my birthday, but I can’t think of a better way to spend it than exploring a place I’ve always wanted to go with a dear friend. We also have friends visiting later in the year and landed a new Great Walk reservation on Christmas. Having things to look forward to is huge for me and it seems like it will be a full year.
As I have no doubt that things may feel heavy for those reading this too, I hope you also find solace in knowing you are not alone. Sometimes things get hard and we have to figure out how not to give up. Yoga and meditation are what are helping me right now, but are not necessarily for everyone. I hope whatever it is that fills your soul and recharges your spirit you can find and that they bring you comfort. For me, until life feels a bit easier again, I will continue to take it a day at a time, be gentle and try to take actions that align with my values and nurture my soul.
Until next time.