One year ago tomorrow I was arriving in NZ with my three very large (and heavy) bags. I didn’t have a car, a permanent place to live, and I had never driven on the left hand side of the road. I had also never worked in a men’s prison before. It was the beginning of a very new chapter of my life and I embraced the adventure with open arms (and a good bit of fear, too).
Tonight I am sitting here alone in my house, as I reflect on how much can happen in a year. My partner is in the US visiting family and participating in a school program. I didn’t go this time, because traveling for him to the US is simpler than it is for me. He has one main state to hit, plus the school thing. The people I love are spread between Tennessee, Texas, Washington, Oklahoma and now Pennsylvania. School prompted his return, but I wasn’t quite ready. Not that I don’t want to see my friends and family, but because coordinating such a large trip and having to decide how to get to all those places, or who to not see if I can’t, felt like too much. I plan to return end of 2023 or early 2024 for a visit. But alas, I digress.
When I arrived at the prison, one of my first assigned patients was a high profile person (successful in the outer world) and was very high risk of self harm due to his new reality in prison. People who have a lot to lose tend to fall pretty hard sometimes when it is lost. He had a pretty recent serious suicide attempt just before I arrived. I remember feeling a bit overwhelmed at this being the first person I was to work with. Would I arrive in the country and lose my first patient right off the bat? Was this my new job?
In prison, the highest risk (for self harm) in a case like this is usually in the beginning, when people have to face their new reality and grieve the corresponding loss, or potentially feel a lot of shame (or other distressing feelings) over what got them there. Then they have to wait to be sentenced to see how long they will have to be in this new world (5, 10, 20 years?). During this period, they are in the mainstream part of prison, which is one of the harder areas to be in. Once a person is sentenced, they get a security classification. High security prisoners stay in the mainstream section (think of what you imagine when you think of a prison), but low or medium security prisoners get to go to units that are way more amenable and are also with other low security prisoners. In these spaces there is regular access to grass, most have vegetable gardens, and you can easily walk outside (although still in a secured area). It’s the preferred area for most people, although not everyone makes it out there. It just so happened that earlier this week, I helped that very first patient transition out of the mainstream prison and into one of these lower security units. It felt like I had helped him reach a turning point in his time there, and it was as if we had both crossed a threshold of some sort.
I am so grateful I decided to come here. We are still deciding if this is forever or just for a while, but it is much too soon to answer that question now. My job is challenging, frustrating, fulfilling, rewarding and there is hope for what the future holds in this space. I feel I am where I am supposed to be- for now anyway.
I will say, the year hasn’t been without its challenges. My work is sponsoring me to learn a new trauma-focused intervention called Internal Family Systems (IFS). As with most new things, I am skeptical until I either experience the outcomes directly (and deem it didn’t cause harm) or there is enough evidence to support it that I can trust it achieves positive outcomes (usually both). I have decided the best way to learn this new intervention, and because I have some of my own inner work that I am noticing needs attention, I have decided to get my own IFS therapist. I personally love personal growth and development and have had my own therapist for many years. I paused in this realm when we moved, but I think the time feels right to jump back in for a bit. I’m also really excited to learn something new, that so far sounds like it has worked well for others. So anyway, excited about this and also looking forward to seeing how it goes. Maybe one day I will reach enlightenment and can put down the therapy for good. One can strive, eh? So far it’s not looking that way though.
I should also mention the Trauma Informed Care training I have been working on is now being piloted with some of the Correction Officers in the unit I work on. So far the feedback has been really good and one Officer even offered to co-facilitate it with me if we take it to other units. It is still in the very beginning stages now, but this is exactly the sort of thing I want to do. My daily work feels like putting a bucket of water on a forest fire sometimes. Helping be a part of a larger cultural shift is where I really hold the hope and set my focus. I guess it takes a lot of people doing their little part in the space they are in, that hopefully one day gets enough people on board to progress in a new direction. Can’t hurt to try anyway, right?
The trip to Ireland was really great, but fast. I am learning that the older I get, the more I enjoy getting to sink into a new space. To stay long enough to feel its energy and get outside only seeing the tourist spots. It felt like this was a tapas trip of Southern Ireland- we got to sample a little bit of a lot. Now I want to go back, stay a while, and really soak it in. Of course I also still want to see every other place in the world I haven’t been yet too, haha. It was a lovely break though and I really love the culture there. Now I get to prepare for two groups of friends coming to visit soon and I am so excited to see familiar faces and show them around. We just finished getting the guestroom ready. Hopefully we will have many more guests soon (hint, hint).
I guess lastly, tonight I find myself grateful for something else too. I first started interviewing for the position I am in back in March of 2020. It fell through due to COVID, but it eventually came back around. The main difference was that the first time I interviewed I had been single and planned to do this journey on my own. I look back at how devastated I was when it first fell through and started to move on with life, thinking the opportunity may never come around again. Obviously it did, and the only thing that changed was that I had a partner the second time around who happened to be keen on an adventure. While I do think I could have done this on my own, I have been so grateful to have him with me. It reminds me that it’s so easy to get upset when life throws a curve ball, but I am reminded tonight that sometimes things work out just as they should.
Cheers to each of you as you start your new beginnings, end the things that are no more and hold all the spaces in between.
Until next time.