On Monday night, I finished teaching a six week class on Life Skills in the Orange County Jail here in Orlando. For the past six Monday nights, I have stood in a room with about 15 women while we dialogued about abuse, addiction, sex, relationships, jobs, faith, emotions, health, and anger. While I went in with a plan and a curriculum, that all changed within about 10 minutes. While I had an idea of what I wanted them to learn, I needed to listen to what they actually needed to hear. I realized very quickly that this was not about me.
Tonight, as we pulled together everything we have gone over in regards to trauma, emotions, mental health, and practical needs, I wrote the following categories on the white board and asked them to fill in what they needed in these categories: Relationships, Spirituality, Physical Health, Mental Health, Work/Financial Health. They came up with the answers. I just asked follow up questions as they shared personal stories. As the minutes past, I got a much clearer picture of all of the things that keep these women in cuffs, and it’s not just the metal ones around their wrists.
When we talked about mental health, they brought up the obstacles between them and quality care. They also reminded me that therapy is a thing “white people do” and most other cultures do no readily accept it. Several of the girls described, in detail, what is was like to work as a prostitute AND a pimp out of sheer desperation to put food on the table. They asked how to discipline their kids when they are so afraid of becoming like their own abusive parents. They asked me how to restore a marriage with an addict who doesn’t want to get better. They asked how you are supposed to work a legal job with no one to care for the kids. They asked what to do if they are pregnant by someone with whom they didn’t choose to have sex.
Let’s just say these topics were not “in the curriculum”. But that is why I let them lead the discussion. I reminded them over and over that they are smart, beautiful women who are worth taking care of and worth the risk of being an agent of change. I told them I am not naive enough to believe getting out of the world they have known will be easy, but I do think they can do it. Under all of the categories, the ladies said they needed “support” – other people to help them, hold them accountable, and point them in the right direction.
And then I started to see the biggest set of handcuffs of all: isolation. Shame, fear, lack of resources, anxiety, hopelessness – these things isolate us from the very people who could bring us out of our despair. We’ve created a system that tells people to be “self reliant” when there is no self to rely on. We raise generations of men and women who have no sense of identity or self worth. It is not lost on me that in the age of “selfie sticks” (anyone reading this has permission to smack me upside the head if they ever catch me using one), we are a land full of people who don’t know who we are.
What grieves me the most about counseling and working in the jail is that I have to repeatedly tell people WHO THEY ARE – that they are worth loving and caring for, worth listening to, worth crying for and laughing with and that they have a story that is worth telling.
The real chains that bind are the ones we can’t see, but they are far too strong to be broken alone. Hurt people hurt people, but hurt people also heal people. At the end of the day we are all just people, and we are all worth it.