“It’s not all about me.”
Like most active alcoholics and addicts, I had selfishly overlooked how my active drinking or usage affected others. I thought I wasn’t hurting anybody but myself. I had to learn, and am still learning, that what I did, and what I do affects others. In rehab, I received letters from family members– what they call “cost letters”– detailing how they felt about and how they experienced my drinking. My daughter said the worst day of her life was watching the police load me into the back of a patrol car in front of the house.
I am currently reflecting on how others experienced my incarceration, as I mourn the loss of my mother-in-law, who passed last week. She supported me while I was in jail, made sure I had clothes to wear when I qualified for work release, and welcomed me into her home when I was released. But she struggled with the shame associated with my incarceration.
“Why’d you have to tell them that!?!” she complained, after I told my story of being a prisoner as part of a sermon in her church. “They don’t need to know all that!” She struggled with the shame of having a formerly incarcerated son-in-law. Like many relatives, she felt it reflected back on her, her daughter and grandchildren. She never stopped loving or caring for me. But she was scarred…and I have to take some ownership of that because my actions were the result of my selfishness– all about me.
But I do not take full responsibility for it. First of all, while admitting my part, our culture has a lot to do with this type of shame. We label and dehumanize inmates, calling them names and sentencing them to perpetual guilt. When we come home, we are told we have paid our debt to society, but labels such as “ex-con,” “ex-offender,” and such must be the unpaid interest on the debt. Bryan Stevenson, of the Equal Justice Initiative, reminds us that no human being should be defined by their worst mistake.
And then, everyone’s thoughts are truly their own. And while I couldn’t change what she thought of my incarceration, I could live in a manner that would temper the shame by making better decisions on this side of the razor wire. And I can be, and am, grateful that she never stopped being a presence for me in the years since I got out. It’s not all about me…and by making better decisions, AND by working to change a culture that dehumanizes, over-criminalizes and labels its citizens through systemic mass incarceration, I can make it better for others like my mother-in-law who love in the midst of the hurt. RIP, Mom. You now know what it is like to be truly free.