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Last weekend I was reading an article in the New York Times called “Cellblock Albany: Still ‘the Senator on the Inside”. It talked about the number of New York City and State politicians who were convicted in recent years of various white collar crimes, who did or are doing time in Federal prisons. It made me think more about the subject of prison and trauma.
One of the things that stood out for me in this article was the sentiment that imprisonment righted no wrongs that may have been committed. Prison was about punishment, not restitution and rehabilitation. The people interviewed talked about how imprisonment devastates lives and families. It was a theme I was familiar with, because a few months ago I started a support group for women who have been convicted of white collar crimes and have spent time in prison. I am a clinical psychologist in private practice, and this was not an area I ever trained in during graduate school. This was a world that I never knew much about before.
I come from a background of privilege. An intact family with two supportive parents who provided for me emotionally and financially. I lived in a safe and desired community. I had the requisite piano lessons, horseback riding lessons, and summer camps. My parents were involved in my life and my schooling, and they enabled me to complete college and graduate school with minimal debt. I was set on a path to succeed.
Privilege was not something that I ever thought about but I first became aware of it during graduate school. I was doing therapy with an African-American male with an extensive history of drug addiction and incarceration. Against all odds and many, many failed rehabs, he had had a few years clean under his belt when I met him. He had probably been incarcerated more than 30 times for various drug-related offenses, and cumulatively had spent the majority of his adult life in jail.
In one particular session after many months of therapy, he began talking about his childhood, and asked questions about mine. He asked if I’d ever not had enough to eat as a child. He asked if I had lived in a dangerous neighborhood. He talked about how he learned never to back down from a confrontation on the street. The first and only time he did, his mother had beaten him worse than the other kid would have. He explained that mothers taught their kids this survival strategy – that if you are always willing to fight, others will respect you and leave you alone. I said that there had been no need to learn this survival strategy where I grew up, and that parents taught their kids to walk away from physical conflict.
As he contemplated a childhood where one could safely walk the neighborhoods, one with the privilege of going to sleep well-fed and safe, he asked if I grew up far away from New York City. I believe he felt that this sort of childhood utopia could have only existed far away from the dangerous cities. When I told him no, that I had in fact grown up less than 30 miles from NYC, he burst into tears. That we could have grown up in communities so close, yet worlds apart, struck him, and me, as profoundly unfair. Our lives had run their courses largely based on the circumstances of our births. I fought to keep myself from crying openly as I contemplated this truth.
Upon becoming a psychologist, I never again looked at another individual or myself without thinking about the question of privilege. One of my main areas of interest as a psychologist is working with people who have experienced trauma. Childhood abuse and neglect, domestic violence, the trauma of losing one’s mind to mental illness and residing in a locked psychiatric hospital. Also 9/11, devastating hurricanes, Newtown. My eyes still well with tears as I think of Newtown. When one, then two, and finally three clients came to see me individually in my practice who all shared the experience of having been convicted of a crime for which they had been or were to be imprisoned, I began to learn about this particular type of trauma.
I learned about trauma from the inside, by listening to the stories of the traumatized, the stories of people who lost almost all there was to lose. Trauma is about facing the unimaginable, being powerless and helpless as a force greater than yourself does what it will with you. The aftereffects are many. There is loss of a sense of safety that all who walk through the world feeling safe take for granted. I leave my house every morning because I feel safe. I do not think that a car will run me over in my driveway, or that a tree will fall on me, or that someone will jump out of the bushes and attack me. My sense of safety is part of my privilege that I take for granted. With trauma, there is a loss of agency, a person’s sense that they can have an impact on their world, and control their world to some extent. There is a loss of a sense of having a future and a loss of feeling that the world has meaning and purpose. It now feels random, uncaring, even malevolent. Everything you thought you knew about yourself and the world is now wrong. You can never look at life the same way again.
Healing from trauma means finding a way to reestablish some sense of safety. Not as safe as you once felt, perhaps, not safety-taken-for-granted, but safety with a careful eye. It also means finding a way to regain a sense of your own agency, that if you set an intention, you have a good chance of reaching it. As healing continues, the future begins to take a shape, most likely a different one than before, but there is a sense that there can be a worthwhile future. You then search and struggle to find new purpose to your changed life, and begin to find meaning in your trauma. The trauma is now not just a horrible reality that comprises all of you, but becomes only part of you. It becomes an experience that enables you to learn something valuable about yourself, about others, and enables you to feel that you have something valuable to give to others because of it.
While I never worked in a prison, listening to the women in my group talk about their experiences in prison reminded me of working in a psychiatric hospital. Years ago, I was a staff psychologist at a state psychiatric hospital where the sickest of the sick received their treatment, and often, lived out their lives. Some patients had been there so long that if their charts were stacked end to end they would reach the ceiling. Walking into the hospital each morning, through the security doors, into the lobby filled with patients who had the clearance to leave the grounds for off-site programs, one was immediately hit by the smell of unbrushed teeth and unwashed faces. Morning breath times 40. The staff kept a strict division between employee and patient, us and them. The hospital was a strange world where it felt like time stood still and the outside real world didn’t exist. But over time, the hospital began to feel like the real world, with patients’ struggles to get through each and every day, hanging on to psychic and physical existence and trying to fulfill their most basic needs. In turn, Manhattan, where I lived at the time, began to feel like an unreal world full of people keeping tabs on trending topics, thinking about their jobs or bonuses, or if they can get a reservation at a popular restaurant …. I am not trying to belittle these pursuits – hey, I was part of that privileged world of those who had their mental health, physical health, jobs, education, and support systems. But hearing the differences in people’s strivings, and what felt important to them, was so striking that it somehow felt that the world of the day to day struggles of the patients in the hospital was more “real” than my outside world.
Ok, so why am I talking about all of this? Part of a psychologist’s job is to see patterns and symbolic parallels. Something my brain does fairly well by nature. I see many parallels between the real world/unreal world dichotomy of those in the hospital and those in prison. I see many similar patterns and themes between those who have suffered abuse and those whose lives have been upended by the criminal justice system. I see a similar division between the have and have-nots, the privileged and those without.
My clients have always been my best teachers, and I have learned the most from them. About mental illness and mental health, about coping and resilience, about suffering and pain. About life. Through my group I see that people who have gone to prison experience a shift in perception about the “real” world. The old rules from the outside world no longer apply, and if you try to follow what you’ve always known about how people and the world work, you may seriously jeopardize yourself physically and psychologically. Physical and psychological survival depends on adapting to this “real” world, and making the outside world unreal. Just as abuse causes people to lose their sense of self (or never develop a healthy one if the abuse occurred in childhood), so too do people in prison begin to lose themselves. Loss of safety, loss of agency, loss of meaning, loss of a future, loss of a place in life. The healing process from this type of trauma is the same. But people are released from jail having to heal, having to piece together their lives and their selves alone, without support. They are repeatedly confronted with the division between “us” and ‘them”. The belief that those of us who have never been incarcerated are nothing like “them”. I’m sure many of “us” would feel something akin to “they brought it on themselves”. I probably would have thought something along those lines too had I not learned from the stories these women had to tell. Yes, people do the wrong thing, some do them knowingly, others unknowingly. That’s part of human nature. Part of all of us, perhaps.
A famous quote from Harry Stack Sullivan, a famous psychiatrist and psychoanalyst: “We are all much more simply human than otherwise”.
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