When I was a little girl, I got in trouble many times, but one such incident became unforgettable because that time I did not deserve to be yelled at. My iPod had gone missing and my dad was, of course, visibly upset that I had lost something so expensive. But I had never misplaced that iPod. It had been stolen by my cousin so he could use the money from selling it to get drugs.
I did not learn what had happened until I was older, and even when I was finally told, I remember only feeling vaguely sad, and then I forgot about it soon after. Because I was still too young to fully understand what had happened, my dismissal of the action could not be called forgiveness. But since then I would like to believe I have tried my best to instill conscious forgiveness into my relationships with my family.
We have needed that thought of conscious forgiveness in order to keep us together — since my iPod was stolen, less trifling things have been taken from family members in order to sate the demands of those greedy drugs. When you see someone you love unconditionally, like a family member who you have watched grow up, turn to a path of addiction, lying and stealing in order to chase that drug, it is truly life-changing. Every time a family member would steal from us, from friends, from strangers, we knew that they were prioritizing their immediate needs of that addiction over their love for us, and that hurt.
When I first visited one of my cousins in jail, I remember feeling frustrated because he had chosen this life; he had known the consequences of his actions and had still done it knowing it would take him away from us. He missed out on so, so much — brothers getting married, babies being born, the family moments you can’t recreate. At that time, I still didn’t understand the bigger picture of addiction, so I could not truly forgive him because I did not yet see why he had chosen the path he did.
But addiction takes its toll on your entire person, physically draining your body as you lose so much weight that your skin stretches taut over bones because you no longer crave food. Mentally, it drives you into actions you would never have considered as possible means to get something you wanted before, treating the laws of society as mere toys to play with and break. Spiritually, addiction leads you down a dark deep pit of depression, insecurity, paranoia and even hysteria as it feeds all those dark sad thoughts you hold about yourself and your worth in this world.
My family and I had no idea our family members who were going through these trials as they fought their drug addictions were feeling this way. We never knew about the crushing insecurity, the frantic anxiety, the dark dangerous nights contemplating if they should even bother waking up the next day.
If you have never visited someone in a county jail or a higher security jail, the entire experience is incredibly degrading and dehumanizing for everyone involved. I went with my mother and my twin sister last week to visit my cousin and because we were three minutes late for check-in, the receptionist would not let us see him — even though I had driven down all the way from college. Then the next time we went, we were assigned to two small and extremely uncomfortable stools perched in front of a small television screen with a telephone attached on each side. You have, if you’re lucky, 45 minutes to sit in front of that screen and watch your loved one sitting somewhere far away behind many locked doors as they try to cram into that short little time all the things they want to say to you. And then without any notice when your time is up, the screen just goes black.
My family members who were struggling with their addictions did not just one day spill out all of their feelings to me and the rest of our family in one glorious sobbing swoop like television loves to portray confessions. No, piecing all these feelings and reasons and sad emotions together to help understand the puzzles that made up the people I loved was a slow, incredibly slow, process that is still underway and will honestly probably never stop. With every effort I make to reach out to them and let them know, “I am here for you and I care for you,” they slowly open up about their feelings of self-worth, their feelings of belonging and their fragile hopes for their futures.
In some ways the flaws of the prison system, not just in Wisconsin but throughout our country as we see how in our history we have never had as many incarcerated people as we do now, are blatantly showing me that something needs to change. The prison system as it is right now is not working to help alleviate problems or fight the mindsets people fall into that make them feel helpless and unable to change. All prison is doing is treating them like children and locking them away in a years-long “time out.”
What we really need is more understanding. What we really need are people willing to put in the effort to show the ones who are struggling that struggling is human and we all do it. What needs to happen is a de-stigmatization of the fact that sometimes people break the rules that other people have created in this society as they are trying to grow and figure out where they fit in the world. Think about it — if you broke a rule and did something bad, would you rather be lightly chastised and then have someone explain to you why what you did was wrong and help you figure out a way to attain what you want without breaking any rules, or would you rather be locked away from the world for a year and simmer in those feelings of resentment, hate and doubt as you wonder what you even did wrong?
Changing the systematic workings of the prison system is a slow process, but the fastest and easiest way to do so in my opinion is for the families of people incarcerated to finally start showing active forgiveness. By active forgiveness I mean actually trying to understand why someone did what they did, trying to see how they feel now and then talking with them about it as well as about their future and what they want out of life. Most importantly, families can use forgiveness to show those struggling that they always have a place to rest and a home to return to within their family where they are loved.
My family members who went to jail struggled with returning to our family events because they were laden with feelings of shame and deep personal embarrassment. Therefore, I always try my best to show them how much we want them to fill the chairs at the dinner table at Christmas time and how much I have missed their laughter as we open presents.