What I Learnt from a Complicated Relationship with an Inmate
A journey of self discovery and redemption
It's taken me awhile to open up about something that most people in society shun and this will be by far one of my most honest posts yet.
While watching the Oprah Winfrey Show over three years ago (yes I am a fan)—there was a piece on prison inmates and recidivism in the US. The stats are alarming and I wanted to be part of a change. It was in that moment that I made a decision. I remember that moment very clearly. I wanted to help in my own way, make the world a better place and remind someone that although society has "thrown them away"—they still matter.
And so this journey begun... I wrote my first letter to **BB. Over plenty letters I learned more about him, his situation, why he was in there and our shared passion and love for music (Tupac, anyone?), sports (Dallas Cowboys y'all) and travel (despite him not going anywhere—he knows more about the world than most.)
I was surprised. Here is a clever man, who has a passion for health and fitness, who has made some bad choices (haven't we all) and who was street smart—something that I admired, as I too have come from a rather difficult childhood myself. There was something in him that struck me. Maybe it was his bravery to endure every day prison life, his resilience, and his willingness to adapt to his current situation or that he could still smile and crack a joke under his difficult circumstances that amazed me (he has a brilliant sense of humor by the way). Most of all—it was the reality that this too could have easily been me (or anyone else i know and love) because sometimes when we get lost—we make some bad calls.
BB has always admitted his past mistakes and owned his "shit" and was really driven to be a better man when he managed to get out. With his passion to be a changed man—I needed to meet the man behind the letters, the prison bars, and the human that hides behind the tough exterior. So what do most people do in that situation—you jump on a plane of course—and head into a world you know nothing about.
I remember the first time I met him —it was like I had known him most of my life. There is beauty in getting to know someone via letters. With prison guards keeping a watchful eye, we laughed, we talked and we shared some "cherry cheese doughnut thing" (the vending machines in the visitors room are a life saver) and it was right then, when they told me my time was up—that I knew I had to be back. From that moment on, my life would never be the same.
I remember leaving with a heavy heart and a will and passion so strong to help this human out from behind this place and those prison walls—so he could go on to be the man he wants to be, the father I know he can be and the person society hopes comes out of places like these—better, stronger and well adjusted.
This was my self appointed mission. I (alongside another friend of his) ensured we could provide all the support possible to help him as best as we could. We became "Team BB." While I could not have calls with him (we would send messages via his friend) we wrote as often as we could—daily, at times. I needed him to know he mattered and that there is a future for him out there. I became obsessed—I hired a lawyer, met his family and worked on ensuring he could get out and start his life again. Over the next two years, countless letters, tears, visits and a secret I was to scared to share with others (for fear of being judged)—he finally was paroled earlier this year. I had previously made a promise to him—that no matter where I was in my world—I will come and collect him the day he was released. I kept that promise!
While most people probably won't understand this because of what society has told us about "prisoners" (trust me—this did cause me to loose a few people I love and care about because it was something they could just not understand). This whole process and journey has taught me so much—about myself, life, redemption, and other humans that I really feel I have to share because if I can change one person's thoughts about how they see people and perhaps certain situations, I would have achieved so much more than I thought I ever could.
So while I still am learning through this process and—I have learnt these four very important things:
1. Everyone Deserves a Second Chance.
We all make mistakes. We are human after all. Some make bigger ones than others. We should be reminded however we are not our mistakes—we are who we are in spite of them. The biggest key here is self awareness and acknowledgement of where you went wrong in life, what you can learn and how you can use it to better yourself and the people around you. I have made many mistakes—granted I have not ended up in prison—but I really believe that second chances are not given to make things right, but are given to prove that we can be better, even after we fall.
2. You are not your past.
The mistakes we make can become deeply rooted in our lives, and once they have taken hold, they are extremely difficult to eradicate. We must remember however we are much more than our situation, our problems or our past mistakes. Sometimes we hold on to a story we have told ourselves over and over again. But forgiveness of oneself and others is the only way to truly be free. I, myself, have held onto past "stories" that have held me back for years. The power of change is when you can truly realize that at any given moment you can say "This is not how the story (my story) is going to end.”
3. It's not my life, It's His.
This has probably been one of my most challenging and introspective lessons yet. I projected all my hopes and dreams on to BB— because that is what I thought he needed, what he should be or more aptly what he could be. Through it all—I have always seen his potential—but I saw it only through my lens. And as hard as it as been to step aside and let him make his choices (even if personally don't agree with them)—they are his. He already has had so much taken away from him and his choices in how he leads his life should not be another. So while he might not aspire to my personal goals, he has his own and there has been joy watching him slowly try to achieve them.
4. Broken pieces can be healed back together with love and plenty patience.
I have been broken and have spent a large portion of my life building up my pieces and working on myself daily. Some days it is a struggle and other days it comes easy. I do know, however, I would not be half the person I am if it was not for the love and support of some people that loved me harder than I loved myself and even more so when I was difficult to love. The Japanese have a word call Kintsugi, it is art of repairing broken pottery with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. The philosophy is about treating breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise and that when something has suffered damage and history it becomes more beautiful. I love the meaning in this, because as humans we can heal and we can become whole again and that much stronger.
So while I could write for ever on this journey, I can share that this has by far been one of my most thought provoking and life changing and challenging experiences yet because this human keeps on teaching me about the hidden parts of myself I can't explain, about challenging my own thoughts, limitations, and judgments and the status quo. It has at all times tested my patience, because as in any relationship in life we have had our disagreements, some hurt and some ups and downs. I have always tried to understand the man behind his story and this has been no easy feat—people behind bars have been programmed to become hard and to some extent selfish because they have had to survive. So while I watch him from afar adjust to a life outside prison bars, struggle with some inner demons (don't we have them all) and work hard daily try to become a better person, I am reminded of how far we have BOTH come.
This has been an unraveling process of learning, questioning, self doubt and plenty moments of "what the hell am I doing?" But if I know one thing—it is this—I would not change any of it. Not the day I picked up a pen and wrote for the first time or the day I opened up my life and heart to a human that is confused, lost, and just trying to figure his life out as best as he possibly knows how. It has been to some extent a beautiful story of unconditional love, friendship and forgiveness.
So while I am not sure were BB's life is headed, I do know that I am proud of the person he tries to become and I hope he knows that no matter what happens in his world or mine, if he is willing to fight for change in his world and strive to be a better person—he will always have a human in his corner... because after all—some birds aren't meant to be caged, their feathers are just to bright.