|The 21 Years of My Life I Wish I Could Change|
Desert Waters Correctional Outreach gratefully printed this article that describes a corrections professional’s journey “to hell and back.” This is a courageous and candid account of decline into the darker zones of Corrections Fatigue, and what it took for healing to occur. It may be longer than most of our articles, but the journey has been long too! And it’s all very much worth reading! C.S.
Well, to whoever is reading this, I just want to say hang in there! It will get better. I know it sure doesn’t feel like it, but keep plugging away at it. Be open to new things even if they seem weird or uncomfortable, try them and embrace them, because you are here reading this for a reason.
I am husband to a beautiful wife of 20 years and have 3 amazing children, ages 16, 13 and 9. I work for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and have for the past 21 years. It is truly a thankless job that is extremely negative, violent, corrupt and downright disgusting. This job consumed me! It changed me slowly over the years, and like for a lot of us and our super egos, it affected me and everyone in my family.
I noticed a change in myself probably around my five-year mark. I started battling with depression, negativity, anger, hate and isolation, and these emotions and attitudes were slowly eating me up. The job took the person who I was and changed him. It changed the once funny, caring and happy person into someone that quite honestly makes my stomach turn thinking about. I was detached, craved loneliness and isolation, and didn’t really care about anything anymore. I turned to alcohol on my time off and usually drank myself into a stupor, went to bed late without saying goodnight to any of my loved ones, and got up the next day, and guess what? I still felt horrible! Not trying to preach to you about alcohol, but I guess it was my answer to hiding my pain. A way for me to forget about reality, my job, and to temporarily shut down those feelings.
At the time I didn’t see it, I thought, “Hey, it will pass. Everyone goes through tough times.” In my case, guess what? It didn’t pass. It got worse.
My marriage was slowly sinking. My beautiful wife had managed to run the house without me, because I was either working all the time or detached and not interested in doing anything. Now my once wonderful relationship with her was in shambles, and we were like roommates instead of a happily married couple. We never fought, but just kind of went on without each other. She was being a wonderful mother and taking care of my children, while I worked and came home and shut down. Thinking about this kills me! It tears me up inside to think that I was doing this and at the time I knew it, but couldn’t stop it or change. I mean, hey, it wasn’t me it was everyone and everything else, right?
I was on vacation with my family in June of 2018, going through the motions, being fake. Fake because inside I was miserable and screaming, but trying to keep a face on for my family. This was my way of life. I was miserable, but this was all I knew and as odd as it sounds I was comfortable with it. My thoughts were extremely bad! I wasn’t really thinking suicide, because the thought of my wife and kids hating me for it made me extremely sad and the damage I would cause to them really upset me. Then the thought of my mom and dad having to deal with their son’s suicide really puts things into perspective. The one they brought into this world, raised, supported and guided into a safe direction took his own life. With them came the thought of my one and only older sibling. My sister, how would she feel that her little brother, the one she grew up with, fought with, laughed with and shared everything with was gone by his own hands. No way! If I could have done it and made it look like an accident, I was all in. I didn’t want to live anymore.
The pain of feeling horrible, alone, worthless, isolated, sad, and angry was chewing me up. I truly wanted to die. I sat one day looking at the phone for about an hour, crying, and dialed the number to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for an authorization to get some help or advice. Of course they ask, “Are you in crisis?” I wanted to say, “Hell, yeah, I’m in a crisis,” but the unrealistic fear of a white van pulling up in my driveway, two hairy dudes with big mustaches getting out, tasing me and putting me in a strait jacket to haul me away to a hospital, stopped me. So I said, “No, I just need someone to talk to.”
That someone has turned out to be a therapist, a truly amazing person who I felt a bond with right away. I was never more scared than during my first appointment with her. I felt weak, ashamed and embarrassed for not being able to kick this on my own. I left after my first appointment and cried the whole way home. I didn’t want to go back because it was uncomfortable, strange, and once again I felt weak. She asked questions that of course I had to answer, and it was tough. I was and still am 100% honest with her because what good would it do me to lie? I’m seeing her for a reason, right?
After a few visits with her she diagnosed me with severe depression and PTSD. I knew I was depressed, but PTSD? I said, “I’m a veteran, but not a war veteran. How could I have PTSD?” To address the misconception of most people, including myself, PTSD doesn’t just affect war veterans. She explained that after all the trauma I had experience in 21 years working within the prison system, I was a walking trauma victim. I hadn’t really thought about it, and I struggled with the diagnosis because any of us in this business just shrug it off and do it again the next day. No big deal, right? After talking with her during multiple visits and doing Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), revisiting things that I had witnessed and been a part of years ago in Corrections, I realized that the stuff we see doesn’t go away. It gets filed away in our brains only to wreak havoc on us later in life because it hasn’t been processed correctly. It affects our thought process and our moods. Mine came out as depression and isolation. I can remember each and every incident that I’ve been involved with over the years. While doing EMDR, I could recall the sounds, the smells, the weather, my partners, the looks on their faces, and even the Sergeant in Central Control on the radio that I honestly haven’t thought about in years, but I could hear his voice clear as day.
After a few visits she talked to me about starting a group. What? Talk to others about my issues? No way! Well, with her amazing powers and therapeutic ways I ended up going and once again my first day I felt like I was going to puke. But it really wasn’t that bad. I met some wonderful people that have the same issues, and you know what, it was good to talk about it and to have people actually understand and listen, instead of trying to tell you how to fix it. Although the people in my group are not in Corrections, I truly trust and enjoy talking with them and I have nothing but love for each and every one of them as well as my therapist. Every one of them will always have a special place in my heart, and I will never forget about them.
My therapist had me attend a PTSD retreat for five days, and I went excited and with high hopes. Here I was, the only Corrections employee at a retreat with Firefighters and one Police Officer. Instantly I felt like they couldn’t relate. I felt ashamed to be there hearing their stories about helping good people, and being involved in situations where they were assisting our neighbors, friends, relatives and members of the community. I was there as a guy looking for answers, and I was ashamed, because all I have done was witness horrific things that terrible people do to one another. I was looking for answers as to why I felt like I did, and I did not share my stories with the others, because I thought they couldn’t relate or even know what it was I was talking about. Although I met some wonderful people struggling to hold onto life, I left there sad and confused. Sad because I was tired of being this way, and confused as to why I still felt like I did, hopeless!
I don’t want anyone reading this to think that these types of retreats are useless or unhelpful. I don’t want you to think that for one second! This retreat has helped me in ways that I am unable to explain. I was in a very bad place mentally, and maybe I wasn’t completely open to it. However, I can honestly say that I left there that day with fourteen new friends that I didn’t know five days prior. These are friends that I still stay in contact with to this day and we all formed a bond with one another that will never break. The counselors running the retreat were amazing, helpful and kind people that have made this their mission to help others and they are truly wonderful people. They gave me skills that I do practice daily and I can say with their help and support it has made me a better person. Although at the time I wasn’t realizing it but everything they taught me and told me is within me. Just like all the stuff in life we hold onto, I will hold on to it forever and practice the healing methods that were taught to me.
Once my plane finally landed and with the retreat behind me physically but not mentally I got into my truck at the airport. I couldn’t wait for this moment so I could be alone and not show my real self. I got into my truck and cried like a baby. I was a mess! I didn’t want to go home, but I didn’t know where to go. I just wanted to keep driving to somewhere. I didn’t know where, but I just wanted to escape from everything.
It’s been 10 long months and I still see my therapist once a week if I can, and I attend group when possible. I’ve tried medication and I didn’t like the feeling and in my mind it made me feel like I was weak. I’m not saying that medication is not the answer because I truly believed I should have been on something and I believe it is beneficial to a lot of people. However, with my therapist’s help I chose not to. She talked me into going to acupuncture. I thought, “Hey what have I got to lose?” I went, even though part of me thought, “This will never work! It will never work, because I’m broken and need to be medicated.” After meeting and talking with the acupuncturist, she wanted me to start taking supplements (natural stuff), so I did. It’s been about 3 months taking the supplements and going to acupuncture and seeing my therapist weekly and I am a different person. Almost like the guy I used to be! What? I don’t know if it’s the placebo effect, a combination of everything, or the fact that I was really tired of myself, but I’ve found a happiness that I had lost years ago, and it is a wonderful feeling.
I am working hard at it, and l still have my moments and I have to fight off my sad and negative feelings that like to reappear from time to time. I have a lot of work to do repairing my marriage, but things are really looking up. My wife is very supportive and understanding and I make sure I try to communicate with her because holding that stuff in isn’t good and it’s not easy when you’ve been quietly struggling for so long. I know I’m not cured by any means, but it’s two steps forward and one step back.
I think back of that guy I was turning into just a few months back, and it honestly turns my stomach. It makes me sick, and I really hate that guy and I don’t ever want to experience him again! Although I never want to experience him again, I also love that guy and have learned a great deal from him. I learned to not stuff things away and to talk about them. I’ve become more passionate and sensitive. I’ve learned if you feel like crying, let it out, it’s your body’s way of healing, and trust me after progressing through this journey I get emotional all the time. Embrace it and be comfortable with it. I’ve learned to recognize others that are struggling and try to offer advice, instead of telling them to snap out of it. I truly believe that the guy I once was, was a guy struggling, traumatized, confused, sick and overridden with negativity. I was wounded and scarred in ways that I can’t even imagine. It is horrible to think about but, I was sick with depression caused from events and images in my life that I will have with me forever. They were all things that I thought I had under control, but I was sadly mistaken. These memories will never leave me, but there are ways to deal with them. I honestly can’t explain this, but I now believe that these events in my life will make me a better person.
So with this long drawn out story of me, just understand that you can change. It does work whether it is individual therapy, group therapy, EMDR, medication, acupuncture, natural healers, retreats …. the sky is the limit! Just be open. Everyone is different and everything works differently for different people. Even though you are struggling mentally and physically and your mind is telling you that you’re hopeless, keep pushing and you will see a difference. Keep doing what the little part of your head that isn’t overridden with negativity is telling you! Listen to it! It is extremely difficult to do, I know, but DON’T GIVE UP! PLEASE DON’T GIVE UP! Make that call, send that email, speak up, and seek the help you need even though you think you have it under control. Confront that issue with your chin up, chest out and stop letting it run your life. JUST REMEMBER, MY FRIEND, YOU ARE LOVED, YOU ARE NOT ALONE, YOU CAN AND WILL GET BETTER, AND THE WORLD IS TRULY A BETTER PLACE WITH YOU IN IT.
This article as been reprinted with permission from the June 2019 Issue of Correctional Oasis, a monthly e-publication of "Desert Waters Correctional Outreach".
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