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Guilt and Shame - An Interview with a Former Prison Inmate

We have the privilege here of meeting Bob - a man who knows what it takes to be initiated into the Hero’s Journey – something that most of us would never deliberately choose. Bob certainly did not choose it, either. But through great emotional pain, personal honesty, hard work and determination, he completed the journey that began in lock-down in a medium-security state penitentiary. Read more about the Hero’s Journey in an earlier post, Childhood Trauma.

GriefSpeak (GS): Bob, can you describe your experience as a prison inmate? What were your feelings and how did they change over time?

Bob: My experience was very eye opening. I lived day to day, but the one thing that I held onto was hope. I lived vicariously through others on the outside. As I watched how prison affected people, I noticed it affected everyone differently. After all, everyone is individual from different backgrounds and different foundations. Not everyone has the same support groups and some do not have any. Some people come to prison knowing they will never get out; some people get out of prison and never really left. And some people should never ever be in prison.

I came in with fear and uncertainty, not knowing if my family was going to be there when I got out, or even if I was going to get out. I felt I was going into a garbage can, and knew that society resented the expenses that it took to run the prison system. I suffered from dietary allergies, struggled with the inadequate medical system, and dealt as best I could with the de-sensitized and often harsh authority figures. Many of them, however, were kind and fine individuals.

I began believing the possibilities of never getting out. I learned to watch my back and find friends with like interests and not trust virtually anybody. I decided to pick a hobby to keep myself busy, and focus on something other than the negativity around me; so, I picked up my artwork and began drawing again.

It was easy to see how people would come in and destroy themselves and try to bring others down because of their own fears and need to control. Control is one thing that the system tries to take away from you and micromanages their own structure.

Those who have never had any idea about accountability, responsibility, organization or ability to follow rules would not only cause total chaos, but would come out just as bad or worse than when they went into prison. Because the one thing many people miss on both sides of the fence is that it is supposed to be a “corrections facility”. If somebody is never getting out, then there's no point than otherwise just keeping law and order within the facility.

I experienced feelings of hopelessness and despair, discouragement, anxiety and even depression. It was easy to see how some people decided to take it into their own hands, and yet it was a cowardice, selfish way out.

I fought my case for years until I finally gave up, and the hardest thing for me to accept was acceptance itself. I was stuck in prison doing time. Over time, I decided to use it as a learning experience. I am a very analytical person, and I learned through other people very easily. I watch how people act and react and I will gauge my actions to best suit my survival and success. Prison was, in a sense, the best hands-on psychological instruction manual for life that anyone could have.

From the traumatizing to the recovery and rehabilitation, I felt that overtime I read a 15-year novel that I was writing as I went along. All the while I never lost track of things that were happening on the outside as much as possible: family, friends, magazines, TV, etc. It was so important to keep my focus on the outside, to hold on to that hope and light at the end of the tunnel and never let go of my faith.

I began to find it easier to recover from the daily drama and trauma that you would expect and just took it in stride, and I focused on excelling in the things I did best: getting and keeping the best jobs possible, getting excellent reviews on everything from cleaning, working, to following instructions. It's not about them; it's about you. I found the strength to be a better person than they want to make you. My artwork excelled and I gained respect over time by not being a knucklehead and just sticking to my guns and doing my own thing. Not trying to find ways to circumvent the system, but yet trying to find ways to make the system work for me.

By the time I left, I had high reviews and recommendations from my employer and had taken as many pertinent classes as I could that had to do with my rehabilitation and re-entry, whether the state would apply them or not; I knew I was building a new foundation. A stronger one. I had taken the other one down brick by brick, and I was determined to write my own story and help others.

GS: Please talk to us about guilt and how it affected you at that time of your incarceration.

Bob: Guilt and shame are a huge obstacle in recovery. I called them my “speed bumps”. But the thing about speed bumps is that the more you travel over them, the smaller they get. You tend to know when to expect them, how to deal with them and can put the concern behind you. As with all speed bumps, you are, of course, going to feel them, and they become part of your foundation that makes you stronger; but you don't let them control you. You get better suspension to control the shocks and realize that everyone has gone over those same speed bumps or similar ones, and there is always a smoother road on the other side.

If we did not have guilt and shame, we would not have a conscience and we would be in big trouble. Having that strength in our repertoire is what will guarantee our success when it comes to our recovery. It’s so important to understand how to look at ourselves in the mirror and say, “I forgive you, I love you, and you’re a good person and worth it, and you are going to write your own story and not let anybody else write it for you.” The reflection upon yourself reflects upon the world around you.

GS: How is guilt different from shame, and how did they play out in prison?

Bob: For me the difference between guilt and shame is guilt is my acknowledgment, regret and remorse over what bad mistakes I've made, being a lapse of judgment or lack of self-control. I was tortured over the pain or trauma that I caused another human being; this was the shame.

Shame is how I felt about myself and those mistakes that made me feel like I was a bad person; and the reflection of other people's judgments upon me increased that shame.

Prison is the condensed soup of the world, and, at best, I could connect with others going through the same thing. It made me humbler and it broke down my self-esteem to a point where I felt like I was nothing and there was no hope. I felt the world would never, could never and should never accept me. It hindered my healing process and made it harder to forgive myself when inside I knew I was not the person I was judged be. Everyone makes mistakes, and one is no worse than the others, but in some people's eyes, I will forever be judged.

I must consider it as part of my strength to rebuke judgments on my convictions; nobody knew the actual truth or the real me. It was up to me to create my own new future and allow others to know me for who I have become. Once I began accepting the fact that I was a good person and was not listening to my shame or others’ judgements, I began rebuilding my self-esteem and inserting affirmations and positivity. This instilled hope. But I could not have done it alone. And that was an important factor to realize; we are not alone.

GS: This leads us to ask, Bob, what motivated you to join a grief group during your incarceration? What was your grief?

Bob: The most helpful class that I found in prison was Grief Guidance. I had a friend and fellow artist that suggested, virtually insisted that I come to the class; he almost had to drag me there. I really do not like groups, and I really did not like opening up in front of groups; in fact, I was uncomfortable in crowds of any sort. Speaking to other people and opening up was something I could never see myself doing, and I was very sure of the fact that I was not going to return after the first class or two.

My friend had said to just come and give it a try, because he knew how he had begun to heal and feel a sense of purpose again. He knew how I had lost everything, including all hope. Ironically, a teacher and mentor was just beginning a new series, and she asked each of us to write down what we wanted to get out of the class and what we felt like we'd lost.

For me it was always a sense of seeing a light at the end of the tunnel representing hope getting further and further away, away from my grasp. I was in a state of "What's the point? Nobody cares. So why should I?" Then she asked us to write down how we felt about ourselves. Mine was worthlessness. I felt like my life was worth nothing anymore and nobody cared. It did not matter that my immediate family, as in my mother and father, had been out there and loved me, or I had been engaged for my entire incarceration to someone who may or may not want to stay with me once they get to know the real me when I get out. Compared to what I had before and my reputation that I had lost, it was nothing. Not that these people did not matter to me by any means, but I did not matter to myself. I had given up and prepared to die. I was not going to take my own life, not that it had not crossed my mind, but my faith would not allow it, and I knew that would be the coward’s way out. But I felt I would be an unhappy, lonely and destitute person the rest of my life, and I must deserve it. No matter what I did or didn't do or had been accused of, I was going to have to live with it.

After the exercise, the teacher had us all read our answers as she wrote them on a whiteboard; and that's when we noticed that even though we each had a little different description or definition for our grief, we were all in need of healing. We were not alone. That in itself intrigued me enough to come back a second time, the third time... The second year... And yes, even the third year as I began mentoring others and healing more of myself as I went.

The little magical, blue spark that I had seen in our teacher’s eye was contagious and captured mine and so many people's lost souls and gave them a new journey. A new lease on life. Her relationship to us through her own grief and the love and the tools that she offered us gave us all an opportunity to gain perspective on our life and learn about our own reflection and how to look at ourselves in a different light - a light with hope, worth, forgiveness and fellowship that made life worth living again. I could never thank her enough for giving me my life back, better than it was before and an opportunity to spread the light to others.

By the end of the class, I went from being a proverbial introverted recluse/victim to an outspoken advocate and mentor for recovery. In fact, just before the end of my incarceration, I actually had to get up in front of about 300 people to speak, and if it hadn't been for the Heroes Journey that our teacher took us through, that would have never happened.

GS: As you say, Bob, part of the grief program was participating in the Hero’s Journey and concluded with the task of writing your personal mythology. What can you tell us about that experience?

Bob: So many parts of the grief program were healing for me, but one assignment in particular was actually more individually enlightening to me from my own reflection because I was able to speak of my life as in third person. That was our "personal mythology". I have always enjoyed writing, but this gave me an opportunity to combine one love of mine with another, creativity, and open up my heart and my life not only to others, but to myself.

We looked back as far as we could go on what had made us the person that were today, giving us a chance to see what quite possibly the rest of the world may have been witnessing. Sometimes we are too close to an event to actually know how it's affecting our lives and everyone around us until we step back and we look at the big picture. When we put it in a third person perspective, it allows us to remove that immediate pain and gives us a chance of acknowledgment and perspective as if we are looking through a window and watching a game from the opponent's side.

My journey actually gave me back an identity I had lost - buried in the feelings of worthlessness. I can honestly say it was one of the most productive exercises that we did in class. In fact, at the end of the exercise, we were invited to read our personal mythologies in front of the class. Again, we were sharing and opening up, not showing our weaknesses, but gaining our strengths and writing our own stories. Not letting anybody else in the world write them for us.

GS: Who was your mythological character, and what did you learn about yourself through him?

Bob: The mythological character that I chose was an alien that was invisible to earthlings from another planet named “Smudgonia”. His name was Smudgy. I was able to describe my life through him. Coincidentally, the Smudgonians were like custodians or prison guards who gained job-security through them.

But how I related was through my life as Smudgy; I felt invisible, yet I affected others and somehow was able to reflect on how I had a purpose in life, even though others never seemed to notice me. That purpose gave me a new lease on life and allowed me to become part of society in a whole new way, and find my place in the world as though I belonged again. It made me a stronger person and gave me incentive to speak out, be seen, heard and respected.

GS: How was this process instrumental in healing your grief and trauma?

Bob: That exercise strengthened the mortar in my foundation every day of my life and was extremely instrumental in healing my grief and trauma. I was able to put behind me everything that I had lost, past present and future, and build on new horizons and goals. Sometimes in life we have to change direction and accept things that we are not comfortable with, but we cannot dwell on them and must learn how to deal with them on a daily basis. Speaking or writing in a third person perspective separates you from the immediate trauma and grief and allows you to see a new direction for positive healing.

GS: Did it help you to deal with guilt? With shame? How so?

Bob: Coming up with a mythological character that allowed me to speak of my life in third person was actually very instrumental in my recovery and rehabilitation to prepare me for reentry into society. The guilt of actually doing something wrong that affected other people's lives in negative ways would eat a hole in a discriminative moral conscience. It would corrupt one's whole being and destroy the fabric of the foundation of their life to a point where they would feel there was no hope had it not been dealt with.

Doing this exercise in a manner in which I could look at my life through a proverbial two-way mirror of the past allowed me the opportunity to “see” my actions before they became lapses in judgment. I could make better choices and apply these learned skills on a daily basis and continue to strengthen my foundation.

How I feel about myself is a direct relation to how others react and feel about me and my actions. My shame had torn my self-esteem down to nothing to a point of "Why care? Nobody else does. I'm worthless!" Through this journey I learned to forgive myself first and realized that my mistakes do not define me. People's judgments are not part of the mortar of my foundation. I make my own choices and how I react is what matters. The fact that I have a conscience and care about doing the right thing and can decipher the difference between right and wrong is a building block that can help me grow. I was able to learn how to surround myself with and seek out supportive, positive people and remove negativity that would draw me down and not allow me to grow. I was not a victim and I was not going to be victimized by others and their judgments. Nobody is perfect; that is no excuse to make mistakes or have lapses in judgment, but it was a stepping stone to my recovery and knowing that I was not alone. Always remember: Those that matter care, and those that don't care don't matter. Keep your loved ones close and heal yourself first, and it will make it so much easier as the world around you falls into place. It's your own personal perspective on life.

One analogy to consider may be, "When going to a restaurant, what role would you rather play? The doormat, that everybody walks on? Or the cook, that nourishes everyone who walks through that door?" It is our choice to change our play things, our play places, and our playmates if they are part of our self-destruction. It is detrimental to our recovery and the future of everyone and everything around us that we make the right choices.

I have chosen the higher path of not letting anyone control my life but me; that includes not letting my past mistakes define me. I want people to know me for who they meet on a daily basis and want to be part of my life. I always look at my reflection now and ask myself, “What should I do?” I hold no grudge upon myself or others.

GS: What was it like sharing this intimate journey with about a dozen other guys? I think that very few people can comprehend such an intimate experience in a lock-down situation.

Bob: Being part of the Grief Guidance group and sharing my journey with so many other guys was a very revealing and eye-opening experience. By no means am I going to say that it was easy. You basically open up your life and heart and filet it out for others to see all of the layers that you have hidden within you. You do not have to express details, but you have to share enough to heal, and that is not an easy thing. I was given a chance to relate to others in a setting that so many do not get a chance to do. Most have heard the saying "Physician, heal thyself"; well our teacher was very adamant over the fact that she was not there to heal us as much as we wanted her to. But she gave us the tools to assemble our lives back to working order again, and it was our choice to do that. If you are in that group, there is a chance that you are all searching for the same thing.

You may or may not be strong enough to open up and reach deep within your soul to rip out the infection and cleanse it so you can allow it to begin to heal, but if you are, the rewards are unending. I was able to see others share their journey and was amazed at how I was not alone. Everybody's story may differ from one to the other a little, but the root of it always comes back to needing to fill an empty void or fix a corrupted part that has dismantled our lives.

Some may have turned down paths and gone a long way down the wrong road and may have to come way back to start over, but it is not impossible. It may seem insurmountable as you dig deep back in your memories as far as you can go and build your timeline of grief, but when you start comprehending where it's leading, and you see the reward at the end, you realize you have a brighter future ahead. It gave me more confidence to hear each person speak and, as time went on, I could hardly get enough time to talk, myself. Ironic, since when I started the class, I did not expect to come back after the first class as I was so introverted.

Nothing was forced, and I was able to go at my own pace; but we were given homework and expected to look deep within ourselves, not just within the class, but outside the class. And that's what helped in the application of my perspective of what I believe I learned. I came out with even more empathy for others and their issues, understanding of myself, confidence, motivation, self-worth, forgiveness, love, and hope. With new tools I was able to build the foundation of my life better than ever before, and could never thank our teacher enough for it.

GS: Bob is a rare bird; he’s completed the Hero’s Journey at least twice: inside and out. Upon his release, he was launched into a whole new beginning – starting over – with a record. He had a good support system – his great wife and mother, the faith community of his choice, and the love of many friends and family. But there was nothing easy about starting over. How did you do it, Bob?

Bob: After years of being thrown into twisted turmoil and lifestyles that I had no idea about, I had to adapt. I learned a lot about myself and humanity. I was able to use the time to reflect upon what I had been through. I held on to the outside world as much as absolutely possible just to feel connected, in hopes that someday I would actually be released.

At a certain point I actually reversed my apprehension from being concerned about being thrown into a giant garbage can that I had no clue about and felt my life was over. I began to feel comfortable within my surroundings to a certain extent of knowing what to expect. I actually became quite apprehensive about being released.

Prison is like a freezer box where your life is put on hold. The world outside goes on without you, and it's your choice on how you deal with it. You can either let go completely and lose yourself, or hang on to threads of life which in some cases can seem like torture. I did everything in my power to prepare myself for my return and my proverbial “thawing out” by taking all the courses and classes available and offered to me that could give me a leg up when I was released.

I also focused on enhancing my art skills. While I was in, I lost my father, my children, other family members and all my belongings, but I had to hold on with all the knowledge and learned experience and teachings that I had absorbed. I lost part of myself, but I felt that I came out a better, stronger, more prepared individual. In many ways, I was more prepared to handle change and watch my back. I became a wiser, more empathetic success story that I had written in my personal mythology, ready to handle whatever was thrown at me.

Whenever I felt overwhelmed, I remembered to only take things one step at a time, and that God will only give us what we can handle. My new learned knowledge and skills sharpened and reinforced the lessons that I had learned and allowed me to help others. "Iron sharpens iron”, scripture says, and that's no joke.

GS: We thank you, Bob, for sharing your experiences and your light with us. We are truly blessed. Tikun Olam is a Jewish phrase that basically means, “Heal yourself; Heal the world”. As we close this interview, we applaud you for the leadership and brotherhood that you created in prison. You were there for men who needed your wisdom; you stood strong against the inherent challenges inside; you were a source of guidance and a great example of this admonition to heal yourself and heal the world. How does it inform your life today?

Bob: Today is no different, as I find myself continually running across challenges on the outside that make our challenges on the inside pale in comparison. It is so easy to get lost in this big world and find your place, especially when you have felt like you do not belong. On a daily basis I run across people who have not had the blessings of the courses and lessons that I was able to take, and I share some of my insights to help their growth and give them hope. The feeling of giving and watching somebody else regaining their life and direction because of my experiences is very fulfilling and gives me satisfaction, as well as reminds me of the importance of keeping my skills and proverbial tools sharp for my own good, also.

GS: I think we’d love to hear from Smudgy now; does he have a final word for us?

As Smudgy, I am a success story! I came from another world and coincided with a group of people that couldn't see me for who I truly was. In time, I was able to affect them in a positive way.

Whether it be my job security or just putting a smile on your face, Faith, Family and Friends are all a big part of my support system. I surround myself with positivity, but I never forget to look at the reflection of my actions, especially in forethought.

Foremost, I will not forget who I am, and I will write my own story. I have many wonderful people to thank for helping me open my eyes and making me visible to the world, where I once felt so out of place and now find my purpose in life. Tikun Olam!

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