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From Surviving to Living
From Surviving to Living
(04) ORIENTATION (CHANGE, SHOCK & AWE, SUICIDE WATCH)
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I have said I was unaware previously that I needed to change. What does that mean? I believed myself to be a good person or at least a person who understood what good is, even if I lacked the ability to consistently and reliably perform it. I felt I had a good moral compass, even if I was no example of it. If I could tell you what was right, wasn’t I …right?

Does this sound familiar? What questions does it make you ask yourself?

I had always been interested, though, in improving myself and my life. I didn’t need to change my beliefs, I wanted the skills to perform well! One of my biggest struggles began in my teen years and continued for decades. I began to suffer from serious depression. I felt indifferent and disinterested in things that seemed to give other people joy. I was also hostile, easily irritated. Most of my humor was actually rude sarcasm and I could be very insulting when offended.

My depression made personal stability a challenge. I had trouble holding a job, especially a full-time job, for any length of time (even when I was self-employed!). Apparently I couldn’t even stand to work for myself. That’s pretty bad.

If one sees little return on their behavioral or emotional investment eventually they’ll lack the desire to expend that effort. In short – why do things that don’t work?

In a 2016 Psychology Today article by Gregg Henriques Ph.D. called The Behavioral Shutdown Theory of Depression, Dr. Henriques does a good job of explaining this enigma. He describes depression as a defensive strategy. If one sees little return on their behavioral or emotional investment eventually they’ll lack the desire to expend that effort. In short – why do things that don’t work?

Medication helped, but it wasn’t a cure. I hated my lethargy! It embarrassed me. I felt expectations demand I perform at a high level both professionally and personally. My inability shamed me. I agonized about my failure to do things I saw people do every day.

Then I crashed into apathy, disconnecting from the world and sleeping much of the time. I was just barely surviving, even with meds. Eventually I was prescribed very high doses of anti-psychotics, anti-depressants and mood stabilizers. Exhausted and frazzled in prison I would hide in my room. I even dreaded going to a meal.

I believed my depression symptoms said ugly things about me and made me unlikable (or they would if people knew about them). I was driven by a performance based world view of conditional love

I believed my depression symptoms said ugly things about me and made me unlikable (or they would if people knew about them). I was driven by a performance based world view of conditional love, among other things. Since I strove to be loved, I worked hard to rid myself of these symptoms and hide them. Fake it until you make it was a motto I lived by.

Does this sound familiar? You are not alone, and there is hope!

My second day in prison I was placed in an orientation class lasting 2 weeks. We were called R&O’s. One purpose of this class is to teach the rules and consequences of breaking the rules, consequences like LOPs (Loss of Privileges), DLOPs (Discipline Loss of Priviliges), seg time (Solitary confinement), and UI (Unintended Idle). I had just become a guest of Acronym city. Nearby was Nickname village, Slang hamlet, Lingo settlement, and Jargon township.

OID numbers tell a story- they tell you who’s new, who’s not, and who’s back.

Every inmate wears an OID badge with photo and DOC-OID (Department of Corrections – Offender ID) number printed on it. OID numbers are assigned the first time one is ever incarcerated. It never ever changes, even if one leaves prison and comes back for another crime. OID numbers tell a story- they tell you who’s new, who’s not, and who’s back.

On my second day of orientation a new R&O arrived named Ashley. Curiously her OID was slightly lower than mine, telling me she had been here a little longer than me, maybe a week or so. Ashley looked to be about 20 years old, with long, light brown hair and sticks for arms and legs. Her skin was an olive-tan color nearly matching her hair. Most notably, she resembled my youngest son Tim to such a degree it bruised yet comforted my heart. She looked like his mother more than I did. I wondered why she was just now arriving at orientation.

Class started after breakfast and ended at 3 p.m. Our evenings and weekends were free. In our free time I longed to vanish to my room or call my children. As I made a get away from the dayroom, women behind me slapped themselves into chairs and wondered what to do with the rest of their day.

I often heard Ashley call plaintively, “Does anyone want to play a game?” The usual answer was no. Ashley’s outstretched, pleading arms would droop, then hugging herself Ashley’s imploring expression would change to a sorrowful, lonely one. This, too, reminded me of my youngest son Tim – he often begged his older brothers to play with him.

I couldn’t take it; it was too pitiful. I wanted to hide in my room overwhelmed, but this was too much. After our third day of class I remained in the dayroom to socialize. Ashley once again hopefully asked if anyone would like to play a game. She looked at each of us expectantly, waiting.

Over the days her optimism had quietly faded from excitement to disappointment. I really didn’t feel like playing a game. She looked at each of us in turn, reading the answer in our averted eyes and silence. Her face began to fall. I took a deep breath, “I’ll play with you. What do you want to play?”

Surprise widened her eyes before they crinkled. She smiled, pulled her arms wide and leaned forward towards the table. “That’s great! I don’t care what we play. As long as it passes the time.” This was the beginning of our friendship.

When arriving to prison she had refused to speak at all. To anyone. For days. She was placed on suicide watch until she would talk… The trauma of arriving at prison can manifest in many ways.

As the days passed she explained the mystery of her lower OID number and late arrival to orientation. When arriving to prison she had refused to speak at all. To anyone. For days. She was placed on suicide watch until she would talk. I later learned this is not uncommon. The trauma of arriving at prison can manifest in many ways.

Another R&O in my class was Katy. Tall and thin, her blonde hair shaved nearly to the scalp, Katy was in her mid twenties. Sincere and talkative, Katy frequently spent her time in the dayroom chatting with other women. I worried about her also. Katy seemed eager to make friends, too trusting, and slightly awkward. I was reminded of my son Lukas.

I sat in class day after day and my mind wandered. In the evenings I called my kids. I still felt present in their lives, as if this was a temporary arrangement. I would eagerly call to assure myself they were not just safe, but behaving. “Moooom!” Lukas would bellyache on the phone, “Timmy is poking at Vivianne!” Screaming and arguing could be heard in the background.

I still felt present in their lives, as if this was a temporary arrangement. I would eagerly call to assure myself they were not just safe, but behaving.

“Put your brother on the phone,” I’d instruct. A clatter of the phone would follow, accompanied by stomping feet and the echo of Luke’s muffled voice somewhere nearby relaying the message, “Mom wants to talk to you….TIM!” Another clatter as the phone exchanged hands and I heard Timmy say, “Hi Mom,” with a hangdog note. Vivi continued to scream somewhere in the house.

“Tim? Have you been poking your sister?” I queried. I told them both to go to their rooms for a well deserved break from each other. Then Tommy, my 10 year old, picked up the phone. His little boy voice shook with loneliness and frustration as he described problems I couldn’t solve so easily, problems at school, problems with friends. I felt near tears, my heart heavy. Trying to soothe him I choked out, “I’m still here, Tommy! It’s not like I died!” In stunned silence we both listened to the words echo. In fact it felt just like I had died. Tommy gasped out a sob.

Trying to soothe him I choked out, “I’m still here, Tommy! It’s not like I died!” In stunned silence we both listened to the words echo. In fact it felt just like I had died. Tommy gasped out a sob.

Later I spoke with Vivi. I had a plan for our conversation. So did she. They were not the same plan. She had visited me when I was in the county jail, but then I’d been released on bail. She’d believed those three months to be my punishment in full. Why was I back in ‘jail’?? She did not understand being punished “twice” for one act of disobedience. That’s what she wanted to talk to me about. I, on the other hand, wished to apologize for oh, about a hundred different things. That’s what I wanted to talk to her about.

Once on the phone I wasted no time in apologizing. In her little girl-turned stern lecturer voice she scolded, “Yes mommy, but you keep doing it!” I barked a startled laugh. Then I explained that was not the case.

Soothed, Vivi was happy to talk about her day and learn more about mine. I told her I was going outside with friends to play after I finished with our phone call. Once again her tone of voice changed. Even at such a young age she must have found this an implausible prison activity. She challenged me, “No you’re not.” I insisted I was. She responded in her best grown-up, threatening voice, “If you’re going to continue to lie to me, I’m going to end this call!” Once again I burst into shocked, delighted laughter.

How did I breeze through life so carelessly? When did I lose the ability to savor every moment? I ached with loss. I cried for what would never be. I hated myself. I was angry and hurting.

Again and again over the next several years I would revisit my past with longing. Raising five children can be chaotic and busy, challenging. From the quiet solitude of prison, however, ordinary moments from my past took on a poignancy never felt before. What I wouldn’t give now for five minutes of my past life at the dinner table on an ordinary day! I yearned to tell one more bed time story. I longed to push someone on a swing a few more times. How did I breeze through life so carelessly? When did I lose the ability to savor every moment? I ached with loss. I cried for what would never be. I hated myself. I was angry and hurting.

After orientation graduation we were assigned a job and moved out of Broker. On a Thursday morning I heard my name called over the PA system, “Aho, Staff Desk…..Aho, Staff Desk.” Over the last 2 weeks I had become familiar with that summons. Over the next 8 years I would hear it thousands and thousands of times.

Climbing out of my bunk I stepped out of my room. Before closing the door I tapped pants pocket with my right hand and the front of my shirt with my left hand. Having confirmed my keys were in my pocket and my badge was on my shirt, I shut the door and headed to the guard desk. This ritual, too, is one I would repeat thousands, millions of times, over the next 8 years. To forget badge or keys led to punishment.

This ritual, too, is one I would repeat thousands, millions of times, over the next 8 years.

At the staff/guard desk a female guard addressed me, “Ms. A-ho,” pronouncing the A and O with long vowels. My name is actually said like the word “also” (replace the middle letters with an h). The male guard sitting next to her must have known the correct pronunciation. He burst into smiles when she said it wrong. Then he turned to me and, grinning impishly declared, “Ms. Aho!” (pronouncing it correctly) “I believe she just called you an A-ho!” Turning, he paused to see the other guard’s reaction.

The female guard was flushing a deep shade of pink. Reeling back, one hand fluttered near her heart. Reading the ceiling as if the answers required were written there, she struggled to compose herself. The other guard snickered. I waited, glancing from one to the other, uncertain. Finally regaining the ability to speak, the first guard declared, “I’ve now forgotten why I called you down here. Go to your room until I can recall.” The other guard’s snickers turned into guffaws.

A few minutes later I was summoned again. I was being moved to a living unit named Tubman. I wedged my meager belongings into two gray bins. I carefully signed out of Broker. I would sign into Tubman when I arrived. Every building at Shakopee has a sign in book. Like the badge and keys ritual, signing in and out of these books at every building is mandatory and punishable if not done. Depositing my bins on a wheeled cart, I rolled it down the walkway and across the property to Tubman.

Yanking my cart up to the staff desk at Tubman, a white haired guard rose to meet me. His name badge read, “Officer Lik.” In a voice loud and gruff he grilled, “Ever been to seg?”

Typically referred to as “seg,” prison segregation is a special housing unit separated from the general population. Inmates are most often taken to seg for discipline.

Startled, I peered up in surprise. “N-No!” I stammered.

“Want to go?” He hammered back.

Shocked again, I flung back another, “N-No!” uncertain where this was headed. Satisfied with my responses Mr. Lik turned to my paperwork and slid me new keys. In the months and years ahead I would come to greatly appreciate Officer Lik, but just then I saw him as the enemy.

In the months and years ahead I would come to greatly appreciate Officer Lik, but just then I saw him as the enemy.

At the time of my incarceration Shakopee held approximately 550 women, most double bunked. Roommates are randomly assigned, so I was surprised when I opened the door to my new room and found Sarah, an R&O from my class.

OID badges are clipped to our shirts with a clear plastic tag. I noticed Sarah’s tag was a bright, cheerful shade of red. “Hey!” I remarked excitedly, suddenly jealous. Her flare of color was an unusual bright spot in our gray and khaki world. “How did you get that?” I demanded. She smiled knowing, yet ruefully, understanding my need for girlish sparkle yet feeling sheepish about the truth of the red tag’s nature.

“I forgot to sign in,” she told me. “Sgt. Laabs gave me an LOP.” She explained her red tag signified her change in status. LOP means Loss Of Privileges – a great reduction of free time and other privileges. I determined then to never, ever, ever get in trouble for the slightest thing. I laugh about this now. I would soon spend months on end serving LOPs. Happily gabbing like old friends we fell to talking half the night.

Monday after lunch, I headed to work. I hated it! My job was folding and packaging Mylar balloons. One reason I disliked this job was it reminded me of my family. It kept my grief raw and constant. The balloons were for holidays and birthdays, or sported movie characters. I’d fold the balloons and cry over them. I was such a mess. Prison regulations said we could take a sick day but take too many and we’d be fired. I was overwhelmed and missed days. I hated what this said about me.

I was overwhelmed and missed days. I hated what this said about me.

Just one week after moving in with Sarah she was moved elsewhere. We said our goodbyes, and I received a new roommate. One day later, I said goodbye to her, and I was placed in a wing-lounge. A wing-lounge is a bigger room at the entrance to a wing. When Shakopee was first built it was meant to house far less inmates. As the population grew, adjustments had to be made. Rooms changed purposes. Wing-lounges are large bedrooms holding 4-6 people that used to be something else (a lounge). A few days later I was delighted when Ashley became our newest roommate.

I called my kids daily. Phone calls are on a 15 minute timer. With five children this amounted to an hour and fifteen minutes a day. I wanted to find creative ways to spend time with my children and avoid conflict with other women over so much phone use.

One solution was story reading before my children went to school in the morning. At the library I considered each of my children, their reading level and interests. Sliding a book off the shelf I read the back. It was a mystery novel for tweens set in the early 20th century and involved a father and son traveling magic act. I imagined my son Luke might enjoy this book and decided it was a keeper. Choosing 5 books I looked forward to calling my children in the morning!

At 6:30 a.m. we began. The hallway was dark and most of the women were sleeping. I tried to speak softly on the phone but I wondered if I was disturbing the other women. After 15 minutes with each child I would call back and read another book to my next child. One day the woman whose room was nearest the phones confessed she was sad to be moving. She awoke every morning to the sound of my voice and was engrossed in the plot of our books. She would miss it!

If I could adjust to my new normal and move forward, things had to improve. I was so wrong. I was about to have my new normal shattered.

When I entered prison I mistakenly believed my life couldn’t get any worse. This was rock bottom. If I could adjust to my new normal and move forward, things had to improve. I was so wrong. I was about to have my new normal shattered.

Shakopee offered many programs to its incarcerated women. I was interested in learning about them. These programs ranged from educational opportunities to early release. I was about to have an unwelcome surprise, however, from my prison caseworker. As a sex-offender not only did I not qualify for any of these programs, but I wouldn’t even be allowed to have contact visits with my own children at first.

I was completely unprepared for this news. For some reason, my caseworker was surprised that I was surprised. I cried and cried in her office, just shocked and unbelieving. I was beyond bewildered, totally unprepared and blindsided. My caseworker seemed stunned at my response. I was even angry and in denial, like this just couldn’t be true. That also surprised my caseworker. I couldn’t stop crying in her office, confused and feeling helpless.

I was completely unprepared for this news. For some reason, my caseworker was surprised that I was surprised.

My caseworker explained that there was an appeal process I could follow for changing my status in visiting my children. She also explained that there were steps I could take to help me successfully win those appeals and loosen my visiting restrictions. One of the steps would be to take parenting classes that the prison offered.

The parenting classes were only offered during the day, and my balloon folding job interfered with taking the classes. I would need to find a job with hours that didn’t conflict with the classes. I was eager to do this!

Not long afterward a clerking position was advertised in Shakopee’s “Memo of the Day.” The position would allow me to take the parenting classes, so I applied, was interviewed and subsequently hired. I immediately signed up for the parenting class.

Shakopee’s visiting room is kid friendly. Half of the room has carpeting you’d expect to see in a kindergarten or daycare. One will find seating areas with children in mind. Kid sized, colorful folding tables are spaced throughout the room next to adult sized chairs. Pulled up to these small tables are small animal shaped chairs, small folding chairs, and other fun children’s furniture. Puzzles, toys, and games line the walls. Mothers play with their children, read them books, and color with them. The walls are decorated with their works of art. On special Saturdays children can spend the day with their mothers in the gymnasium, eat lunch with them in a special room, and on holidays have parties with them. Even teenagers can spend the day playing basketball with their moms, hanging out, and reinforcing that special connection.

Along one interior wall were windows with tall legged chairs placed in front. Each window faced its own small room and had a mesh screen underneath. These windows and rooms were for non-contact visits. Visitors sat in the regular visiting room while the inmates they visited sat on the other side of the window in the little room. The mesh screen allowed for regular conversation to be heard.

I don’t know the reasoning behind the bar stool height of the chairs, but my children found it fun to sit so much higher than everyone else in the room. Vivi took the window to be a personal finger painting challenge. She couldn’t leave an inch of it unsmudged. As she talked she swirled her hands this way and that over the glass, her little eyebrows pursed in a light frown, surveying her “handy” work for clean spots she may have missed.

Sgt. Laabs adored quiet solitude; he hated agitation. Janna was a pebble in his shoe.

In June I was assigned to another room, another roommate. I was about to meet Janna. Sgt. Laabs, the officer in charge of Tubman, believed Janna to be a discipline problem and I was about to become guilty by association.

Janna was in her early thirties, with medium brown hair and a nervous laugh that rarely met her eyes. Her body was usually filled with anxious energy that couldn’t be burned off in quiet solitude. Pacing energetically, her steps eating up the tile, she’d tirelessly stomp away her thoughts and fears until she might be released from her room to perform this ritual on the larger stage of the dayroom or courtyard. Sgt. Laabs adored quiet solitude; he hated agitation. Janna was a pebble in his shoe.

I saw Janna as an energetic new friend, friendly and inclusive. During my free time I sat with her and her friends in the dayroom. Oblivious that Sgt. Laabs had a fervent love for cathedral quiet, I introduced him to my world famous, “I was on the show Hee-Haw!” laugh. Sgt. Laabs solved this problem by LOPing me, Janna, and all of her friends, to death. During the months of July and August, I was rarely without the red LOP tag.

It’s difficult to accept the reality of traumatic news when there’s no traditional closure.

Mid August I called my oldest son Noel. Instead of our usual chat he gave me terrible news. My only living grandparent, my grandmother, had passed away. This was quite unexpected. I had recently received a card from her in the mail and this news didn’t feel real at all. It’s difficult to accept the reality of tramatic news when there’s no traditional closure. I would forget that I couldn’t call or write to her and only remember just as I reached the phone.

By the beginning of September I’d received so many LOPs that I was headed for DLOPs, a progressive and more serious form of discipline. I was sent to see the head of discipline. Sitting in her office I attempted to describe my point of view and struggles. “How do you wish to explain all of these LOPs?” she demanded.

“I don’t deserve half of them,” I responded truthfully. “For example, at 7:25 Sgt. Laabs called me to the staff desk and gave me another citation for remaining out past my scheduled break time, which was to end at 7:30pm. When I directed his attention to the clock on the wall behind him, which indicated I was not late but in fact had another 5 minutes of break time left, he refused to turn around and look. He sent me to my room with the LOP.”

The discipline lady remained impassive. “Why not go to your room 10 minutes early? Why are you remaining in the day room until the last minute?”

I burst into tears. Words tumbling out, rushed and garbled, I accused, “You’re mean! This place is mean! I’ve been grounded for months for reasons I hardly understand, my grandma just died, and you aren’t helpful at all!!” Searching for a tissue I blew my nose loudly and sank into my chair miserably.

Have you or someone you know ever been treated unfairly? How did you respond? How did it feel?

Looking panicked, the discipline lady leaned back in her chair and braced her hands on her desk. She began searching her memory and her desk for something useful. “Would you like me to call the chaplain?” she offered.

“No,” I whispered, eyes leaking tears. A few minutes later I collected myself and slunk from the room, chastened and wrung out.

In October of 2011, my husband took our 4 younger children and moved out of Minnesota to Washington state.

I was placed on suicide watch.

Isaiah 60:1 “Arise from the depression and prostration in which circumstances have kept you—rise to a new life! (AMPC version)

Discussion Questions:

  1. The passage begins with the Holly reflecting on a realization about the need for change. Have you ever experienced a moment when you became aware of the need for personal change? What was it like for you, and how did you respond?
  2. Holly describes struggling with depression and the impact it had on various aspects of life, including work and personal relationships. Can you relate to any aspects of her experience with depression or mental health challenges? Do you need help with these challenges today?
  3. Holly discusses the concept of conditional love and the pressure to perform in a performance-based worldview. How do societal expectations and views of success contribute to the pressure individuals feel to meet certain standards?
  4. Ashley, a fellow inmate, becomes a significant part of Holly’s story. How does Holly’s decision to play a game with Ashley mark a turning point in their friendship? Have you ever experienced a moment where a small gesture or act of kindness transformed a relationship?
  5. Holly reflects on the significance of storytelling and reading books to her children during phone calls. How do you think such activities can help individuals cope with challenges and maintain connections with their loved ones during difficult times?
  6. Holly faces unexpected news about not qualifying for certain programs and restrictions on contact visits with her children. How would you cope with such unexpected and challenging circumstances?

READ MORE…

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  • WELCOME!
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  • BAIL, SENTENCING, & PRISON INTAKE
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  • ORIENTATION (CHANGE, SHOCK & AWE, SUICIDE WATCH)
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  • WoW
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  • General Assembly (Burning Rubber)
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  • RING TOSS & DOPPELGANGERS
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