As part my workshop with female inmates I ask the women to think of one question they would ask everyone they meet. I often set-up the exercise by saying that they could pretend that they might not ever see the person again—having time with them at a bus stop, stuck on a train, whatever, so that it is most likely that they would get honest answers out of a stranger who would simply walk back into their own anonymous life.
I have gotten many fascinating answers during the years I’ve been doing this. Some recent standouts have been, “How do you cope?” “Are you happy?” “What one decision would you change if you had the chance?”
As often happens, they ask these questions of me, curious about this white, middle-aged woman standing in front of them for 45-minutes a week. Usually by that point they’re quite comfortable with me sensing that I don’t sit in judgment of them and that I’m genuinely interested in everything they choose to share. This week I was asked, “Do you believe in God?” I hesitated before answering, and said that that was a really tricky question for me. One woman said, “It’s a yes or no question. Either you do or you don’t.” Others came to my defense understanding that it might not be so black and white.
“Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior?” a woman wearing a plastic prison- issued rosary beads and cross necklace asked me, as if this would definitively answer the question.
“Oh my God, hell no,” I think I may have answered, my filter apparently taking a nap. This got a few chuckles from the ladies. “I’m Jewish,” I added, which led to some sounds of understanding from the women. It’s sort of a stock answer I give, because quite frankly, no, I don’t believe in God and the deflection seems to make sense to others. “It’s not that simple for me.” I have found that a lot of women of all ages, races and ethnicities have a tremendous belief that God, whoever that is to them, will get them through their sentences and whatever comes next. It’s hard to know if they entered prison with their beliefs or if they were formed behind bars.
I am often asked if I am or ever was an addict. I would say that 75% of the women I see are. I usually point to the coffee I have with me as the only thing I can say I’m “addicted” to. (They are often not too happy that I’m up there enjoying my drive-through iced latte while they haven’t had time to have their instant yet.) I always share, when the subject comes up, that my best friend is a crystal meth addict and that to the best of my ability I understand the struggle he and other addicts face. I emphasize that I couldn’t possibly ever know what it’s like, that I live the flipside of the issue. I have read the piece below about my best friend’s struggle which always leads to some very poignant conversation:
After reading it last week, a woman raised her hand and asked me this:
“Have you ever been curious to try heroin or meth just to see what it’s like?”
I paused and thought about how to answer. I’ve seen enough documentaries and heard first-hand accounts about how heroin, for example, is like taking your best orgasm and multiplying it by 1,000 or that pain, physical and emotional, instantly disappears. I’ve heard that meth makes you feel like Superman for days on end. I’ve heard that your first hit is never your last.
“I’d be curious about how something may feel that good, but no, I’ve never been tempted to try them. Plus, I need my sleep. I couldn’t stand being up for 4 days in a row.” They laughed at this.
My answer was an honest one. They have asked me things that I will not answer but somehow this didn’t seem to cross that line. In many ways, it levels the playing field between us. They never seem to stand in judgment of me and wonder how I could possibly understand them, and vice versa. I always say to people that at the core of it all they are women, just like I am, who have made different choices and undoubtedly been dealt the cruelest hands imaginable. We all turn to things to help us cope, whether it’s drugs, religion, food, shopping, whatever. I have insurmountable credit card debt and they have track marks up and down their bodies. They are different “blemishes,” different “blights,” but they are the results and reminders of the choices we’ve made.