I know that some of you reading this are upset at your incarcerated loved one, struggling with feelings of anger because your loved one doesn’t seem to understand the pain and suffering he or she has inflicted. Worse, your loved one only seems to care about himself. These feelings are common, and I’m here to tell you that it’s okay to be mad.
I’ve received emails from readers telling me about their struggles. I’ve had long threads with readers as they vented and as I listened. There are mothers and wives who are at wits end, who don’t know what else to do, left at home to hold
everything together. No one wants to turn their backs on the ones they love, but their struggles threaten to engulf them, family–everyone. None of this is fair to you. It has been tough to hear these stories because it drives home what my family once endured when I came to prison.
I have the unenviable perspective of being that very loved one who caused family so much hardship, and as that loved one who eventually got his life in order. Now I write to help others to understand and to cope. Why? Because I understand. I know, because I have lived it. I’m writing today to help those of you who’re struggling with these emotions, and to help you end what may feel like a never-ending cycle of pain.
I think the best way to approach this is to discuss the most commonly felt emotions and struggles families and loved ones grapple with. I’ll share what I’ve learned, and I’ll shed light on this new world of corrections that your loved one has inflicted upon you and family. So much frustration originates from having to deal with the endless rules, processes and hoops families must constantly jump through in order to help their incarcerated loved one. Then there’s frustration born from feelings of helplessness created by the circumstance your loved one left you in.
Some stress is rooted in the fact that while your loved one is away you are left to hold everything together. Readers have told me that they find themselves having to get jobs (for their loved one was the primary bread winner) or having to get a second job just to make ends meet. Add to this having to care for the children while also providing for their incarcerated loved one, and it can quickly push relationships and families to the breaking point.
Let’s talk about the corrections part first. Providing for an incarcerated loved one entails learning and navigating the myriad rules and regulations of incarceration. The way corrections is structured in this country you and your loved one are viewed as commodities. A source of income for corrections departments through forced usage of state ‘approved’ vendors and institutional commissaries. I discuss this in detail in the posts titled “JPay & GTL” and “Captured Clientele“.
Everything from sending money, food or sundry packages, to the very phone calls your loved one makes to you are intentionally overpriced in order to bring in money to state corrections departments. When families are at their most vulnerable, they are taken advantage of by these companies and organizations. The practice is so pervasive that class action lawsuits have had to reign in predatory practices from companies like GTL for phone services offered in jails and prisons.
Add to this visiting your loved one. In some states you can bring the children, others you are left to make arrangement for someone to watch the pets and kids while you’re visiting. Visiting often entails having to travel long distances or having to take time off from work putting additional stress on an already stressful financial situation. My family was so angry at me that my first visit didn’t happen until a year after I was incarcerated. Having considered all I’ve said so far, it’s no wonder that families and friends feel stress over their incarcerated loved one.
Now let’s talk about your incarcerated loved one and what he or she is experiencing because herein is part of the problem. There are things we prisoners experience that family and loved ones aren’t aware of and that prisoners rarely discuss with family. They’re specific to the incarceration experience, and they may be able to account for the attitude and behavior you’re witnessing in your loved one.
There’s a lot of stress in this environment. It’s constant and never-ending. Your loved one is in a world that’s neither constructive, productive nor helpful to mental health. Prisoners rarely tell family about what goes on here, partly because it’s stressful material and partly because they don’t want to worry you. The end result? You end up with a loved one that’s short tempered and demanding on phone calls and visits and who may seem insensitive to your needs and concerns. You are literally the only person with whom your loved one can vent to, complain to, or otherwise blow off steam. Is this fair? No. But it’s the truth. The prison environment is so impersonal and devoid of caring or warmth that prisoners are left with no ready outlet to cope with their experience. Part of the incarceration experience involves you and your loved one adjusting to a new reality. I’m not saying this is fair to you–in fact, it’s not–, but it’s the reality of the situation.
Add to this that most new prisoners haven’t yet developed the coping skills necessary to reign in their emotional state, and the outcome is conflict and stress between you and your loved one. While family and friends are left to figure things out as they go, so too are us prisoners. It’s a difficult, stressful experience.
What to do then? How can you drive home to your loved one your needs, your worries and concerns? How can you break the vicious mental and emotional impasse? I had a conversation with a reader in Clearwater, Florida who was at wits end with her son. He’d call home always talking about the things HE wanted, that HE needed. She said, that he never asked about how she was doing or what she needed. Worse, he never said thank you for the things she did for him. Now, within months of his release she was experiencing fear, worry and second thoughts about opening her home to him.
The solution to this is to reach out to your loved one. Express to him how you feel. Tell your loved one ‘exactly’ how you are feeling and ‘why’. Tell your loved one that you understand that he’s going through a tough time, but that you are too. Be prepared for your loved one to disagree with you or to fail to meet you eye to eye. Many prisoners have an inability to put themselves into other people’s shoes. It’s a fact well established in academia, and part of the prison experience entails prisoners attending self-help programming that addresses this very issue. Express what you need from your loved one, what he or she can do to help you. Be calm and firm. Be willing to tell your loved one that until he’s willing to help you in the ways you need, that you cannot and will not help him further.
You won’t order food or sundry packages.
You won’t send money.
Maybe not even visit.
I know. I understand that this isn’t what is wanted, but it’s necessary. No one wants to say no to their loved one and I get it, but I speak from experience. While it seems harsh, the end result will be your loved one, at some point, thinking about what you’ve said. He will come to a point where he realizes that he needs to make changes and to take into consideration the consequences of his actions. You aren’t turning your back on your loved one. Far from it. You are helping him to reflect upon his situation, to get him to realize that his situation isn’t anyone’s fault but his own. Tough love? Unfair? No, it’s simply what it is.
You can still take phone calls, but be willing to end them the moment your loved one becomes combative. Put control back into your hands. As some time passes you can still visit, but once you’ve laid out what you need your loved one to do you must remain steadfast. My parents were so angry at me that they didn’t talk to me for a year and refused to visit. It was the hardest year of my life, but in the end it helped me to eventually understand the true depth of my actions. It helped me to help myself.
Another solution to your anger and frustration is to join forums consisting of those who have loved ones that are incarcerated. Within these forums you’ll find community and support. You’ll also discover that you aren’t alone. Many, many people are also in your shoes or once were and are now able to dispense good advice to you in a real time basis. There is strength and understanding in social groups that have shared common experience. You can find these forums on numerous social media platforms. In many ways you are a victim of your loved one’s actions and part of coping and moving forward may entail communing with others.
I know it’s difficult to see past the anger sometimes. I know that it’s easy to blame one’s self or to get stuck in the vicious mental spiral that accompanies the stress of having an incarcerated loved one. It’s okay to be angry so long as you don’t allow it to consume you.
Before I end, there’s one more thing that I’ve discovered can and is helpful in moving past the anger and frustration. Forgive your loved one. You don’t have to tell him or her this, just forgive your loved one in your mind. Let go of those vicious and destructive feelings. Getting to forgiveness is one of the hardest things in life, but once you are there you’ll discover that the anger and pain goes away. It’s not possible to forgive someone and still be mad at them. If this seems an impossible effort at this moment, it’s okay. You’ll arrive at forgiveness when you are ready.
It’s okay to be angry at your loved one. But be sure to reach out to him and express how you’re feeling, because this is the first step in the journey of healing.
Christopher (MACI) (OH)
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