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Archive for December, 2012

Is there a rule in the Blogosphere  that you can’t repost things? I have no idea so I’m taking a RISK. This is a post from 2010. I felt compelled to share it again because this is David’s and my fourth New Year’s to celebrate  in freedom and we live in gratitude.

We are incredibly grateful that Gina’s Team is growing and touching many lives. Our classes at Perryville are going very well. We have over 200 graduates and will be starting the next class at the end of January. It touches me deeply that many of the women inside will be following the tradition I started there in 2004. We’ve even been told that some have stopped smoking because of the class and some have been encouraged to get their GEDs. Quite a few are now free and living productive lives.What a blessing this is to all of us at Gina’s Team.  So as we look into the first day of 2013, I wanted to share this post again. Perhaps you too will decide to stay home and start your own traditions based on this one. I’d love to hear it. Happy New Year, Everyone….

Written in 2010: New Year’s Eve has a special meaning for me and I even managed to make it special in prison. This is an excerpt from my book, The Slumber Party from Hell about that time.

December 31, 2004For all our years together, David and I always celebrated New Year’s Eve at home. No loud parties, no big crowds, no kissing strangers at midnight. We had a tradition. I always decorated with colorful New Year’s paraphernalia, setting the table with our best and adding noisemakers and silly hats, crystal bowls full of streamers and confetti, and bright balloons tied to the backs of our chairs. We even followed tradition in what we wore. David wore his favorite black turtleneck sweater and I wore my favorite ancient black sequined skirt that thankfully had an elastic waistband. I loved that skirt; it aged with me. 

While I decorated the table, David carefully planned the music: Frank Sinatra, Glen Miller, João Gilberto, Linda Ronstadt, and hits of the 60’s. He then laid the logs in the fireplace while I prepped the salad, the vegetables, and the dessert. Then I took a nap because otherwise I would not have made it to midnight. 

About 8:30, we’d meet in the living room for cocktails and a dance. It was our night to focus completely on each other. We danced and talked through dinner. David always grilled steaks and we enjoyed our simple but delicious meal.

 At eleven, we’d get out pens and paper. We each wrote down the bad things that happened the previous year and then our goals and dreams for the coming year. This is a Brazilian tradition, but theirs is more dramatic. Brazilians place their lists in very small boats. Imagine a boat for Barbie. They decorate them with flowers and candy or tiny gifts. Then, dressed in white, they go down to the beaches like Copacabana and Ipanema and at midnight launch their boats into the ocean as offerings to the goddess of the sea. If your boat sails out successfully, the goddess accepts your offering and it will be a good year. If, however, your boat comes crashing in on a wave, the goddess isn’t pleased, and your future won’t be so great.

 Imagine, midnight in Rio, everyone dressed in flowing white, enjoying the warm summer breeze, carrying their boats, humble or lavish, filled with colorful flowers and candy. It just seemed joyful to me. David and I never made it to Rio for New Year’s, but I decided we’d take the best of it and make it another part of our tradition. We wrote our lists and made a tiny boat out of a milk carton, decorating it with bougainvillea from the garden and little votive candles. We lived right by the canal and at midnight, we’d walk over and launch our little boat, watching it bob merrily down the dark water. I assured David that eventually our fragile boats would make it to the sea.

 Now I am at Perryville, surrounded by concrete and gravel, miles from water, wondering how in the world to celebrate New Year’s Eve. I decide to invite my four young friends to meet at the picnic table at 6:30 and bring pen and paper. Stacy thoughtfully makes hot cocoa for us. It is very cold, but they are curious.

 “Close your eyes and imagine we’re in Rio de Janeiro.” I tell them. “It’s summer. It’s New Year’s Eve. We’re all dressed in white, happy to be together.”

 As I describe the events of a Brazilian New Year’s, I can see by their smiles that I have captured their imaginations. I encourage them to think about 2004 and write down the bad stuff that we want to get rid of. Everyone agrees it is a short list, prison and separation from loved ones. Next we write our goals and dreams for 2005. Each of these four ladies will be released within the next six months so this is actually an important exercise. Writing goals will help them visualize and focus. I tell them to think carefully about how they see their lives. What is important to them now? All is quiet as they labor over their papers in the very dim light of the yard.

 As I watch them, I am pleased and a little relieved. I was afraid they might think this was corny, but, on the contrary, they embrace it seriously. It is a good time to set their goals. I’m pleased that they want to share. We go around the table, listening and encouraging each other. And when we are done, we join hands as I pray over our little group of friends and our precious dreams; that God will look favorably on them when they leave prison and will bless them on their journey.

 It is late and we are frozen, but no one wants to leave. It is a significant moment in our time here, to always treasure.

 “But what about our papers and the ocean, Sue Ellen? What are we going to do?”

 In prison we have to be creative. When we go inside for count, I figure we will just have to tear up our papers and sprinkle the little bits into the toilet. It is water and surely one flush will eventually make it to the sea. Laughingly, we agree this is a great idea. Yes, it is prison, it is ugly, it is cold and awful, but imagination is a wonderful thing….inside and out. 

In 2009, after seven years apart,  David and I were free to share our tradition again. We’ll do so again tonight and are grateful for life, health, friends, and freedom.

Some of you who have read my book tell me that you are now copying the tradition. Everyone has a story. If you have a New Year’s Eve story to share, I would love to hear it.

Meanwhile, my prayer for all of you is a joyful, peaceful, loving, and fulfilling 2011.

Happy New Year.

The Slumber Party from Hell is available from www.amazon.com andwww.inkwellproductions.com

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Today friends took us to see Silver Lining Playbook, what we all expected to be a romantic comedy and cheery holiday afternoon. It is not. It is a painful look in the window of a family suffering from the raw consequences of bi-polar disorder and all that entails. The romance comes from the happy ending. We are supposed to walk away satisfied and feeling good, like everything is OK.

I didn’t know what bi-polar disorder was until I went to prison. Suddenly I was surrounded by so many women suffering, and I do mean suffering, from this disease. The mood swings were dramatic and the meds were not exactly balanced. When the women were on a high, they felt that they were fine and didn’t need meds. When they were on a low (and the low is really low), they were too angry to even consider meds. I have never seen so much pain. It was like their skin hurt. I felt if you touched them, they might scream in agony, like a horrific burn. The medical department is over-run with this and terribly understaffed. No one is getting appropriate and timely treatment, thus the meds are not properly regulated or adjusted. It’s a desperate and sad situation.

The film brought it all back to me. There is a scene where the lead characters (who are brilliant, by the way), are discussing all the meds they’ve been on. I know that conversation; I heard it a lot in both jail and prison. So many meds; so much pain. They listed them all and then came to Klonopin. They rolled their eyes and agreed that could make you comatose.

In the darkness of the theater, my stomach suddenly turned over and I gasped inwardly. Klonopin. It all came back to me. When I was in jail facing a mastectomy, alone and terrified, I could not sleep and I was exhausted, emotionally and physically. Loud noises made me jump out of my skin and what is jail without clanging and banging? I shook all the time. Bringing a cup to my lips sometimes took both hands. The doctor prescribed Klonopin for me. I had no idea what it was. Nor did I know that it was highly addictive. I just took it and then mercifully slept. When I was awake, there seemed to be a sort of fuzzy haze over the black and white stripes of my environment. I was still afraid and still shook but I didn’t seem to care as much.

Finally, I had my surgery and mourned my new, lopsided self. I went back to court a few times, and eventually was sent to prison, all the while dealing with the emotional distress through the fog of Klonopin.   In prison, when the nurse practitioner saw me, she was disinterested in my recent surgery and the Klonopin. They don’t prescribe that in prison. I had no idea why until later when my sisters in orange sighed and told me how addictive it is. At the time,  I had no idea what was happening to me. Suddenly, I couldn’t sleep. I thought it was the cold, tiny cell and one inch plastic mattress on its steel foundation.  I wrapped my t-shirt around my head and kept on all my clothes under the cotton jacket. Still, I shivered. I didn’t want to lie down or stand up. I tossed and turned. My skin hurt. I was short of breath and my heart felt like it was beating out of my chest. I had no idea what was wrong with me and medical wouldn’t see me. The agony lasted about three weeks, then slowly, very slowly I began to recover. It can take months for it to completely leave your system and after chemo and surgery, my system was very fragile.

It was much later when I learned this was drug withdrawal. It was awful. I also learned it is extremely dangerous to stop Klonopin cold turkey. It is a drug that should be tapered off, accompanied by medical supervision. Along with the painful withdrawal, it can cause seizures. At the time, I thought it was the cancer and I was probably dying. The surgeons said my margins weren’t clean and things didn’t look too good. I was sick, I was afraid, and death actually sounded like a great relief.

Everything I experienced was brought back to me in this film. But my story was truly minor compared to the other stories about the mental illness that many of these women battled every day and continue to deal with. This is one of the enormous issues connected with America as an Incarceration Nation. People who need mental health treatment are instead sent to prison. Health care budgets continue to be cut and so we bundle people off behind the wires and walls. Out of sight, out of mind.

In Silver Lining Playbook, Pat is lucky. He serves eight months in a mental health facility instead of years in prison. And he somehow manages to take his meds, find love, win a bet for his dad, and live happily ever after. If only it were so simple. It’s not. As we walked out into the sunlight, I wondered how someone diagnosed with bi-polar disorder would feel watching this film. I can’t imagine. This is a provocative  story, brilliantly acted and getting lots of buzz. It brought up painful memories and emotions in me that I felt compelled to share.

In sharing it, I hope you will consider how America is dealing with our community of people who struggle with mental health issues of all types. We must be more compassionate and less judgmental. It is not easy. I have a very courageous friend named Mary Lou Brncik who works tirelessly in this arena. Her organization is David’s Hope. I urge you to visit her site and LIKE her page,  http://www.davidshopeaz.org  Periodically she holds important Town Hall meetings to bring awareness to these issues. You owe it to yourself and your community to get on her mailing list and attend. We are all in this together.

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