May T.



Contemplations In Prison- Changing the Way We Approach Addiction

How many times have we said to ourselves “If only I knew what I know now.”? I have said that to myself countless times, especially sitting in prison. Every morning I sit and ponder under a tree and replay my past. I contemplate my naive solutions to the issues I had and then reimagine how I would deal with them now. What if instead of ditching school because my grades were slipping, I would have opened up to my teachers and asked for help? What if instead of getting drunk and high to avoid outting myself to my parents, I would have expressed myself and found that their love is unconditional? My first times of experiencing guilt and shame immobilized me from making positive decisions for myself. It wasn’t until I came to prison when I learned my mindset was digging me into a deep, dark hole. The person I was before, surrendered to the idea that I was alone in a dark world. First, let me introduce you to my adolescent self.

My name is Matinie Arunrung Tiwamangkala but my name makes me feel like an outsider so I just go by May. I am a social butterfly, but I feel so alone with these emotions that make me want to die. My grades are slipping and everything my parents worked so hard for is going to waste. We went from living in the rough side of Chicago to one of the best suburbs in the state. My high school is the eighth best public school in the state that produces students of prestigious universities all over the world.

I’ve interested the school counselor and every month he takes me out of class to check on me. It is the most embarrassing moment when I get handed a pink slip and do my walk of shame out of class. My friends laugh at me and call it the “crazy slip”. I don’t dare to speak to the counselor because every time I think about how I feel, I cry and don’t need people feeling sorry for me. I can’t talk to my parents because as a first generation American, we have a language and cultural barrier. From my understanding, my only focus should be education, but I’m having issues with relationships, getting cut from the basketball team, and dealing with losing my friends to overdoses. The only way I can express myself is through music. The other day I wrote this:

Am I wrong? That I don’t see what’s ahead?
I’ve spent too many years lyin’ awake in my bed.
Regrettin’ my ways cuz I never did what momma said
There’s no good in the days and that’s messin’ with my head.
The world is going down and I don’t want to see it.
I’m thinkin’ of my past; happy as I seen it.
Never went to Sunday mass but I kept my faith.
Wish I could go back and get rid of all the hate.
I left the only love I had and it haunts my dreams.
Wish I wasn’t always sad, I’ve been caught in the scene.
I’m livin’ with my guard up cuz I forgot what it means
To love someone because the bad is all I see.
I want to get over the worst and the things that are gone.
I want to get far but it hurts to stand strong.
Can I find the answers to help me move along
Or am I alone in this world? A place I don’t belong.

I’d rather drink and smoke to numb the feelings. All the education about how drugs and alcohol will harm me is out the door because at this point, I can’t vision a future.

If only I knew what I know now… My downward spiral of destructive behavior led me to a future I have never imagined. As you can see, I’ve landed myself in the prison system. You might think because of how I was before that I wouldn’t be able to cope with this, but because of what I learned here, life obstacles no longer keep me down. As part of my sentence, I am required to take group counseling classes. In class, I realized I wasn’t alone. Every one of us went through a story of hurt, pain, disappointment, guilt, and shame, but no one dared to share it or felt like they could. The classes taught us healthy coping skills, stress management, goal setting, self esteem, acceptance, perception, and mindfulness. I have never heard of the word “resilience” until coming here and now I know that bouncing back from negativity is worth living for. I also learned to not focus on striving for specific life events, but to focus inwards and strive for personal growth and build good character. Even though I can’t control this event of being incarcerated, I can control my actions to become a better person and achieve my goals.

Right now, I am in a work program called Fire Crew. We are wildland firefighters and we are one out of five all women crews in the nation. We do all the hard labor that men have been doing since the history of firefighting. Integrity is the foundation we run our crew on. We follow all the rules of the prison and are held accountable for all of our actions. For instance, if we happen to forget to tuck in our shirts, we get called out on the yard and have to do burpees. Fire Crew gives us a sense of belonging. We are proud to protect and serve our community. I never thought that I’d be able to get over my fears of being pushed to my limits, but learning to cope with stress and anxiety made it possible for me to become a firefighter. There were times when a crew member would doubt herself and feel like she wasn’t good enough, but we would encourage her by letting them know that we all go through those doubts and we are all pushing through it together. Our transparency helped us not get discouraged with tough obstacles.

I believe that a problem with a lot of our youth is that we feel alone with the doubts and questions about life. I didn’t know how to handle stress, anxiety, and depression that unfortunately led me to a destructive lifestyle. I’m not going to lie, but it made me angry having so many “ah ha” moments during drug counseling classes because I was thinking “Why did I have to come to prison to get smarter about not coming to prison?”. Wouldn’t this have benefitted me when I was younger, before I first started turning to drugs to numb out my stress? With the number of addicts growing in our country, we need to start coming up with new solutions. If we think of addiction as a disease, and rehabilitation as its cure, then what is out there for it’s prevention? We use sunblock to prevent skin cancer, but what do we do to prevent addiction?

In prison, I met a young girl that was the lead singer and guitarist at her church. She suffered from self esteem issues and ended up getting into heroin. She, too, went to recovery classes and learned how to take care of her mental health. Now, she runs Heroin Anonymous meetings and works on Fire Crew even though she is the smallest girl on the yard being four foot and eleven inches. Just last week, she hiked a chainsaw up and down mountains while cutting down trees. When she told her mom about the work she did, her mom cried with so much pride for her daughter. She also wishes she knew what she knows now because like most of us, if we could avoid the pain in our hearts for causing our families’ sorrows and misfortunes, we would take it back. One of the incarcerated women who is a boss on Fire Crew is taking college courses to become a counselor for when she gets out. Our mission is to improve these generations and that starts with educating them on our life lessons.

We know what we know now and now we can do something about it. I encourage you to start becoming proactive instead of reactive towards the addiction epidemic so we can be the problem solvers of the future.

My feelings are splattered, they go in all directions.
My life was shattered, it needed some correction.
Could I get through the days without interruptions?
I felt like I was dealing with all the world’s corruption.

Now I know life takes management to start some real change.
We can learn from our history and start changing the game
of putting people through misery, in hopes that children remain
In a healthy state of sanity and not feel so low and insane.

We can inspire the youth to care about goal setting and makin’ plans
And teach ‘em that drugs will derail ‘em from becoming a better man.
We can focus on their passions and show em that they can
Make beauty of the planet, united, and take a stand.