This is what three years in jail looks like.
January always marks another year. Another year that my dad has been in jail. Another year that I haven’t seen him.
I wanted to write about this for many reasons. First and foremost, I posted something similar a year ago, and a lot has changed since then.
Secondly, I just think sharing this kind of information is really important. I have an internal debate about this a lot though. On the one hand, I often worry that this type of experience (for lack of a better word??) isn’t relatable enough to the people most likely to read my blog. I worry that no one will care because no one (that I directly know) has been through something similar. But on the flip side, I also feel that this type of content is worth sharing even more than some of the other things I write about because it’s uncommon. I fear that, to an extent, I’m doing a disservice to myself (and others) for not making this all more commonly known.
Most often, I cling to that fear of not being relatable to avoid a bigger issue. In reality, this shit is just hard to put words to. I’ll preface the rest of this post with that. Even though it has been three years, I still have so many contradictory, confusing, and often inexpressible emotions tied to all this. I’m going to attempt to not let that deter me from sharing though.
When you look at the statistics, about 5 million children in America have parents that are (or were previously) behind bars. That’s about 1 in every 14 kids, or 7%.
Less than 1% of white children have incarcerated parents though.
My dad has been in jail for almost three years.
**To give a brief background for those of you who are unaware. My dad was arrested in January of 2015. I was living in Arlington, VA at the time. I haven’t seen him in person since Christmas of 2014. I just recently started talking to him on the phone this year. Over the past three years, he has been transferred between multiple facilities in multiple different states (PA, NY, CT). The details of his arrest are vague to me, partly because I don’t want to be involved, and partly because the justice system is extremely confusing and the process takes an extremely long time. From what I know, my dad was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison. I also know that, as of now, he is attempting to appeal this for a shorter sentence. **
Each time I try to put words to paper about this, a few things always come to mind:
- I often compartmentalize this part of my life which makes vocalizing my experience complicated
- I have a hard time wrapping my brain around the flaws within the current justice system and accepting the fact that I can’t comprehend how to fix it
- My relationship with my dad was very complicated prior to his arrest, which complicates the situation further
- There are people out there like me, even though according to the numbers I am part of the <1%
- My feelings and experiences are not entirely negative
- Incarceration is a loss too, but it’s not final and as a family member you can choose what that means to you over time
Along with that, when I think about my dad, I usually feel overwhelmed with a complex layer of simultaneous emotions. I always, without fail, feel anger, stress, guilt, loss, relief, shame, love, admiration, nostalgia, bitterness, and confusion altogether, every time.
I think that is what often makes me want to refrain from sharing this experience with others, in this way at least. Because my relationship with my dad is so complex, this isn’t just about having an incarcerated parent, it’s about having a parent with mental health struggles too, and how those experiences overlap.
So the way I have coped and the things I have learned are, in a sense, two-fold. Even though most people may not be able to relate to the situation directly, hopefully, what I have to share can possibly be beneficial to others in some way or another.
Part One: Incarceration
To start, I’ve learned to understand that incarceration is a loss, and with that comes grieving. There shouldn’t be shame in that. But there will be. Because the person you’ve lost is still physically there.
It’s not a death, but that’s the closest thing most people will compare it to. That’s the only way most people, who have never dealt with incarceration before, can possibly wrap their brains around the experience and the feelings tied to it.
Unlike a death, people will forget the anniversary. YOU will forget the exact anniversary sometimes. To complicate things, neither you nor your friends will usually know how to talk about it.
You also won’t spend time memorializing the person, not only because they’re not truly gone, but because your loss will always have lingering bitterness and confusion.
Also unlike a death though, you and the person you’ve “lost” will potentially have room to progress together. Your dynamic may change and your relationship may grow. It takes time though, just because you’re not ready at first, doesn’t mean you never will be.
First, you need to process the events surrounding their arrest. Regardless of the situation, I believe one thing will hold true, you will come to learn that no single person is all good or all bad. You will come to see that sometimes you can still love someone, even when they’ve done wrong.
As is true for most things though, the progress you make (both individually and within your relationship together) will never be linear. You will continuously feel like you’re taking 3 steps forward just to take 2 back. That part will never stop, but over time you will accept it as routine.
You will always, always, always be filled with mixed emotions. There is nothing wrong with that. There is no handbook to teach you how to appropriately cope. Even though there are literally 5 million other people out there that can potentially relate to you, you will still feel alone.
Sometimes you will feel helpless that someone you know is suffering, alone, behind bars. You will feel shame and stigma associated with the concept of incarceration as a whole. You will feel guilty that you couldn’t help “fix” them when you still had the chance. You will miss them, even when you think you don’t.
Part Two: Mental Health
In my case, to some extent, I feel a lot of relief regarding my dad’s arrest too. If it wasn’t for his arrest, I don’t think I would ever feel so free from the responsibilities of constantly worrying about his well-being.
With that comes guilt too though. Guilt that I’m finally, in some ways, using this space as a chance to be selfish. Every letter and every phone call is another reminder that I have separated myself from someone who needs me.
My dad, from what I know, struggles with Borderline Personality Disorder, Depression, and Anxiety. As I think I’ve shared before, in a lot of respects, when my parents split up when I was 18, I became the person my dad turned to.
Until my dad was arrested, I spent almost every day helping to manage his problems that I couldn’t fix and emotions that I couldn’t bear. I did so partly out of love, partly out of fear, partly out of a false hope that I could really “fix” him someday, and partly out of a desire to avoid my own problems.
One of the best things to come out of my dad’s incarceration has been the realization that, at the end of the day, I can’t be responsible for anyone but myself.
In general, sometimes I also feel embarrassed. Sometimes I feel so unbearably alone. Sometimes I feel like all anyone can think about when they look at me is my father. And sometimes I think everyone forgets completely.
I’ve learned a lot this past year though. In many respects, my dad’s arrest has shined a light on all of his mistakes for me. It has given me an opportunity to see what he struggles with, avoid running into similar situations, and live my life completely differently as a result.
From this, I’ve learned that there is no shame in being yourself. In fact, the things you tend to be most ashamed of are the things that you should wear with the most pride. I’ve learned that people will accept you if you accept yourself, and if you wear your experiences confidently, people will often have respect for you rather than judgment.
I’ve also learned to let go of fear. It’s so easy to be afraid of what you have yet to try. I spent over two years telling myself I didn’t want to “live my life in fear like my father”, yet never truly followed through until recently.
I’ve learned that it doesn’t actually hurt that much to be disliked for being yourself. It hurts so much more to constantly try morphing yourself into the person you think people want you to be.
I couldn’t be more comfortable with who I am and what I like than I have been this past year. I am so proud to say that the things that kept my dad living in shame, like his mental health and sexuality, are some of the things that I am most proud to be open and honest about in my own life.
As selfish as it sounds, I can confidently say I would have never gotten to this place if my dad hadn’t been arrested.
Like I mentioned though, it isn’t always easy. It’s usually like sailing into uncharted territory with no sense of direction and no compass to show you the way. Most of the time I’m just guessing and hoping I make some sort of progress as a result.
I don’t have all the answers, in fact, I literally have none, but I hope, to some extent, my lack of knowledge is helpful too.
I think what’s most important to remember is that even the most confusing and seemingly negative experiences can have positive outcomes. And just because you don’t have it all figured out, doesn’t mean you aren’t dealing with your experiences correctly.
Take things one step at a time. Don’t forget to look back at where you started, and remind yourself of how far you’ve come. Be proud of who you are, and the factors that have helped to make you that way. And remember that everyone else is going through their own unique experiences too. Have patience, approach others with acceptance, and be understanding. We’re all just figuring it out as we go along. AMIRITE?
Happy 2018!!!!!!!! BE U AND LUV URSELF
(If you have any interest in reading the similar post I wrote last year, click here)