Learning to cope with a parent in prison

Guest post by Coral
Estrangement of the Heart

I remember seeing the post about how to approach a friend with an incarcerated family member — in that case, it was her friend’s partner. Seeing the comments there was uplifting for me, especially since my mom is currently incarcerated. I wanted to address this subject a little more…

I feel like it’s something that’s so taboo to talk about, even though (according to the US Bureau of Justice) over 2.2 million people were incarcerated in 2013. That’s a big, big number for something that isn’t regularly being talked about.

My mom went to prison for drugs, the first time, when I was seven years old. That time it was only for four months. But she went back again when I was 12, and then again when I was 16, for a couple two-year stints. The last two were harder for me because I was a teenager who was already going through enough changes. Going through them without my mom for guidance was a challenge.

Luckily, I was blessed with wonderful grandparents and a father who helped me find my way through high school. And I was always very open with my friends about the situation. The false bravado that came with telling my friends it was “no big deal to have a parent in prison — this is the norm for me,” helped me cope and feel stronger.

By the time she was released, when I was 18, I had convinced myself that I had forgiven her, and was ready to move on with our relationship. It took me another four years to realize that I really wasn’t ready for that. And, rather than facing up to my emotions and problems with her, I chose to bury them for that false sense of strength.

When my mom was arrested again, five weeks before my wedding, everything came crashing down on me.

The weight of 17 years of anger and resentment at not having my mom in my life hit me hard. I officially was not ready to forgive her, and the last thing I wanted to do was talk about the whole thing with friends and family members who would inevitably ask why my mom wasn’t at my wedding. I did what most millennials would do — I wrote a Facebook post about it, politely asking people to not bring my mom’s conspicuous absence up on what was supposed to be the happiest day of my life.

That was 10 months ago. My wedding was beautiful, even without her there, but I’m still sad she wasn’t able to be a part of that day. I dealt with a bout of depression afterwards — trying to figure out how to actually work through my emotions in a healthy way, rather than repressing them, or lashing out at my mom.

Despite how angry I am with her sometimes, she’s still a person that deserves empathy and love. She’s an addict. Being able to reconcile how selfish I feel she is with her disease is a challenge for me sometimes. My mom is currently in treatment, in prison. We’re learning how to be honest with each other, while trying to fix our relationship with 1,500 miles and some barbed wire in between us.

It’s hard for my husband and my friends to understand why I’m still trying with someone who it feels like hasn’t tried for me in a long time. But I’m hoping that showing her empathy, honesty, and love will help give her the strength she needs to overcome her disease once and for all.

More than anything, though, what I want people to take from this is that it’s okay to talk about these things or not to talk about these things. What I generally need, more than anything, is someone to just listen and understand. No judgement. No advice. Just an ear. But everyone is different.

If you have a friend with a close friend or family member who is incarcerated, the best thing you can do for them is to be there, however they need you.

Comments on Learning to cope with a parent in prison

  1. I have exactly zero experience with this, but I agree – it isn’t talked about. Knowing people in prison and the relationships you have with them is a GIANT elephant in every room.
    Thanks for shedding some light. You are very strong to strive to maintain a relationship with your mother after such turmoil. I wish you the best!

    • Thank you. I hope that people get more comfortable with this topic in the future. It’s tough, but it’s important.

  2. I understand the frustration with a family member whose addiction seems selfish, unnecessary, etc., and also understand various types of addiction firsthand, having had and conquered my share, only to go on to others and conquer them too. I understand the “why can’t they just….” perspective as well as the compulsive sense of “I can’t just…” I think you have every reason to hope for your mom to come through one day, to the other side of things – to see the light and live in it. I’m sorry it’s all so hard.

    I’ve lashed out at an addict in my family when she was at her lowest and acting a fool, and also been her best friend in similar moments. I don’t believe the “addiction is disease” philosophy (despite it’s deathgrip on so many), but I certainly believe it’s perpetuated by other mental illness, especially compulsive behaviors, anxiety and depression. A LOT of people aren’t willing to put in the years of hard work to try and unravel the underlying issues, aren’t willing to break away from the poisonous life that is all they know – their uncomfortable comfort zone. And years of drug abuse destroys your ability to think rationally and optimistically, even once you’re sober. Sometimes serotonin re-uptake inhibitors are a good alternative, if it helps people see that happiness is within reach without other drugs. When you’ve spent your life depleting your brain’s ability to experience joy and calm naturally, sometimes pharmaceuticals (but not opiates!) are helpful. But introspection *must* be on the menu, as well as emotional support – so again, I think you have every reason to care, and to hope. <3

    But if it becomes too much for you, remember you can't be there for someone else if you're not looking out for yourself first and foremost (nor if they aren't there for themselves, pushing for improvement). It's hard when a mom is not there for her child, and the child (grown or not) has to take on the role of being the responsible one. It effects all future relationships to play that role during formative years, but you sound strong and resilient, and best of all, willing to look within and do the work to understand yourself.

    I also had someone I love go to prison. I am still dealing with that inside, and it's a strange thing to know they're trapped in there, even though you could have predicted it by their behavior. I just want to help them and see them free and getting their shit together, but it's out of my hands. Sending all the good wishes their way and yours, and your mother's.

    • Thank you for sharing <3 It's very hard to be optimistic sometimes, and it's even harder to be honest with myself, but I'm trying. I'm a firm believer that addiction is a disease, but I respect where you're coming from. I hope that everything goes okay with the person you love. Make sure to take care of yourself first, but if you have it in you to forgive or if it's even remotely possible to forgive, I recommend trying. More than anything though, make sure you allow yourself to feel your feelings first. Good luck!

  3. None of the abusers in my family went to prison, but I can relate to loving abusers. You are absolutely on target about the honesty thing. Lying feeds addiction and all of the dysfunction around it. The whole point of substance abuse is to avoid facing terrible truths. To get it over with is a great relief for everybody involved.

    • “The whole point of substance abuse is to avoid facing terrible truths. ” This is so true. And the terror of having that coping mechanism taken away from you, and having to figure out another way of dealing… very, very hard. Especially when it’s accompanied by this sense of failure, that “everyone else” figured this stuff out long ago. It’s a long, hard journey.

      • “Everyone else” includes A) people with less terrible truths to deal with, B) People who had a lot more help in coping, C) people who have found different ways to dysfunction other than drugs, which might not always be apparent to the eye, D) people falling apart out of your line of sight and E) people who have been clean and sober for the past ten years, but before that were shooting up in some dark alley or no-tel motel. So don’t beat yourself up. Welcome to the human race–none of us are perfect.

  4. Thank you for sharing this. Much strength to you as you continue to find and re-find your path to health and happiness and acceptance of the addict in your life. I have zero experience with somebody in prison, but some with addiction… I had to learn to focus on me and my choices rather than those of the addict.

    On a different note altogether… What a messed up justice system we have…

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