The bottomless pit of pain

My last post ended with the suggestion that in this one I would muse on what we should be doing in our work with inmates to help them have a chance at a better life upon their release. Before tackling this question, some background reflections.

Like lots of other Americans I am trying to digest the electoral results from earlier this month. More than one friend suggested that I read Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance as I tried to process the outcome. So I made use of many hours of airport terminal and flight time traveling to North Carolina to visit my father for Thanksgiving by reading this remarkable book.

Mr. Vance has written a deeply engaging memoir, as the subtitle suggests, of his family and the culture in which he was raised. Every page kept my attention.

But what really focused my mind was Chapter 14. Here, Mr. Vance steps back and engages in a frank analysis of the family and culture that proved, simultaneously, to both add to and detract from his personhood. Acknowledging the slow-moving train wreck of dysfunction his childhood and adolescence had been, he sought understanding and help.

“I tried to go to a counselor, but it was just too weird. Talking to some stranger about my feelings made me want to vomit. I did go to the library, and I learned that behavior I considered commonplace was the subject of pretty intense academic study. Psychologists call the everyday occurrences of my and Lindsay’s [his sister] life ‘adverse childhood experiences,’ or ACEs. ACEs are traumatic childhood events, and their consequences reach far into adulthood. The trauma may not be physical. The following events or feelings are some of the most common ACEs:

  • being sworn at, insulted, or humiliated by parents
  • being pushed, grabbed, or having something thrown at you
  • feeling that your family didn’t support each other
  • having parents who were separated or divorced
  • living with an alcoholic or drug user
  • living with someone who was depressed or attempted suicide
  • watching a love one be physically abused.”

This wasn’t the first time I have seen this list of ACEs. In the book I referenced in my previous post — In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts — Dr. Gabor Maté also writes about the dreadful impact of ACEs on the addicts he treated in Vancouver, Canada.

“The statistics that reveal the typical childhood of the hard-core drug addict have been reported widely but, it seems, not widely enough to have had the impact they ought to on mainstream medical, social, and legal understandings of drug addiction.

Studies of drug addicts repeatedly find extraordinarily high percentages of childhood trauma of various sorts, including physical, sexual, and emotional abuse…. Their research, the renowned Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, looked at the incidence of ten separate categories of painful circumstances — including family violence, parental divorce, drug or alcohol abuse in the family, death of a parent, and physical or sexual abuse — in thousands of people. The correlation between these figures and substance abuse later in the subjects’ lives was then calculated. For each adverse childhood experience, or ACE, the risk for the early initiation of substance abuse increased two to four times. Subjects with five or more ACEs had seven to ten times greater risk for substance abuse than did those with none.”

It’s a wonder J.D. Vance, along with all else he struggled with, did not also have substance abuse problems. But plenty of those he knew did, including his mother, whose presence in the memoir is relentlessly saddening.

In my teaching on forgiveness and integrity at our local county prison, which I’ve been doing for almost three years, I use a video that includes a chapter on a remarkable woman named Judith Shaw. “I thank God for forgiveness,” she says at one point. At another, “Forgiveness saved my life.” There was much in her story that would destroy a life — alcoholic parents, childhood sexual abuse and a husband who infected her with HIV. In describing her childhood she said that her family portrait was “that perfect picture, but scratch behind the canvas and total chaos.”

“Total chaos.”  What a spot-on description of the lives of children like J.D. Vance and the drug addicts Dr. Maté treated. It is also a description well over half of my county prison inmates agree aptly nails their own childhood. “Total chaos.” I have repeatedly heard all ten of Dr. Maté’s categories of Adverse Childhood Experiences from the inmates in my classes. Actually, I have heard more than ten.

Which leads us back to the original question: What ought we (volunteers, staff, the criminal justice system) be doing to help those currently incarcerated have even half a chance at a meaningful life once they get out of jail?

Every facility in which I current work offers some programs for at least some inmates. Chaplains, churches and other faith groups offer religious services and faith-based programs that make a difference for some inmates.

Someone sent me a news story from the website of National Public Radio (NPR) about a psychologist who conducts a weekly one-hour class at the infamous San Quentin penitentiary in California. His program is called GRIP — Guiding Rage into Power. The waiting list is 500 names long. Fifty-one men have graduated from the program and none has returned to prison.

I sent the link for this article (here) to a colleague I respect whose ministry is present in numerous county, state and federal facilities here in Pennsylvania. We had been emailing each other about our mutual experiences of encountering so many emotionally wounded men in our respective ministries. She, a trained counselor, wondered (just as I do) how volunteers can address the deep wounds we all regularly encounter inside prison walls. It’s a hard question.

In the workbook on integrity that I wrote and am now using, I included two chapters on woundedness and healing. It seemed important to acknowledge the reality that woundedness tears at integrity. But it also seemed urgent to exhort my classroom participants to turn from mere pain relief and pursue the much more difficult journey of true healing. But even as I wrote about this and urged it on these men I come to care deeply for, I had to wonder if true healing was even remotely possible.

So I recently asked the men gathered for my integrity class at the federal penitentiary if psychological counseling or therapy was available to them. Some said yes; some said no. But one inmate offered his own experience with a staff psychologist at the prison as proof that it is available and, at least for him, was immensely helpful. I watched the rest of the class watch and listen closely as he shared about how the twelve sessions with the psychologist made a huge difference in his self-understanding and his ability to make better choices.

Another inmate immediately offered his story of successful therapy with a counselor after his PTSD nearly destroyed his life. Again, other inmates watched and listened.

At the end of it all, I distinctly heard two other men in the room muse aloud that maybe they, too, could benefit from some counseling.

What I have begun to conclude is that our prisons are bottomless pits of pain alongside equally bottomless pits of serious criminality. I am comfortable saying that the two pits are frequently connected, though not in every case.

I have concluded one thing more: After almost seven years working closely with prison inmates, I know where the investment needs to be made, at least by me. With all the resources provided by faith, God and the good insights of social science, I want to see real healing in the lives of the men with whom I work.


One thought on “The bottomless pit of pain

  1. The inmates you are working with are fortunate to have someone with your level of understanding and compassion reaching out to them. I hope many, very many, will take advantage of the opportunity to change the way they see the world. Overcoming ways of thinking that were developed during early childhood is such a huge obstacle. Reading things like the two books you described left a huge impression on me regarding the importance of early childhood development. One that especially stuck with me is the impact of having a mother that is stressed out. I count myself as lucky to be the firstborn as I am sure my mother was less stressed out early in the marriage to my father than she was a few years later and am certain my younger brother had less love and attention very early in life as a result. It appears to me that there is a very strong correlation (stress level of mother to struggles with addiction) based on my life experience and the degree of struggle with addiction between myself and my younger brother.
    I wish I had some wise advice I could give. Continue to share the things you are learning with those that will hear and pray.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and for the good work you are doing.

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