Archive | August, 2014

Prison of Shame

22 Aug

When my mother was sentenced to a state penitentiary she was transferred from the local prison to Chowchilla, the women’s correctional facility in Central California. She was taken in a Sheriff’s bus. The vehicles are typically painted black and white like a zebra. It is rare to see one of these buses on the highway. When I do, I cringe. It is especially difficult if I notice prisoners’ faces at the windows. I have no idea whether my mom was handcuffed or if she talked to anyone during the ride.

When she was released from Chowchilla, she was given a Greyhound bus ticket to get from Central California to San Diego. In the year and a half she was there, I never visited her. During her first month at Chowchilla, she sent me forms to fill out for visitation rights. The procedure was more complex than the one at the local jail. You had to request visitation dates weeks in advance and wait to get approval. My mom’s friend Bob, who was in love with her, pressured me to make the trip but I refused. Although he offered, I felt uncomfortable making the ten-hour drive with him. And I felt incompetent to make it alone.

Years later, when I was teaching a public mental health course nation wide, I spent one week in Modesto, California. To get there I flew into Fresno and rented a car. When you walk from the gate towards baggage claim, you pass a replica of a Sequoia. It gives you the feeling that you have just arrived at Disneyland instead of near Yosemite National Park.

As I maneuvered my rental vehicle towards the highway, I gave a sigh of relief as I adjusted to the various gadgets of the unfamiliar car and found a station on the radio I enjoyed. An hour into the drive, I saw that the town of Chowchilla was a few exits away. I had never looked on a map to see where it was. Now I saw the barbed wire fence of the prison along the side of the highway. A flight from San Diego to Fresno was inexpensive. I hadn’t realized. Yet at the time, new in my career, I was struggling to make ends meet. The cost of a flight, car rental, and hotel would have all gone onto a credit card.

My mother never talked about her experiences in jail. This was the one area of her life that was a closed book. Yet her silence spoke volumes.

She had pleaded with me to take $200.00 from her accounts to purchase some items for her. Her instructions had been incredibly specific. Most important, she needed an outfit to wear on the bus so that she didn’t have to return home in orange prison attire. At the time, orange wasn’t the new black. She wanted a nice tracksuit and asked when I purchased this at Target that I try it on since we were the same size. She also wanted a bag of tortilla chips and a jar of bean dip. All of these items would have to pass inspection at the prison to ensure that drugs or weapons weren’t being smuggled in. I drove to the mailbox store and quickly found out that packages sent to a state penitentiary required special paperwork. I fidgeted as the clerk asked me various questions related to the forms she was filling out. I remembered that even sending books from Amazon to the prison had been a pain in the ass. I worried what the woman at the mailbox store thought of me because I was sending something to an inmate. As I paid the fifty bucks to have the package mailed, I realized both my mom and I were doing time in one way, shape, or form.

The Final Laugh

14 Aug


One of the risk factors for suicide is having a family member who died by suicide. I have this risk factor. My mother took her life six years ago after a long battle with depression and alcoholism. She was imprisoned by the disease and by the legal system. She drove under the influence one too many times. 

When I was a little girl my mother and I watched “Mork and Mindy” together. I remember she thought Robin Williams was very funny. She and I also watched “Little House on the Prairie.” I don’t have many more memories of watching television with her though. As my mom’s illness took over, she slowly began to lose interest in things like television, movies, and novels. She also stopped playing the piano and didn’t laugh as much. Depression will do that to a person. So will spending time in jail. 

Robin Williams’ death hit a nerve for people this week and struck many people’s hearts. He was a comedic genius and gifted actor plus had a kind face with soulful eyes. When I heard the news I couldn’t help but think of my mother. She would have been sad that Robin Williams took his life. He died at 63. She died at 62. 

Watching the news briefly, I couldn’t bear to hear the talk about waiting for the coroner’s report and the fact that the police were called. These types of details are simply too close to home. Later this week I heard that a Fox newscaster said Williams’ act was selfish and cowardly. After my mom died someone said it must be difficult knowing that my mom is in hell. 

People were surprised – shocked to hear of Williams’ death. I wasn’t. When a person battles depression and addiction, there is a risk for suicide. I waited for the call about my mom for many years. 

But when you do really get the call the loss hits you like a hand grenade. If you’re lucky, the love of other people pieces you together again. 

In my fantasy life this week, I saw my mom greet Robin Williams at the Pearly Gates and she thanked him for making her laugh. 

On Taking Calculated Risks…

6 Aug

Lately I’ve been learning about investing and am surprised by how financial principles reflect aspects of life. It’s quite interesting actually. Had I realized this I might have pursued a degree in economics and made considerable more money than I do now…. But that is besides the point. 

As I sat listening to my financial guy, I jotted down some notes. “Most people are either risk adverse or take risks that are way too big. But anyone who plays the stock market for long will know there are ups and downs and you have to just ride out the trends.” I nodded. 

“Diversification is key.” Well, that makes sense. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

“Take those company shares for sure but do something with them.”

“Nothing is a sure thing but it’s not good to pull out just because the climate seems a little rocky or unstable. You have to look at the big picture.” 

Apparently Warren Buffet once said, “Be fearful when others are greedy. Be greedy when others are fearful.” 

The point that most struck me is that people who do not invest, rarely experience financial gain. Without calculated risk, there is no growth or advancement. One continues to live pay check to pay check and perhaps in the negative. To reverse this, attention and patience can yield long term dividends.

Risk is key for abundance can be measured in domains far outside the financial market.