Recently I was a guest speaker at an event involving some fairly sophisticated and “educated” people in the field of psychology and incarceration. I was there to speak about my experiences while incarcerated and struggles with mental health.
Whenever I am invited to speak or be on a panel, I look my best. I spent two hours on my hair, my nails were freshly painted and I had on a beautiful pale peach suit jacket and slim fitting black skirt and of course strappy heals. I looked fierce. I had to because the crowd I was facing knew me as a formerly incarcerated person with mental illness. They did not know me as a free person and I wanted them to see that I am surviving and at times thriving.
While the talk went over well and I did not puke, gag or use any potty language, I think I came across too stable. I did that thing that I learned years ago that is called a coping skill. I prettied myself up, became hyper articulate and disassociated myself from the person I was describing; the person before them who is a trauma survivor before, during and post prison.
After the talk I stood in the hallway with my co-workers and a few of the group I had spoken to about my struggles and survival. The talk turned to women with mental illness in prison and bringing Trauma Informed Care training to all the prisons for all staff. One woman looked at me as I explained how important this was to me and she said, “Yes. But you are not like those women we interviewed.” I paused and said, “What do you mean?” She answered, “Look at you. You are classy. Articulate. So well put together. These women are really damaged. They have suffered abuse after abuse. Just so much abuse they are destroyed.” Then another person from the event looked at me and said, “And you are an amazing self advocate.”
My heart constricted. I placed my hand over it and looked at both of these individuals, who meant me no harm and I said, “You never saw me in the Turtle Suit. You never saw me when I was unable to speak for myself.” I wanted to say, “You don’t know anything about how much abuse I have survived. You know nothing about how damaged I am.” And still they insisted that I am not like “those women” interviewed at the prison.
Yes. I am well put together. But I dare you to step inside my head and look around. I want all of you to know this: The stories of survival that I share with you are easy. The abuse that I write and speak about is not even a tenth of what I have survived. And it hurts when people look at me and tell me I am not, “…like those women.” Not only is this a slice into my soul survival it is an insult to “those women”.
I am “those women”, and one day I will be able to tell my whole truth. For now, just know that it is by Grace that I do not openly show that at times I live in an alternate world. Hear this truth, each day is a struggle for me against the past and slipping into complete madness. By Grace I manage to show the make-believe me. As my therapist says, “Fake it to you make it.” I have this wish for all of us—those women who are me—that we make it.