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by Mary Barr

A single note falls like a raindrop at my feet, shattering into a thousand tiny rainbows. I think there must be an angel caged in the cell next to mine. If I could play the instrument of my voice as miraculously, would I be closer to God? It seems my destiny is to be an ordinary raven, even here, where birds are forbidden to fly.

My reverie is broken by a clamor of keys and slamming gates. A prison guard bellows, "Get your ass out here, crackhead. Damn you stink!" I rise as do the fifty-nine other women who have shared this cell with me over the past forty hours. None of us is certain to whom she refers. It is not me, not this time.

I sink back to the floor that has become so cold I could ice skate on it. I look for the largest person (the fat ones give off the most body heat) and huddle close to her. In here we have no prejudice or pride. We have a camaraderie of spirit we did not share in the street. Out there we took each other's money, drugs, and men; in here we give each other warmth, comfort, and hope.

A harsh voice shouts, "Barr!" It is my turn. I am shoved into a cold shower and sprayed with horrid smelling lotion to 'de-louse' me. I squat and bounce up and down while coughing. I do this without being told because I want to please the guards. I have been here thirty-nine times before and I know the rules well. They know me, I know them, but I know better than to address them. There are rarely any towels or sheets stocked so I dry off with my filthy pants. I wonder why they bother to bathe us when they don't fumigate our clothes. I am pushed soaking wet into another cold cell.

Just as sleep comes to steal me from this misery, another voice intrudes, this one gentle and assuring. "Ladies, my name is Mr. Smith. I have been in a worse position than you and look at me now. I have fine clothes, a fine job, and I'm fine lookin' too! If you want what I've got, you have to do what I did to get it. I pledge my support to anyone willing to make a change." I step out of the cell not even flinching when the gate clangs shut behind me.

As we are walking to the dormitory where I will be housed I hear singing and stomping. I am amazed when we arrive and I see that it is military marching and cadence.

"My God Mr. Smith," I exclaim, "you didn't tell me I was joining the army!"

"There's more to it than that, Mary," he says.

He calls the women together to introduce me and they applaud. One woman approaches me and says, "Hi! I'm Lori, the unit captain. In this program it's mandatory that we attend school. We have five minutes to get on line so let's go!"

We march down the bleak hallways to school shouting, "Yer left, up on yer left, it won't be long, yer left up on yer left, we're goin' home!" I suppress an urge to giggle, especially while the women in general population are watching us with interest. Unlike the adolescent girls that are in jail, adults are not required to attend school, so most of them don't. They spend their days watching television, playing cards, getting high, (yes, there ARE drugs in jail) and fighting. We are allowed outside one hour per day for recreation, but our program is kept separate from the other inmates. We are learning to change all our negative behaviors and that means changing who we hang out with.

After three hours of computer training, we return to our dormitory. Awaiting us is a social worker who visits our unit weekly. She suggests that we continue treatment at a residential facility upon our release. I can't see myself doing that. I want to stay clean, but after eight months of jail how can I volunteer to be cooped up for another year, being told what to do and when to do it? I feel so much pain and guilt over not seeing my two children for the years I was using, how can I not see them when I am released?

At night after dinner we meet in groups with the counselors to discuss our issues, which run the gamut from being raped to being abandoned, to abandoning our children. A woman who I do not know well, starts the group.

"You know," she says, "this is my second time here. When I left I swore I was going to a residential program. I missed my kids so much I figured later for that! Well, I got home and my mom, who looked after them for years, just hugged me and went out to Bingo. The kids were all over me for attention and fighting and I was a nervous wreck! My mom came home and when she thought I wasn't looking, hid her purse. I was so hurt. Then my kids wanted her to put them to bed instead of me. I didn't want the kids to see me crying so I went to my girlfriends house. Just like when I got busted, she was getting high. I had nowhere else to go, I was upset, so I got high right along with her. Now, here I am again, but this time I am going to take the cotton out of my ears and put it in my mouth!"

God works in mysterious ways. Though my situation isn't exactly the same, I see she felt the same as I do now. I do not want to make the same mistakes as this woman. I lost my friends along with my self-respect. My mother died while I was in active addiction not knowing what would become of me. I have not had contact with my children or their father for two years. I have decided that I am no longer afraid to die, I am afraid of living my life the way I was. I am slowly coming to believe that I am just like every other human, no better, no worse. I decide to go to residential treatment and I encourage my peers to do the same.

Unfortunately, many are called, but few are chosen. I hear of many who leave and die of overdoses or have been killed in violence. I am determined not to be one of them this time. That is the part I wish I could give away, not just to addicts, to everyone, this love of self. I can not, but I can live in an exemplary way.

The day of my release has come and I am sent off with cheers and hugs. I await the volunteer who will drive me to the rehab center. I laugh aloud when I see that it is Mr. Smith, who inducted me into the program in jail. There is a certain symmetry to arriving at yet another program with Mr. Smith and I pray I will be as successful in this one.

A single note falls like a raindrop at my feet, shattering into a thousand tiny rainbows. I step up to the cell and say, "Honey, you sing like an angel. My name is Mary. A few years ago I was in a worse position than you and look at me now. I get paid to come to jail! If you want what I've got, you've got to do what I did to get it. Would you like to hear more?" The angel looks at me and smiles.


NOTE: Today, Mary has been clean and sober for three years. She made good use of her training and works in the computer industry. Her children spend every weekend with her. She goes back to the program in jail once a week to say, "If I can do it, you can do it!" Her unit captain was released on December 20th and was found dead of an overdose on Christmas eve.

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I Am The Story I Tell Myself I Am, 1 March 1999