Journaling Class is Rough

from Tuesdays in Jail by Tina Welling

Posted 2/20/23

The idea, taught by wisdom teachers around the world, that our inner lives are reflected in our outer lives, had mostly confused me. Besides, I found that was a difficult idea to hold at times and often way more responsibility than I was up for accepting.

I've known people who hold negative worldviews — everybody is out for themselves, people are greedy, you can't trust anyone — and had watched as they were proven correct. Their belief systems attracted the evidence of their perspectives.

I conduct journaling workshops with the inmates in my local county jail. After several years of seeing inmates weekly, I began to recognize I'd found a shortcut to my own inner development through learning that life mirrors us back to ourselves. The inmates invariably reflected back to me in exaggerated ways my own issues, my own stopping places, or as Jungians call it, my shadow.

Sometimes I wondered why I so eagerly grabbed my coat, zipped out the door, and drove to the jail on Tuesday nights when it meant that I was forced to confront my flaws. There they were, personified in the inmates who had been arrested for them.

The other night, Gerald and I met alone for thirty minutes. He was a tough guy, big build, strong, tattoos running up the length of both arms, light scruffy beard, in his midthirties. Previously, as part of a group workshop, he came across as self-confident, responding to journaling exercises with unassailable answers that assured the group he was self-knowing, aware, content, happy. With just the two of us, I felt more comfortable challenging his remarks.

"So, Gerald, tell me one thing you really want," I said, once we had each settled in our locked-down sides of the grated room.

"I got everything I want," he said, then added, "except getting out of here."

I pushed him a bit, recalling all his past responses from his life-is-great attitude. "There must be something you want that you haven't yet gotten for yourself."

Gerald said, rather off-handedly, slouched down in his gray plastic chair with his legs crossed, looking vaguely disinterested, "I want my family to feel proud of me."

"Oh, heck," I said, "that's not in your reach."

Gerald scooted his butt back into the seat, straightened his back, and became alert, bobbing his head up to look at me directly. Getting his attention wasn't my point, but now that I had it, I went on to say that we needed to be true to ourselves and to let go of how others viewed us, since we had no control over that. Though, I confessed, when I loved someone, I wanted that person to understand me.

Gerald's blue eyes expressed depths of intelligence when he was interested in the conversation. He began to tell me how, despite all he had done to make his mother love him, she spoke to him cruelly, shunned him, and had poisoned his two older brothers against him, saying he wasn't a real part of the family. Gerald's chin wobbled. "She's mean to me."

Gerald was trying not to cry but was failing and, tipping his head side to side toward his shoulders, he wiped his tears on his red-and-white striped top. He said, "I feel abandoned."

It was heartbreaking to witness how a mother could inflict so much of her own pain onto her son. I said, "People make others feel the way they feel." And I touched on the idea of taking nothing personally, but Gerald was in too much pain to hear that. So I repeated his words. "You feel abandoned."

We were quiet for a few moments. Gerald wiped more tears away on his shirt sleeves. I pulled a tissue out of a small package I carried and pushed it through a slit used by lawyers to pass papers.

I asked him, "Would you say you abandon yourself in any way?" I was remembering the tool of reflection, how life mirrors us back to ourselves. Gerald assured me he didn't.

I asked, "Is addiction part of why you're incarcerated?"

He said, "I've used drugs off and on since I was a kid."

"Would you say using drugs was a way of abandoning yourself?"

Gerald was quiet a moment and then nodded in agreement and said drugs had messed up his life. The tears streamed down his face now, and he mopped them with the tissue.

He said, "Damn. Journaling class is rough."

He meant to be humorous and we both started to smile a bit, but there was too much truth in his words and we just held the silence.

When my throat unclogged, I said, "The thing about a parent being abusive is that we don't stop loving them, but we tend to stop loving ourselves." I added a few words about how we must supply ourselves with all we hoped to receive from others.

Then an officer unlocked the door on Gerald's side of the grated room and cracked it open to signal that our time was over. Gerald and I stood up from our chairs. I held my hand, fingers spread, to the grate and Gerald matched my hand with his on the other side and we said our goodbyes.

Once I arrived home, it was late and I went to bed. Instead of counting sheep while lying there in the dark, I counted all the ways I had abandoned myself. Not maintaining my boundaries, overriding my emotions, saying yes when I meant no. I tossed the duvet off, pulled it back on, flipped from side to side, like, as my friend Libby says, "a hen on a spit."

And I thought to myself, Damn, journaling class is rough. End

©2022 by Tina Welling. All rights reserved.

Tina WellingTina Welling is the recipient of a Wyoming Arts Council writing fellowship, she has been conducting her Writing Wild workshops for ten years. ...

Tuesdays in Jail

An excerpt from Tuesdays in Jail: What I Learned Teaching Journaling to Inmates. ©2022 by by Tina Welling. Published with with permission from NewWorldLibrary.com.