Saturday, January 28, 2006

Daniel Part Two - Hope in What Felt Hopeless

For over two years I wrote my brother in prison. The attempt to take his life by other inmates in the general population due to his status as an informant, which reduced his sentence down to three years instead of ten, resulted in his placement in solitary confinement for his own protection. In a tiny cell with a radio, books, and letters from family he found his way back to himself. Each day he made a schedule for himself. He would read, exercise, and listen to radio talk shows and music. The discipline he learned as a Navy Seal resurfaced. The prison life placed external controls in his life that freed him and mandated that he find his resources and tools inside himself. He also found time to search his heart and soul. He had almost three years to clean his body of meth which he had used daily since 1997. He built new behaviors and thinking patterns and came back to a state of health. The resiliency found in the human spirit is an amazing thing.

As his sister it was difficult to know that he was living in a room that was 5 x 8 feet every day with few people to talk to or to assist him in this grave situation. My heart broke every time I entertained the idea that he wasn’t being held or that he wasn’t receiving any kind of human touch and that this had been so for most of his life. His drug dealing days brought him lots of money and lots of loss and finally cement walled confinement. My brother was never much of a criminal in the long term as his mental instability would get in the way. Depression would take any gains away from him. His life never included a long term job or relationship of any kind. I have often thought that drug dealing and use was a way for him to build a community. People would come back to him over and over for their drug and thus keep a connection with him. This may have been the only behavior that he cultivated consistently in order to connect with others. Our adopted family was ill equipped to help him and his lack of ability to connect with them made family painful and absent. Prison became the catalyst and womb which has brought him back to life.

Since his release in May of 2005 his life has transformed. My trip out there in May was a show of support and love. In 2005 my life was on the road to earning another master’s degree. My studies during the last year of his prison term were as a MSW (master of social work) student. I did an internship at Taunton State Hospital (a psych hospital) on a locked unit for adult males who were forensically involved and had dual diagnosis (drug abuse/addiction and major mental illness). Little did I know when I began my MSW program that I would be in training for eight months on how to assist my brother in stepping into a new life. My learning gave me tools in many of the major areas of challenge that my brother faced during his transition from prison.

He was released from prison into a supervised prison release program which the state called a halfway house (this has political implications as the community was unaware of the real nature and purpose of this particular “halfway house”). There were many restrictions consciously placed on him during the six months while he was there that played a role in how he integrated back into the community.

My trip to be with him and support him was risky because there was the possibility that I would only see him for 20-40 minutes a day at the halfway house and that I would have to make connections for him to services etc. on my own. My adopted family supported us emotionally and financially during this journey and was involved via phone daily. We were lucky because my brother’s career counselor bent some rules on our behalf and each day she gave him passes to job search affording us 8 hours together each day. Under this pass we got food stamps, free health clinic services, a VA doctor and social worker, visited his probation officer together, apartment hunted, purchased a used car and got repairs done, and visited Baskin & Robins for the soothing of our hearts. We talked about the challenges and symptoms of his mental illness and embraced his strengths and potentials. We laughed, we hugged, we cried. We stood in food lines, free health clinic lines, and food stamp lines. We grasped each moment and pushed out the boundaries of them so that we could make up for all the lost years. I looked into the eyes and listened to stories of those in lines with us; their hope, their challenges, their spirits and even their gratitude. My heart broke for the world and I wondered how people could find gratitude in the face of such challenge. The system had thrown them away and made it so difficult to find a path back. I vowed that my brother would not be thrown away. However, it was not my vow that brought my brother back.

During our time together our biological sister called. We were reunited with Terry first and then 4 years later reunited with our birth parents. All three of us were together for each of the reunions. The call from Terry informed us that our mother was in grave medical distress. She had been in a nursing home due to her mental illness by the assistance of my sister Terry for the previous two years. She had been doing really well. Medication was given on a daily basis and the stable environment afforded her access to her life in a more productive way. I had begun writing her very often while she was in the nursing home. I sent her care packages with clothing, treats, and personal essentials. I began to let her in a bit more. Her mental illness made connecting with her too frightening for me. But her placement and stability had me entertaining thoughts of visiting her. The phone call from Terry changed this plan.

The news was grave and the description of my mother’s bloated face and body and connecting tubes to her was almost more than I could bear. She had been on the life support machine for about a week. Terry was calling because the decision to take her off life support needed to be made. The doctor and medical team reported that she would not survive off of the life support due to the inability of her lungs to support her. We all wondered why they were asking us to sign off on this decision. We weren’t even legally connected to her anymore. We weren’t legally her children. It was so odd, but the hospital insisted on the follow through of obtaining all of our notarized signatures and statements giving permission to remove Sandy from life support. Even the law seems to boil down to blood connections regardless of circumstances. Biological connections are primal and I think that this bond is understood viscerally by everyone and so the documents stating that we had legally been relinquished meant very little in the face of my mother’s death. So we all complied. How strange it was that my mother died while I was with my brother who I had seen once in 11 years and then again in these present circumstances. My brother and I were present on the phone when they pulled the plug and we were present on the phone during the memorial service. She passed away without much ado while my sister cried at her side giving her permission to pass and stating that Danny and Gwennie and herself forgive her and love her. In the aftermath of this experience my brother and I had no words to explain what this meant inside of us. Dan shed no tears.

My brother and I continued on in the face of the emotional whirlwind encompassing us. Sitting in the hotel room we phoned apartments, potential jobs, services, and made appointment after appointment. Our day was punctuated by the phone calls into the halfway house required by law every 2 hours. Dan had to be where he said he was and to confirm this he needed signatures wherever he went. The pressure this created was challenging. Everyone wanted him to be accountable for his whereabouts and his activity and little was really done to support his efforts. He had to fight one system (the prison release program at the halfway house) to find his way to services in larger systems like health care, food, shelter, and VA services. He was now a felon and getting a job that did not jeopardize his disability benefits, which were his life line, seemed almost impossible. Even finding an apartment or room to rent as a felon seemed impossible. Dan was committed to being honest on every front in regards to his past. In fact it has been Dan’s discipline, commitment, and resilience that have saved his life. He truly learned new ways of living his life that do not resemble the patterns of a life of drugs and drug dealing.

He is taking a mild medication for his mental illness and still is challenged daily with hallucinations and is also taking an anxiety medication to help him through social situations. He is using his psychiatrist and following the requirements of his probation. He has faced several challenging situations that could have pushed anyone to give up and revert back to old and hopeless behaviors. He had a job for several months were he initiated a program and won company wide recognition for his work and faced social slamming by his fellow co-workers, but he didn’t internalize it as his failure. He did give up the job due to the threat to his disability check as the hours were more than the governmental system would allow.

Dan and I talk on the phone and write letters a lot. He is living on the other side of the US and so visiting together isn’t possible on a regular basis. We check in as do my other adopted sisters and adopted mother. During the time that Dan was in prison I connected with my adopted sisters. We worked through a lot of old family issues so that we could understand, connect, and love Dan. For me it meant taking a lot of risks by talking about mental illness and drug abuse and helping my family understand the kind of assistance and support that Dan really needed. It was extremely anxiety producing for me as it meant risking being rejected by my adopted family. Their religious background of Christian Science made for a very narrow way of thinking about and seeing the world. To the credit of my sisters they walked with me and loved me through the process of creating a larger world view for my family and ultimately for my brother.

Today Dan’s hope and our family’s hope for the stability and personal thriving in Dan’s life have come to fruition. Dan was released from the “halfway house” and found a boarding house to live with 3 other gentlemen. He has a large bedroom and a guest house where he keeps his drums. He joined two bands where he is the drummer and after two jobs (one as a gas station cashier and the other as a salesman for a major food distributor) he has settled into a new financial project. The challenge has been to acquire a job that pays enough for him to live comfortably without jeopardizing his disability check. While he was working he stored up canned and nonperishable foods in preparation if he found that he was out of work. He continuously plans responsibly for the future. Together he and I brainstorm ways that he can earn money honestly and make ends meet in a way that doesn’t feel like he is constantly living on the edge. As we focused on his strengths and past successes this lead us to his experience and success as a Navy Seal and his commitment to fitness and the health that this brings to his life. Based on these two things he developed a fitness program. It is a civilian Navy Seal fitness program. He developed the curriculum and found locations where he could have classes. He promoted it with flyers and ads. In the process we found that there are other such programs going on in the United States. But the city that he lives in found the idea fascinating. Two major newspapers approached him and did articles on his classes. A television station broadcast a short segment on the program. One of the city’s major community center programs requested that he head up a community outreach program with his classes with a commitment that they want to support individuals who find themselves in Dan’s situation so that they can integrate into the community successfully. One of the city’s police departments contacted Dan and is actively working to have him train police officers and get them up to a higher standard of fitness. He has begun to fly and the world is responding to him. My brother has taken hope and molded it into something quite beautiful. I am proud beyond words of him and I pray each day that he will continue to fly with such beautiful colors and that the world around him will embrace him.

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