I have always believed that without adversity, we would have no victories. The greater the challenge, the greater is your victory. I learned this the hard way, and am hopeful I won’t need much more lessons on this matter.
It was these lessons, and challenges, that taught me a unique lesson in gratitude. Up until ten years ago, I lived a fairly normal life. I went to college, and studied Biological Sciences. I raised my children on my own, working full time, and hustling cars on the side. I made a fair living, between middle class, and upper middle class. My family wanted for nothing material, and our activities, included camping, fishing, and travels throughout California on various adventures. My ultimate goal was to create as many good and wonderful memories for my children as I possibly could.
As a family, we did a lot of cooking, baking, and canning of our own fruits, salsas, jams, jellies, and chutneys. We would scavenge yard sales for mason jars, and assorted treasures, and really enjoyed all life had to offer.
In one brief moment, my life changed. One bad decision, or perhaps a series of bad decisions, led me to a prison cell. It appeared to me that my life had pretty much ended at the age of forty. Because of the California Three Strikes Law, I faced fifty to life, because I had a felony conviction when I was eighteen years old. Because I faced so much time in prison, I was held in a lock down cell for security reasons. I would exist in this cell twenty three and a half hours a day, for a period of fourteen months. I was allowed a daily shower, a phone call, and only on a handful of occasions; I was led to a concrete box without a roof for yard time. I was blessed to go to court. As I was being transported from the facility that held me to the County Superior Court, I was able to look around and see things like trees, plants, streets, cars, or an occasional dog, or tract of homes, just stuff, anything, but the concrete walls, metal doors, and wool blankets.
Inevitably, depression, and a sensation of low self-worth, was a constant struggle during this time. I was mourning the loss of my family. While I felt very guilty about this, I also mourned my life in general. I would no longer be able to go out back, and have a cup of coffee in the morning air, or eat ice cream in the evening before bed. I couldn’t see my children off to school, or share a meal with them, and tell them I loved them every day. I missed my mini-van, and the music I’d listen to as I drove around running errands. I even missed washing dishes, folding laundry, and vacuuming. I missed my life.
My mind was spinning at about ninety miles per hour, while my body was pretty much shut down. I sought answers, hope, and wisdom from the scriptures. I begged God to help me, to save me, and not to let this terrible thing happen to me. I did not realize that it had already happened, I was in this. I’d one day learn to suck it up, and keep it pushing. It is what it is, and I would learn to accept life on life’s terms, and pray continuously.
It took a little time, but I learned to acquire little things. I bought commissary, and had coffee in my cup. To sit and enjoy a hot cup of coffee is truly a wonderful thing. It is a moment in time to be savored, and held onto for as long as it lasts. A good book is something to be experienced, and cherished. Just to have time in the day, or evening, to read is something I relish. Those times in particular were very special, as I would get lost in the story. I traveled to countries I may never see in my physical life, but I’ve been there, and I watched as story after story unfolded before me. I walked in the sand on beaches in Mexico, and even sat in the mess hall of a nuclear submarine. I escaped my harsh reality, and lived a little. The self-empowering books written by ministers, professors, doctors, and psychiatrists, helped me to establish some coping skills, and acquire some tools needed to navigate through life.
Before I was sent to the California Institution for Women to serve my prison sentence, I was sent to Patton State Mental Hospital for evaluation, and treatment for depression. I had lost fifty pounds, and was not very responsive to external stimuli. I had shut down emotionally. Being sentenced to fifteen years was a super huge pill to swallow. I needed to get a game plan on how I was going to do this.
In my eyes, everything that was happening seemed unbelievable. It was kind of like being stuck in your own worst nightmare. I had been to prison before, when I was eighteen years old. It was so different then. I was too young to care, and I had no one to worry and stress over. Now this? This was a whole new ball game. I had family, children to consume my waking hours.
The Psychiatrists told me I would be sent back to prison to finish my sentence. After I’m done, a committee would evaluate me to determine if I am stable enough to re-enter society, or be placed in their hospital for an indeterminate time. Basically, they can keep me until they determine I’m safe. It’s funny to me now, because I, and so very many others, suffer from P.T.S.D (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)
Once I got to prison, I began enrolling in every group I felt would benefit me. I was fortunate to have a lovely young woman named Erica with whom I would have one on one psycho therapy sessions with for two and a half years.
During my weekly sessions with Erica, she would push me to talk about the situations I was enduring. In particular, she would ask about my childhood experiences, and relationships. She asked some very hard questions. It was distressing, and traumatic to discuss particular events in my past, because in my mind, I had to go back there. I had to almost re-live those issues in front of this woman. I would let my guard down, and expose my very soul to her. Even she wiped away a tear on several occasions as I told my story.
When we first began, I was hesitant. Erica did not have a personal relationship with the Savior. How could she understand how, and why I believed what I believed, and the faith that I held onto. Somehow, through God’s Grace, she understood. Then two years into our sessions, I brought her a lovely study Bible. She tells me that she takes her young boy to Church regularly. I’d like to believe I touched her life as much as she touched mine. I find that I can now talk about, and remember things from my past without so many tears, and regret. I’m learning to be grateful for all my experiences, trials, and challenges, because in overcoming them, I am becoming stronger, wiser, and I know to rely on God for everything.
In 2006 this institution opened an Alpha International faith based re-entry program. We would all be housed in the same housing unit. A chance to fellowship, and learn from one another. I was one of the first to sign up, and move to the unit. We are given classes each evening after p.m. chow for one to two hours. Classes range from parenting, finances, boundaries, Celebrate Recovery, and several books of the Bible, from Habakkuk, Ruth, Revelation, and studies on woman of the Bible, prophecy, life skills based on Biblical principles. Each class is facilitated by volunteers from local churches of assorted denominations. My class is the only class led by an inmate. I teach life skills, and emphasize our critical thinking. This program has been very helpful to hundreds of women who will make the effort to utilize the skills taught, and tools acquired in each subject.
In all that has happened, I learned to be so very grateful for everything. I did have my prayers change from, “please God help me”, to sincere gratitude that I still had eyes to see the good in all things, and most people. The unique circumstance of living with absolutely nothing, completely changes ones perspective of things. Everything people take for granted of every day, have become cherished, and valued in such a dramatic way. Living in a concrete box with very little human contact will lead you to a greater appreciation for anyone, even your co-worker that simply never shuts up, or the family member who is always so critical and discouraging. Even they all have qualities you will miss. You can only sit staring at a wall for so long. One can only enjoy the quality time alone, briefly, before you begin to overthink things, and become hyper critical of yourself, and every decision you’ve ever made. I spent a lot of time thinking I should have done this, or I shouldn’t have done or said that. There were situations that were repeating over and over, in my mind, continuously reminding me that I’m not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer. I learned that I lacked some basic life skills, mostly in communication, and managing my emotions. While life was beating me down, I’d managed to find ways to beat myself up emotionally even more.
During my time in County Jail, I was also being sexually harassed by one of the officers who would somehow find times alone with me. He took full advantage of my low self-esteem, and broken spirit. He’d have his way with me, and let me shower before locking me back in my cell. My head, and my heart, were too far gone to even think of reporting him or realize the severity of the situation. Every day during this trial, I would consider, plan, and contemplate suicide. I saw no possible way to recover, and had no desire to awaken each morning.
One morning, I awoke, and decided I just couldn’t do another day like this. I took several razor blades I’d been collecting, and begun cutting. It was so gross and messy that I decided to swallow all the blades and start doing jumping jacks to get them moving, and do their damage. I ate twelve in all. I snapped them in half and downed them with a cup of coffee. I told God I was sorry but I got to go. I started doing jumping jacks over and over. I did sets of around fifty until the cops came over the speaker in my cell telling me my attorney was there to visit me. I was kind of stunned by the visit, and timing. I went in and saw a woman who represented my court appointed public defender. She claimed she was there to get me out of that place. I was again stunned. My public defender had told me that I was going to do life in prison. She now had HOPE to offer. Hope was something I had not known for some time. Life, in general, seemed hopeless. It is that way with so many people who are depressed and contemplate suicide. Suicidal ideation is a common thread among those who feel such despair, and hopelessness.
I explained to this woman that it was too late. I already got myself out. She asked me to explain myself. Thinking that there was nothing to be done, I told her straight up what I had done, and that I was okay with it. She pretty much freaked out as I calmly explained this. She ran for the officers to get me medical attention. I was stripped naked, and placed in a rubber cell with a blue quilt cover to hide my nakedness. The rubberized cell contained a hole in the center of the floor for restroom use.
Again, I did my jumping jacks. I kept wondering, or worrying, if perhaps I was going to hell for taking my own life. I kept waiting to feel something other than the cuts in my throat, or on my arm. I expected blood from my rectum, or mouth, or something. I waited for the pain. I was exhausted from the emotional drama as well as the jumping jacks. A doctor came to the door to see me. Everyone wanted to know why. My simple reply was, “Duh! My life sucks!” It was a matter of choice, fifty to life, or razor blades for breakfast. Well pass me another shaver please. The taxpayers should be pleased. I saved them close to half a million dollars. I can rationalize anything.
Needless to say, I’d hit rock bottom. The doctors said that I’d be fine, and I was. I was devastated that nothing happened. No internal damage, no cutting, no bleeding, nothing. The razors had processed through, and even x-rays revealed absolute nothing. I lost a few pounds from the jumping jacks, and a lack of food, however, I was completely normal.
My public defender took me to court to tell the judge presiding over my case that he no longer wished to represent me. I was given a court appointed attorney, and remained in isolation until I showed some signs of life. It was these severe circumstances that fostered a unique perspective in my life. I still believe that I have seen the worst moments in my life. I have been through hell on earth, and I have experienced life’s absolute worst.
Praise God that no matter what life may bring from here on out, I should be able to endure it easily. That is a truly wonderful experience to have. Nothing much could be worse than what I have already endured.
I praise God daily for everything. In the mornings I praise God for another day of life. I should have been dead. I’ve had a dozen encounters with near death experiences, and yet I am alive, and well. I am healthy and strong. Clearly, God has kept me thus far for His purposes. I now celebrate life and have truly learned to live, not merely exist.
Hope is the answer, and I would learn to find hope in the Scriptures. I made some changes to my Bible in Jeremiah 29:11-14. It now says, “For I know the plans I have for Neco, “says the Lord.” They are plans for good, and not for disaster, to give Neco a future, and a hope. In those days when Neco prays, I will listen. If Neco looks for me, in earnest, Neco will find Me. When Neco seeks Me, I will be found by Neco, “says the Lord.” I will end Neco’s captivity, and restore Neco’s fortunes. I will gather Neco out of the nations where I sent Neco, and bring Neco home again to Neco’s own land.”
In Reading that scripture over and over again, it would encourage me to go on. I would never invite anyone to change God’s Holy Word. I know full well the consequences for adding to or removing anything from scripture. Personalizing, I believe is acceptable. God wants us to know He is speaking to each and every one of us personally. His Sacred Word is for you, and for me.
I have a job to go to everyday. I praise God for that. I didn’t enjoy the sewing factory job here very much, but I still prayed, and praised God, for a chance to get out of my cell, and do something productive with my time. Today, I am blessed to be in a pre-apprentice carpentry program. A challenging and rewarding job that has a grant that provides for one year’s union dues, tools, books, and support after I parole. I now earn around one hundred dollars a month, and am able to be self-supportive. One of the hardest parts of prison life is having to ask family for support. No adult with good morals wants to be dependent to a loving family member. Mind you, we don’t pay rent, utilities, phone, cable, water, etc… I have humble needs, and my meager wages cover that. Thank you, Jesus!
My cell has a window. I can not only see outside, but I can crank it open, and get fresh air. I praise God for my window, air, and even the harsh metal screen that keeps the insects out. Most prison cells have no window, while others may have an eight inch by four foot window with chicken wire. All air is recycled and pumped through vents that are not cleaned and maintained regularly. Some people live year, after year, in such conditions.
I figure if I had to go to go to prison, and serve so many years, that I am so very grateful I came to this place. This is the better of all California women’s prisons. I am blessed beyond words to have come here where I can see, and can walk barefoot on grass. Trees, flowers, bushes, and animals surround these grounds. In the other women’s penitentiaries I saw, sadly, very little signs of nature. I am grateful to see a dog walk by, and see cats hunting squirrels, and gophers. I find all these things to be peaceful, and fulfilling to my soul. For these things I give thanks unto God.
Prayer was my only means of solace. There was no way I was going to confide in anyone about what my thoughts and feelings were. No one would understand, except God. I knew I wasn’t a perfect Christian. I sin every day, and most likely, in every way. I am the “filthy rags” spoken of in the scriptures. I knew then, and even today, that I don’t deserve God’s Grace. Who am I to ask the God of heaven for favors? Should I ask Him to help me when I knew deep down in my spirit that I deserve so much worse?
Romans 8:16 says that the Holy Spirit deep within us, speaks to our heart, and tells us we are God’s children. A child of the Most High God? Who me? How could that be?
The indwelling Holy Spirit taught me that I can go before God in prayer, and talk with Him. Even when I couldn’t speak, I would just sit there weeping in despair. No words could ever convey my emotions, thoughts, and the whirlwind spinning in my head. Romans 8:26-27 assured me that the Holy Spirit can take those whimpering’s not expressed in words, and intercede for me. How absolutely beautiful that must be.
Imagine if you will, me just sitting in an isolation cell, crying, telling God, “I don’t know what to say, think, or believe. Help me Lord”. The Holy Spirit with sincere love and empathy, looking down at me, and then up at God on His Holy Throne looking rather concerned over what I’m going through. He already knows how wonderful this is going to turn out; however, these things must happen in order to fulfill my destiny.
The Great Comforter is speaking the whole while, “Lord, she needs Your peace. She needs healing in her mind. Lord give her strength to endure this. She could use a dose of faith so she doesn’t lean on her own understanding”. On and on He prayed. Even as I laid on the bunk and fell asleep, the Spirit continued on until even He had no more words to utter. I did not see all this then. I do now, and am so eternally thankful.
I praise God for sunshine on my face. After months and months of dark, dank cells, I can appreciate sunlight, and even a cold overcast morning. After so many months of darkness, I was sentenced and transported to the State Prison in Chowchilla, California. It only took three hours of sun exposure to give me sun poisoning. My face became swollen, and distorted within eighteen hours, and I was taken to medical for observation. I had up to that point, never heard of sun poisoning. I’ve always loved my fun in the sun, regardless of the many warnings of harmful effects of excess sun exposure. Despite the slight scarring from the burn I received to my forehead that fateful day, I still relish my moments out in the sun. I love that I can go outside daily. I hardly notice that I am in a large cage. I’ve been so grateful just not be in a concrete box all day, every day.
My heart aches for those men and women who still live in such a way. Our men are treated so inhumanly. They live up to 10-20 years in such conditions. They are taunted and tormented by many of the guards and fellow inmates, given a cold shower two or three times a week, and their mail and phone privileges are used as forms of torment. Bear in mind, that after this is done, these men are given $200.00 and released back into society expected to be productive, successful citizens.
My heart truly bleeds for my fellow human beings, and this knowledge brings me to my knees frequently. Not just for mercy for them, but in the most sincere, and reverent appreciation for my circumstances.
No matter where my life may take me, nor what may come and go in my path, I will always remember that it could be worse. I could be in prison in Indonesia, Mexico, or some other country where rape, starvation, and harsh weather are the norm. I thank my Lord, Jesus that I am here. Praise God I have a parole date. Glory be to God the Father, that He poureth out wisdom to the wise, and knowledge to the scholars. He reveals deep and mysterious things, though He Himself is surrounded by light. (Daniel 2:21-22)
I will always lift my cup towards heaven and praise God for coffee in my cup, sunshine on my face, fresh air in my lungs, and all the good things in every circumstance, and every person.
I can honestly say today that I am grateful to have had this experience. I’ve learned so much about life, God, and myself. I’ve experienced the worst of life, and circumstances, and seen the worst of humanity. The Jesus inside of me taught me to learn, to see, to believe, and now to write, to share these experiences in the hopes to inspire others.
I am currently working on a manuscript called, “Prisons are a Crime.” It details the injustices of our current justice system; however, it speaks even more of worse prisons we experience in our lives. Prisons of depression, anger, addiction, poverty, and so much more. It should go to print in 2014, as I am still housed in a physical prison, and am property of the State of California.
I wish to help anyone stuck in prisons. Any form of prison. I will seek and fight for freedom and justice until I leave this earth, all the while with an attitude of gratitude, sunshine on my face, and coffee in my cup.
I know that one day soon, I’ll be out there somewhere eating a meal on a real plate, with a real fork, and I’ll most likely break down in tears simply because I’m so grateful. I look forward to the silliest things like driving in a car, or waking up in a comfortable bed, sitting on a sofa, and reading to my grandson. Hallelujah for looking forward.
I am humbled that you took the time to read my little story. I am thankful to, and for you. I pray my life lessons encourage you to always to have an attitude of gratitude. Be abundantly blessed.
Natalie (Neco) Haviland