One of my personal keys to handling distress is discipline. And where did I learn discipline? From Coffee Creek. Within its walls I lived in an environment where the sheer chaos and drama around me really drove me to find something deeper within myself; it forced me to find a source of sustenance that would keep me going. If I hadn’t looked there, I would have been sucked away by the ‘he said/she said’ stories (or in this case, ‘she said/she said’), or given in to fears and insecurities about what two years in prison was going to look like. (If you don’t think two years is a long time, you’re right - but try it yourself. It’s hard to swallow at the beginning.)
I find that most people I met in prison, at one point or another - and usually further along in their sentence - found this ability to ground themselves in their own reality. You can usually tell who’s new by their level of acceptance of reality, and by their groundedness (or lack thereof) in the present. This isn’t always true, but I think it speaks to the power of time. Within the walls of Coffee Creek, and essentially isolated from the fluctuations of the outside world, you start only to count on the very basic events of the day: meal times; shower times; when you can brush your teeth; when the lights will go off.
In my experience, having so few things to reliably count on actually helped me look for what was more important - the things that provided for my growth. I began to supplement my spare time with rigorous, routine exercise (not an uncommon thing to see many people turn to); within my spiritual service, I began to meditate daily and unyieldingly. In fact, I became known for this tradition, if for nothing else than the fact that it’s hard to hide anything you do from the 150 women who surround you - especially when you live on a top bunk.
Some of the habits I picked up were done so strictly, in a sense, that I wouldn’t (and don’t) pursue them in the same fashion out here as I did in there. My life has so far found a softness that I didn’t have the privilege to experience within Coffee Creek. The sometimes excessive discipline that I learned within those walls - for example, there were long stretches of time that I would eat very little other than raw vegetables and beans - helped me to truly experience the benefit that comes from pursuing a habit over time. I think if I hadn’t been forced to sit down for two years with very little to do, my young self might not have picked up on this for many, many years. After all, it’s hard (I think) for a 20-something to dedicate herself to any sort of activity, when there’s a whole wide world to experience.
Don’t get me wrong, I am still fond of varying experience. Only now I see that those two can go hand-in-hand. I see that dedicating myself to a discipline which truly helps me isn’t mutually exclusive to trying different things, or trying something, and if it just doesn’t feel right, letting it go. This is the softness I’ve developed. It means I know what helps me, and I keep doing it - but just because I do one kind of meditation, for example, doesn’t prevent me from joining a Buddhist group, or trying out a different form of yoga, or going to church. I try many things to help keep my life vibrant, but now I know what to hold on to.
Coffee Creek has taught me to become strong. The key is I now know what makes me stronger, and I keep doing it.
The writer underwent two years at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Oregon, convicted for charges directly related to an active drug addiction.