Healing Work Trauma – as Learned in Prison

Regularly, I receive a phone call or email from a person mesmerized by a powerful insight or transformational healing enabled by an experience with the prison residents.  Yes, as counterintuitive as it sounds, the residents’ journeys through violence have the potential to heal.  If we allow it.  Here’s one such story…

“Hurt people hurt people.” I first heard these words spoken by a “man in blue” incarcerated at Donovan Correctional Facility while visiting with Brilliance Inside. These words stuck with me because they felt so simple yet so profound. The man who spoke them had clearly done some terrible things to land him at Donovan. Yet, he also seemed wise beyond his circumstances and years.

Four years ago, my career took a painful detour. For over a decade prior, I had been blessed with a job, boss and team that I loved. I never wanted to leave that job but my personal life needed to come first. The birth of my second child and my spouse’s career opportunity meant that I needed to move on. So, I quit. And I cried.

I needed to find another job but all I could find was something at a small consulting firm. I wasn’t excited by the opportunity, but I took it. Six months after starting the job, I got fired. While I now know that this was the best possible outcome for me, it took me three years to fully realize and appreciate it. The CEO was awful, making the six months in consulting the worst months of my entire career. Even so, I didn’t realize just how deep the trauma went.

Last month, I ran into the CEO three times at a large conference with thousands of attendees. Each encounter created such an intense physically negative reaction in my body. My body temperature rose, and I started sweating. I felt stress and anxiety envelop my being. I couldn’t think straight. I was consumed with negativity. While I never spoke with the CEO, seeing her in person reignited my trauma. Despite over three years passing since she fired me, I had not healed.

The CEO was toxic, cruel and demeaning, among many other negative adjectives. But after my time at Donovan, I realized that more than anything else, she was hurt. I don’t believe she had been trying to inflict personal trauma on me. She was just so hurt that she didn’t know any other way to operate. I knew I needed to forgive her if I wanted to fully heal. And it was during this reflection after seeing her at the conference, when I realized her hurt wasn’t personal or intentional, that I was able to forgive. This realization – which a gentleman in blue from Donovan helped to spawn – was the key to my healing.

The men of Donovan probably have some of the most intense and difficult healing processes to bare. Yet, their experiences can help us through our own. Through each of our own journeys of self-discovery and reconciliation – however big or small – we are creating a world filled with more love and forgiveness. A world where hurt people can be set free from the shackles of their wounds and begin to love themselves and those around them.

Note:  The author chooses to remain anonymous.

Jonathan Martin