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How Losing Everything in Prison Helped Me Create a Better Life

Photo by Grant Durr on Unsplash

“In our lives, change is unavoidable, loss is unavoidable. In the adaptability and ease with which we experience change, lies our happiness and freedom.” — Buddha

On a scorching hot day in Folsom state prison, a guard passed me a note thru the bars of my cell. It said “Your mom is in the hospital.”

Eight days later, my mom died — and I never got to see her one last time.

Dealing with the death of a parent outside of the prison walls is extremely hard. Dealing with a parent’s death while you’re in prison is unimaginably difficult. I had to cry into a pillow in my cell so other inmates didn’t hear me. Externally, I had to continue to exhibit that “I don’t give a shit” attitude so others didn’t think I was weak.

Internally, I was completely, 100% devastated. I was struggling to deal with a shit storm of negative feelings every minute of every day. I was consumed with anger, bitterness, rage, depression, guilt, self-hate, shame, and almost every other terrible feeling you can imagine.

It got worse. I learned that the prison warden didn’t grant me a 12-hour pass so I could go to the funeral. But I took some comfort knowing my wife was still there for me at this extremely low point in my life.

Then things took a darker, even more, devastating turn.

Five weeks later, my wife left me. I was now at the lowest point of my life. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. The depression was getting worse each day.

I lost everything: my freedom, my mom, my wife….and my hope.

The Things We Lose

Prison is a huge shift for most people. Many of us were living extravagant lives in the criminal underworld before our fall to the bottom. A lot of the drug dealers, like myself, lived in nice places, wore nice clothes, ate the best food, gambled, and spent money like there was no tomorrow.

And then we lost it all. We were now eating some of the worst food, living in cells that were 9 feet long and 5 feet wide, wearing recycled clothes, making collect phone calls a few times a week, and fighting over the most trivial things imaginable.

For many of us, the most valuable things that were lost were those things we couldn’t see, smell, or touch: our identities, our humanity, and our hope.

People in prison aren’t the only ones who experience huge losses in their lives. Many people in the free world lose their jobs, spouses or romantic partners, health, wealth, friends, family members, belief systems, and other things they valued greatly.

Here are the things I learned from losing the most important things in my life.

We Become More Humble and Grateful

I went from making $8000 a month selling drugs on the streets to making 17 cents an hour in prison. That was a very humbling experience.

Humility allowed many of us to find a lot of pleasure in the little things we had in prison. Me and other inmates looked forward to those days when we could make a community meal out of four .10 cent packs of Top Ramen soup, tortilla chips, canned tuna, and a handful of spices.

We loved watching an old TV show, reading a letter from a loved one, or just watching birds in the prison yard.

Loss can make us appreciate the things we previously took for granted and failed to honor, such as our relationships, our mental and physical health, and our freedom. We value those things so much more after we lose them.

When I got out of prison, I fully appreciated my freedom. Simply walking down the street or taking a shower by myself were more enjoyable than ever before.
I was grateful for those first few jobs that paid $8 an hour. I spent a lot more quality time with friends and family members.

Gratitude allows us to see the beauty in small things, like walking down a street, hiking, petting an animal, shopping at a discount store, or talking to a stranger. It also gives us hope, strength, and a sense of optimism when we need to rebuild our lives.

We See Ourselves as We Are

Adversity is like a strong wind. It tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that we see ourselves as we really are. — Arthur Golden

One of the most powerful, illuminating aspects of prison is that it completely strips people down to the essence of who they are. In prison, we’re no longer able to hide behind houses, cars, jewelry, money, guns, or social status. When these things are gone, we see ourselves exactly as we are.

In the free world, we also see ourselves as we are when we lose big things in our lives. It’s very painful to see that our dysfunctional mindsets and bad behaviors destroyed a great relationship, cost us a dream job, made us lose our wealth, or caused us to lose other things we loved.

On the other hand, we sometimes discover that those things we lost were facades that gave us a false sense of security.

We may find that we only acquired that money, those material belongings, those relationships, and that social status because they made us feel like we were good enough. They distracted us from the pain we were experiencing from fear, self-doubt, shame, or low self-worth. And now that those things we valued are gone, we have to face all of these negative feelings and emotions.

This is the beauty of loss: it gives us a chance to see who we really are and why we did the things that resulted in the loss.

I created my illegal drug business on a foundation of dysfunctional mindsets and poor values. Although I acted confident and cocky, I never believed I was good enough. I wanted to prove I could make a living on my own and get other peoples’ respect and validation.

My laziness, greed, and negative attitude toward the world made me feel entitled to manufacture and sell drugs. I listened to people like my dad, who told me “The world ain’t fair. Do whatever you gotta do to get ahead.”

Other people who took big losses oftentimes realize they created a house of cards built on dysfunctional mindsets and bad values. Many people who got divorced later realized they put their self-worth in their spouses instead of themselves. They thought the marriage would make them feel like they were good enough.

Other people lost jobs and later realized they worked them for the wrong reasons. They only worked those jobs because their parents pressured them into it, the jobs made them feel worthy, they made a lot of money, or other bad reasons.

Some people lost a lot of money because they bought too many things. They thought they needed a house, cars, and other material objects to keep up with other people or to feel validated and accepted.

When you lose something big, take a good look at yourself as you are. Identify all of your bad values, dysfunctional mindsets, and bad behaviors associated with that loss.
It’s only when we see ourselves as we really are that we can begin creating a better life.

We Get a Chance to Reinvent Ourselves

In prison, some people continue down the path to ruin. They keep drinking alcohol, using drugs, or engaging in gang activity. But others reinvent themselves. They see how terrible prison is, know they’re capable of doing more, and create a better life.

Use the losses you’ve suffered from to create a newer, better life. To do this, you first have to challenge who you were. It’s difficult taking that long, hard look at ourselves and seeing that we have some dysfunctional values or mindsets. But it’s a critical part of positive transformation.

If we don’t challenge who we’ve been, we’ll never know who we can become.

I had to challenge who I was. I had to challenge my laziness, greed, shame, negativity, and low self-esteem.

Next, destroy your old self by getting rid of those dysfunctional mindsets and values. As I began to destroy who I was, I realized — for the first time — that I had a lot to offer the world.

I knew I could use my intelligence, skills, and talents to do good things in this world. I got rid of the negativity. I saw that the world wasn’t that dark, cruel place my dad and others said it was.

Finally, create a newer, better version of yourself from a place of authenticity. Only do things that are aligned with your true values, strengths, and things you love. This is your true self. Be aware of and avoid doing things that only align with the values and whims of other people.

After destroying my old self and creating a newer, better one, I was able to create a very fulfilling, purposeful life — a life I never even knew was possible.

We Find the People Who Matter the Most

You find the people who really matter when you take a big loss. Some people are around when the money is flowing and times are good, but when the shit hits the fan, those people seem to disappear from the face of the earth.

The people who continually support you during your darkest hours are the ones you need in your inner circle. These are the people who matter the most.
When you start living authentically, you’ll be better able to identify which people you need to get rid of to create a better life. Maybe they have dysfunctional habits, dangerous addictions, or are just going in a different direction in life than you are.

The people you associate with regularly can have a significant impact on your life. Find those like-minded people who will help you, motivate you, and support you as you build a better life.

Conclusion

I lost everything in prison, but that experience taught me the best life lessons. It was a hellish time in my life, but I later learned that my descent into the abyss was just the beginning. The beginning of a long, hard, but extraordinary journey to redemption and a better life.

Experiencing great losses gives us humility and gratitude. We begin to appreciate the people and the beauty in this world more than ever before.

When you’re stripped down to the essence of who you are, you’ll gain a new level of self-awareness. You’ll see every aspect of yourself: the good, the bad, and everything in between. You may discover that bad mindsets, values and behaviors caused you to lose the things you loved the most. Or you may find that you acquired the things you lost for the wrong reasons.

The good news is that you’ll have a great opportunity to challenge who you’ve been and destroy your old way of thinking and being. You’ll be able to create a new life that’s rewarding and purposeful.

You’ll find those positive, like-minded people who will help you on this challenging, but exciting journey.

You’ll look back and see that you lost a lot of things, but you found your true self.

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