Chapter 6:
Asking for Help
therapy, addiction, stress management and coping skills

getting out success after incarceration by j. m. wielandAsking for help, or help-seeking, can be very difficult for some people. We all want to be able to work though whatever problem we may have on our own; to tough it out. America was founded on the idea of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps without the aid of others. In reality, almost every successful person is surrounded by a team that provides support to reach their goals. Every president of the United States has a large support structure around them, without which they wouldn't accomplish anything. They have 3-4 personal secretaries just to handle their mail, schedule, phone calls and records. This also means they have people around them who are able to provide quality and consistent feedback for their daily lives. These type of feedback people are incredibly important to any of us who may have emotional, physical, mental or spiritual needs that are not getting met. There tends to be nothing as valuable as insight from our trusted friends and family, as long as it is welcomed.

There are a lot of potential barriers to help-seeking that get in the way of our progress. They can include one, or many, of the following:

  • Thinking a problem will go away on its own.
  • Being afraid, or embarrassed to ask for help.
  • Being under the impression no one is willing to help.
  • Not bothering because you think others don't understand your problem(s).
  • Not knowing where to turn for help.
  • A general lack of support services in your geographic location.
  • Being afraid of judgment from those friends, family, or professionals you seek out.
  • Thinking that it will be too expensive to get help.
  • Believing "asking for help" is a sign of weakness.

I'm positive that you have operated under one, or many, of those common misconceptions when faced with a problem that may seem too hard to handle at first. I know I have fallen to those same internal dialogues. There have be numerous times in my life when I have been afraid of judgment for my own decision making, or operating under the misconception that the world will judge me due to my mistakes. Writing this book is a perfect example of potential embarrassment. I am publicly declaring my past crimes and opening myself up to public ridicule; something most felons would avoid. There may be a lot of judgment from friends and professionals who didn't know I am a felon, but to not follow my mind, heart and instincts is to disregard my own motivations and I am unwilling to make that sacrifice; neither should you have to sacrifice your own goals for the perceptions of others.

Finding help can be a bit overwhelming at first. There are many places that you can turn to get help: family, friends, doctors, healthcare providers, telephone help lines, books, magazines, reputable websites, experts, and professionals. Start with some form of counselor. Working with a professional therapist, or counselor, is one of the most effective ways of improving your daily life. They will help you work through your problems in a trusting and open forum so that you can deal with issues you may have been holding onto for a number of years.

Mental illness among today's inmates is so pervasive, with around 64% of jail inmates, 54% of state prisoners and 45% of federal prisoners reporting mental health concerns. Substance abuse is also rampant and often starting or continuing within incarceration facilities. (Collier, 2014) With such high rates of mental issues occurring inside the prison population, it only makes logical sense that we have a high recidivism, homelessness and hunger rate. Our society is giving us a disservice by not providing counseling, while still expecting us to live normal lives. Yes, we messed up, but isn't the worth of our society better judged by how it treats people like us, then by how it idolizes those who may have never made a mistake?

 

Substance Abuse:
The statistics point out another issue that often requires some form of professional help: substance abuse. Drugs and alcohol abuse offenses make up the majority of criminal cases in the United States. Addiction is such a serious problem that we are literally filling our jail cells with those who are unable to say no when the opportunity of getting high from some substance is presented. We fail our less fortunate citizens by not providing help for substance abuse and then expecting them to remain clean while on probation. There is a serious argument about the number of us who commit another crime while on probation, or within a short time period from being released, due to a chemical need to dull the emotional pain.

All this being said, if no one is going to provide help, then you need to go out and find it. If you have ever been incarcerated for even a short time period, then you learned pretty quickly if you have some form of addiction. Within 1-2 days you probably experienced some withdrawal symptoms that can cause some serious health related issues if not monitored by a professional. (NCADD, 2015). Most of your friends and family can help create a support team to help you deal with any form of substance abuse, but you still should seek out professional help. You can also find help through volunteer groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA).  Those who know you the best will be the quickest to point out any form of substance abuse they think you may have. Be sure you avoid anyone who may be acting as an enabler for your addiction.

This is a problem that requires your direct attention. You cannot expect to succeed at getting yourself back on track if you are reliant on a substance that completely changes how you think and how you manage stress. It is imperative that you seek out help for any problems you may have had before being incarcerated, or any new problems that may have cropped up during your time on the inside. Roughly 65% of all U.S. inmates meet medical criteria for substance abuse addiction while only 11% receive any form of treatment. (CASA, 2010) We know that it is actually quite easy to get your hands on most drugs while incarcerated. There are even certain forms of prison wine, or hooch, that are well known by the different geographic locations they are made (New York, California, Jersey).

 

Mental Needs:
Many of us experience extreme psychological situations while being incarcerated that need to be talked through with a professional. Rape, random beatings and the sense of isolation from family and friends are issues that contribute to serious depression and anxiety. These issues will not go away on their own. When we are newly released, we should do our best to find professional help to talk through our issues. Actually finding a therapist or counselor can be a little difficult, but achievable with a little patience and determination. The most important factor in finding someone to work with is the shared mutual trust, respect and open communication between you, the patient, and them, the professional.

Whoever you decide to work with, they need to be willing to keep your secrets and provide a safe place for you to talk out any issue you would otherwise keep hidden. Keep in mind that any mental health professional is required by law to report certain types of crimes regardless of client-patient confidentiality. Counselors are required by law to report potential harm to yourself, or others and abuse/neglect of the elderly and children. If, however, you were to tell your counselor that you stole a credit card and went on a spending spree, then they would still be bound by confidentiality. However, if you are on probation or parole you may be required to sign a release of information so that the counselor and your probation officer can discuss anything relative to your case. This is rare, but something you should be aware of when you read through your probation requirements.

You can ask your probation officer, other guys on the inside, homeless shelters and churches for suggestions about who you should contact first. Most therapists use word of mouth as their marketing. You may also want to check out local professionals through the internet at your local library. There are also some state programs that are offered to recently released prisoners to help them feel less stress about returning to society. Your PO will have more information about those programs. These programs are pretty rare and typically only offer CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy, but still worth your time.

 

Therapy:
If your sentence includes some form of mandated therapy, or counseling, then you may not have to pay anything as the state will provide for some of the cost, otherwise it is going to come out of your pocket.  The good news is that counselors are sensitive to the fact that you probably don't have a lot of resources available and may provide a "sliding fee schedule" that fits your financial needs.

You want to find someone who has worked with felons before and also has some experience with your form of crime, psychology, or addiction. This is beneficial to you because that professional is essentially an experts in your issue/conviction. A common problem the prison population is having with state supported therapists and counselors is that they are overbooked from so many cases that they are not able to focus on your case. If this is your situation, then you may want to pursue hiring your own therapist, or visiting a different help group. Finding a professional on your own will require some of your own money and that can be stressful as it takes away from your available resources for getting back on your feet. Remember, getting your head right will go a long way to improving your reintegration with society. It is very difficult to find a job when you are severely depressed. You, as a felon, are going to be turned down a lot before finding that one unique employer opportunity willing to take a chance by hiring you.

There are a few conditions to understand when therapy is integrated into your sentence. There is a difference in the type of help you are expected to seek out. Counseling tends to be more informal and can be found in many church, social, or educational institutions. The person performing the counseling may have an undergraduate or master’s degree in a related field like social work instead of psychology. Therapy is more traditional and typically directed by someone with a master’s or doctorate in psychology, or a related field. The main difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist is that a psychiatrist has studied medicine as well as psychology and is able to prescribe drugs if needed. This also leads into the argument between drug therapy and talk therapy. There are many mental issues that can be helped through taking some form of drug, but a lot of therapists will prefer to use talk therapy first to ensure that drug use is a last resort instead of a first defense. If you have a substance abuse problem, try to go through talk therapy first so that you do not introduce another chemical element into your body.

You may want to consider CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) as a short term fix for any of the mental problems you may be experiencing. This is a method of psychology that relates certain emotional responses to normal situations and tries to reprogram the brain to use new, healthier responses. If you always feel the need to overeat due to stress, this method would teach you other methods of handling such responses like going to a movie, taking a walk, or hanging out with friends instead of gorging yourself on a large pizza.

Support groups and group therapy are different than a private therapy session. Support groups, like AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), are completely self-run following a predetermined plan. Group therapy tends to be run by a trained counselor or psychologist and held within a controlled smaller setting involving probably 15 or less people. Keep in mind that there is no legal expectation of confidentiality as far as other group members are concerned, unlike individual therapy. Anyone in the group who isn't the leader, or counselor, is free to say whatever they want. Most groups require a pledge of anonymity first, but loose tongues can still let slip your specific situation. If you are dealing with addiction issues there are many AA-like groups that can greatly improve your chances at quitting. These groups offer support through mentors and sponsors who have been where you have been and know how hard it is to quit.

 

Managing Stress:
Another factor that can ruin your mind, body, spirit and emotional state is stress. If you have been incarcerated, then you may have some stressful issues to deal with upon your release. This entire book is based on giving you more information for handling the difficulties of being a criminal. I know how hard it can be to stay positive and relaxed when facing some serious life challenges from a conviction. Finding ways to lower, or manage your stress level will greatly improve your day to day life. You need to stay calm, be able to get enough restful sleep and create methods of dealing with the difficulties life throws at you as you try to rebuild your life. Start with the magic formula:

quality sleep + healthy diet + regular exercise = better health

The first three things that you need to address when you start handling your own stress are typically the first three things a doctor will ask you whenever you go for a checkup. Getting enough quality sleep is essential to the management of your bodily functions and mental capacities. If you try to go to work on only a few hours of sleep, the likelihood that you will make a mistake is going to greatly increase. Not getting enough sleep can lead to overeating, lack of mental awareness, sluggishness and irritability throughout your day.

The second thing is eating a healthy diet. Let's face it, prison food is lacking in quality nutrition. Once you're back on the outside, do yourself a huge favor and visit the library to find some simple books on cheaper meals that are easy to find, simple to make and healthy to eat. This doesn't mean you need to jump on trend diets, but that you should be looking for a simple eating regimen that is easy to maintain by both your cooking skills and your current financial resources. There are plenty of ways to eat healthy with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables instead of relying on gas station fare. Having a healthy diet will help you maintain a good weight, give your more energy to handle life and regulate your body's chemical balance so you don't swing from one emotional state to another without warning. Don't forget to drink plenty of water as part of your diet. You need to keep a well-oiled machine in order to get the full benefits of your body's capabilities.

The last factor you should fix is keeping a normal, regular exercise routine to manage stress and your weight. Exercise helps clean out the body and uses some of the excess energy built up over time. It helps manage our emotional issues by giving us an outlet to sweat out the anger, sadness, or shame. It also helps with our self-confidence by improving and building muscle tone, making us more attractive. If you are looking to feel better about yourself, exercise is a great way to start. There are tons of books that can help you get on track for all three of these tools, or if you have a smartphone, tons of apps that will help you maintain a healthier lifestyle. A lot of us worked out hard while on the inside, but the real world tends to not be so kind with allowing you time to stay in shape.

Another simple tool for dealing with stress that is often overlooked is meditation. A lot of people confuse meditation practices with some form of eastern mysticism, but in reality it is taking a little bit of time to focus on your breathing and escaping from the stress of daily life. You close your eyes and for 5-15 minutes, focus on your breathing going in and out, allowing the thoughts in your mind to just be acknowledged, but not dwelled upon. This is like watching people in a mall while you sit on a bench; you see the hot blond then move on to the overweight security guard and so on. Meditation doesn't need to be performed by yourself in a quiet room away from the world. A lot artists meditate while they paint, sing, write or sculpt. A lot of athletes meditate while they stretch after a serious training session. A lot of chefs meditate while they prep their food before cooking. Meditation is just a way for the mind to take a quick breather and reset its focus.

Stress affects the mind and body in so many ways that are directly counterproductive to you getting back into a state of security. It can wreak havoc on your muscles, stomach and give you massive headaches. It can lower your sex drive, increase angry outbursts, cause you to overeat, increase sadness, depression and anxiety. The worst part is it can cause an increase in social withdrawal at a time when you need to be reintroducing yourself to the norms of society. (Staff, 2013) Getting a strong handle on stress can go a long way to improving your life situation. Take the time to discover some stress relievers in your daily life and you will be amazed at the results.

You may want to try a couple of other exercises like "visualization" and "progressive muscle relaxation." These are two techniques commonly taught when taking a meditation class, or downloading an app to your smart phone like Calm. Progressive muscle relaxation is where you find a comfortable position and progressively tense and release each muscle starting from the top of your head and ending with the tips of your toes. This helps you find the areas on your body where you carry the most stress and learn to relax them. Visualization is a form of progressive meditation where you create a story, or visual scenario, of the situation you hope to be in soon and focus on the details of that visual. It is a rational, realistic look at your goals. I frequently use visualization during meditation and picture a perfect day in my life with details that represent my personal successes. For instance: if I'm driving in my new jeep along the coastal highway, I stop to get coffee for my family and check my bank account that is showing a stable, positive balance. This represents financial freedom to me and the ability to give my family whatever they may need.

A great alternative to dealing with stress is owning a pet. Having another entity in your life that you can talk to and just hang out with will help your mind reach some form of baseline from which to operate. All pets help us relax and feel wanted. There is a great feeling to coming home and finding your dog is wagging his tail. Or greeting your cat as it comes out from whatever hidey hole it has been enjoying to get scratched. Owning a pet helps us have a routine, a reason to manage our own spaces. We need to care for another creature and that requires cleaning up after them, feeding them, walking them and just being friendly toward them. Pets also encourage conversation. When you take your dog for a walk you're more likely to meet other people in a social setting. The downside is that you are now responsible for another life at a time when you need to set your own life as the priority. Before you buy a pet, be sure that you have taken care of the essential needs you may have like housing, a job, food, clothing and the requirements of your probation.

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