Who do you see when you look in the mirror? Who do you see when you look at your friends or your family? What type of person do you gravitate towards? What must happen to an individual for your view to change from seeing the actual person to viewing them only as a statistic?

I ask these questions because I am viewed as a statistic. One of those numbers that has fallen through the cracks. Without knowing or seeing me, society has chosen to label me as a number. I used to feed into this belief, but over a 10-year journey of incarceration, I’ve learned that I am more than this label, and I will no longer continue to live my life in a way society defines me.

Growing up, I was the youngest child in a broken home. My parents were divorced, and I was forced to live with an alcoholic mother. Dysfunctionality poured out of every direct contact that I had with any formative relations. I dealt with molestation, physical and mental abuse. In addition, many of my younger years were spent unknowingly dealing with mental illness boiling just below the surface. My life was an exercise in survival. Millions of children today live in similar or worse conditions. What happens to these children? While some of them manage to lead successful lives in spite of their upbringing, many take the same path of dysfunction that I know all too well.

The dysfunctional perceptions I had of the world made it difficult to build healthy relationships and make rational, wise choices. Society, as a whole, does not understand how to accept what they perceive as “abnormal.” Children and teenagers will pick on or bully those they view as flawed or weak. Children who have social anxiety because of situational conditioning will have difficulties compounded by the society they desperately want to be part of.

The cycle perpetuates and often the draw and pull of mind-altering substances – those that will take them out of their own heads to pretend for a while to be someone else — win.

This is my story, when I reached adulthood and found myself in trouble with the law as the cycle of destruction continued. I became yet another statistic.

How does society deal with broken people? We incarcerate. I ended up in prison. I do not want anyone to have to walk in my shoes but so many do it every year. In the United States, 16% of the prison population struggle with mental illness and 67% have drug use issues.

So what happened? It took a lot of time, but I am finally at a point in my life where my belief in myself has been restored and I can choose to walk another path.

My awakening came to me in prison, which began when I was sentenced to 10 years for a drug charge, a culmination of years of living with mental illness, addiction, pain, and emotional trauma.

I took a chance and pursued a job with and organization that changed my life in many ways. It gave me skills in the sales and marketing field that are unparalleled. I was also able to work my way up and learn other skills in the training and learning development field. In addition to work skills, I also pursued attaining my Associates degree while incarcerated.

My life’s journey was altered by a socially responsible organization that not only provides jobs to incarcerated women, but also gives us a new lease on life if you choose to take it. I now have a passionate drive for education coupled with an energy to enhance the already burgeoning skills that I’ve learned over my tenure in prison of all places.

In the last part of my journey, I found myself with the opportunity to work with Arouet. Here with this this organization, I learned about how to manage my money, create my resume, a lot of little life tweaks that have changed how I live day to day. Arouet gave me the last pieces of the puzzle that I had been looking for such as, how do I set expectations? How do I deal with the uncomfortable feelings of being an outsider to the rest of the world?

I have learned during my decade of incarceration that social responsibility does not have to be a catch phrase, it can and should be a priority in all organizations. Many of the people that have come before me show me every day that perceptions can be changed, and new lives can be made by taking the time to look past the numbers—the stigmas. Look past the broken woman and see the potential. As I now reflect on my journey outside of prison gates, I know that breaking free from the mold of being a statistic IS possible. I urge you to look beyond statistics and ask yourself how you can make a difference in someone’s life.

When you look at others, who do you truly see?

(Sam is a transition, volunteer, and Arouet Storyteller, if you are interested in telling your story contact us today!)