Illustration by Raul Higgins

In the midst of infirmities and traumatic memories, this deadly coronavirus pandemic continues to linger in the cells of San Quentin. Through the power of prayer and with courage, our community inhales a natural breath of resilience and exhales the most powerful currency in prison: hope. This hope resuscitated me and gave me a second wind. 

Drifting through a wind-tunnel of looming dark shadows, a haunting fear rattled my bones for years. I never gave up. I kept pushing forward until I saw a beam of loving sunshine. I reached my hands to the sky, with my arms open wide and cried out for help.

My one-on-one therapy sessions were my safe place. They were a way to learn how to pace myself for this marathon journey. Therapy purged my heart and soul like never before. As torn and fragile as my heart was, I surrendered to the process. Carrying old beliefs of “don’t trust, don’t tell and don’t cry” held me captive for years. Carrying this weight was like swimming while wearing clothes and shoes. Heavy. 

Here’s how it went down in one therapy session a few months before my parole board hearing:

Therapist: “So what you’re saying is your mom was never there for you as a child and never went to any school events or races?”

Me: “No, not even once.”

Therapist: “But she did come to see you the first time you went to jail?”

Me: “Yes.”

Therapist: “And wasn’t this right before you went to prison?”

There was a long pause. My heart started pounding and racing. I felt like someone was slugging my chest hard. I was sweaty and hot. My heart shook harder and harder. My body felt weak and my face hot. The pain was excruciating.

I started panting. I tried to hold it in, but I couldn’t. It was just too much. Then, it all came rushing out like an explosion. I started crying uncontrollably, tears pouring down my face and everything felt blurry. I remember crying hard, loud and long. It was unbearably painful. 

The shame peeled off of my heart like an old dried scab. Crying in front of my therapist was very unpleasant, too. I thought I could stop, but I couldn’t. I cried on and on for what felt like hours. My eyes looked like I was punched in the face, swollen and bloodshot. My heart felt heavy and I realized I was emotionally exhausted and broken. Hunched over, I didn’t dare to look up. All I wanted to do was crawl under the table and hide.

Therapist: “Raul, Raul. Look at me!”

I looked up, ashamed and torn, into her eyes. I could see she was crying, too.

Therapist: “I’m sorry I’m hurting you. Am I too hard on you? Do you want me to stop?”

Me: “No, it’s ok.”

Therapist: “Raul, when was the last time you cried?”

Another long pause. The tears followed quickly and this time they felt like hot burning water, slowly scarring my face as they slid down my cheeks in slow motion. I tried to speak without weeping, but all I could do was whisper. I was so ashamed, but I said softly, “I never have.”

My therapist said, “Raul, I know this is a lot for you to take on, but your heart is so strong and resilient. You’ve got great insight, your work history and institutional behavior is a testament to what you have done with your time and look at what your ‘heart change’ work has done for you. You’ve carried an incredible amount of pain, stress and suffering for so many years. Much of that you had become accustomed to and you normalized it. 

“You also have a higher pain threshold than most men and probably never realized it. I mean, look at your history. You were a pediatric phlebotomist, you finished an Ironman triathlon, ran marathons and 90-mile weeks. You worked as an EMT in an ER performing CPR for a living! That’s a lot of painful stress to carry. So tell me: What’s the difference between you working as an EMT in the ER doing CPR versus working on the ‘heart change’ work you have to do right now?”

“I had nurses and doctors right by my side helping me,” I said. “We worked together saving lives.”

“You’re right! But this time, Raul, you’ve got to save yourself, by yourself. No one can help you with that. You have to do this alone. No one can help you with that but you.”

I looked into her calm eyes with my red, puffy ones and said sadly, “I’ve never worked on myself this deeply because I didn’t trust anybody, but I can do it.”

That day, my heart, my life and my hope were completely transformed. For the first time, I realized vulnerability is the birthplace of empathy and compassion. I was honest with myself about my heart’s condition and gave myself permission to become vulnerable. The compassion touched my heart, the courage moved my soul, and they kissed. 

As a result, I gained an unashamed boldness and discernment of self and others. The colors of miraculous healing and redemption are indescribable. When I first painted that picture it was breathtaking, something I never thought possible. Putting together the pieces for my life and for the others I help allows me to lean into my own discomfort. It might have taken longer than I thought, but vulnerability is my superpower.

I truly believe God made us with two ears and one mouth for a reason. I will listen more and talk less. Looking back, it all makes sense. I remember wanting to feel connected and feel a sense of belonging. 

I love helping others solve problems. My ears record the stories and my soul is the canvas that can hold thousands and thousands of hurting hearts in a safe place. From my ears to my heart to your soul, at the speed of trust. From hurting to healing to helping. I was finally tired of being sick and tired, and I never gave up on the good idea of my life. I started believing in myself. 

My purpose and vision are to continue rebuilding and restoring all of my relationships, personal and professional. To give, serve, and love. I love to paint! But the kinds of pictures I paint are stories painted with words that touch hearts and change lives. Some are dark colors of dread and sorrow and others are bright, enlightened joys and victories. These are the feelings, thoughts, behaviors, attitudes, and actions I paint. The contours, shapes and shadows are the different stories I hear everyday. 

At work, I paint with my heart. I work inside of an Intensive Substance Use Disorder Program here at “The Q” (San Quentin) under the umbrella of the Division of Rehabilitation Programs. I work as an Internationally Certified Alcohol & Drug Counselor, Certified Alcohol & Drug Counselor II, Certified Denial Management & Relapse Prevention Specialist. I just like to call myself a “professional listener.” 

As the pandemic persistently goes on, so does life inside San Quentin. As night falls, the misty, cold bay winds hover over “The Q.” The walls sweat hopelessness, the sheets are soaked with tears of loneliness, and the wool blankets of shame keep us warm. The air is filled with lost identities, criminality, and every addiction you can imagine. 

Some occupants wallow in the “stuckness,” in a lifestyle of diminished, deteriorated, and dysfunctional denial. They call it “living the dream.” These incarcerated men don’t want to change and don’t even dare to think change is a possibility. They are stuck in deep-seated denial. 

I remember growing up not knowing what it is to be a man. I was surprised how many others also didn’t know. A common and ingrained belief is “toxic masculinity.” It pumps through their veins and out their pores. How can I teach them how to trust? These men are socially incapable of sustaining trust but their only hope of relief is to trust. How can I persuade or convince them to allow themselves to be vulnerable?

I’ve been on both sides from don’t trust, don’t tell and don’t cry to telling my story and being vulnerable. To cry like never before in front of a complete stranger is quite the task and it’s been a long and lonely journey. Now, I pull out my brush and start painting my comeback story. Its colors reveal validity. Some are pictures of my dark shadows and tunnels, some are victorious mountain highs. 

While listening to their stories, I’m painting mine. It’s a picture of me holding their hand and walking with them to their dark tunnel and showing them it’s safe, there’s light at the end. But also showing them that there’s also light in the tunnel! The light is the truth and the truth introduces rapport. The courageous resilience begins to set a different pace. 

Now the tunnel becomes a long journey, like a marathon. It’s about starting at a slow pace, a pace any runner can maintain at the start and at the finish. It is the marathon of life. My vulnerability and story are daring, yet satisfying. It was uncomfortably painful and yet it was enlightening and liberating. I’m listening.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Raul Higgins

Raul Higgins is a writer incarcerated in California.