An empty swing at a playground
Photo by Mgov on iStock

As far back as 7 years old I remember how my father physically and verbally abused my mother. 

One time he broke my mother’s jaw so badly she needed reconstructive surgery. Another time, I heard screaming and yelling from another room in our house. I went to investigate and found my dad beating my mother. I ran back into my room and grabbed my baseball bat. When I returned, I swung the bat at my father as hard as I could and broke his arm. 

After that incident, I ran away for a month and stayed at a friend’s house. But eventually I returned home because I felt like I needed to protect my mother.

I always begged my mom to leave my dad, but her love for him was too strong. Those years were tough for my mother and me. It felt like we were walking on eggshells. The fear my dad instilled in me made me feel powerless. Most of the time, I was too afraid to stand up to him. 

I was 15 years old when my mom filed for divorce. She finally realized that the infidelity, substance abuse and violence was unsafe for the both of us. She ended up moving into a studio apartment, but money was tight and she would not force my father to pay child support. I regretted it, but I had to move back in with my father during that time. 

Shortly after my parents divorced, my half-brother James became paralyzed from the neck down after a swimming accident. James and his girlfriend came to live with us, so we could take care of him. After six months, my father got James’ girlfriend pregnant. I was disgusted that my father could do something like that to his son. She was only four years older than I was, and now my father’s girlfriend. I felt embarrassed and ashamed. 

In all of the chaos, my little sister Chanel was a silver lining. She became my best buddy for the next two years. I would take her to the park to play, I’d read her books. We became inseparable. 

But one day I came home from baseball practice and found all my stuff in a pile in the corner of the living room. Everything else in the house was gone. No note. Nothing. I was 17 and that was the last time I saw my sister or my father.

At school I always felt like an outsider because everyone knew my situation. I felt insecure. I had low self-esteem. I imagined the other kids thought I was a terrible kid for my father to just up and leave without telling me. Even today I feel anger, sadness and shame. But I have come to realize it wasn’t me who was the problem, it was my dad.

My parents didn’t know how to deal with their own issues, so how was I supposed to navigate these things? 

I started stealing around 12 years old. Once my dad left I was sent to live with my uncle, a successful businessman in Silicon Valley. He introduced me to cocaine. That started my relationship with drugs. I thought that if a successful businessman could do cocaine, it can’t be that bad. 

Soon after, I started to hang around people who were partying and committing crimes. I quickly  realized that burglaries could support my new drug habit — and thus began a vicious cycle, one that was exacerbated by my mother’s suicide in 1992.

In 1994, I met a woman in a halfway house. We had a baby. I was 28 years old, addicted to drugs, committing crimes and worried about supporting a new family. I decided to take the easy route and commit burglaries to make ends meet. That’s how I landed a 25-years-to-life prison sentence. 

When I first entered prison I operated under the same thought patterns and addictions that brought me here. I used drugs and didn’t care about the circumstances. 

In 2010, however, my own personal connection to a victim changed my life. My grandmother was robbed of her life savings. I realized that there was no difference in what happened to her from the things I had been doing to other people. I didn’t want to be someone who hurt people like that anymore.

I started self-help classes that addressed my criminal thinking patterns: stealing, obsession, compulsion and lack of impulse control. I am still working on these things today. It took even more time before I got help with my drug addiction, but I have now been sober since 2018. I’ve utilized a handful of prison programs to address my substance abuse, crime, anger, shame, guilt and low self-esteem.

I know addiction and growth are lifelong projects, but I’m excited for my future. I now look forward to my everyday maintenance work and drawing wisdom from my past experiences.

I am getting a new sense of confidence that I lacked most of my life. My newfound pride is pushing me forward and I can’t wait to see what is possible for myself when I don’t have the weight of addiction and negativity holding me back. 

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.

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Rick Lawson

Rick Lawson is a writer incarcerated in California.