I don’t know if it was the sweatpants or his response to my question about the sweatpants that made me react the way that I did.
We were heading out the door, leaving for school when I saw them. He was wearing his sweatpants underneath his jeans just like the inmates in my facility do and I lost it. In my mind, I drew a straight line from this moment in time, from those sweatpants, to my son stealing a gun and robbing the gas station down the street. In my mind, I was helping him, I was keeping him safe.
I wanted him to change. I wasn’t going to let my son leave the house dressed like an inmate. He tried to explain but I didn’t listen. I didn’t care what his excuse was. He was going to change his clothes and he was going to change now.
He began to argue with me because, well, he was a teenager at the time, and I exploded. I was no longer arguing with my son about his sweatpants, I was clearing the dayroom. I was securing the housing unit. I was locking down the yard.
I don’t remember exactly what I said to him, but I do remember the look on his face. He looked at me as if he was scared, as if he didn’t recognize me. He looked at me like I was a monster.
And I am.
It’s always right there, just beneath the surface. The constant battle between the man I used to be and the thing that I have become. I’m not sure when it happened, I just know that it did. Despite my efforts to stop this transformation, I have become a monster.
I haven’t always had this thing, this monster, inside of me. I have birthed this emotionally numb, aggressive, apathetic animal over the course of my career in corrections in direct response to the threats, to the violence, and to the blood that we are exposed to daily.
The problem is that the same characteristics that help me survive inside of the facility complicate my connections outside of the facility, in the real world.
Sure, there is a part of me that is an outgoing and fun-loving guy. There are days when I interact with family, friends, and strangers and I laugh and joke. I hold doors for people, I smile, and it feels good. This part of me loves to go to dinner parties and comedy clubs and volunteer in the school lunchroom on my day off.
And then there is a part of me that is withdrawn. A part of me that has isolated itself from the rest of the world. This part of me is like a caged animal, a vicious cynic that is ready to pounce, to maul anything or anyone standing in its way.
You may think that my tipping point is some obvious infraction that would illicit a reaction out of any rational human being, but I can assure you that the opposite is true. Sometimes there is no reason, sometimes the monster emerges without warrant or provocation destroying everything and everyone around him.
So, I withdraw, I self-isolate. I stop going to family functions and social gatherings because I’m trying to protect people from the monster. But the monster feeds off fear, it delights in my depression, and it loves loneness.
See, the beast reacts to negativity, stress, anxiety, violence or the perception of all those things but there is a way to control the beast. There is a way to harness that raw emotion and that energy and that desire to defend and destroy.
I Had to Start Believing in Monsters
The first step to resolving any issue, regardless of the origin, is admitting that there is an issue. I had to concede. I had to be willing to admit that the correctional environment had affected me in a negative manner. I had to admit that the monster had a hold of me. I had to admit that the things I see and hear bother me.
I had to admit that the blood and the violence and the verbal abuse bothered me. I had to admit that I wasn’t as tough as I was trying to be. I was vulnerable. I was human.
Know my Triggers
Inside we train and we talk about a controlled response. But we’re always talking about responding to a use of force situation or some sort of physical danger. What I needed to do was look inward and do the same thing for my emotional responses.
I had to understand and recognize what triggers me and why. I had to figure out what causes me to react negatively and I had to limit my exposure to those triggers. For example, I know that I do not do well in a Walmart on a Saturday. There are too many people and it is loud and unruly. It makes me anxious and angry, so I don’t go. I pick up my groceries on a Tuesday morning instead.
Socialize, Socialize, Socialize
Lastly, I had to take the monster, that animal instinct, that dog out for a walk. I had to participate in activities that are positive. I had to reach out and reconnect with people that I had isolated myself from. I had to attend my sister-in-law’s dinner party that I would usually try to avoid. I had to learn to let my guard down and allow myself to relax and enjoy life.
These interactions help restore my faith in humanity and reassure me that the world is still a wonderful place full of wonderful people. When I coach little league flag football, when I volunteer at a local food pantry, and when I help my neighbor unload his new refrigerator, I feel good. I feel normal.
I Had to Ask for Help
Lastly, I had to admit that I couldn’t control, that I couldn’t combat the monster by myself. I had to ask for help. I had to let my family and my friends know that this career has affected me in a negative manner. I had to talk about the things that haunt me. I had to share so that they could understand why I behave the way that I behave.
Look, the correctional environment can affect anyone that is exposed to it, it can alter your personality, it can make you a monster. But by understanding the possible side effects, by recognizing your triggers, and by participating in positive activities you can limit the influence that this profession can have on your identity.
About the Author
Correctional Officer, Author, & Corrections Instructor
William has worked as a Correctional Officer since March of 2005. He has worked throughout his facility in various areas ranging from Sanitation to Segregation and is currently assigned to Community Corrections. William has been an instructor for his facility since 2009, teaching courses such as Emergency Preparedness (LETRA), Stress Management, Motivational Interviewing, and “From Corrections Fatigue to Fulfillment” (CF2F). He is a member of the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) and is the Assistant Coordinator of the Crisis Negotiation Team (CNT). William is a regular contributor to the “Correctional Oasis”, a monthly Ezine produced by Desert Waters Correctional Outreach and is the author of “When Home Becomes a Housing Unit.”
More of William’s work can be read in the “Correctional Oasis”, a monthly Ezine produced and published by Desert Waters Correctional Outreach and in his book “When Home Becomes a Housing Unit”.