Not hollow-cheeked nor pock-marked, no vacant eyes or stringy hair, Raven Peres fills out her cheeks. Her skin and hair are clean, and her eyes shine with brightness and enthusiasm. She talks with a soft but shaky voice as if she's afraid of the judgment that inevitably arises once she begins uttering stories of her past. As she talks her voice begins to take on more power, her assurance in her life's path becomes more clear, and she begins to tell the story that brought her to being an ex-convict and published writer in the book "Hear Me, See Me: Incarcerated Women Write."
As a child growing up in middle-class Lyme, Conn., Raven was an honor student. She played the flute, rode horses, had lots of friends, and never got in trouble. Her life was the normal suburban life of a teenage girl growing up in the ‘90s. She never foresaw a life lived within the deep shadows of herself. Raven's life began to unravel when she was 20 and pregnant for the first time. Her baby, a daughter, was stillborn. She can trace her feelings of misery, negativity, and unhappiness back to this single event that shattered her belief in herself and put her in "the place beyond where you don't like yourself -- where you don't want to be in your own skin." This is when Raven's self destructive tendencies began and a cycle of depression, addiction to drugs, relationships and work took over her life.
In the book "Hear Me, See Me: Incarcerated Women Write," Raven's words haunt the reader as she describes needing that one last fix.
"At first, I was excited about it. Then it seemed to turn into a job itself in order to attain it," Raven writes. "Yet, I still wanted it no matter what. Every day that went by, it made me want it more and more. What was going on around here? I became a former image of myself. Consumed by what I wanted."
Raven's life became more about the addiction and less about the things that mattered until she found herself in a hotel room getting busted by the police. Raven went to jail on a felony charge for possession of drugs and spent eight months there before transitioning to the Tapestry treatment program in Brattleboro and after that, the Rise Sober Living program.
Raven thought that going to jail was the worst thing she could envision for herself; as a mother of four, she couldn't imagine being away from her children. Worse yet, she couldn't imagine the way they felt about her. Guilt plagued her and she fell into an even deeper depression. Her words from page 170 give a glimpse of the unfathomable despair Raven felt: "My mind and soul shut closed like a home in winter. Wandering the same drab hallways day in, day out. I was numb for so many moonrises and sunsets that I don't remember what a sunrise looks like anymore." She hit what she describes as rock bottom in jail and took a long hard look at herself and her situation. She recalls feeling fear when she confronted the depths within her, afraid that she wouldn't like what she saw. Her new found sobriety helped her "look down to the bottom and what came to the surface was an amazing person with so much to offer herself, her children, her family, and the world." She remains grateful for the opportunities that incarceration provided her, and "wouldn't trade it for anything, ever."
While Raven was in jail, two teachers started a writing group that met once a week. The inmates became really inspired to write and create and to give a voice to that which had been voiceless for years, in some cases forever. It became a way for them to give themselves the power to think, feel, speak and be heard. Raven responded well to the class since she had been writing since high school. Being sober, along with giving herself the permission to engage after all of the years of running away pulled Raven through some of the darkest days in jail. The facilitators of the class helped to gently push Raven to confront her demons through writing. She began to feel as though she had her own voice and that the drugs were no longer speaking for her. Empowerment and a sense of self were her rewards for going to the depths. She returned from her journey inward with a fresh start, and came out on the other side in a much better place, where it seemed the sun was shining in a different, more hopeful way. Eventually her work from the class was published with other women convicts in "Hear Me, See Me: Incarcerated Women Write."
Looking back on her adult life, Raven realized she never believed in herself and because of that her choices had not reflected her true inner feelings. She thinks about those times and how so many of her decisions were made when she didn't believe in herself or her abilities and realizes that those moments defined the next, and so on in cycles that ended her up in a hotel room surrounded by police. Raven realizes that there is a stigma associated with addicts and convicts, that the general public believes that they lack intelligence, but Raven knows that "couldn't be farther from the truth," believing that "some of the most interesting and intelligent people I've met have been in addiction programs and jail." Raven knows that jail time is not the sum total of herself or anybody else.
"Going to jail has given me a whole new life," Raven said as she explains how it's helped her turn her life around. As a child one of her greatest dreams was to have her writing published and jail has made that dream come true. She is back in school and doesn't believe she'd be getting her degree without her time in the system. It has made her more determined and given her a sure and strong feeling that she can be successful and even deserves it. Raven's biggest lesson from her stay in prison is that "no matter how far you go, you can always turn back." Raven's four children are not in her custody but she is still very involved with them and is regaining her life so that she can be their mother in the best and most present way she can. She tells her children every day that she believes in them, that she is proud of them, and that she loves them.
Raven's biggest fear isn't going back to jail as she's heard so many ex-cons say, but going back to that place of darkness inside her that felt as if it had no ends. When Raven finished her treatment programs, she decided to stay in Brattleboro because it was a place that felt welcoming and amazingly supportive, as if she were home. But for Raven, home isn't just a place where she lives, it's the place deep inside her that she is no longer afraid of confronting, peaceful and content.
Abby Bliss is a regular contributor to the Reformer. To suggest people for this column, write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.