I\’ve looked at clouds from both sides now;
From up and down, and still somehow
It\’s cloud illusions I recall;
I really don\’t know clouds at all.
[Lyrics by Joni Mitchell. Published by Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC]
I think about this song often, because of its title mainly. For me personally, I’ve been on both sides of a journey; both sides of the cell wall in a county jail.
My relationship with the county jail did not begin on the wrong side of the law. My first trip to the jail was with a woman who had performed a prison ministry for many years. I genuinely wanted to help those whom much of society forgets, and those are the women behind bars. I loved it from the first day. We had two hours every Tuesday night to talk to the incarcerated. I felt as if I was where God wanted me to be. I quickly found out that most of the women had drug and/or alcohol problems, and that most came from broken homes. The lack of a father figure was a common thread. I once asked a group of women how many were raised in a family of divorce, and every single one of the 14 hands went up; mine included. However, I didn\’t see myself ever being in their position.
I had a soft spot for those women who were not only in jail, but who were “on the wall.” The wall is solitary confinement. It is a cell the size of a large closet with a toilet and a cot. The reasons that someone is banished to the wall vary from health reasons to being punished for fighting or insubordination. All I know is those on the wall may as well be in Siberia. The isolation alone is punishing enough. I suppose I understand its purpose, but it is sure hard to observe. We could only stand and talk to them from behind a small opening in the door. Some cried a lot, but most just wanted to talk for as long as possible. We humans weren\’t created to be alone. We are more like the horse – an animal with a herd mentality.
I remember one woman in particular who had been on the wall for over two months straight. No one sent her letters. No one came to visit, except for her court-appointed attorney. These are the people I consistently remember, and for whom I pray. When God tell us to \”fight the good fight\”, He isn\’t kidding. (1 Timothy 6:12) For these women the fight is a struggle.
Of course, I didn\’t know at the time that my own fight was about to begin.
My journey to the other side of the system was about five years ago when I was arrested the first time for DWI. I had never been taught any coping skills, so when the emotional pain from my childhood became too much, I medicated myself with alcohol. Since Texas is considered a \”drinking state,\” from what I\’ve been told, the DWI laws are strong. Law enforcement is all business when it deals with a person who has been drinking and driving, and it should be. We have all seen the damage that driving while impaired can do, injuring and killing innocent people. I use the word “impaired” to emphasize the fact that it’s not just alcohol that makes driving dangerous. It is also prescription pills, and even some over the counter medications that can and do alter a person’s reaction time.
I must say here that I thank God every day that I did not have an accident, nor did I have my children, or anyone else, with me in that mini-van when these shameful events occurred. In the State of Texas, if you are arrested for DWI with any minors in the car, it is a flat-out felony.
It’s incredible where the feeling of shame can take you. Jail is made for punishment. But oftentimes, we are already punishing ourselves for past sins with drugs or alcohol. Having handcuffs placed onto my wrists and being read my rights only confirmed what I already thought about myself. I was better removed from society; better removed from the land of the living. As I was led away to holding, I suddenly realized why I was drawn to these incarcerated women through the prison ministry. I was one of them.
My first night was spent in what is called the tank. It\’s a holding cell for about thirty women. There are about thirty cots that provide each prisoner with not much more than a bed to sleep upon. Your cot is your space. The more time you have to spend there, the more like your home it becomes. My tank was D-4.
When I walked into the cell, the only cot left had Catholic cards stuck on it with toothpaste. I had only been a Catholic convert for about seven years, but I knew as soon as I saw that space that God was there. That is not to say those cards were the only signs I received. However, I was hysterical my first night and when I saw all of the Catholic-Christian stuff pasted everywhere, it was comforting. Ironically, my cot was the only one like that at that time. It was like Divine Intervention led me directly there. Thankfully, my stay was short.
Once Was Not Enough
While on probation for the first offense, I was arrested just a few months later for another DWI. My stay in the tank the second time was worse than the first, because it lasted 22 days. I was supposed to stay for 30 days, but the judge took pity on me when my mother-in-law passed away, and he released me so I could attend her funeral.
To add to my shame for this second offense, I had to wear an ankle bracelet called a SCRAM device that detects any alcohol if you decide to drink. I also had to attend classes and rehab, and have a blow device installed in my mini-van. That device was always an interesting conversation piece for people who did not know of my sordid past. I couldn\’t start my van without blowing into the machine for seven seconds. So, this was all another huge lesson in humility, to say the least.
Nourish the Soul
It’s been a humbling experience, this addiction thing. I must say that God does work full-time in these jails and prisons. I\’ve seen how quickly we can we cross over from one side to the other by our own frailty.
There is a saying that I heard once in rehab, “You are unique – just like everyone else.” We are all children of God; special, unique, loved. The people you see under the bridge, sitting next to a building to keep warm, or standing at the street corner with a sign, they didn\’t start out there. People never crumble in a day. It takes time. I once met a man in one of many stays in a rehab facility that looked like a bum in every sense of the word. Then I learned that he was a graduate of Harvard University. That news blew my mind.
You can\’t judge a person by appearance alone. We all carry wounds and hurts that challenge us and are invisible. We all seek to find forgiveness, salvation, healing….we just have to know where to look. And seeking to find healing in a bottle of alcohol, or drugs, only retards the healing process and robs us of the life we deserve.
So, now that I have shared my journey, you can understand that I\’ve seen not only people from both sides now, but also myself. And while Joni Mitchell came to the conclusion that she didn\’t know clouds at all after seeing them from both sides, I know that as a human being made in God’s image, I am capable of doing very good things. Being a sinner, I am also capable of doing very bad things.
In closing, let me share a Native American (Cherokee), proverb with you. There is a legend from the Cherokee Nation that goes – an old Cherokee told his grandson: “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy and truth.” The boy thought about it for a moment, and asked: “Grandfather, which wolf wins?” The old man quietly replied: “The one you feed.”
God doesn\’t want us to feed our fears. He wants us to nourish our soul. “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” (2 Timothy 1:7)
© 2014. Robbe Lyn Sebesta. All rights reserved.