Belonging and acceptance in a criminal world
My name is James. I'm a 31-year-old man who has spent over one-third of my life in jail.
Currently, I live in Nanaimo Correctional Centre's Guthrie House, which runs a therapeutic community program that offers addictions treatment and recovery management. Residents help each other to recognize negative beliefs and distorted thinking patterns as they prepare to live successfully in the outside world.
It's been a long journey to get where I am today—a journey with periods of profound loneliness. My deep desire for a sense of belonging led to a series of unfortunate life choices. But they also provided me with opportunities to learn valuable lessons about compassion, self-reflection and my relationships with others.
I've been using drugs since age 11, and I've been in and out of jail since I was 14. Before that, I spent years feeling alone and marginalized. I found a sense of belonging in a life of crime and addiction. It seems like it's all I've ever known.
For the past decade, I have been searching for new connections with people. This is my narrative about that experience, trying to discover, then re-discover, who I am. I'm glad to have the opportunity to shed some light on the effects of loneliness in my life.
Loneliness from a young age
My story begins in a small town in BC, the sort of town where everyone knows one another. My mother was not prepared to raise a child; she left home, and my single grandmother took on the job of raising me.
My grandmother had a rough start in life. She'd been raised by alcoholic parents and didn't have a lot of parenting or coping skills. She didn't really know how to show affection, and she didn't find it easy to encourage games or fun things that kids do. Those things just didn't interest her. She also suffered from medical issues that made it difficult for her to keep up with an energetic boy.
I was also not an easy kid to take care of. I was argumentative and her response to my challenging behaviour was to raise her voice and use verbal putdowns. Sometimes she would hit me. But to her credit, she always supported my efforts to improve my situation. She never left me hanging. She raised me the best she knew how at the time.
We had some extended family in town, but we didn't get together very often for group activities or events. Even when we did, no one wanted to spend a lot of time together. None of my extended family took much interest in me—except for one older cousin. But his parents saw me as a bad influence. I was impulsive and I had a foul mouth and I didn't like to follow rules. I wasn't a bad-hearted kid, but I was seen as a trouble-maker.
School was miserable. The other students didn’t show up to my birthday parties and spent their free time making me feel unwelcome or entertaining themselves at my expense. I was never quite sure why—perhaps it was my behaviour, or the fact that I was a little heavier than the other kids. Perhaps it was because my grandmother and I didn't have much money. I was called names and endured other forms of bullying. I can't recall anyone else getting harassed as much as I was. I just seemed to be an easy target.
When I asked for help from teachers and other staff members, I never seemed to get it. Often, I got blamed for the situation. Teachers spoke down to me or ignored me or—worse—gave me in-school suspensions. I was the only really disruptive kid, so I received the majority of the negative attention from staff. Looking back, I don't think they knew how to deal with my struggles in a creative way.
The hardest part was that I couldn't figure out what was so wrong with me. I certainly didn't feel so different from anyone else. In hindsight, I realize I wasn't particularly self-aware as a kid. Perhaps I was socially awkward or attention-seeking. Perhaps other kids saw me as annoying. Whatever the case, I would often find myself in the all-too-familiar role of outcast.
In a small town where everyone knows who you are, it is impossible to escape your reputation. Even if you really aren’t the person that everyone thinks you are, once you’re known as the troublesome kid, then that is what people see.
Drugs, alcohol and the myth of belonging
By the time I was 12, I had quit school. My grandma couldn't take my acting out, and I was placed in an intermittent government care program on weekends. One day, my grandmother called a social worker, and I was removed from our home and placed in foster care in another town.
In foster care, I quickly met all the other kids around who were like me; for the first time, I felt a sense of belonging. I spent my days on the streets with my new friends, panhandling or stealing change from cars, drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes and weed.
I enjoyed the sense of belonging and my increased independence, but I returned to my grandma's custody the following summer. I resented being back at home, and I spent a lot of time hitchhiking around southern BC. I revelled in what I thought of as my life of adventure: travelling from town to town, living on the streets or couch-surfing wherever I was, using crime to support my alcohol and drug use and the alcohol and drug habits of friends and acquaintances. My identity became that of the guy who could get the money and supply the drugs and booze without expecting anything in return—except a bed for the night. I felt like I was constantly seeking acceptance and a sense of family.
Eventually, my petty crimes caught up with me: at the age of 14, I went to juvie, where I had to adjust again to violence and bullying. I adapted. I developed a multi-faceted personality that allowed me to fit in anywhere. And when I had to, I defended myself by fighting back.
Over the years, I served three separate juvie sentences. When I was 17 and facing my third juvie sentence, I decided I needed a change. I elected to go to a youth home in northern BC to start over.
In the youth home, I managed to stay off substances. I met some healthy friends and a girl who was still in school, still on a straight path. The manager of the house became a father figure and I got a weekend job, started mountain biking more and felt a sense of purpose.
But eventually I started using substances again and things began to slide. I left the youth home, lost the job and began to push the girl away. I started using harder drugs and became addicted to crack. By the time I was 19 years old, gangs, violence and selling drugs had become my world—except now I was an adult, so I began doing time in adult custody.
In 2009, a friend who was in custody with me suggested that I request the option of a full-time treatment and recovery program. I had never really admitted that I was addicted to substances, but I knew it was time to try a different approach. My girlfriend at the time was pregnant with our child, and I really wanted to be a father to my little boy.
Lessons from recovery
I realized in recovery that my desire to fit in was why I returned to crime and my addictions. At some point, I had decided that that world was the one in which I belonged. It has been a long struggle to get to the point that I feel okay to be around people who don't "get" me. I now understand that people don't have to know everything about me; we can still have a meaningful relationship, despite not understanding everything about each other.
I've also learned to communicate with words rather than violence. I understand why people have different perceptions and I accept that fact without feeling alienated by it. I don't have to be the same as others to find belonging among them.
I also have an open mind. Without that openness, I don't think I would have learned how to bond with other human beings in a meaningful way.
I find myself able to help others learn the same sorts of lessons. In Guthrie House, where the recovery program focuses on community support and peer-to-peer interactions, I use my experience and compassion to support those who have not yet been given the gifts I have received over the course of 10 years of hard work, struggle, relapse and jail—experiences that make me the person I am today.
My sentence will be complete in 2019. Once I leave Guthrie House, I will face challenges, but I've worked hard to ensure I have a safe place to land. I've developed supportive relationships with people on the outside, I have a treatment plan in place and I've made arrangements for a healthy place to live.
I am grateful for the people I have in my life now, and I'm looking forward to starting something new. I am working on developing a relationship with my son, and my grandmother is still supportive. She and I have developed a strong and caring relationship, even though we live some distance from one another now.
Over time, I've thought about what it means to be lonely, and I've gained insight into my desire for acceptance. As a child, I was never accepted for myself; I never developed a clear understanding of how to connect with others. I could feel a bond in groups of people using substances, and over time, I associated these feelings with the lifestyle I lived and the people I was with, rather than recognizing that my sense of belonging came from our similar experiences. Those of us who lacked real connection in our lives found connection among each other—however unhealthy or confusing our lives and actions were—much like people who survive traumatic experiences together. We were all lost souls on the same journey. As I look ahead to next year, I look forward to bringing my hard-earned insights with me, and to surrounding myself with people who accept me simply for myself.
About the author
James is currently incarcerated at Nanaimo Correctional Centre, in the Guthrie House Therapeutic Community Program. He wrote his story by hand, supported by the centre's Acting Deputy Warden of Programs, Christine Bootsma