Disposable Women

Childhood trauma, also called “complex PTSD”, impacts the lives of a lot of men and women, and the effects can be devastating. It can lead to a host of major issues in a person’s life, such as addiction, depression, anxiety, impulsive behavior, the inability to focus, problems with relationships, and a broken sense of self. One group where this is very prevalent is among women inmates. I discovered this by accident when I became a pen pal for a woman in the federal prison system who was serving a long sentence for a drug conviction. As I began researching the issues facing women inmates, I was struck by the fact that about 90% of the women in prison were victims of sexual trauma, the majority grew up in families with addiction, and grew up in poverty. While there are certainly dangerous women who need to be locked up, the majority are serving long prison sentences for non-violent drug offenses.


Here is the story of one those women:

“I don’t resent those who were born with every­thing. For whatever reason, there are just some people who were born on third base and merely have to wait for someone to step up to the plate and hit the ball for them to trot home for their big score. It is not their fault that they were born into a family with such a vast supply of resources and connections that they are spared the hardship that is the reality for most everyone else.


For the majority of folks, stepping up to the plate is not an easy thing. Even those who are successful hitters strike out most of the time. Some stumble on their way to second base and are tagged out and have to go back to the bench. There are a few who let their emotions get the best of them and who may be ejected from the game. But even they have a chance to play another day. So, while divorce, a failed business, losing a job, illness in the family, and a host of other hazards may keep people from making it around the bases to score, at least they get a chance at bat.


For people like me, it is a different matter. I was born outside of the ballpark where those who don’t have the resources to give them a chance at bat grow up. It isn’t a place where the people in the field of play direct their attention, and those of us who live there often feel invisible and that we don’t matter. We just watch as everyone else is cheered on and wonder why we can’t play, too. The worst part is that those of us on the outside are often treated with disdain—as though there is something innately more worthy of those who can afford to play the game while the rest of us cannot.


There is a fine line between using circumstance as an explanation and an excuse—between wanting people to understand your struggle and wanting to avoid accountability.  While most kids had parents who read to them, mine thought it funny to blow pot smoke in my face.  While most had family friends who helped them celebrate their birthdays, my father’s friend raped me.  While most had sleepovers with other neighborhood kids, my “sleepover” consisted of my mom and I hiding at her friend’s house terrified for our lives, as her friend’s oldest son molested me at night.  While most kids learned to fish, ride bikes, or camp, my father taught me how to use drugs with him so he wouldn’t have to use them alone.  So, is this an explanation or an excuse for why I have struggled with a broken sense of self and not knowing how to make good decisions?  Is this an explanation or excuse for why I ended up being involved with abusive men whose psychosis felt oddly comfortable and familiar?  Or even why I ended up using drugs?


Childhood trauma has an interesting effect on the mind.  It normalizes the insane and damages the part of you that allows you to recognize and avoid danger.  I certainly did not enter either of my abusive relationships as an adult because I liked having a tooth busted out with a butt of a gun, or that I liked being choked to unconsciousness and raped, or that I liked being held hostage in a hotel room for days at a time while being tortured.  I ended up in these situations because these sick people had an energy about them that felt familiar, and I didn’t know how to recognize danger.  In one of my attempts to escape, my abusive ex-boyfriend drove me off the road and fired several shots into my car in an attempt to kill me.  And despite repeated attempts to get away, he always found me.  There were several times that I fully surrendered to the realization that I was going to die.  So, is this an explanation or an excuse for why I couldn’t think straight, or why I still struggle to trust people?


I am one of the thousands of women who have experienced a lifetime of neglect and trauma and are now languishing in the prison system for non-violent drug offenses.  We have become the class of “disposable women”—the class of women who were born into poverty and violence and now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, and a broken sense of self.  Unfortunately, rather than receiving support and care, we face extremely long prison sentences because of our addiction.


Despite being born into poverty and experiencing prolonged and repeated trauma, I do not use it as an excuse for why I should not be held accountable for making bad decisions.  I hold myself very accountable for where my life has ended up, and not a day goes by that I don’t feel the deep pain of regret.  I would never want anyone to experience what I have lived through.  Some of it was so terrifying that it would be too shocking to the senses for a Hollywood horror film.  But, what I wish people could understand is that being wounded by childhood trauma and making really stupid decisions because of it, it not the same thing as being an evil person, nor is it trying to avoid accountability.  On the contrary, what I want more than anything is simply for a chance for a normal life.  I don’t want anything special, I don’t want to pretend that I never did anything wrong, and I don’t want to be pitied.  I just want to be given the same shot at building a life for myself that most other people take for granted.”

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