How To Break Out of Jail

As I sit here on president’s day, wondering what to do with myself now that my routine has been all disrupted, I can’t help but think of a previous client of mine.  This was when I was working with inmates, and this client, we’ll call him Jon, was very very much in jail.  He was locked up on extremely serious charges, most of which ended up being dropped, and had spent about a year in jail by the time we met each other.  We went on to work together for just over a year, and towards the end of our time together he was able to negotiate a deal that got him back into the community on probation with no felonies - this is the kind of plea-bargain windfall so rare it starts snitch rumors.  Yet, he chose to serve his probation time in jail.

Now, this always confused me.  It still does, but I think I’m starting to understand some of the motivation behind it.  When I asked him about it he told me that he’d taken this course of action because he wanted to stick it to the county to the tune of what it took to lock him up for another year; about $45,000.  And, sure, he certainly did - but I was never convinced this was anything more than an after-the-fact explanation.  He could be vindictive at times, but he was generally a kind person who was motivated to pursue freedom for himself.

Let me be perfectly clear: jail is not a place that people with homes want to stay in.  There’s an argument to be made that one of the reasons recidivism is so high is because jail and prison are the only stable environments that some people ever know. But even those folks acknowledge it’s a nice place to visit, but they wouldn’t want to live there.  When someone is given a golden ticket like the one Jon got, they get moving and they don’t look back.  They don’t write or visit their friends, they don’t come back to volunteer; they get while the getting is good.

So Jon’s argument by way of spite was hard to believe.  Thinking about him now, what leaps to mind is that just before he was arrested, he quit a decade-long addiction cold turkey.  He’d been clean several months when they locked him up.  In talking to him about that time period, it was clear that his life had gone more than a bit off the rails since he got clean.  When I asked his opinion about this, he was split.  Jon knew that he had gotten himself involved in some dangerous business, and that this had contributed heavily to his incarceration, but he also claimed he didn’t know what else to do with his time, and that he even enjoyed himself.

Which is entirely fair: what he was doing sounded like an absolute blast.  It just wasn’t a good idea, at least not long-term.  This is something we can all relate to, I’m sure; in my life, it reminds me of my tendency to stay up way too late goofing around when my partner is out of town.  It’s a lot of fun, and every now and then it’s necessary, but it’s no way to live.

What I realize is that Jon was dangerously off his routine right before he got arrested.  And while incarcerated he’d managed to find a new one for himself.  Walking out of jail meant stepping into the unknown, with all the attendant doubts and dangers that entails.  It also meant incredible possibility, but in that moment Jon couldn’t grasp this.  

It’s easy to look at this and think about how terrifying it must be to get out of jail and be expected to build a new life from pieces, and that’s true, but this is not a rare dilemma.  Every client I have ever worked with has faced down this same question in some way.  Machiavelli wrote that people would rather choose a known evil than an unknown good, and he’s mostly right.  The unknown is where fear lives; it’s a big open space in our future that our mind fills with anxiety.

So when our routines get disrupted, we tend to freak out.  And this isn’t bad - as I wrote above, indulging our whims is necessary every now and again - but it is dangerous.  Once we cut loose, we like to stay that way, because loose has become our new routine.  This is a pernicious issue, because now we have to coax ourselves to break a routine in order to jump into the possibility of the unknown!  The trick in working with this is to understand that the routine is just a story we tell ourselves, just a dinner table summary of the vast and eternal possibility of life.

The fact is that there is no such thing as a routine, just a likely set of outcomes that we wade our way through from morning till night.  At any time we could get the phone call that changes our lives forever.  That’s terrifying, and it’s also amazing.  Our lives are ours to choose at every juncture.  The question is do we use that choice to stick it spitefully to the system, or do we use it to step purposefully into the lives we craft for ourselves?