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Becoming the Healing Vigilante: The Beginning

03/07/2014 02:11 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2014

"Where be my proto-JAY? Where she AT?"

I looked up, startled... up walked my "trainer." Oh my. Go ahead and slow pan this one in your head: African-American, middle-aged about 5'10", overweight, loud, glasses, bad makeup, big fake nails, cross-eyed, and jacked up hair and teeth, stereotypical hot mess (dead ringer for Tyler Perry's Madea).

Patty* (pronounced Pat-tay) requested I consider her my "Mr. Miyago" as she did some pseudo karate moves. She had a unique way of speaking -- really fast and constantly repeating, "You know what, you know what, you know what?" before saying something disdainful or crude like "you stupid" or "f*ck you". Not just with me but everyone. My first priceless lessons were as followed:

(1) Never, ever, EVER lose the big set of keys (future scary story), and
(2) Never, ever, EVER say "yes" to the inmates

It went something like this:

"Learn to say the word, "NO." Like this, "Miss Pat-tay, can I talk to you? No!" "Miss Pat-tay, can I go see my baby? "No!" "Miss Pat-tay, can I go to the bathroom? No, No, No, Noooooooo!" Any questions?"

I had no time to respond. She grabbed my hand and pulled me -- I was to sit in on my first group, Grief and Loss. We entered the room and there were 25 women, who scattered to their chairs, which were arranged in a big circle.

"Don't talk, just watch and learn," Pat-tay directed me to sit across the way from her, "We gots to divide and CONQUEST!" she whispered loudly.

When she introduced me, a tough looking inmate (*Tanesha) immediately tried to intimidate me. She scoffed and asked me if I'd ever been an addict. Pretty soon most of the women in the room were smirking at me. Boom -- judged. And I hadn't even said a word yet.

Pat-tay directed the group to a pretty young Hispanic woman named *Yessica. She wrote a letter to her mother, who died from an overdose a few years ago. She was resistant to read it, but rolled her eyes and kept going with the gentle urging of *Kristie, a round-faced young inmate with really bad acne and crooked teeth. Just as Yessie was getting into it, a Caucasian woman with wild red hair (*Joy) from childcare interrupted the group, calling her out to breastfeed her baby girl, saying the 10-month old was "on one." Yessie wiped her tears hard, shoved the letter in her pocket, and left.

I was surprised she was expected to leave without concern to her process at all. No one seemed affected but me. I was also pleasantly surprised when Pat-tay was able to keep them engaged and, in a loving way, encouraged other inmates to talk. Kristie volunteered to share about sexual abuse by her stepfather, and the grief she had towards her mother, who she thinks knew it was happening. She was being so incredibly vulnerable... then suddenly I heard loud snoring.

I was COMPLETELY astounded to see it was Pat-tay. The whole energy of the room shifted and I felt the blood and breath drain from my face. Are you freaking kidding me?!? She's asleep?!? I started to panic. I was not prepared. I tried to meekly get them to quiet down. I was lost. My mind started to spin. I didn't know what to do! They were all laughing at her, at me! The group was out of control and I was letting it happen! They are going to think I suck! This is a nightmare!

Then I caught a glimpse of Kristie, who was sitting a few seats over. She looked embarrassed and was trying to stop herself from crying. I began to slow down my breath. I started to remember...adults with childhood trauma is my thing! Grief is my domain! I took a deep inhale and directed all my energy towards Kristie. I thought about her as a little girl and that piece of crap of a man touching her. I raised my voice well above the inmates, and the snoring (I am half Vietnamese with five siblings, I can be loud).

"That was BULLSH*T!" I yelled to her. Like I meant it. The room quieted. Snoring continued. I said it louder, several times, until there was no talking. I was only looking at Kristie. I said to her, "It does NOT matter whether she knew. The fact that you did not feel protected when you were a little girl, THAT is what matters. You DESERVED to be protected. You DESERVED nothing but LOVE."

Then, I spoke to the group, from my heart, "There are children here, some of
them YOUR children -- some of you getting ready to have a child. Can you imagine ANYTHING like that happening to one of them, and you just sitting back and letting it?!?"
There were lots of head shakes and "hell nos."

I encouraged Kristie to yell, "That was BULLSH*T" with me over and over again (she did it quietly). I invited the group to join in. To my surprise -- some did it, while most jaws just dropped. Whether they were doing it just to curse, or because they really felt it -- there was a sense of relief in that moment. Kristie even gave me a slight smile, then looked away.

It grew silent. I resisted the urge to break it when suddenly Pat-tay woke up and started to continue on as if she NEVER fell asleep. The room roared with laughter and the healing energy was replaced with Pat-tay's relentless defensiveness that she did not fall asleep, which soon led to threats that she would write them up if that information left the room. I watched as Tanesha and the rest of the women recoiled and agreed with whatever she said. My head was spinning from the last 60 minutes. And even as Pat-tay took me aside and threatened me, I couldn't get Kristie's smile out of my mind.

You would think a moment like this might make me question if I want to do this -- might cause some self-doubt or fear. No way (well --maybe a little). But I did what I have been practicing and teaching for years: I stepped back, started breathing, remembered my authentic self, and acted from my heart.

The very important and profound lesson: Your head can easily mess with you, but the heart does not lie. Sometimes when you get caught up in a tough moment, you hold your breath and try to think about what to say or do. What you really need is to keep breathing, feel what is in your heart and gut, and stay authentic to your true self. And remember your foundation: trust. The challenge (aka the "crap") is meant to help you grow, even if it is just a little.

Next post: 7 Ways to Stay in Your Authentic Self

*This entry is semi-autobiographical. I have tried to recreate experiences and conversations from my memories of them. In order to maintain anonymity I have changed all of the names of individuals (but mine) and some identifying characteristics and details such as physical properties and overall details.

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