01/18/2013 12:21 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Is the Most Surprising or Unexpected Part of Life Post-Prison?

This question originally appeared on Quora.
Answer by Michael Santos, Author and Speaker,

Some may find it absurd, but the most surprising or unexpected part of my life post-prison was the challenges I faced in learning how to drive. I was arrested on August 11, 1987 for a leadership role I played in a scheme to distribute cocaine. At the time, I was 23, so I had extensive driving experience. It seemed absurd to me that I would ever forget how to drive. The subject never occurred to me.


Since early January of 2012, I knew that authorities had scheduled me for release on August 13, 2012. That meant I would have to prepare to pass the written portion of the driving exam. A quarter century had passed since I touched a steering wheel, but I didn't think that I would've forgotten how to drive. My wife, Carole, sent me the manual from the California Department of Motor Vehicles and I began studying. That studying exercise carried me through the final months of my term. By the time Carole picked me up from prison, I felt confident that I could pass the written portion of the driver's examination. I didn't have any concerns about passing the driver's portion.


As Carole drove from the Atwater Federal Prison in the Central Valley of California to the halfway in the heart of San Francisco, I observed how she maneuvered the car. It seemed fine to me. When authorities in the halfway house authorized me to begin transitioning into society a few days later, the first place I went was to the California Department of Motor Vehicles to sit for the written portion of the driver's license. I passed and a clerk scheduled me for the driving portion of the exam the following week.


Since I had passed the written exam, I had authorization to drive a vehicle as long as a licensed driver sat beside me. Carole came to help me. But as soon as I sat in the driver's seat, I realized that I no longer had the skill set to drive a car. I don't know when I forgot how to drive. It could've been at the 10-year mark, the 15-year mark, or the 20-year mark. When I walked out after 25 years, I didn't even know that I didn't know how to drive. But I was surprised to find myself scared to death as I began to venture out onto the busy streets of San Francisco.


Carole was courageous, sitting beside me as we drove several hours each day. In time, I developed the skills necessary to pass the driving portion of the exam and I received my license. I've had the license since August 31, but it wasn't until November that I regained my confidence as a driver.


Besides learning how to drive, there have been few surprising or unexpected parts of post-prison life. I began making preparations for my life after release soon after my arrest, in 1987. I educated myself, built a quasi career as a writer, and built a strong support network. Books I wrote during my imprisonment generated an income stream that supported my wife, and we invested those earnings into her education. We had accumulated a significant pool of savings that would cover my expenses during my first year of liberty, and as a registered nurse, Carole earned a steady income. I had a job waiting that would allow me to begin building a career around all that I learned while traversing a quarter century.


My transition back into society has gone remarkably smoothly. I've not yet grown used to eating with metal silverware rather than plastic sporks, nor am I accustomed to drinking out of glasses rather than plastic cups. I'm still relishing the joy of being able to eat food that was forbidden to me for a quarter century. 

This adjustment doesn't surprise me, but it helps me to appreciate every breath I take in liberty.

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