Leslie is a graduate of the Truth be Told program; a 501(c)(3) nonprofit service organization providing transformational tools of community building, communication skills, creativity and self-care for women behind and beyond prison walls.
She agreed to be interviewed about her path to prison and life post-incarceration:
You’ve said, “We don’t heal from what we don’t talk about.” Will you elaborate on what you mean by this and how it applies to your personal healing journey?
I spent most of my life trying to hide my flaws and shortcomings, trying to hide my drug addiction. I felt that as long as my image was bright and shiny, it didn’t matter what I was doing in the dark. I didn’t have to accept the parts of myself I didn’t like. The first time I was arrested and my charges were broadcast on the news, my initial reaction was a feeling of relief, that I no longer had to hide. But I continued to do so. I continued to put on a show and act like everything was OK, and I kept getting high. I kept a lot of secrets, secrets I couldn’t heal from because I refused to talk about them.
Truth Be Told taught me the power of living in my own truth, to stop ducking and dodging who I am and to accept every part of myself. I am the sum of all my different parts — the good, the bad and the ugly. And honestly, I think there’s nothing more beautiful than the moment I learned that lesson. I’m extremely open about my addiction and past incarceration now. I no longer live in the dark.
Sometimes that makes people uncomfortable. Most people think of a heroin addict as the homeless person under the bridge, or they think of a convicted felon as someone they would rather not associate with. They don’t think of them as the woman who sits next to you in class or your co-worker. When I share my story, it becomes tangible for people whose lives aren’t affected by these things. And while it may make them uncomfortable, it also opens the door for raw, open and honest conversation, and that in itself makes it all worth it. The more I tell my story, the more accountable I am.
Since leaving prison you’ve agreed to work with a documentary filmmaker. What has that been like, and what’s the story you’re hoping to tell? Why did you agree to do it?
Working on this documentary has been ultimately healing, but it’s also been brutal, raw and sometimes difficult. I made the decision to be as honest as I possibly could when I decided to do this. Truth Be Told taught me the importance of living in my truth, and I’ve applied that to every single aspect of my life. In Truth Be Told, I had this moment of “me too” every time someone shared their story. I feel like if I had had that experience earlier in life, my journey may have been different. Being able to hear someone’s raw and honest story — and relating to it — gave me a sense of freedom. I want to be able to do that for someone else. If just one person can relate to my journey and find some healing in it, then none of it was in vain.
Advocates for criminal justice reform say that drug addiction is a public health issue and should not be criminalized. As a woman who has struggled with addiction and been to prison for drugs, what are your thoughts on the matter?
I’m a four-time convicted felon with drug-related arrests in three different states. I have never once been sentenced to any kind of drug rehabilitation or education. How is locking someone up for a drug addiction but not helping them recover from that drug addiction changing anything? The recidivism rate will never change as long as they’re just locking us up, offering us no rehabilitation, and then letting us back out with no education, tools or coping mechanisms to do better.
Mass incarceration does not work when dealing with addiction issues. All you have to do is look around and see that it doesn’t. If incarceration is necessary, then that right there is the prime opportunity to help us find better ways, to give us the things we need to not return to the streets. The fact that that isn’t what happens is just another example of how the system fails us.
In looking at your own healing and recovery, what has been most impactful for you?
Accepting myself. Learning that who I am is who I am — the parts I like and the parts that I don’t. That all of those parts deserve love and compassion. Too often I’m willing to show others compassion, but not myself. Why is that? Don’t I deserve the same grace and kindness I show others? I’ve learned that healing is not linear, that we heal in our own ways and in our own time. And that is perfectly OK. Forgiving myself has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, but the most rewarding as well.
Describe the woman you are today.
Today, the woman I am is strong. I am grounded, content and ever-evolving. I’m less than a month away from graduating from an esthiology program. I plan to work as a medical esthetician in a medical spa. Today, I’m a mother, sister, daughter, aunt and friend. I’m present in every situation, and I do my best every single today. I want to work with criminal justice reform groups, and I want to keep telling my story. I want every woman to know that it doesn’t matter where we’ve been; we’re capable of going anywhere we want to.
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