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You Don’t Have to Be a Prisoner of Your Past
Written by David Lee

Own It, Accept It and Share It

Colleen Garrick describes prison as “probably one of the most beautiful experiences in my life”… not something I expected to hear in our interview.

The first thing that hit me when meeting Colleen in our initial career coaching session was her infectious smile and positivity. When she told me how she handled job interviews after being released from prison for drug trafficking
in 2013, I knew I wanted to interview her.

Early in her phone interview for a position in a consulting firm, Colleen told the recruiter: “I need to disclose something. I am an addict in recovery, I just got out of prison and I don’t want to waste your time, and I don’t want you to waste my time.”

The interviewer thanked her for her candor and continued with the interview.

The interviewer’s response was a great example of who you are NOW speaks louder than who you WERE back then.

Because of how Colleen showed up—as a positive, cheerful, person who emanated self-esteem—rather than as someone who saw themselves as “less than” because of their past, the interviewer also saw her as a capable, worthy prospect.

A few days later, she was hired.

I was struck by how at peace and self-accepting Colleen was in disclosing this part of her past to the interviewer. Impressed and intrigued, I asked her how she got to that place.

“The only reason why I’m not a prisoner of the past is because of The Steps…the actions I take today allow me to look in the mirror again.”

This is something we would all do well to remember.

While our past mistakes can impact us today and in the future, they do not define us, nor does our past determine our future.

It’s Not What Happens To You, But How You React To It That Matters

Colleen describing prison as “probably one of the most beautiful experiences in my life” is obviously not something you would expect someone to say about being incarcerated.

It wasn’t always that way, though.

By the time she was sentenced, she was in recovery, had become the house president at the sober living house where she lived, and had gotten her Alcohol and Drug Counselor certification.

When she first entered the corrections facility, she was angry and resentful. Her attitude was “I don’t belong here. I’ve been doing the right thing.”

Then one day something shifted.

She found herself accepting the reality of her situation and reconnected with her willingness to, in her words, “live life on its terms.” She started going to meetings, taking courses, teaching yoga, and sponsoring other addicts.

With this attitude shift came true freedom and happiness in a place not particularly associated with those words.

With a laugh, Colleen notes how a lot of the other prisoners didn’t like her because she was so happy.

“They’re like… ‘Why is this girl so happy? She’s in prison.’ And, you know, it’s a true testament to the fact that The Steps work. I was able to find freedom from that mental chaos when you’re in addiction, by working the steps and being connected to a loving God.”

Hard Work, A Different You, and the Ripple Effect

Two of the most heart-warming moments of our interview for this article came when Colleen talked about the gift her recovery has been to others.

First, she recounted a letter she received from the mother of one of her sponsees, expressing gratitude for how Colleen has helped her daughter.

“Because of you, I can sleep at night,” wrote the mom.

While acknowledging that she is just a conduit, Colleen also acknowledges the unforeseen impact you can have by doing your work:

“Sometimes we don’t even think about the ripple effect we can have. I wasn’t thinking about how I would impact her mom. I was thinking how can I help my friend?

And yet that ripple effect is just huge. Her mother sleeps at night and my friend’s children sleep at night, and then all those people, they impact others.”

The second moment came when Colleen recounted an interaction she had in a recent job interview. When she disclosed her criminal record, the interviewer said “Thank you for your vulnerability.”

Notice the interviewer didn’t simply say “Thank you for your honesty.”

She thanked Colleen for something deeper and more significant than that.

She thanked her for being authentically human, without façade or pretense, something rare in our society, especially in the world of work.

I can’t help but wonder if it gave the interviewer a new vision of what is possible in relating to other humans, that it is possible to be authentic and real, and unabashedly you. Perhaps it might inspire her to begin to accept her past and her imperfections.

Colleen’s experiences are a wonderful reminder that when you own your past, rather than let your past own you, there’s no telling the good you can bring into the world.

David Lee

David Lee

David Lee is a career coach with Heart at Work Associates and a workplace relationship consultant. He is the author of the “Dealing with a Difficult Co-Worker: The Courageous Conversations at Work Series.”