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Everything I Know About Freedom, I Learned in Prison

“Yet sometimes the best way to fully appreciate something is to live without it. Or better yet, to have to redefine it.”

They say you can’t form accurate memories until you have the language skills to assign meaning to your experience. I disagree.

We moved to Alaska when I was just a year old. As I grew, I spent the long summer days drawing wildflowers with sharpened crayons, dodging moose poop, and intentionally stepping on mushrooms that exploded into a blast of green smoke.

I remember tensing my muscles, bending my little knees just so, and the feeling of lift off from solid earth to flying over the trees and the houses.

My stomach hollowed out as I swooped low and braced as I swept back towards the clouds, until I heard my mother calling me and I shifted from weightless back to earthbound and ran home.

After dinner, we pulled thick curtains over the windows to block the midnight sun and I fell asleep watching my heartbeat rise and fall under my nightgown.

When school started, I took friends out to a stump on the playground and we lined up and took turns running, jumping, and attempting to launch ourselves into flight, but something had changed. I could no longer get airborne.

Eventually, we got distracted and moved to other things that seemed unrelated. And I would argue that all distractions—swing sets, birthday parties, high school, Monty Python, sex, college, drug dealing—are efforts to recapture our lost freedoms.

In 2003, I was incarcerated for selling ecstasy three years prior, a brief stint into drug dealing that ended in boredom and was followed later by pregnancy.

I was given two years’ time and transported by air to Bryan Federal Prison Camp in Texas — worlds away from my colorful childhood, my real or imagined freedom.

In the most literal way possible I had my freedom taken away. Or at least that’s the story we all agree on around prison. My rights as I think of them — mothering my young son, moving about as I please, phone, internet, privacy, and good food— were unavailable.

In their place were uniformity and arbitrary interpretations of bureaucracy by government employees. My name was replaced with a number. I took on the burden of a stigma that will follow me for life.

Yet sometimes the best way to fully appreciate something is to live without it. Or better yet, to have to redefine it.

All the ways that people distract and destruct on the outside are easily replicated on the inside. People on the outside, who are supposedly free, are busy creating prisons for themselves, numbing and limiting and avoiding and spiraling.

Freedom is one of those things that are deeply attractive as well as terrifying. Who would we be if we were truly free? Do we even know what it means to be free? I would say no one is ever really free, but there are surprising ways to access moments of it regardless of circumstance.

Between the clarity of the living prison metaphor and my general insolence at being told what to do — no one gets to tell me on what date I will finally be — it became my mission to figure out what it would look like to find freedom in a place where it wasn’t supposed to be found.

I figured if I could tense my muscles just so, like I did as a child — if I could redefine what it meant to be free — then I could ascend into a different viewpoint.

In prison, I had to bump up against my own frailty, despair, and regret. Disconnect sidled into the layers of grief.

It was a long time to go without being touched. It was painful to accept that I didn’t end up in that place by accident, that I was no better or worse than anyone there.

There was no way of escaping the scariest parts, the things I hide out of fear that I might be unlovable. Hard as it was, the effort paid off. But not because of books, or writing, or yoga, or therapy, or endless games of Scrabble.

While those things helped, the freedom I found, despite incarceration, came from that hard surrender of accepting my situation, and from refusing to accept the blind storyline around it— the one responsible for allotting parcels of a particular brand of freedom.

In accepting that I was there to stay until my outdate, and that the responsibility for that was on me, I saw that I had the option to decide whether to do that time angry and afraid, or to relax, and even allow myself to laugh or be appreciative for the things that were still good. This is a freedom nobody could take away.

Long after prison, I still succumb to distractions that don’t work. I’m still me, flawed and fearful. I still hope that the next thing, job, pair of sexy boots, relationship, might somehow liberate me from the heaviness of adult responsibility.

But I am clearer for getting cracked wide open, and mostly remember that the only real freedom is to breathe, to surrender, to choose grace, kindness, love.

It’s the best I can do for me, and the best gift I can give my son, who has had to engage in a far more sophisticated conversation about justice than most people. He deserves to know this ever accessible kind of freedom.

I won’t pretend it’s easy, or that these moments are delivered in shiny packages. Humanity is sweat and blood and tears. But I am so grateful to know that no matter what is happening, whether I am feeling my successful best or am tenderly navigating another loss, freedom is an option.

We are made entirely of cells and stories, and these two things are inseparable. We are always free to choose the best versions of our experiences, to live while we are here.

Meg Worden is a writer and health coach in Portland, Oregon. Find her at megworden.com, or on Twitter @megworden.

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