Power: Getting It, Losing It, Regaining It


We’d seen the lights from the prison complex the night before, long before the actual buildings appeared just outside Winslow on Highway 87. Night had fallen black and featureless, and they shone over the horizon like the glow of a distant city, dwarfing the illumination of the town itself. When we came abreast of the starkly lit compound, the barbed wire fences and long squat buildings suggested more than anything an emptiness. A waiting. Then the darkness swallowed us up again.

Winslow. The Winslow of “Standing on a corner in Winslow Arizona.” I’d long thought it would be fun to stop at the actual corner that the song celebrates. After all, the Eagles had provided the soundtrack to my college years. When, this last weekend, I found myself but a couple of blocks away, my mental energy was elsewhere.

I was in Winslow to see my son. My beautiful son. My son who is addicted to heroin. I could say he is an addict, but I dislike ascribing an identity to him in that way. As a friend pointed out, his addiction does not define him. Yet it has defined his life over the last half a decade. And that life went its predictable way since he started using heavily. He lost his job. Became homeless. He was in and out of jail for a year and a half. In and out of rehab, though never seriously in. Last September, he did himself the favor of not avoiding the police when he returned to an apartment he’d been staying at to find two officers responding to an unrelated theft. He was questioned, patted down, arrested. This time he got prison, not jail.

It was my first visit to the Arizona State Prison Complex, though my son has been there since November. A visit is of course not a slap-dash, spontaneous kind of event. There is the enormous task of figuring out the bureaucracy, paying fees for background checks, learning how to set up prepaid calls, and applying for visitation rights. I was approved before Christmas. Both my husband and my sister, for reasons I won’t go into, were denied. Finally I could wait no longer. I would go alone.

Even before Charli Mills put out the prompt on power last week, I had been thinking about the theme. I had been pondering it in relation to my son. In particular, I had been thinking about the lack of power, about throwing away one’s power. That led me to reflect on just how we get power, on what power I had, on what power remained to my son in his present circumstances.

I talked to my husband about it. I was thinking of power as force, but he pointed out how power is influence, the ability to effect an outcome. He noted Alvin Toffler’s book Power Shift in which the author identified three distinct kinds of power: the physical, the financial, and knowledge. So, I surveyed my own power or influence, checking my examples against Toffler’s basic formula but also including others. I have the power of knowledge, afforded by a curious mind and a decent education; some financial power in the form of a regular income and good credit; the physical power of a healthy (as of yet) body (and still functioning mind); the social power I might exert through my network of family, friends, and associates; the political power of my vote (I still think that is worth something); the power afforded by my autonomy and relative freedom; the power afforded to me by the rights I enjoy as an American citizen; and the power to influence my own circumstances through discipline, self-regulation, and self responsibility.

It’s not a great deal of power, but I was satisfied for the time being to know I had at least a modicum of the precious stuff.

In contrast, my son has been rendered almost powerless. I was reminded of just how powerless when we drove up to the stark, isolated complex on Saturday. It was a cold, bright morning. A guard checked our IDs at the gate and waved me in as my husband turned the car around to leave. The guard then instructed me to stand behind a portable trifold fence while a leashed German shepherd made a few sniffing passes on the other side. Satisfied that I was not carrying any drugs on my person, he then directed me to a nondescript building at the end of a short road. Once inside, I filled out the requisite form, removed my shoes and sweater for inspection, handed over my baggie of coins (up to $30.00 permitted for vending machines) and the one unopened pack of Marlboro reds I had bought for my son. I was told to open and empty the contents of the pack into another baggie. Then I passed through the security booth, gathered up my items, and entered the visitation room.

Inside three or four families of visitors had preceded me. They sat on cheap plastic chairs around battered square tables visiting with their orange-clad inmates. Around the perimeter various vending machines offered the usual chips, sodas, water, and weak coffee. I wavered for a moment surveying the choices of table. “You can sit anywhere,” a woman called jovially to me. She clearly knew the routine. An armed guard sat behind a folding table on the far side of the room, next to a locker that I later found contained board games and playing cards. He rose and asked me my inmate’s name. Then he moved to a locked door leading out into the yard and called it out. A moment later I heard it amplified by loud speakers. I was happy it was his name and not his number.

I chose a table within sight of the door leading to the yard. Periodically the guard stepped through it to see if any inmates had lined up outside to be admitted. I eagerly peered through each time he opened it, anxious to see that familiar form. I felt the keen anticipation one has when waiting in an arrival lounge at the airport.

At last he came through. At 6 feet 2 inches, my son has towered over me for the last five years, and the old pride of having to rise up to hug him returned. (The simple maternal pride of having produced this man.) He has a high-bridged prominent nose, dark, thick eyebrows and eyes the color of strong tea. These features were as familiar as always. But his strong, thick arms and shoulders were something new. As were the orange sweatshirt, pants, and slippers. I had not hugged him since last May. I had not seen him since then, except for the two times in court last November. Both times his wrists and ankles had been shackled.

We spent the next four hours talking, playing checkers (as we had so often done when he was a boy), and going out to a separate yard where he could smoke. He spoke of his arrest, of feeling like the moment had come to get out of the life he’d been living, of knowing there would be no other way he could stop using. He spoke of events in his recent past, some painful for me to hear. He spoke of his future, of what he wants and hopes for. And we spoke of power. Of being empowered.

And that is what I hope for him. That of the qualities on the list I made for myself above, my son achieves the last three while he is still incarcerated: the power to influence his future through discipline, self-regulation, and self responsibility. Those three strengths are the basis of all power to come. And those three qualities, if externally enforced now, can be bolstered internally.

Here is my flash on the theme of power. Thanks to Charli Mills for another provocative prompt. February 3, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that explores the question, “What good is power?” Is it a story of empowerment, or a story of a dictator? Poke around power and go where the force takes you this week.

The Power Remaining

He’d learned the unwritten rules in the first weeks. How he had to back up his own kind. Step into a fight between a white inmate and the blacks or Hispanics. Take another inmate with him anytime he talked to a guard, insurance against a false report on either side. And how to look out when someone got high on contraband dope.

The dope. He’d been offered it. Had fought the memory of the pleasure of it in his veins, the release, the purest happiness there could be.

But he’d resisted. It was the one power remaining to him.



20 thoughts on “Power: Getting It, Losing It, Regaining It

  1. Jeanne – this is so powerful in itself. You have the power of the written word, the power to take me into this world with you and the power to reduce me to tears – knowing too as a Mum, how much you love that boy of yours and how much hope you must hold that he will retain his own power over his current choices.

    Thank you for sharing this. ❤️

    1. Thanks so much for the validation Lisa. I have hesitated to write about my son’s struggle publicly. As you can imagine, it has been a journey for all of us who love him. A very humbling, painful journey at times, but one, I hope, of growth and increased understanding. And it is your example that, along with a select few other bloggers, has inspired me to write about the things that are uppermost in my thoughts and deepest in my heart. I so appreciate your stopping by.

    1. Ahh, Anne, if only a mother’s power were all that were needed. I can only hope my love and support, and that of other family members, holds some sway against the terrible scourge of heroin. One never knows much about these things until it strikes home. But now, knowing that there are thousands of stories like my son’s, I think all of our society must come together in the belief that these young people can change. It has been interesting in my own family circle to see the effect of this situation on my very conservative brothers, for example. It has certainly opened more eyes than my own. Thanks as always for stopping by.

  2. Powerful post, brave and beautifully told. I hung on your every word, felt the glimmer of hope in your son’s path to empowerment. Incredible flash you wrote to honor his struggle for power.

    1. I found the flash hard to write Charli, kept coming at it from different angles. Then thought I would just write it from the conversation I’d had with my son. It is very difficult to see a child throw away his the power of his youth and resources and mind, but I have to stay hopeful. As I said to Lisa in my comment back to her, it is other bloggers who are showing me the path to writing with honesty and courage about the deepest matters of the heart. I trust you recognized who(m) I was referring to!

  3. Oh Jeanne. I feel for you. I could feel the anguish and despair in your words. But more than that I could feel the hope and the power, the empowering effect of your visit, your understanding and your belief in him, upon your son. I wish him a good outcome. It seems like he has made that decision. Knowing that he has your support will be a great thread to help him weave his way back. Thank you for sharing such an important story and accepting us into these parts of your life. How empowering is the written word. I wish you, your son and all your family, the very best that the future holds.

    1. Yes, the hope…that is the flame that must constantly be rekindled and stoked. I think the process of coming to terms with a family’s member’s addiction is a bit like grieving. There is the first high hurdle of denial to get over. That takes a long time. Not my son! Anger follows, surprisingly vicious….”How could he do that to me? To his sister? To himself…” Then bargaining….offering all types of support … all of which has as much shine as an old penny compared to the diamond brilliance of the drug. And finally acceptance. That is where I am at now. And love of course. I think the support is a two sided thing to an addict: it bolsters but also presents another burden of guilt should they fail. Thanks for your comments and engagement Norah. Writing about it at last has been liberating.

  4. Dear Jeanne, you know how much I relate to this post, when I think of all the visits I’ve made to see my dad in prison. But somehow, with your son, your dear, dear son…there is something different, more raw, more painful. As mothers, there is nothing worse than when our children hurt. When my daughter goes through her anxiety meltdowns, it wipes me out for days. I can’t write when I feel like that. I hope that writing this, sharing your heart with us, your hopes and your fears for your son, helped you. Your excellent flash expresses this perfectly. Strangely, my dad, though offered it, never drinks in prison. And from the sound of it, your son is already finding some measure of power in his life ‘…through discipline, self-regulation, and self responsibility…’ by refusing those drugs offered to him. This is empowering for you both, and you can take heart in the hopes of a new life to come for your boy through lessons learned, although harsh and painful and so incredibly hard to stand by and watch. I know those cheap, plastic chairs and tables. I also know a mother’s heart. Next time you visit, I’ll be with you in spirit, sitting quietly, and then afterwards, I’ll be there to give you a great big hug and a shoulder on which to cry, should you need to… <3

    1. I remember your references to your father in a past post or comment. And I think it is different, the feeling one gets from seeing a parent versus a child go through such painful experiences. With a father it may be harder in some respects. I imagine that there is a feeling of betrayal perhaps, of loss and the sense of not having had something crucial in your youth to build your own future on. Of that most important person in your life failing you in an irredeemable way. then of course when it is your child, you wonder endlessly what you did or didn’t do or could have done. Two sides of the same blade perhaps. Either way it certainly cuts deep. Good for your dad! That is a kind of triumph to be sure. Alcoholism is addiction too, of course, one of the most insidious kinds since drink is socially sanctioned and the media images of it, unlike narcotic drugs, are so deceptive. With my son, I can only hope he is telling me the truth, not what I want to hear. And the harder test will comes when he is free again. Thanks for the offer of a hug and a shoulder Sherri. I may take you up on that.

      1. Ah, Jeanne, your words ripped holes in my heart! Not for me, but for you and all mothers who anguish over the choices and life paths taken by one’s children. Thank you for sharing a bit of your soul; I can only imagine what you are going through. Stay strong, comadre, he needs you!

        1. Ay mujer, so good to see you in this space. I remember a day about five or six years ago in Tempe. I had him on the phone and was trying to settle him down. You were in the back with me, in the ABE space near your office. I think I shared a little with you then, and that was just the beginning. I hid a lot of what was going on, for four years or so. But I find when I share now, I get the gift of understanding and support, just like you have given me here. I miss you! But I feel like I just got one of your great big hugs. And as for children, what power they have, to deliver great joy and great pain. But you have to be there and be strong, no matter what, as you have said.

  5. You also have power in your words. I am shocked and sad to hear that your son’s addiction has taken him to such a dark place, but I, too, found hope in your words. I find strength in your telling of this story as I can imagine how difficult it must have been to put this out in the world. May health, happiness, and a new path present themselves sooner rather than later.

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by Amberly. I appreciate your thoughts. I often remember the days my son was young when I see your posts on Facebook, with those two little gentlemen of yours. And I think it was good that I could not have foreseen what was to come. Having said that, that young boy my son was is still in there. All that potential is still there. As for strength, well as most of us learn at some point, strength is like courage: it’s not something that just sits there like a quality you can pour out of a bottle when you need it. It is a response to a challenge, something that rises up in you even when you cry in fear under a rock. Maybe that is a lesson I will take away from all this. God knows I hope to learn something from the experience! Thanks again for reaching out.

  6. Jeanne,

    What a beautiful and heartfelt outpouring of you love and grief. Your power over the written word will give you the strength you need to keep that flame of hope burning. I can’t begin to imagine your grief for your child, but I’ve gone through some of it with my father and a sister. So I know what power drugs hold over human life, how they can steal that life and provide the relief to a pain that can’t be diminished in any other way. I’m so sorry you are having to go through this. All I can say is that you need to believe in hope, and that you need to believe you are not responsible in any way for what has happened. From a cosmic perspective, you could not have prevented it, nor are you to blame. That drug holds way more power over the human species than should ever be allowed. All you can do is provide the love and strength that your son is going to need for the rest of his life.

    1. So good to see you in this space Suzanne. The grief is at bay, for the moment, simply because I know where he is and have some assurance that he is safe, as well as having contact, but yes,there have been times where the violence of my feelings has frightened me. I think it’s the fear underneath it all and the powerlessness one feels in that situation that really rocks a person. Trying to control your thoughts–to separate what you know of the reality from what you imagine–becomes a real challenge. And you mention your own experience. That is something that struck me once I began to be more honest about what was going on. I was astonished at how many people opened up to me and shared their own stories of sons or daughters or spouses or parents who suffered with addiction. That helped me tremendously, since another aspect of going through this is the loneliness you feel when you isolate yourself or don’t speak up. Also, you are so right about this being something that will go on forever. In the early days I kept thinking there would some definitive end to it all. My eyes have been opened. I know now it’s something that can raise its ugly head after many years of being clean. Then again, I choose to be as positive as I can right now. I choose to think of the happy examples sometimes, and not just the very sad one. Thanks again for stopping by!

    1. Thanks Linda for reading and for taking the time to leave a comment. Children bring challenges, as so many of have found. But they bring joy too. I try not to forget that. Even with the incarceration, I celebrate the opportunity to talk to the real person there, the son I knew before he disappeared into his addiction, not the one “in hiding.” And I hold on to that feeling, even knowing it could be temporary. And thank you for the prayers. I am touched.

  7. Oh Jeanne I had no idea, this is a private heartbreaking side of your life and I am so glad you’ve decided to share it now because nobody, especially a mother, should go through all this alone. You are a very strong woman, and I pray that at last your son will find the strength and the power to continue to so no, it’s so very hard. The fact that you wrote about your experience so beautifully made it all the more poignant; the comment that really sticks in my mind: ‘I was so glad it was a name and not a number.’ Bless you both and good luck, we’re thinking of you.

    1. Mary Rose, so very good to see your remarks here. Thanks for reading the post and taking the time to comment. Yes, it has been a secret I kept for a long time. I finally realized how unhealthy it was for me, to stay silent on top of the stress and uncertainty of what I was witnessing. And I thought recently that I ought to put this blog to good use, to address topics and issues of deepest concern to me, rather than simply add to the mass of writing tips and reflections out there. As I commented elsewhere, once I opened up about my own struggle, others astounded me by sharing similar stories. I will write you soon on email. Still have your Christmas/New Years update in my inbox! And again, thanks so much for visiting and sharing your impressions.

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