- Associated Press - Monday, January 23, 2017

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - Amanda Mitchell felt trapped. New traumas in her life had reopened old wounds of childhood abuse.

Triggers. She hated triggers. They made her feel like a puppet on a string: vulnerable and easily manipulated.

Life was easier without feeling. To feel would be to face the truth, to look at herself and to love the person staring back despite the invisible scars.

“I was so angry from years of hurt and pain and the silence that didn’t come out- and that I didn’t let out. I didn’t feel safe. What way did I put it out to the world? Through stealing,” Mitchell, 39, of Keene said as she reflected on the time prior to her arrest and incarceration.

Her boyfriend of three years had just broken up with her. And, more devastating, she learned one of her three sons had been a victim of online sexual abuse.

Mitchell said she had been raped years earlier, and as she heard the news about her son, the pain of her own abuse came rushing back. She was numb to the core.

“All this trauma was lingering around, and one day I just couldn’t get up anymore,” the mother of four said.

In the middle of the night, Mitchell turned on the computer, logged in to her Amazon account and used her ex-boyfriend’s credit card to buy whatever she wanted. She clicked “purchase” a few more times over the course of roughly three weeks and racked up more than $20,000 in charges.

Her punishment: two to four years in state prison.

At first, she had difficulty accepting her fate and the sequence of events that led her there. Quietly, she was battling a mental illness, although the scope of her struggle was not yet clear.

She had to reconcile leaving her school-aged children behind. She had committed an impulsive crime without the best interest of her children in mind. For that, she knew she needed to accept responsibility.

But she had trouble communicating with her children at first, as if a thick haze clouded her mind, she said. She was scared and not quite sure how to support them through the chaos, or how to earn back their trust.

“I just wasn’t clear on how I was supposed to feel but a failure,” she recalled. “I had no right- and I still have no right -to be angry at the situation, at them or at the system. It was my fault.”

Dec. 22 marked nine months since her release from the women’s prison in Goffstown, where she spent 18 months and two weeks. It is behind prison walls where Mitchell found her voice after decades of silence, and where she realized how to help other incarcerated women do the same.

Her revelation gave birth to the “Silence No More” project, which encourages incarcerated women to share their trauma and life experiences through art when words fail. It’s an effort she started while in prison and is continuing on the outside.

Today, she is studying writing and psychology and wants to one day be an art therapist.

“Prison was my greatest experience of change,” she said. “Prison did something for me that I can’t really put a word to. I learned to love myself and forgive myself and say my trauma is mine. … I went in and I rehabilitated myself, which isn’t something many can say.”

Mitchell remembers the first time she received a visit from her children while incarcerated. It was December 2014, just a couple of months into her sentence and days before Christmas.

“It was the hardest day of my life, one of them,” she said. “I was still in that fog and I didn’t feel like the mom I was. … I felt so bad for my kids to have to come in and be scanned and security-checked, and to be treated like the criminal that their mom is.”

Mitchell struggled to know what to say to them, and they, too, found it difficult to be honest about what they were going through. She felt guilt and shame for leaving them behind, but she couldn’t let them see how bad it hurt. She tugged at the corner of her eyes as the tears fell, hoping to catch them before her children saw her cry.

“There was a lot of crying on my part,” she said. “It was rough. It was hard for me and hard for them, and it was hard for their dad who had to take them in and take them back.”

As time progressed, Mitchell saw her children at the prison less often, but she still found ways to maintain regular communication with them, including by phone and video chat. They preferred the opportunity to be in their own environment, where they were more at ease and conversational, she said. And Mitchell was okay with that; she wanted the visits to be on their terms because she had created this hardship for them.

Prior to her incarceration, Mitchell worked with her ex-husband to ensure the children would be safe and cared for while she was away. The parents got the children acclimated to a new schedule, moved them in with their father and enrolled them in regular therapy sessions.

Meanwhile, Mitchell left her Keene apartment and lived with family and friends in the months leading up to her imprisonment.

She wasn’t alone, and for that she considers herself lucky. Her children weren’t taken away from her and she didn’t have to leave them with someone she didn’t trust.

“I commend him for being a father who could take care of our children. It could have been different,” she said.

From behind bars, Mitchell was able to count down the days until her reunion with her children and her return home. But not every mother gets that opportunity- to walk out and to be okay.

Mitchell thinks most about the women who enter the community but are still not free from the underlying issues that resulted in their incarceration. Some never rehabilitate and don’t have the support in place to truly leave the system. Others lose their battle with addiction and, ultimately, their lives.

For them, Mitchell fights to break the silence. She is most compelled by the women whose stories were told only through their deaths.

“I could be here had it been my path,” she said, running her hand over the wall hanging she crocheted in their memory. “It just takes one choice, one flicker of a moment, and we could all be that.”

She can still see herself crocheting the 15 squares and knitting one more for a total of 16 in memory of former inmates’ lives lost. She sat for an entire day at a table in the prison’s day room, where she crocheted one frame at a time until finally joining them as one.

That completed piece- and several others -now hang in the dining and living rooms of the Dismas Home in Manchester, a transitional housing unit for up to eight formerly incarcerated women. The home, which was provided by the Catholic Charities of New Hampshire, opened in Manchester this fall.

Mitchell heard about the Dismas Home in early 2016 while in search of somewhere to donate the crocheted and knitted wall hangings she and other incarcerated women made. A celebration was held at the women’s prison on March 8 to mark the donation, fittingly on International Women’s Day.

Nine months later, Mitchell walked the perimeter of the Dismas Home’s dining room, pausing at four of the works of art to remember the hands that created them and the stories they told.

“I learned by stopping and talking and having an open heart that I could help someone else,” Mitchell said. “They had gone through the same thing I had gone through, maybe not with the same graphics, but the colors were all there- the white, the black and gray.”

Once people are behind prison walls, they feel no one cares about them anymore, she said. Therefore, it is easy to shut down, to accept the status quo and to believe the stigma that society places on the incarcerated, including mothers who diverge from their caretaker role.

At the same time, there are stories of success and stories of people who rehabilitate themselves after hitting rock bottom.

Mitchell is a living example of the change she hopes to inspire in others, and hopes her children can learn from.

“I firmly believe that it doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are. You are not your circumstance. I’ve known that because I’ve seen it happen,” she said. “My story happened in prison, and that’s mine and I’m okay with that.”

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Information from: Concord Monitor, https://www.concordmonitor.com

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