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  • My Story- Part 1

    At a young age, all I wanted was to get away from foster care, away from the negativity, away from the abuse and from my abusive neighbour, away from a dysfunctional place and away from the inhumane conditions we were living in. As a child I wasn’t able to physically escape, but I could escape some of the feelings by going into the field nearby and picking daisies to make daisy chains. I spent hours in that field, I felt safe from harm and it calmed me down. I felt safe being alone. When I grew up my escape was my passion for languages. So I travelled to Spain, not realising that after my difficult childhood I needed counselling for trauma and post-traumatic stress. But my passion for learning another language and experiencing another culture was fascinating and my compassion for others who were just as broken as me or more broken than I was kept me driven. I was full of fear all of the time, but I didn’t know why. I could not communicate or socialise comfortably, and I really struggled to trust other people. Because of this I fell into a life of addiction. For me, reality was an overwhelming place, as nothing was making any sense to me at all. I was so scared of people, places and things, but I did not understand my feelings. My biggest dream came true when I had my own children, my own family… three beautiful children. I wanted to create a life for them and give them everything I didn’t have – most of all love. Unfortunately, the father of my children was very violent towards me, and this eventually led to my children going into foster care. I was unable to get away from my husband at that time. He had emotional and physical control over me. Because of my upbringing, I wanted a family so much I felt I had to put up with his abuse just to keep my family together. I didn’t know any other way at that time. I did get away from him after my children went into foster care as there was no reason for me to stay with him anymore. My family was broken. I tried to go into addiction treatment centres many times, but each time I would run out of there. It was too frightening of an experience for me being in groups and being around people I didn’t know. It was all focused on addiction, and I needed to understand my childhood and how it affected me before I could deal with anything else. I needed to do things my own way. This determination has been my strongest resource. I found out about Harbour Counselling and I put my name on the waiting list. With the support of the Cork Alliance Centre I began attending there. My support-worker Vicky walked with me the first day and met me afterwards for the first few weeks. Then we started meeting in a coffee shop, as I had told her that I felt I didn’t deserve to be in a coffee shop or anywhere, my self-esteem was so low. Without this support I would not have stuck with it. Eventually I started to walk there on my own and had the confidence to do so. Throughout everything, I always had somewhere and someone to turn to with the Cork Alliance Centre. The counselling helped me to re-train my mind. I finally began to understand the trauma and how it impacted on me. I suffered from very bad anxiety and panic attacks and my stream of thought was always telling me “I am scared, I am in danger”. Through the work with my counsellor and my own research, I learned to think differently. My thoughts are now far more positive and my thoughts tell me that “I am safe”. Not ever having the support or love I needed from a loving family growing up, I found it later on in life through the supports that have remained with me. These supports are Cork Alliance Centre, Theresa at The Hut, Harbour Counselling, Deirdre in Probation, Liam in Arbour House and Cork Simon Community. They gave me more than a roof over my head, they gave me support. I will be forever grateful. I learned how to believe in myself. I now live the life that I deserve. SCM

  • 15 minutes

    Only in my world, is it a compliment when someone says to you - you must have been to prison? - as that person feels that I understand them, what they are saying and where they are at, to the point where I must have been there to “get it”. During a recent conversation in prison, as I was asked that question, I was reminded of how important that connection and relationship is for people who are looking at that gate opening full of hope that it will be different this time and full of fear that it won’t be. At any time of the year it is an anxious time, but none more so than Christmas. To be “got”, to be seen and to be heard is a starting point for a real connection that can and does survive the complex transition from prison to the real world. When we meet someone for the first time in prison we have a 15-20 minute opportunity to build a relationship that can stand the test of prison and beyond… 15 minutes where we begin a conversation about hopes, plans, realities and actions - without opening old wounds or sending someone back onto their prison landing in a vulnerable state. 15 minutes where people know we “get” them and all that comes with that 15 minutes where we support people to explore different choices in lifestyles, habits and friends, while at the same time not supporting offending behaviours. 15 minutes where people have to risk trusting us, so they can take different steps, make different moves before and after that gate is open. 15 minutes where people are challenged and supported in the same breath 15 minutes where we strive to only leave a positive footprint in a person’s life 15 minutes might not seem important in any given day – especially when you have 24/7 freedom – but 15 minutes when you’re looking at life and death choices, is a time to be valued – to see someone in their entirety and not just defined by their criminal actions. It is 15 minutes that start to grow the first of many trusting, safe and constructive relationships that will last as people move forward more positively in their lives - meanders and all. - Sheila

  • My pain, it is impossible to measure.

    My pain, it is impossible to measure. My pain is different to anyone else’s or is it, no one can answer this. I am going to talk here about my pain, what caused it and where it led my mind to go. If you can identify with my story, I hope you know that you are not alone. If you know someone that you may think is in a similar pain as me, rest assured there is help out there. Did I wake up one morning with a blinding pain? NO!! My pain was more cunning and sneaky than that, my pain grew steadily for more than 30 years. My pain got me to do things that were against every moral fibre in my body for what I see now as short term relief, which in the long term made my pain excruciating. So unbearable, that long term relief was very desirable which lead to attempts to finish it all. Was I suffering from cancer or some other deadly disease, no not in the normal acceptable form of the meaning? Yes, in the life threatening side of things. Yes, I am an addict, an addiction that has created more pain in my life and the lives of the people I love, it truly is unmeasurable. We hear people talk about rock bottom, I don’t know is there such a thing, but looking back my rock bottom was my wish to be dead. Pain brought ropes, tablets and knifes as a means of the final painkiller in to life. Was this pain always there? I can’t say for sure, but I always felt different, obscure and odd. I was a bed wetter to the age of 11 or 12 so this fed in to these thoughts, as I always felt I smelled, I mention this because since getting into recovery it is very common amongst addicts. I took my first drink at a very young age, but I got drunk for the first time at 12 and never stopped for a long time. Gambling entered my life when I did the football pools at 14 and this truly was my nirvana, this was my main pain relief for many years to come (16 years when I take the time to do the maths). Shop lifting is also part of my story, at a time for survival purposes, at others it was another addiction and pain relief. I now can say my pain was made up of many different components (fear, body image, shame, lost, failure, sadness, loneliness and many more) all I know is I couldn’t cope with life, the world was too much for me. So, I acted out against the world and was saying f**k you to it. My life was a steaming pile of shite and then my actions took me to prison. I ended up in prison in 2014 at the age of 32, not a bean in my pocket, just the crappy cloths I was wearing (I mean truly crappy, the prisons dacs were an upgrade). The first night I spent locked in a cell in by myself on committal wing, Jesus Christ!! I prayed that night. I mean the noises was frightening, the jingle jangle of the guards keys, the bang of the cell door, the constant chatter on the landings and the peephole opening, with unknown people looking in. Pissing in a pot and sleeping on a bed with more lumps than a bad bowl of porridge. With the one question running through my sick mind, why was I not brave enough to kill myself? Prison was hard, but I slowly realised it was a better life than I was leading as a free man. How sad is that? I got a good routine in prison, I had a job I used to have get up early for and keep me out of the cell all day. I became healthy in body and my mind was quieter, which led me to be able to say yes to the help I was offered and when you accept the help there is a shit load available. I accepted the counselling on offer, where I really started to learn about myself and wow there was another way of relieving my pain, amazing and profound really, the answer was talking all along. If I didn’t accept the counselling, I would never have heard about Sophia Housing, who provided me with a flat on release which was and still is a huge part of my recovery. I’m actually getting emotional here writing, there is so many people that have help, such great people. None more than Cork Alliance, how can I sum up how important the service is to me, they were and still are my salvation. I was asked one day did I want to see someone from Cork Alliance, my instant reaction was who! Not knowing what they were I said YES (I always say there is someone out there guiding me. I was put into the smallest and hottest room I ever could imagine, the sweat was hopping off me (heat and anxiety) in walks Vicky and have no idea what I was saying that day, all I know is that lady has an ability to get me talking, I met Vicky mostly every week for about 6 months before my release. When I got out I had a great foundation, a place of my own to live, loads of services to talk to and it still took me nearly 2 weeks to go into the Cork Alliances offices. It took me that time (which seem ridiculous now) to ring the door, be buzzed in and climb those 20 steps to the offices. The first I went in, I met Sheila for the first time and instantly felt comfortable. For my first 6 months out I reckon I went in there up to 10 times a week, I even washed my clothes there for god sake. Today, that fore mentioned pain is released from me with a combination of many different things, from AA to GA, Focus Ireland, Sophia Housing and many more (sorry for leaving anyone out). Cork Alliance is one of the biggest and most consistent parts of my recovery. It is like a functional family for me and when some of my old pain raises its ugly head I can go in and not only does it get relieved of my pain, I also get full of hope of the future. Today I am back in college at the age of 36, with a spring and pride in my step. I’m living life, I have more gratitude than you can imagine and I am annoyingly positive. I want to take this opportunity to thank all my friends in Cork Alliance Sheila (Boss), Emma, Noirin, Jane, Gillian, Alan and Phillipe. Most importantly I want to thank Vicky for her continued guidance on every issue I still have in life (and for some of more off topic conversations, I’m sure we will solve some of the world’s bigger issues as well!). Thanks to Cork Alliance for helping me realise who I am and more importantly that is okay to be me. For today, life is good.

  • In his own words... what it has been like for D since his release from prison...

    Going to prison back in 2004 was absolutely daunting for me. The whole thing was a nightmare and of course mental health issues were there. My headspace and way of comprehending things was at an all-time low. I met Sheila from the Cork Alliance Centre in Portlaoise for the first time, I think in 2008 some time, as she would say to me the meeting was a blur, but when I got released from Portlaoise I got a lift from the lovely Chaplain to Cork - to the Cork Alliance. To be honest I did not know what was going to happen. I had no family or friends support, so I was alone with the whole process. The fear, the anxiety was extremely bad also. Going to the centre for first time I dreaded everything - my communication skills, confidence and my way of thinking was rock bottom. Even filling out forms and housing and financial stuff I had no idea how to go about that. Even going on a bus on my own was a nightmare, or to talk to anyone was not good. Like I would say, "pull myself together", "get on with it", but you would have to experience it to really understand everything. As we all know the process was tough and shaky at times. Even everyday functioning was extremely bad. Because of my offence I could not have stayed in homeless shelters, I would have been on the streets. They got me my disability allowance sorted and a B&B for a few months. As time when on I got more comfortable with them and gaining confidence, no judgements, a caring crowd. Move forward a few years, I'm living independent, my confidence is very good, my communication skills have vastly improved - some would say I never shut-up. My mental health is very good for a few years now, due to counselling and massive support from the Cork Alliance. It was not easy to get to know me, as I was very distant, lost in my own headspace. My thought process was negative, but I am amazed today with the changes, I have transformed my mental and physical health. Only for the Cork Alliance, seriously I would not know where I would be today. I gained skills to help myself, and having a friendly face to chat to about issues that affect me on a daily basis helps. They go over and above, I walk in with no appointment - they are very accommodating and will sort things - I go away with "I can do anything if I put my mind to it". I'm going there over 8 years now, I've a good relationship with them now, they know me better than I do myself. Just someone to listen to you is a great thing that someone can do, I am working on that myself. Even to this day like dealing with rent, banking issues or my mental health stuff, they are at the end of the phone, no waiting lists or anything. I can get an appointment the same day or the following day at the latest. Just imagine going to prison for years, no family or other supports, getting out not knowing where you are going to end up. Having the Cork Alliance Centre helped dramatically making me the person I am today, living independently, no issues with buses now. I have done many courses, I've better concentration and focus. My positivity for life is amazing. I can say my future will hold great things if I look after myself. All good things in life need commitment and perseverance, I'm doing well at that also. To get back to work and have peace of mind, and be able to talk about anything going on in my life, is better than any medication. The freedom in one's mind - thought process can only save you from yourself. Exercising and eating healthy is very important too. If you put the work in you will get great results. The Cork Alliance basically built me back up to get back into society with confidence and skills to deal with any situation in life. What's more important health or wealth? To have a buzz for life again and great contentment for anything I do in the future. I'm in great place for a while now, so from here only upwards and onwards. Its mostly down to the Cork Alliance Centre for changing my beliefs and behaviours, how I treat others, how I look at life now - every day is a school day, learn something new all the time. Sincere thanks to all at the Cork Alliance, especially Sheila for challenging me on thinking process and helping myself and taking responsibility for my actions as Sheila would say be an adult, not the child. I hope the Cork Alliance has a bright future ahead, as there are not many organisations that help ex-prisoners - we are all human, no matter what our faults.

  • Cork Alliance Centre 15 years on...

    The 1st September 2002 - 15 years ago tomorrow - I started in the Cork Alliance Centre. When I say I started - I sat in the newly rented and very empty office, wondering what I’d taken on and what I needed to do next.... In that empty office space, with no staff, no manuals to work from, and the fear of not being up to the mark… the adage 'be careful what you wish for' had really landed on my doorstep. 15 years later, and tomorrow is an equally notable day – tomorrow, I co-facilitate a workshop in the Irish Prison Service College with James a former client. The workshop is with newly recruited prison officers. It is part of the innovative community focus of the training, including the user voice, to ensure that the new recruits have an insight into the desistance and change process and the important role they can play in it. I have a job which helps people to constructively change their lives, which is a true gift. Whilst people’s desistance journeys are not always straight forward or direct, I meet people every day who are trying… and I know many who have successfully left crime in their past. Yes, our clients may have spent time in prison, and yes, many have or have had addictions, violence and chaos in their lives, BUT they all talk and dream of getting their lives sorted, and like all of us are striving to be “better versions of themselves”* . Their dreams and wants are no different from anyone else’s - and we play a part in working out how this can happen. As President Michael D. Higgins, in his address at our conference stated “the task of transformation, is a task that is one that involves more than those in prison”* and this is where we place ourselves. To be allowed into people’s lives at this level is the essence of hope for me. Hope is what our project is about - hope for change, hope for something better, hope to be better and ultimately hope for happiness. (Given the challenges and difficulties we work within, as a team we have a "hope check-in" each evening – where we each identify something that gave us hope in the day – not what we are hopeful of but real tangible events.) Reflecting on my past 15 years, what gives me hope is hope in seeing peoples courage, stick-ability and tenacity in the face of huge challenges; hope in knowing the resilience of the human spirit; hope in feeling the depth of peoples kindness, care and openness to helping others; hope from having inspiring people in my life today, people who I am better for knowing and working with, and whose knowledge, insight and experience I rely on to guide our project; hope when people have the courage to phone or come in day one, and to continue to do so, despite the meanders of their journey; hope from knowing that people know they can always turn to us if and when they need to; hope from working with a team so committed to their work, that on top of it they have hosted two of the most amazing conferences on desistance; hope in the people who gave of themselves and their life stories at our conferences, to help people understand the journey out of crime/ addiction and to encourage others onto their own path of desistance; hope from having a Board with such understanding and grá for our work; hope from the positive changes that have happened in both the Probation and Prison services; hope from President Michael D Higgins giving such a connected and heart felt key note address at our conference last year; hope when people outside our project hear about our work, see the value of it and appreciate that people do change; and most importantly, hope from the relationships that are change, affect change and sustain change. The road to change asks a lot from people on their journey of desistance from crime, and in return we label them 'ex-offender /ex-prisoner', making it a never ending prison sentence. We choose to continually hold them in a world they are trying to leave, we choose to close doors for them because of our fears and yet somehow we expect them to face theirs. We find it appropriate to continually punish someone for literally forever and a day. We chose that not them. If we want people to change we have to allow it to happen. So yes we may have to dare to hope, and dare to trust, but change can only happen if we all dare, and we need to ‘dare greatly’. This, I am hopeful for in the (not too distant) future. As a closing note, I’m reminded of President Michael D Higgins tribute to our work and the hope he gave us through his presence, his understanding, his solidarity and support, and his recognition that “this work is critical, and the benefit of your work cannot be overestimated, and it will not just last for a day, it is something that will endure and it is a crucial contribution, a building block, towards building the ethical society in which we all want to share, in all our imperfections and the versions of our wounded selves.”* Sheila * President Michael D. Higgins, (2016). Formal Address to Cork Alliance Centre Conference -"Narrowing the Disconnect - The ethics of supporting desistance from crime".

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