Silenced by the Pain of a Tumultuous Life

shutterstock_260682437October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The Ms. Blog will be publishing a series of posts detailing the impact of domestic violence, including personal essays and more, throughout the month.

In 2011, I was released from prison after serving more than two decades―I am finally free! However, freedom isn’t free. Every day, in small ways, I am still in prison. Although it may appear that am free, I am not a free citizen. I am confined in my movement and in my social status. Permission must be given to travel, where I can live is approved, and I am a hostage of the background check. My past is the conductor of my future.

I struggle with the fact that I took the life of a young woman in 1988 barely three years older than myself. I struggle with the reasons I give for killing someone’s mother, sister, friend and daughter; a woman that could have been me. I tell myself, I was young and involved with the wrong people. I tell myself, I was using alcohol and drugs. I tell myself, I was angry about my own failings. I tell myself that years of abuse triggered my actions. I know that none of these reasons justify my actions nor make sleeping at night easier; however they have helped me to understand my violence—the violence I committed and the violence I received.

My physical, emotional and mental health had been terrorized for years by an abusive husband, an absentee dad and a mother who suffered from mental illness. She is now deceased (R.I.P. Mom, I don’t blame you). Those nights locked up, I would look at those three walls and a cell door wondering how I would make amends for my actions. It was only when I was able to speak through all the pain that I realized I had been living in another kind of prison—one without a voice. I had lost my humanity and without it, I was numb. It was this inhumanity that drove me to act so irresponsibly and violently. I was silenced by the pain of a tumultuous life. My silence was dangerous. When I think of silence and violence, I think of Audre Lorde: “Your silence will not protect you!” My silence did not protect my friend, or me. In fact, my silence destroyed my friend and left me to live life behind bars.

In spite of my imprisonment, regrets, insecurity and shame, I began doing time on my own terms—I refused to let the time do me. I decided to do good. I began to be good to myself and search for the answers to why I, like so many women, feel silenced. This quest empowered me to take responsibility for my actions and my future. It was a slow and arduous journey, one that caused me to re-examine my entire life and begin to find my voice.

As I began to ask all my victims for forgiveness and apologize for my actions, I was empowered. I started with my mother in 2004. For many years, I thought she didn’t love me. Therefore, I felt unlovable. I didn’t know she was suffering, I didn’t know her pain. Later, it was the love I shared with other women in prison that healed me and helped me take a liberating step toward self-love. My source of strength and power was coming from a connection with women—the good, bad and ugly. It took eight parole hearings, stacks of support letters and some of the strongest women on the planet (those behind bars) and Heidi Rummel, a law professor at the University of Southern California and the Post-Conviction Project, to get me to the gates of freedom.

I am writing this today because speaking my truth, albeit painful and tragic, is my freedom. I may never be free of my past, what people think about “returning citizens” or from the background check. But still I rise. I rise daily determined to break with silence and stereotypes. I am not my crime.

Support the Ms. Magazine Prison and Domestic Violence Shelter Program today and show isolated women that they’re not alone.

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Romarilyn Ralston is a feminist and activist for gender and racial equality in St. Louis.  She works with women in transition from jail and prison while seeking healing and a master's degree in liberal arts.