What are people going to think of me? How will I ever bounce back from this? How am I going to get a job with a felony? Can I go back to school? How do I earn back trust from loved ones? How can I be taken seriously with a criminal record? Am I always going to be viewed as just a felon or criminal? What changes do I need to make to move on from my criminal past?
If you are anything like me and have experienced significant interaction with the legal system, criminal charges, probation, or incarceration, these may be some of the questions you are asking yourself. Moreover, you may feel hopeless when even attempting to conceptualize a positive future with a criminal history. Often, substance use and legal consequences go hand in hand. Due to the social stigma attached to incarceration and a criminal history, conceptualizing a positive life can often seem daunting and unattainable. I am here to tell you that moving on from a criminal history is achievable. Furthermore, moving on from a criminal history can be an empowering experience that facilitates significant intrinsic (internal) motivation for continued change and personal growth. The following are some simple tips to help remove yourself from this social stigma, conceptualize a positive future, and become empowered to execute a positive life plan:
1) Be Transparent — Embrace Your Humanity
Often, individuals who have experienced legal consequences due to substance abuse or addiction feel the need to be secretive about their past. I can’t tell you how many times friends and acquaintances have asked me how to have something expunged or removed from their record.
Unfortunately, there are only a few charges that qualify to be “expunged” from one’s record; moreover, if an offense does qualify to be expunged, this can only be done once in a lifetime in most states. Often, researching how to do this can be time-consuming, costly, and may not elicit the results that we would like.
Rather than spending valuable time trying to hide your past, embrace it. Exhibiting transparency regarding your past can be an empowering experience. The ability to get honest with yourself and others through taking ownership of your past helps to rebuild credibility with loved ones and the community. Embrace your humanity! I know this seems easier said than done, but it is possible. People respect honesty, and often transparency will help people gain respect for you for sharing your story and owning past behaviors.
2) Be Authentic — Reconstruct Core Beliefs and Be Unafraid to Be You
Addiction and substance abuse can drastically impact our core beliefs. When in active addiction, we will say and do anything to get what it is that we want; moreover, we will side-step our integrity and engage in behaviors that may be the opposite of our core beliefs or how we were raised. Subsequent to interaction with the legal system and/or incarceration, we may experience situations that require us to act inconsistently with our core beliefs for the purpose of self-preservation.
Deconstructing our previous story, externalizing problematic behaviors, identifying new and positive core beliefs, and rewriting our story to remain consistent with these new positive core beliefs helps us to rebuild integrity and become empowered. Decide who you want to be, and what you want out of life, and go after it! Be fearlessly authentic! Be who you are with no exceptions or apologies! Be vulnerable!
3) Implement Self-Care — Be Kind to Yourself
Lack of self-care and being unkind to ourselves is the biggest stumbling block in moving forward from substance-induced criminal history. Stigmatizing words like “junkie,” “addict,” “felon,” “criminal,” and “offender” only perpetuate our own beliefs about ourselves. It hurts enough engaging in negative self-talk and referring to ourselves in this manner, but when others refer to us in this way, it only perpetuates those negative thoughts of self.
Stop engaging in negative self-talk! Realize that you are not bad, but that you made bad choices in the past. You are human, and humans are imperfect. Allow yourself to love yourself!
Set boundaries with others who refer to you in this manner. I’m not saying put up a wall, but sometimes a fence can be appropriate. You can not have rational conversation through a wall, but through a fence you can use your voice to assert yourself while maintaining a boundary. Know your self-worth, and do not allow anyone to speak to you in a manner which is degrading or less than human.
Engage in positive recreational activities. Find you again! Get involved in things you loved as a child or teenager. Be creative, be physical, and take care of your body, mind, and spirit. Holistic self-care is imperative to the ability to remove social stigma of addiction-related criminal history. Engage in positive coping skills, identify hopes and dreams, and set small and measurable goals to achieve these hopes and dreams.
Continue to engage in counseling. Therapy is a very powerful practice that can help us to stay grounded and improve self-care.
4) Remain Aware — Know Your Past
Remaining aware of past experiences can help us to play the tape forward when confronted with difficult situations throughout life. Remaining aware of past consequences can help to remind us of where we never want to be again! Think about how past choices have affected relationships, personal growth, and life goals as to not repeat cyclical behaviors. Be goal-oriented. Constantly remaining aware of goals helps us to continue forward and feel empowered to achieve these goals. Reframe your thought process to build upon past experiences that made you who you are today.
“The world I believe in is one where embracing your light doesn’t mean ignoring your dark.” — Kevin Breel
5) Be Smart — Think Critically and Protect Yourself
Unfortunately, while the world may forgive, it will not forget. Therefore, it is imperative that you think critically about how to move past the stigma of incarceration and interaction with the legal system.
Keep any and all legal documentation validating your completion of any and all sanctions resulting from any criminal conviction. These documents may be required for employment, education, certification, licensure, and other goals moving forward.
Keep any and all documentation regarding rehabilitation. Moving past the stigma of addiction and/or mental health challenges can often be difficult. However, keeping any documents that reflect proof of rehabilitation will significantly increase the potential to move past this social stigma.
So much is possible that we may perceive as impossible. Did you know that individuals with a felony can go back to school and are accepted to most major universities? The only thing that could hold an individual back from school is the inability to receive financial aid due to trafficking charges. If you do not have trafficking charges, you qualify for grants and loans through the federal government to attend school. Did you know that the government provides tax breaks for companies that hire “felons”? Most major companies will hire individuals with a criminal history specifically for this purpose, provided you can show proof of rehabilitation. Be smart, do research, keep documents, and build references. Employment and continued education are possible in recovery and after interaction with the legal system.
Personally, I know firsthand how difficult it can be to overcome social stigma attached to addiction related incarceration and criminal history. I have spent more years of my life on probation than free of legal consequences, and I have been incarcerated in both prison and county jail. I have used negative self-talk, referred to myself as a criminal, felt hurt, and felt hopeless. Today I am a father, a fiancé, a therapist, a program manager, a student, a friend, a writer, a speaker, and an advocate.
The recommendations above are some of the simple things that I do to empower me to move past difficult experiences resulting from unhealthy behaviors. I hope you find these recommendations useful in your journey. Remember, be kind to yourself, know your self-worth, and focus on progress, not perfection.