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An Interview with John Doe Transformed in Prison

David Van Nuys, Ph.D. Updated: Nov 15th 2010

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John Doe (Transformed in Prison)At age 16, Mr. Doe was sentenced to prison after killing a cab driver during robbery occurring at the end of a three month long drug binge. Now 43 and out of prison, he is married, employed and training to become a professional counselor. He is remorseful and desiring to channel that impulse productively by working to help others. In this interview, he describes his long process of transformation from troubled childhood to productive adulthood. His first years in prison were a continuation of his earlier experience; he continued to use drugs, later giving them up for exercise as a means of self-protection. He met a woman visiting the prison and formed a platonic friendship with her. When she became pregnant (by another man) he formed a relationship with her child. This experience helped him to realize that the purpose of life is found in relationships. About ten years into his sentence, he shifted from a motivation to "do something crazy" so as to secure his "lifer" status within the prison (apparently something experienced as comforting by prisoners) to wanting a life outside the prison. Also about this time he was tricked into participating in a substance abuse treatment program involving a good deal of psychotherapy which he found very valuable. He dealt with chronic neck pain with intensive meditation which ultimately produced in him a feeling of great contentment and peace despite continuing pain. At this moment he realized that his purpose was to be helpful to others. Now out of prison he is pursuing Licensed Professional Counselor status and desires to provide substance abuse counseling services to inmates. He encourages people to look beyond convenient stereotypes of inmates as bad or evil people and to instead recognize that they contain both good and bad qualities, and that when appropriate therapy resources are made available, some inmates can be transformed.

David Van Nuys: Welcome to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by Mentalhelp.net, covering topics in mental health, wellness, and psychotherapy. My name is Dr. David Van Nuys. I'm a clinical psychologist and your host.

On today's show, we'll be talking with John Doe, who spent 22 years in prison and now, at 43 years of age, is preparing for a career helping others. John Doe is the pseudonym we're using for my guest, who rightly feels it might be prudent to remain anonymous for this interview.

John grew up in a dysfunctional home and got involved with hard drugs. When he was 16 years old, he and a couple of buddies decided to hold up a cab to get drug money. Nobody was supposed to get hurt, but John did have a gun and ended up shooting and killing the cabdriver. As a result of this crime, John was convicted and spent 22 years in prison.

While in prison he took part in eight years of therapy, including group therapy, individual counseling, and psychiatric treatment. He also worked on finishing up his high school education with a GED and later an AA degree while in prison. He also began to explore Native American and Buddhist spiritual practices. As a result, John was able to turn his life around. He's now married, employed, and is planning for a career helping others.

Now, here's the interview.

John Doe, welcome to Wise Counsel.

John Doe: Thank you.

David: Well, we've decided to use the pseudonym John Doe for this interview in order to preserve your anonymity, for reasons which I'll explain shortly. John, I'd like to start out by filling our audience in on the background of our interview, if that's okay with you.

John Doe: Yes, that's fine.

David: Okay. Well, John's been a long time listener to these podcasts, and he recently contacted me, suggesting that my listening audience might be interested in a story, and indeed, it is an interesting story. And I'll cut right to the chase and reveal that when John was 16 years old, he was involved with drugs, and he and some buddies decided to rob a cab to get money for drugs. The situation got out of hand, and in the process, he ended up shooting and killing the cabbie and served 22 years in prison for that crime. So, John now that we have those key facts on the table, let's do some back end fill, and before we start doing that, by the way, how old are you now?

John Doe: I'm 43.

David: Okay. So, boy, 16 is a long way from 43. I have trouble remembering who I was at 16, I can tell you. So, let's start with your childhood, not as an excuse for what happened, but to better understand how your life led up to that crime. Does that seem like a place where we can start?

John Doe: Right, exactly. And I like how you talk about not using it as an excuse. Initially, when I went through therapy and started discovering some of the factors that may have affected me and affected my choices, it was easy to use them as an excuse. But as I got further into my therapy, I realized that these are factors that help contribute, but the choice I made was a bad choice, and I don't mean any of this to excuse anything that I've done.

Some of the childhood factors I think started off early. My mother and father divorced when I was five, and I wanted to stay with my dad, but my mom - I also had a older sister, who got a choice, and she needed Dad in her life at that time, and then so I kind of got stuck with having to go with Mom. I don't like to say it that way because I do a disservice to my mom. I'm lucky to have my mom and was happy to go with her.

But so there was the parents' divorce, and then two years later my father died, and I took that pretty bad. And then I ended up - my mom remarried and I had a abusive, alcoholic stepfather, and during this time I developed some core beliefs that there was something wrong with me, that I was bad; and that alcoholic stepfather didn't help those matters. And I don't know what kind of detail we want to go into with stuff like that other than just to say that that existed.

David: Well, when you say he was abusive, how so?

John Doe: More so mentally and emotionally. The physical abuse was really actually pretty mild. Physically, like he would grab the back of my neck and kick me, but he never really went past that point. I never did see him abuse like my mother or anything like that. It was just mainly me.

David: What kind of verbal, emotional abuse would he heap on you?

John Doe: He would constantly belittle me. He would always say things like what's wrong with you? call me names and things like that. So, basically, just ideas that got put in my head that something was wrong me.

David: Okay.

John Doe: That I was out of place, and I took those to heart and they kind of escalated. And then my mom ended up divorcing him because of the abuse, and then a year later she remarries him.

David: Oh, boy.

John Doe: Yeah, so that was bad, but of course the abuse just came right back. Nothing really changed. And then she divorced him again, and then she went through a series of alcoholic boyfriends, and I remember her even asking me. She goes, "How come I can't find anything but a alcoholic?" And I think I was 12 at this time, and I told her, "Well, you gotta quit picking up guys in bars."

David: [Laughs] That was a good response.

John Doe: So she ended up going to church. She went to the opposite extreme, and she found a religi-holic, a guy that was just really - he was into church; he was doing something with the church every day, and it was his choice of addiction was religion. So, it really wasn't much better. The alcohol wasn't there, but there was still this sense of that something was wrong with me. And I'm sure that me bringing that over from my past didn't help, but I never felt like I measured up this guy's standards either, and so it was just more of a continuing type of abuse until I got into my later teens and then started rebelling.

I got into a crowd of guys where we started smoking marijuana, drinking a little bit, and then I felt like I belonged with this crowd of guys and started to click with them a little bit more, because I definitely didn't feel like I belonged at home. And so I think my ego was very, very weak. I needed that reassurance. I needed that acceptance.

David: Yes.

John Doe: And that's kind of what led into the crime itself.

David: Now, were you doing harder drugs at that point, or was it just marijuana?

John Doe: Started off with marijuana. There was a little bit of alcohol, although I never really liked the taste of alcohol, so it wasn't my drug of choice. Marijuana definitely was my drug of choice, but I also did a little bit of cocaine, a little bit of acid at the time, but nothing serious. I never used a needle or anything like that. It was mainly just marijuana. But it was very extensive for about three months. My drug use was only about three month's stint before this crime happened, but when I got off into drugs it was like all of a sudden that was all that mattered. We lived, breathed, and ate drugs for 24/7.

David: Wow.

John Doe: That's all we did. We would save a little bit so we could smoke it in the morning, and then our mission for the day was to either find more money or more drugs. We didn't go to school; we quit everything. It was just all drugs. So it was a pretty intense three months.

David: How many of you were in this little circle?

John Doe: Just three of us.

David: Three of you.

John Doe: Three total. And then when we started talking about finding different ways to get money, and the idea of robbing the cab came out, and we decided we were going to attempt that. We had stolen a small gun from a earlier robbery where we thought we had saw marijuana inside a trailer, but it was actually just a bag of potting stuff. And we broke into that trailer, and then we ended up robbing the shed and we got a little gun out of there.

And so we come up with idea to rob a cab driver to get money. And we took a cord along to tie him up with. There was no plan to kill anybody. I don't think we truly wanted to hurt anybody, but the way things came down, we ended up getting into the cab, and I was in the back seat behind the cab driver, and I pulled the gun on him. And of course I was scared to death; I sank way down in the seat, and my voice was like really low, not very threatening, so I think he felt a little more at ease about moving around and not keeping his hands up, and he kept putting his hands down. And then my other friend was in the front, and he was supposed to tie him to the steering wheel, and then the other friend in the back was getting the money from him.

David: Okay.

John Doe: And so this guy kept putting his hands down and I kept telling him, "Put your hands up." And he'd put them down, and I'd say, "Put them up." And then the guy in the front seat wasn't tying him up; he was just kind of staring at him, and he already had his door cracked, and he looked like he was about to bolt - my friend. And so I asked; I was like, "What's going on?" because this friend was actually the leader of the group and was supposed to be the tough guy out of all three of us, and he was like scared. And I was thinking does this guy have a gun on the seat up there or something? or a gun in his belt that he showed this guy? What's going on?

So I started kind of fearing for us, and so I started to tell this guy to put his hands up, and I told my friend, "Tie him up." And he didn't hear me; he just sat there. And then I ended up saying it again, "Tie him up." And I said the guy's name; I said my friend's name. And then at that moment it was like I had messed up. It was like every movie I'd ever seen played in my head, and I knew that, now that I had said one of our names, this guy could identify us and I was supposed to shoot him. And that was the only choice I had.

And I didn't know - this didn't process in my brain in this much detail at the time, but I knew that I had messed up and that later on I would face rejection from my friends because I had messed up if I didn't take care of this. And so there was this fear of rejection that came up. And I didn't learn this until many, many years later. And so all I knew at that time is like I'd messed up, I have to shoot him. And before I thought past that point, I had pulled the trigger.

David: Wow.

John Doe: Yeah, it was a split-second decision. And in the state that I was in - the state of the United States - the law is that first-degree murder is - all you have to do is it has to be premeditated just the second before you pull the trigger. So even though there was no plan on our part prior to that moment, we still - I still - it was first-degree murder.

David: Now, how did you get apprehended?

John Doe: It was about three or four days later. We had talked to a friend, and we talked about robbing his dad's safe for money so that we could leave the state, and my other friends told him that if his dad came in while we were robbing the safe, we would have to shoot him too. And so this friend of ours got scared, told his mom, and then his mom called and turned us in. So then they picked us up, which is probably a good thing.

David: Yeah. Now, I'm surprised that - touch on whatever parts of the story you want to - I'm surprised that, as a 16-year-old, it sounds like you went to adult prison. Is that right?

John Doe: Yes. I went through a waiver process where they determined whether or not I was amenable to treatment by the age of 21. And I had five different psychiatric evaluations done on me - three that I paid for, two the state paid for. The three that I paid for said I was amenable to treatment; the two the state paid for said I wasn't amenable to treatment.

And then also there's like seven criteria that they list to determine whether or not you should be waived. It's like the seriousness of the crime - which definitely we fit that criteria - and then they have criteria like premarital sex, history of criminal behavior, whether or not I'd ever been in treatment before - things like that. And all of those, including the psychiatrists, all pointed for me to stay into the juvenile system until I was 21, receive treatment, and I would be okay.

But the judge wanted to - I was told, that the judge, the D.A., wanted to really get one of my friends who was with me. One friend actually turned state's witness against us, and then the other friend, they really wanted to get him because he had a long history. He had a long rap sheet, and so they wanted to waive him. And so I was told that the judge was going to waive me so that they could get to this guy.

David: By waive, you mean of -

John Doe: Strip me of my juvenile rights and put me into the adult system and try me as an adult.

David: Wow. Now, you and your parents must have been very upset by that.

John Doe: Oh, yeah. We argued that it was a violation of my 14th Amendment right of equal protection of the laws, because the waiver criteria was set out to protect juveniles who could take advantage of the system; not take advantage of it in a bad sense, but take advantage of it by doing good and going through treatment and benefitting from it. Those laws were set out to pick those individuals that could benefit from it, and I was one of those individuals according to all the criteria, but they just ignored that law and waived me anyway. Which, of course, we lost everything we appealed, or we lost - if there's a three-judge panel, we lost it two to one; if it was five-judge, we lost it three to two, etc.

David: Okay. Well, let's talk a bit about the impact on - well, the impact on the victim clearly was that the victim died.

John Doe: Yes.

David: And the victim's family, your family, you -

John Doe: The waves from it, I mean they still exist today, 28-something years later. Of course the victim will never take a breath again, and there's nothing I can do to change that. I know it sounds cliché, but if there were something I could do to bring him back or give, including my life, to bring him back, I would. Now, of course I can't do that and so that's - and when I say by I mean cliché is that every criminal who's ever done something says that, but that's the best way to describe the feeling.

I'm to the point now where my life is I want to help people. I went through some experiences - and we'll probably get to that later - that got me to the point in my life now where I want to help, I want to give back. And like I said, if I could change spots with him right now, I would in a heartbeat. Of course I can't, and so I can't continue to beat myself up over it and go in that downward spiral, so by giving back to him, the only way I have in my power to do so is to get myself ready to give back and become a better person and make amends and do right things from here forward.

David: Yes, now, did you have any contact subsequently with the victim's family?

John Doe: No, I think we were fortunate. He actually didn't have any known family. He had a friend that represented his family during the proceedings, but he didn't have any brothers or sisters, and both his parents were already gone. And so he didn't really have an extended family that was hurt in the process.

David: And he had no children?

John Doe: Yeah, no children, so he was - and I think maybe that was a blessing that he didn't have that many more people that would have gotten hurt.

David: Yes.

John Doe: My family, on the other hand -

David: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that next.

John Doe: Yeah, the damage to my family was pretty extensive. My mom, of course, I remember when my mom came in to see me after I'd got arrested. It was like I'd put 20 years on her, right there.

David: Wow.

John Doe: Yeah, it just ripped my heart out. I mean, right from that day on, I was - things in me began to change, when I saw my mom's face and realized that I had caused this. And then of course all the years I spent in prison, my family - I have several sisters and several brothers that ended up not having their brother for 20-something years. And then also my grandmother, right when I got out, my grandmother ended up dying about a year after I got out, and that was very tough for me because it really emphasized that, wow, I had taken her grandson from her for 20-something years; not only just taken her grandson from her, but taken her grandson from her and then also left her with the stigma of 22 years of having a grandson who had committed murder and was in prison, and doing that psychological damage to her, and all my family, of course.

David: What was life like for you in prison as a 16-year-old going into an adult prison? I'm imagining it as fairly hellish. I'm wondering what it was like for you, and how you survived.

John Doe: Well, it was definitely scary at times. They ended up putting me - I stayed in a juvenile facility, actually through my process of waiver and all that, until I was about 17. And then I ended up getting waived, and then they put me into the adult system, but they kept me segregated.

David: Oh, good.

John Doe: In administrative segregation until I had reached the age of 18. And actually me and the other friend of mine that they waived, we actually went together. We were cell mates until we were both 18, and then they put us into the general population. But we were in segregated for over a year, but we were still able to communicate and relate with the prisoners under the door. We'd play cards; we would do things, and stuff like that, and so when we got released, we were just part of the system. It wasn't like all of a sudden we were new in the system.

David: Were you picked on, being younger and so on? Were you victims of violence or persecution?

John Doe: A little bit at first, yes. I was actually very small for my age, and for the first couple years we were still smoking marijuana in prison when we could get it. And till I was about 20, I actually - we would use whatever drugs we could, and of course things would get stolen. When you're dealing with other people that are still in that mindset, you're going to get things - I had to defend myself a couple of times.

In prison, if you stand up and defend yourself, you'll usually - the other people will see that and they'll leave you alone. They'll realize that, hey, if I go and try to take something from this guy or hurt him and he fights back, even if you get your butt kicked, if you fight back, they'll leave you alone because there's easier pickings. There's people that won't fight back, and they'd rather deal with that. But I ended up getting to the point where I realized I needed to get into the weight room and put some muscle on me and get a little stronger if I was going to survive the next 20 years. And so that's what I did.

David: Now, at some point, you got into therapy. And it sounds like, in a way, prison ended up being a good thing for you, so take us through that.

John Doe: Oh, yeah. It definitely has changed my whole outlook on life. I ended up - and I'll kind of start back. I got to a certain point in my time where I had a girl who was coming from the outside in to visit me, and of course she had a boyfriend on the streets that she was thinking about marrying and stuff, and she would come in and see me. And not that we could do anything sexual or anything like that; she would just come in to me and I'd put my arm around her and hold her hand in the visit.

David: Was she somebody who knew you before you went in?

John Doe: No. This was somebody I met during a open house or got introduced to from another inmate who lived in that area.

David: Okay.

John Doe: And she actually was really needy. She was kind of abused herself, and so she just loved having somebody put their arm around her and hold her hand and pay attention to her. That's what she needed. And I just needed somebody for pretty much the same reasons, just to have that physical contact with the opposite sex that had been denied to me all these years, so we were meeting each other's needs. And then she said she had a boyfriend. She ended up getting pregnant, and she came to see me all through her pregnancy.

I got to see her baby when it was first born, and actually she had two others that I got to watch kind of grow up, and I remember first holding her little baby, and I was like, wow, this is what life is all about, right here. And then also watching those babies grow up, I would go into visits and other inmates would see me in there, and sometimes they would stop me off at the side, say, wow, man, you got some cute kids. And of course they weren't my kids, but that really felt good to hear that from another inmate.

And at this point in time in my time, there's kind of a sense of freedom that inmates who are never getting out - lifers - have because they can pretty much do what they want. They know what the future holds for them. They're never getting out. And I was flirting with this idea of this type of freedom at this point in time, of just saying - because it was so long before I was going to get out that I was deciding, hey, I'm just going to do something crazy so that I know that I'm not getting out; this is what I'm doing; and then I can have that sense of freedom.

But when this girl started to visit me and I started to see these kids and relate to them, have a relationship and stuff like that, I realized this is what I want. This is what's important, is relationships. I started thinking about my mom and my sister and my brothers and all that, and I started to contact them more and try to develop relationships. I started realizing that in their hearts they had forgiven me, and they wanted these relationships too. And then at that point in time something changed in me, and I wanted to get out.

David: Now, that was about how many years into your sentence?

John Doe: That was, whew, I would say about 10 years into it - about half way, not quite half way into it.

David: Okay.

John Doe: And then I ended up getting into therapy. A couple years after this, I started getting into - I went to a place where I had a friend who was in a treatment pod, a substance abuse treatment pod, and I had actually quit smoking marijuana about seven years prior to this, because every time I smoked it all I did was get paranoid. It didn't make me feel good or anything, and I switched addictions to exercising and working out, which I kind of needed to do to survive anyway.

David: Yeah.

John Doe: So I was addicted to workout this whole time. But I still had all my issues in processes; my addictive personality and behaviors were still churning inside me. And then I got to this place where this guy was in a treatment pod, but he needed a roommate, and he talked me into moving in with him under the guise that I wouldn't have to actually go through none of the treatment. I could live in the treatment pod, be his roommate, but I wouldn't have to do none of the treatment. Which turned out to be a bunch of crap. So I ended up having to go through the treatment, which was the best thing that has ever happened to me. When I started going through the treatment, I started learning a little bit about what was making me tick.

David: Now, was this a psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker? Who was the person giving the treatment and what form did it take? Was it some form of 12-step group therapy or what was it?

John Doe: It was a giant conglomeration of a bunch of stuff. There were five different counselors on staff, and so it was individual counseling, it was group counseling, and we would go through - There was cognitive-behavioral stuff. We would go through identifying thinking errors and irrational thinking, errors in our logic. There was also Gestalt stuff and emotional work where we would - a lot of the guys had a lot of anger in them, and in order to get that anger out, what one of the counselors would do would have us hit a empty chair with a knotted up towel and to kind of just release that anger. And then once we kind of released that anger, we were able to go underneath that feeling into the hurt and betrayals and shame and everything that's underneath all that anger. And we were able to get to that and deal with that.

So there's a lot of that type of work. There was a lot of 12-step programs and groups where we -

David: Well, you're lucky. It sounds like that prison had some fairly progressive programs. I'm under the impression that not all prisons have that available.

John Doe: Right, and I think that has changed. I think it's maybe there's less of that now. I listen to the interviews you did with Dana Houck.

David: Yes.

John Doe: I hope I'm pronouncing that right. And his program that he was doing really sounded a lot like what a lot of the counselors were attempting to do in my situation. There was one counselor who was getting us into archetypes and dream work and working with the shadow, which was really, really great work. It really resonated with a lot of the guys because we understood that, hey, we do have this dark side of us that makes us do these choices, and once we realize that and own that and was able to express that through other like creative means and stuff like that, we didn't have to act on it. And so it was really working well.

But then that counselor actually got fired. He had to leave. And so I wonder if that was the timeframe between that and Dana Houck's experience were the same, because that's when they started bringing in a lot more cognitive restructuring programs and things like that.

David: Yeah, just for our listening audience, let me mention that the Dana Houck references are to two interviews that I did on Shrink Rap Radio with a Jungian-oriented psychologist who worked in a Minnesota prison, so you can find those on shrinkrapradio.com if you're interested. Go ahead.

John Doe: So, anyway, I was going to say that what I'm looking for now is - I wish I could get in touch with that one counselor, but of course I can't because of confidentiality laws and all that kind of stuff, but I would like to get back into a group and continue on with that work, because that's kind of where I left off. I ended up having an experience right around the same time. I got some nerve damage in my neck, and it was very, very painful, and I actually thought I was dying. And no matter how I held my body, I couldn't escape from the pain. And if I laid down, it really got bad.

And so I was - of course this time I wasn't taking any types of drugs or anything. I'd gotten into Zen and meditation and stuff, so I was using meditation to medicate.

David: Yes.

John Doe: And so I did this for like a couple weeks, and it was pretty strong meditation. It was almost 24/7. There was no sleep to be had other than sleeping when I got exhausted and fell asleep sitting in a chair with my hands above my head, because I couldn't even put my arms below my shoulders without pain.

And then, all of a sudden, something happened. It was like an umbrella kind of opened up, and everything became all right just as it is. It's like a little pin prick, a light shined through, and I realized that everything's okay, that everything is all right just as it is, and I walked around with a smile on my face for about two weeks. Even though I was like in incredible pain, it was okay.

David: Wow.

John Doe: And during that time, I realized that what I'm here to do is to help. And so, at that point in time, I was actually almost ready to be released from the treatment program. I volunteered to stay on and help and just to continue going through the program and to help the other guys and counselors realize that I was very good in groups, of being insightful, and helping the other guys deal with stuff, and things like that. And so the counselors were glad to keep me along, and I stayed in there for another four years, just facilitating. And that moment - of course, it kind of faded; the feeling of all that faded and went away.

David: You mean that sort of breakthrough experience that you had during meditation?

John Doe: Yeah, it's kind of faded down, but it's still there. It still has been the motivating and driving force in my life since then, is that I realize that what I can do is help. And so that's what I'm attempting to do now with going to school and all that.

David: Yes. I just recently saw a film. I don't know if you've seen it. It's called Doing Time, Doing Vipassana.

John Doe: I haven't.

David: I think I got in on Netflix. I don't know if you have access to Netflix. But it is a film about one of the worst prisons in India, and a new warden came in, a woman who is very progressive. This prison was way overcrowded and just a horrible place. And somebody suggested that they give a try to this mindfulness meditation approach called Vipassana, and they brought in the local expert or founder of the movement or something, and developed a 10-day retreat program within the prison. It's a remarkable film. It just turns the whole prison around. It turned the guards around. Guards and prisoners are hugging each other and weeping as they come out of the retreats, and just a really marvelous, inspiring thing.

Well, what about when you got out? I mean 22 years is a long time, and maybe there were things like - I'm just thinking even of things like technologies and so on; that the culture must have changed. I mean maybe there were cell phones or other things that had not even existed. What was it like for you to get out and try to re-enter the world?

John Doe: It was kind of like a dreamlike state for the first two or three days. It was like it wasn't even really happening. I didn't really feel the effects of like the technology and the things like that, because during the whole time that we were in, we were able to watch TV and watch movies and things like that. And so that kind of keeps you up to date. I mean although I'd never held a cell phone in my life, when I saw one it wasn't that big of a deal. I was able to -

David: Okay, you knew what it was, yeah.

John Doe: Yeah, I was able to adapt to it. Some of the things that affected me were relationships. I was like stuck in a 16-year-old emotional state when it comes to relationships. So here I was a 38-year-old guy, but I was more like 16 when it came to dating. And I couldn't just make the leap and date a more middle-aged woman and be okay with that. So there was some adjustments that I needed to do there.

And then also work-wise, it was kind of strange because I didn't have any experience with work. I had this huge 22-year gap on my resume that I had to explain, and so finding a job and going through that whole process was rather difficult as well.

David: Yeah, that sounds really challenging. So, tell us what happened along those lines. I mean I understand that now you're married, and I believe you're also employed.

John Doe: Yes.

David: How did these things come to pass?

John Doe: Okay, when I first got out, I had a really urgent need to make money because I felt like I had lost so much time. Everybody else my age had their 401Ks going, and I had nothing. And so I was like, man, I got to do something to make [audio skip], and so I started falling for a lot of these sales jobs. And this is another thing that I think relates back to my 16-17-year-old mentality, is that I was falling for a lot of these sales pitches, because in a lot of sales jobs their first job is to sell you the job, and I was buying all of that, hook, line and sinker, about what it could do for me, how much money I was going to make. And then I'd get into it, and after a few months, I would realize that it was all a load of crap and that usually what I was selling was something somebody didn't want, and they were teaching me techniques that were -

David: Manipulative.

John Doe: Yeah, manipulative techniques and stuff like that. And so I'd end up quitting that one, but then I'd fall for the next one, and I went through four or five of these sales jobs, and nothing was really working, and I couldn't really sell anything, and so I started thinking, well, you know what I could do? I could go to school. And I thought back, what am I good at? And I said, well, the only thing I'm really good at is maybe I could be a counselor; I could be a substance abuse counselor because that's what I know, that's what my experience is at, and that would be along the lines of helping and giving back. So as soon as I started to make that switch, the doors started to fly open for me.

David: Wow, great.

John Doe: And school was open; it was right there. I ended up getting a job that I can work full time that allows me to go to school full time. And so everything has just opened up. And I got my bachelor's in two years, and then now I'm in my master's program seeking to get a license, professional counselor certification.

David: And how did you meet your wife?

John Doe: I actually met her online, and this was initially when I first got out. I met her and kind of knew her, and we dated for about a year or so, and we had a lot in common. A lot of my history and a lot of her history with her family had similarities, and so we were able to really connect. And then once I kind of went through that whole process of about a year and a half of dating and working through my 16-year-old mentality and got to the point, we decided to get married, and we've been married ever since.

David: How long has that been?

John Doe: Almost five years now.

David: Okay, good for you. And do you have any kids?

John Doe: We don't. I have one stepdaughter that she had when she was 16 when we married. And she's - we're going to celebrate her 21st birthday tomorrow actually. But I don't have any kids of my own.

David: You're celebrating whose birthday? The daughter's?

John Doe: Yeah, my stepdaughter's birthday.

David: Okay.

John Doe: And my wife, she can't have any more kids. She ended up having an ablation after this daughter, and so we probably won't have any kids, although my wife was thinking about adoption, but I don't know about that. We'll cover that when we get to it.

David: Yes. Now, one of the things that I've wondered about is whether or not a felony conviction on your record will prevent you from getting licensed as you try to move into the helping professions.

John Doe: Right, and that may very well be the case.

David: Have you looked into that? Have you inquired about it?

John Doe: Yes. Yes, I have. The law does state that they will look at that. It doesn't just state flat out if you have this, you cannot.

David: Okay. You just have to be upfront and honest that, in fact, you do have that conviction, and then -

John Doe: Yes, and they take a look at the time, the severity, the length of time that's passed, what you've done since then. And I'm hoping that - because I want to specify that I would like to work with substance abuse with adults, so I mean if I went into like a correctional facility and worked with criminals who are going through substance abuse, that's what I want to do. And even if they were to put stipulations on me that that's all I could do with my license, I would be happy with that.

I also realize that, if I cannot get licensed in this state, that I still have the education, I still can go to AA meetings, I still can do things, and then also we may move to another state where I maybe could get licensed to where I could get into a situation where I can help some guys maybe not cause some suffering and to get out of some of their own suffering.

David: Okay. I think your story is really a testimony to the possibility of change, and - yeah, go ahead. Say something about that.

John Doe: I would agree. I think a lot of people look at criminals in - look down on them as almost like a whole 'nother species. But, in reality, those are people's brothers and fathers and husbands, and if you have family that actually ends up going to prison, it changes your whole outlook on prisoners, and you start to see that there is some good in there. And I can't remember - I just listened to another one of your interviews this morning on my way to work, where one of the doctors talked about - it was about the criminal mind.

David: Yes.

John Doe: I forget his name, but -

David: Dr. Samenow.

John Doe: Yes, and he said he'd been doing it for 40 years, and he never found one criminal that said that I'm bad at heart. They all said that there's good in me; I'm good at heart. And I find this to be true in my experience of 22 years of living with criminals, that down deep, they are good. And there may be psychological factors that have caused them to make bad choices and things like that, and it kind of goes to the definition of evil you were asking Dana Houck about: can it be explained through psychological issues and just bad choices and things like that? And I think that's true for, say, 95 percent of people, maybe even a higher percentage - that people are good. Just they've gotten these bad ideas and these core beliefs, and they start acting on them.

And then the true definition of evil, I think, is the evils of choice; that once these people get to that point, and then they're like "I know this is wrong; I know this is bad; I know this is going to hurt people, but I'm going to do it anyway." That, to me, is more evil, whereas sometimes these criminals will act in a way that they think is going to better their lives, and they don't really even think about how it's going to affect another person.

David: Yeah, well, we're getting to the point where we probably need to wind down. I wonder if there are any additional last points that you'd like to share with our audience.

John Doe: The only thing I can say is that to realize your life can change in a split second, and not only your life, but decisions that you make can change other people's lives drastically. I was actually a really good student. I was a straight A student. I did very well up until those last three months of my life before I was 16, and things went downhill very, very quick. But at the same time, I think that you shouldn't give up on yourself. If you feel like you've done something wrong or you're a bad person, that's in the past. From this moment on, change it. Do something good, and you can do it.

David: Well, that's a wonderful message, and I hope that you get to perhaps work with people in prisons because of that knowledge that you have of that underlying goodness. And, you know, not everybody could bring that to that situation, so that seems like a really special gift that you would have.

John Doe: Right. Real quick - that's one of things that the counselors that really actually helped me to change, was that they treated me with unconditional positive regard, and they cared about me when I didn't care about myself. And then once I was able to get past the idea that there's something wrong with me, and started entertaining the idea that, hey, maybe I'm okay - if they think I'm okay and that I'm loveable and that I deserve respect, then maybe there is something in me that does. And when I started to believe that about myself, things started to change. And so I would like to be able to do that for other people in that situation and let them know that, hey, down deep, you are okay. And hopefully that'll help.

David: I'm sure it will, and maybe it even has helped some listeners today. So John Doe, thanks for being my guest today on Wise Counsel.

John Doe: Thank you, Dr. Dave, for giving me the opportunity.

David: I hope you are as impressed as I am by the courage that my John Doe guest has shown in coming forth and sharing his story with us. You should not take his decision to do so anonymously as a lack of courage. Originally, he planned to use his real name. However, his wife was concerned that it might put him at a disadvantage for some future educational or employment opportunities, and I agreed that not using his real name seemed a prudent thing to do. If nothing else, his story shows that people in prison are not beyond redemption, and the therapeutic resources in that environment can have a transformative impact.

And speaking of transformation, that experience he described during meditation sounds like what in Zen might be called an experience of "satori," a kind of life-changing breakthrough. By the way, the remarkable film I referred to - Doing Time, Doing Vipassana - is available through Netflix. I strongly recommend renting it. Also the two very inspiring Dana Houck interviews we referred to are number 173, "Prison Dreams and Fairy Tales," and number 207, "Life Changing Lessons from Hard Core Cons." And you can find them on my other podcast series at shrinkrapradio.com.

You've been listening to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by Mentalhelp.net. If you found today's show interesting, we encourage you to visit Mentalhelp.net, where you can add a comment or question to this show's web page, view other shows in the series, or simply page through the site, which is full of interesting mental health and wellness content. Access the show's page and show archive information via the podcast box on the Mentalhelp.net home page.

If you like Wise Counsel, you might also like Shrink Rap Radio, my other interview podcast series, which is available online at www.shrinkrapradio.com. Until next time, this is Dr. David Van Nuys, and you've been listening to Wise Counsel.

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About John Doe

John Doe (Transformed in Prison)John Doe is the pseudonym we are using for my guest who rightly feels it might be prudent to remain anonymous for this interview. John grew up in a dysfunctional home and got involved with hard drugs. When he was 16 years old, he and a couple of buddies decided to hold up a cab to get drug money. Nobody was supposed to get hurt but John did have a gun and ended up shooting and killing the cab driver. As a result of this crime, John was convicted and spent 22 years in prison. While in prison, he took part in eight years of therapy, including group therapy, individual counseling, and psychiatric counseling. He also worked on finishing up his high school education with a GED and later an AA degree while in prison. He also began to explore Native American and Buddhist spiritual practices. As a result, John was able to turn his life around. He is now married, employed, and is planning for a career helping others.

    Reader Comments
    Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

    Thank you! - John Doe - Jan 25th 2011

    Thank you Lorinda! I hope that some good can come out of the whole experience. It would be a shame to not use it to help others. Even if I am not able to obtain a licence, I will find another way to help. Thank you for the encouragement! - John  

    Thank you - Lorinda - Dec 1st 2010

    Thank you for your interview and your couragous inventory of yourself. I do hope that you are able to be licensed in your state to work with those in need of your invaluable insight and experience.

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