The last thing I said to any of my children in person was “Be good at school and I’ll see you when you get home”.
That was ten years ago and I was lying to them…
Ten years ago my life was in mayhem. My wife was beginning to show serious signs of what was eventually diagnosed as some variant of Schizophrenia, though, I had no idea- I just knew she was dependent and angry. I was morbidly obese, tipping the scales around 305. We didn’t have our own place because I couldn’t keep a job and every day that went on with us living under someone else’s roof was another realization that I was not fulfilling my duty.
And about that duty…
I was confused about who I was and wasn’t. Inside I was constantly fighting the feeling that I was a woman but it was so much deeper than that. I compared my appearance to other women, my size and shape, mannerisms. Then I would steal a glance at myself in the mirror and see a fat, shaved-headed man looking back at me. It was the worst feeling. It made me feel perverted- remnants of rural Nebraska and its slow-churning conservative style of Christianity that blazed during the 80’s.
Everything inside me screamed to be open, to come out and just talk to someone, but I wasn’t courageous enough. Instead, I lied. I lied about what I felt and why, what I wanted and what I didn’t, who I was…and wasn’t. I subscribed to the hyper and toxic masculinity that was prevalent then, and today, in order to keep myself convinced that if I just kept at it I would get “cured” of my…perversions- or my desires to be a woman and be with men. It never worked though.
Nobody knowing who you are can only last for so long before it eventually begins to seep out, expressing itself in unexpected and unimaginable ways. Especially with my past. Pieces of my childhood, adolescence and adulthood were never dealt with.
Pieces like knowing my Father’s name and being told he lives in the next town over but nobody ever bridging the gap. Never getting closure.
Pieces like being adopted by a loving aunt with a gigantic heart that was just as broken.
Pieces like knowing who your birth mother is every step of the way. Then knowing she, who gave you up, raised four additional children and kept every one, leaving you to wonder “Why wasn’t I good enough to keep?”. I just didn’t know how to cope with that.
Pieces like viewing pornography at a young age that was fueled by every man I knew. Being masculinized through it and being told it would take the sissy out of me.
Pieces like my family doing meth and watching it consume them all. Maybe that’s why porn was suddenly “okay”, with some, maybe they thought a better outcome would happen…
There are pieces of my life all over Nebraska, Iowa and Washington. Pieces that I never bothered to collect or reexamine until recently. As each segment of my life shattered I just followed Mom. We moved every six months or so and every time I came home and had to pack another box, another piece of me got left behind. All along the highway between Omaha and Iowa there are both me and my Mom’s tear stains along the shoulders.
I met my wife at age 16 in juvenile hall. It wasn’t very romantic. If you went to AA you got to stay out of your cell another hour, most of us went for that and to be in a co-ed environment. She stole a paperclip and got us patted down in the hallway, her opportunity to flirt. I wasn’t attracted to her but she was persistent, a quality I learned to loathe later on. Once I was out she called nearly every day for eight months, I always dodged her calls. My uncle, who was on the run up here in Washington from Nebraska at the time, before he passed away, eventually set up a date for me with her.
With him, nothing was really a choice.
I was really struggling with my sexuality by then. I was madly in love with my best friend, John. I was too afraid to say anything and the one time I tried to explore my sexuality I was rejected and subsequently humiliated. Dating a woman, in my mind, was my next logical choice to prove to my uncle I was anything but the sissy he’d thought I’d grow up to be.
Not long after we got pregnant with our first child and hitchhiked from Washington to Nebraska…long story. We moved to a small town north of Omaha determined to be adults. I learned a lot about adulthood, mainly that I wasn’t prepared for it. My new wife was pregnant as pregnant could be, I was drowning in dependency and both of our hostilities when our first was born that December. An event that, in retrospect, helped trigger my wife’s disease into overdrive. We were just teenagers though, we had no idea.
The following year we moved back to Washington, Nebraska blew up in our faces. We were alone without help and when her mom passed away due to complications from emphysema. Raising a newborn had taken its toll. Mothering wasn’t an instinct my wife had, she didn’t really do the typical bonding. This meant I did nearly all the parenting, costing me many jobs. I learned that I loved being a parent, but she only loved me, only it wasn’t love at all, it was mental illness and dependency. Again, hindsight.
Two more children came, history repeating itself cleanly. The only difference my wife’s condition worsening with every pregnancy and year that passed. She was getting more and more irrational and unpredictable. I couldn’t keep a job and my morals shattered completely when I began working graveyard. I thought that if I was around in the daytime and gone when she was sleeping I could keep a job. Instead she kept me awake in the daytime by waking me up constantly to tend the children or her, by the time it was time to get up I always needed more hours, which made her even more hostile and as time went on so was I. I was barely sleeping at all and it went on for months.
There is no excuse for my crime. I don’t look at my past and think I was somehow justified. I can see how my decisions were influenced and why I made the choices I did, but I wasn’t justified, I made a decision that hurt someone emotionally, no, traumatized someone. Someone innocent was traumatized in a way that nobody should be and it wasn’t their fault, or anyone else’s for that matter, it was and is entirely mine.
Life went on for a few more years. But I had changed. The day I committed my offense I wasn’t planning on living anymore, I literally gave up trying. Everything went dark inside of me. I started packing on weight, eventually reaching that 305 I mentioned in the beginning. I no longer planned for the future, I became the shadow of the person I should have been. Guilt and shame consumed my identity..well, and anger. I had grown resentful of my life, or more accurately, what my life wasn’t. I was resentful of my marriage and family, my cowardice in not admitting my femininity, my choices and their impending consequences, my lack of finances and my appearance. All I could think about was ending it all, as fast as possible.
Then, prison. I did attempt my life in 2011. I was rehabilitated in a hospital in Tacoma and eventually sentenced to Life in prison with the possibility of parole after 126 months with good behavior, that’s ten years six months. This is where I had to reconcile living instead of wishing for death. I have to say, the hardest thing I had done up to that point was finding enough value left inside me to keep the will to live. In my mind there was no coming back from my choices, all of them.
Then I came out publicly. I remember the first time I spoke the words out loud I was praying. Through tears and a heaving chest I confessed that I was attracted to men (I didn’t have the courage to identify as trans until 2014), I said “God, I’m gay and there ain’t nothing I can do about it and I’m tired of pretending.” And just like that, a veil was lifted. Suddenly the impact of my choices came rushing in like a dam had broke somewhere deep within my soul, the gravity and stupidity of it all. It was at that moment that I began to experience freedom. My only regret was that I didn’t come out sooner because if I had, I would have remained the loving parent I once was, maybe had a career. I guess I was to cowardly then, sad to say.
When I first came to prison I was really struggling on how to learn to live again, find a purpose or a reason for my existence. This older guy says to me one morning, seeing I was struggling to find my path, “Listen, prison is a womb or a tomb. You can come here and learn to live or you can learn to die. But you better make a choice on your own, otherwise someone else has already made the choice for you.” No words have ever shaped me so precisely.
Since 2011 I have pursued treatment in all its forms. Anger Management and Compassion-Focused Therapy, 200 plus hours of cognitive behavioral therapy, 1000 plus hours of peer-based change programs, nearly 1000 hours of intensive psychologically repairative therapy, and then I am currently in sex offender treatment which dwarfs the intensity of any other program by far. I earned my Associates degree and a made Phi Theta Kappa, graduating with Honors and then a hard earned Computer Programming certification. I have been awarded over 50 public speaking awards and altogether I have over 80 certificates, awards, degrees, and achievements.
I helped make US history in 2016 when I was part of a team that organized the first ever DOC sponsored LGBT Pride Event, that same year I win a two and a half year battle to get an LGBTQ Peer Support group. I have started 2 sites, closing the first one to open my second, www.humanme.org. I have been a part of out of prison coalitions that have came and went, just like programs, I have mentored others and been mentored, and facilitated 1000’s of hours of programs as well as written curriculum and standards for many programs and have the documents for all of it. I have stood before some of prisons most violent men and women and remained in my truth, holding onto the values and morals I reclaimed.
Prison has been a place where I discovered who I am and my raison d’etre, my justification for existence. Here is my purpose statement:
As a self-developed and perseverant person I create healthier communities by educating leadership to recognize, embrace, and empower those who have chosen to positively change in spite of all forms of incarceration.
Prison has been a place for me to deconstruct the pieces of my life and then carefully and intentionally reconstruct myself with love. I have discovered that I have value. I have come from some very dark places and I know exactly what it means to change, to turn away from and become new. That’s me.
I used to think I was a shattered…thing. But I’ve come to understand that all those pieces- lost to the past for some, etched throughout memories for others- were bits of masks that I have shed. Some were placed on me and some I wore on my own, but all of them were covering a very Human Me.
Jeff aka Ruth Utnage 823469 C-601-2
PO Box 888
Monroe, WA. 98272
or Jpay.com for email
Name: Jeff Utnage