About five years ago, I was working for a social services organization. One of the things they offered there was case management — a collaborative process between the person in need (the client), and the social worker or case manager that involves periodic assessments, planning to meet the client’s needs and evaluation of the options available. One of those case managers — I will call her Terry — was my very favorite and she dealt strictly with reentry clients. This meant that all of her caseload were formerly incarcerated people, getting reacclimated to society outside of the prison system. I loved the way Terry did her job. And her clients did too. They knew she was on their side. For many of them, she was one of the few, or maybe the only person, who was. I watched those men and women come in weekly to meet with Terry, trying to look optimistic, shoulders hunched with the weight of freedom, fists clenched for a new battle of partnering with Terry to meet a basic need. I watched them fight for housing, work, and proper medical care with nothing but the will to live better and the belief that the world they’d rejoined was better than the one they’d left. And as many of them as I saw week after week, I always wondered what happened to the ones that stopped coming. Were they and Terri triumphant in their push for a new life? Or did they get tired of the fight? Did they make it to shore, or get swept away by the riptide of being poor and black with a criminal record? Or did they opt for the life that sent them away in the first place? Did they decide that trying so hard for reentry wasn’t worth it?
I brought up Terry and her clients because they were on my mind as I thought about reentry. About coming back to something you left, about what happens when you return to a world you think you know and it’s cold and lonely. Six years ago, I came back to Philadelphia, the place where I was born and raised, to settle down, or so I thought. I left so many years before, confident I was making the right decision; I returned wondering if I’d regret everything. I’d left a girl and come back very much a woman. My perspective on nearly everything had changed. In a way it was like a reentry, going back to somewhere I was sure I had a place, only to find that the space where I’d been had disappeared, been covered, like a swath of smooth concrete replacing the cracked pavements in front of one of Philly’s newly gentrified homes.
To be clear, I’ve never been incarcerated. And I would never presume to compare my fight with men and women struggling to rebuild a life after being in prison. But reentry as a rule is often an uphill battle, a test of wills and willpower, a climb full of loose rocks and shaky grappling. Support is spoken in words, but rarely ever backed by action. Reentry is a clash of ideas. You’re often being carried by nostalgia, lifted by the past, only to be spun by a new car smell. And because the world you’re coming back to is one you think you know, you never see it coming. And that, I can identify with.
I used to live in Maryland. Sharing a townhouse with my very best friend, my life was in a contented rhythm of work and home and friends and shopping. I didn’t exactly feel happy all the time, but I was happy enough. Then, my very best friend got engaged. And then married. It wasn’t unexpected, but the fear I felt was. While not romantically, up until that moment I’d had someone to go through life with. And then I didn’t. Suddenly I was free, and while it wasn’t bad (because my best friend who I love very much was opening a great new chapter), it didn’t feel good either. My other two closest friends, also in Maryland, were already married with children as well, so I was an untethered entity, connected to everyone peripherally, but also to no one. I was regaining complete autonomy over my life, but in a way it still felt like losing. Then I had a decision to make. What to do? Where to go? What’s my next move? And my latent fear of the disconnect I was feeling becoming permanent, plus the rose colored glasses from my visits prompted me to decide it was time to go back home. So I did. I re-entered my hometown. I came home, to a different world. And to be fair, I knew it would be. I’d left Philly as a sassy teenager who didn’t even know how to drive; I was returning a full woman, a fuller woman, with college and travel and home ownership under her belt. I was wiser. Or at least I was supposed to be.
In the beginning, things were simple. I was home, and there was nothing but celebrations. Everyone was so happy to have me closer. But I forgot my role. And I underestimated how much more my family would want me to play it. I’d grown up as the “mature one,” the “responsible one,” the one who had it together and always did the right thing. My family saw me as the one who could always be depended on to help. To nurture, to prop up, to fill in the gaps. Leaving had eased that quite a bit, and I liked the ease. I returned as a conquering hero, of sorts. But I hadn’t planned on being the resident hero. Unfortunately, that was the role that was planned for me. And suddenly, my new freedom was a weight. I missed the stability of living with someone as self-sufficient as I was; everyone around me needed a crash course in the adulthood I’d already learned, and it was tiring being the teacher. I struggled to do things that should have been easy because I was constantly derailed — not only by other people’s needs, but also by my own need to reestablish the connection that had been so effortless in Maryland, with my best friend. I struggled to find my footing emotionally, financially, socially. Every try was a failure. My connection to the city where I’d been born and raised had died and trying to birth a new one felt like gearing up for battle, again and again — like Terri’s clients used to do. I held tight to the belief that being home was better than being there; the world I’d returned to was better than the one I’d left. I needed to believe that. But the more I struggled, the more I wondered if coming home was really the right thing to do.
Life continued to spiral down for me, with job loss and home loss and love lost. Support was often spoken in words but rarely backed by action. I had become a stranger in a city where everyone knew me. This wasn’t the place I thought of when I decided to move. This place was cold and lonely. And my space had been smoothed over, replaced by a glaring reassignment of duties — a new role from whom much is required, but very little is given. And at first I tried to convince myself that it was because I wasn’t a child anymore — of course more is required of adults. But that’s not what this has been. This has been a lesson in reciprocity, in stagnation, in silent fear that not reacclimating will continue to make every single need a new battle. And some days, I wish I had someone like Terry to hold my hand, to fight with me, to advocate so lovingly for me as I watched her do for her clients years ago.
Reentry doesn’t always mean simple growing pains. This has been more than stretching, more than discomfort. It’s been a shedding of everything I thought I knew about myself and this place I’ve come back to. And the shedding has been painful. Exhausting. Relentless. My remains are vulnerable and exposed. Oftentimes I wonder if it’d be better to return from whence I came; most days, I find myself feeling like trying so hard for reentry wasn’t worth it after all. And now I know how much support and love is needed for someone coming back to everything they used to know. Because now I know that there’s far more that they don’t. Now I’m a little closer to knowing how Terry’s clients felt. But since not everyone can have a Terry, most of us, including me, are figuring it out alone.