A Crazy Kind of Sane

One woman’s story about how failure is our biggest teacher.

Jen Browning
Oct 24 · 10 min read

March of 2017, I was 41-years old and found myself sitting in the last place anyone thinks they will ever end up: The Indiana Women’s Prison. It’s a complicated, somber and crazy story, but one I have learned so much from. And I wouldn’t change a thing.

My story starts in Indianapolis, Indiana, where I was born to wonderful, middle-class parents and a loving older sister. I had a trouble-free childhood, decent grades, attended Indiana University and ultimately landed a job as a stockbroker at Charles Schwab graduating with a Bachelor’s in Arts and Humanities. In my last year of college, I met my ex-husband. We dated for five years, decided to get married and start a family. He came from a wealthy, well-known family in the Indianapolis area and it was an entirely different world for me. Coming from mixed-collared classes was difficult and uncomfortable and we approached almost everything in our relationship from completely different perspectives.

When I was a teenager, I was diagnosed with stage 4 endometriosis creating massive amounts of scar tissue on my colon, small intestines, ovaries, and uterus. Over time I had multiple endo-related surgeries and because of all of this starting a family meant rounds of IVF (In vitro fertilization). After 6 attempts at IVF (two ending in miscarriages), my ex-husband and I ended up with three beautiful children: Rocco who is 15, Michael Katherine who is 14, and Gus who is 10 years of age.

Episodes during my menstrual cycles would cause me to faint and vomit from the pain and after years of dealing with pain and our fertility issues I ended up addicted to opioids as so many other women have during the Opioid Epidemic. As we hear and read in the news almost daily today, pharmaceutical corporations roundly assured the medical community of the safety of prescription opioids to deal with severe pain which was one of the few available paths to treating my level of endometriosis. I guess one could say doctors were my first drug dealers.

The Crazy

In 2010, I got a DUI and went to rehab for the first time at Promises in Malibu, California. I stayed and received treatment for three months. The one visit from my husband three weeks after I began was punctuated with him telling me he wanted a divorce. When I returned from treatment, I found he had moved me out of our home and into a nearby apartment — without my children.

I was heartbroken. None of our friends or the community we had lived in and built relationships with would speak to me. I was lost and confused. Everything I trusted, and the family I had created, was gone. My parents, sister and her family were baffled, hurt and sad for me. That’s when my life turned to complete and utter chaos.

I met a man during my stay at Promises and he moved to Indiana to be with me after my divorce. He is an alcoholic and I am a drug addict and the mix was toxic. I was desperate to recreate the family I once had, but I know now you can’t do that until you’ve done the work to understand how it fell apart in the first place. Then, shockingly, I got pregnant, on my own, very unexpectedly.

I remember thinking Gwen Stefani was right. This shit IS bananas.

Soon after I found out I was pregnant, I ended the relationship because he continued to relapse. I was doing pretty well in my recovery at the time and decided to have the baby and give it a go on my own. I named him Grayson and he is now 6 years old. However, the chaos continued.

Essentially, I lost my fourth child to his father because I began to relapse and get in trouble with the law. Another DUI… a theft charge from being so high I was walking out of a store unknowing I hadn’t paid for the items I shopping for… possession charges from not having actual prescriptions for the prescription medications I was abusing. My bad luck got tangled up with my bad decisions and I was in a very bad place in life.

I am a good-hearted Midwestern girl. I grew up in a good family who taught me morals and values. Why was I making such horrible choices? Who was this woman I was looking at in the mirror every day? I didn’t understand how to explain the recklessness nor the continuous bad choices I was making.

I knew I needed help. And a lot of it. However, treatment is expensive and I couldn’t afford it. I ended up in enough trouble within the criminal legal system I was offered a plea deal by the prosecutor on my case including work release, home detention, and probation spanning over the next five years. So I made a very, very controversial decision.

I asked to be sent to prison.

I was bright enough to understand I could forgo paying fines and being on restrictions in the county I resided in and requested the judge send me to the Department of Corrections instead. I estimated I would be home within 16 months and done with everything.

More importantly, I knew I needed to sit the fuck down. I needed uninterrupted time with my higher power to refocus and figure out how this all happened. I was a pile of shameful tears. And so…the journey began.

Prison and The Life-Changing Magic

When I first entered the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis (Fun fact: the prison I was sent to was built in 1860 and is actually the first women’s prison built in the United States. Women’s prisons didn’t even exist two centuries ago, but today, there are over a million women in the criminal justice system, mostly from addiction-related crimes) I began taking time to write down what I valued in life — a list that included my family, my beautiful children, my integrity, hard work, friendships I had lost and missed, my faith (I’m Catholic) and most importantly, my physical and mental health.

I quickly learned most of the population at IWP was there because of addiction: meth, heroin, pills, cocaine, marijuana, spice, alcohol, sex, gambling, money. You name it. Society is addicted and not just within those prison walls. Anyone is one bad judgment call away from spiraling the way I did. Almost 21 million Americans have at least one addiction, yet approximately only 10% of them receive treatment. I definitely wasn’t alone.

I found myself immersed in a brand new world that forced me to embrace my strength and independence. I started to come to terms with what lead me down this dark path. Divorce is common, but it’s brutal. Addiction had hijacked my brain. I began to come to terms with what had created the perfect storm: disease, pain, depression, anxiety, and bad choices. I missed my children. My anxiety consumed me, and I needed tools to get better.

I went to the library within the facility and read every book about addiction, depression, divorce, co-dependency and anxiety I could get my hands on. I went through treatment again in the facility and really opened up this time. I stayed up most nights journaling everything I was thinking and feeling. I rediscovered AA meetings and witnessed testimony of other women who had experienced similar paths and taught me how not to betray my own needs and begin thinking about the impending future.

Then I got the greatest gift.

In November of 2017, I learned a California based non-profit software engineering program, called The Last Mile, successfully created in the San Quentin prison system for men in 2014. The Last Mile equips offenders with relevant job skills to propel them into tech careers when they are released from prison. They began looking for a facility in the U.S. to adopt the program, specifically for women. Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb and correctional leaders, passionate about workforce development in Indiana, convinced The Last Mile to take the leap here in Indiana at IWP and I was one of 14 women chosen for the program beginning in April of 2018. (Another fun fact: hip-hop recording artist MC Hammer, a board member for TLM and too legit to quit, came for the inaugural ribbon-cutting ceremony.)

Bananas, right?

The ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating The Last Mile program coming to IWP. Photo credit: The Last Mile

I was released before the year-long program concluded, however, during my participation I was lucky enough to meet Chok Ooi, Chairman of Agility and CEO of Kenzie Academy. Chok was on a mission to create a new pipeline of talent for the tech industry in the Midwest with affordable financing options offering monthly payment plans and Income Share Agreements (ISA’s). I needed to continue my education once I was released and he had just opened the doors of Kenzie Academy in Indianapolis. Chok listened to my story, told me he believed in giving people second chances, and said he would save a spot for me in the next software engineering cohort.

Leaning In

After 14 long months in prison, I was released in June of 2018. I took Chok up on his offer and enrolled in the Full-Stack Software Engineering program at Kenzie and started two weeks later.

I studied hard for the next year. I learned as much as I possibly could about the tech industry in the Midwest. I found mentors. I kept reading self-help books. I began attending 12-step meetings and found a sponsor. I got back into therapy for guidance rebuilding my life from the rubble of heartbreak and loss.

I graduated with my Full-Stack Engineering Certification from Kenzie in July and work in an apprenticeship for Kenzie Studio, the company’s consulting arm. I participated as a speaker this past June at the Whitney Museum of American Art for the Rethink Education EdTech Summit in New York City sharing the pathway to my incarceration and introduction into coding with The Last Mile Program, my experience within the Kenzie Academy community giving me support and the networking tools required while launching a new career in technology, and how mentoring others with equally unique stories benefits and reminds me of how far I have come.

Chok and I celebrating after my graduation from Kenzie.

The Sane

I still have a lot to overcome, but for the first time in a long time, I have hope.

My children are happy and healthy. I have the tools to deal with the pain of not being in their lives every day, lean into my faith, and keep pushing forward trying to navigate a path back into their lives. I know they are too young to understand right now, but the best gift I could ever possibly give them was making the difficult choice to do what was required and get the help I needed. Yes, I’ve disappointed them and missed out on so much and will forever regret it, however, I believe one day they will understand and be thankful for having the opportunity for a happy, healthy relationship with their mother again.

My immediate family finally has me “back”. I can see and feel how proud they are of what I’ve overcome. I’ve found friendships with women who love me for me, not for the man I was married to. They accept me for all I am…the good, the bad and the ugly.

I’m starting to date again but the old song is right, you can’t hurry love. I wholeheartedly deserve someone who views a partnership as a team. Someone who wants to conquer goals together while being unconditionally in love and encourages me to be a better version of myself every day, without losing my sense of self…proudly standing by my side.

Recently, The Last Mile held the first graduation ceremony for the original 14 women who started the program and I was asked to give a speech. Throughout life, there are certain moments that fundamentally change who we are and our perspective. Sharing my story while supporting the other women in the program was one of those moments for me and I received a standing ovation.

Graduation for The Last Mile Program at IWP

The Silver Lining

It took me a long time to realize not everything in life is meant to be a beautiful story and I had to take a huge step back to find my way forward.

Once I realized my feelings of loss, abandonment, rejection, and betrayal were, too, guiding me someplace new, I stopped trying to rewrite past chapters and allowed a new story of empowerment to begin. I’ve given myself permission to move forward, let go and be kind to even to most broken parts of myself. I take nothing for granted and choose to gracefully navigate through this new life of mine.

I actually value embarrassment now. It’s an aid in moral conformity and it keeps us honest. Rejection in life is no longer stings like it used to. It’s an invitation to love yourself. Letting go takes work, requires introspection about what’s true and what we are truly attached to, and opens new paths leading to joy.

Recovery from addiction is possible. It takes time and is hard work but it’s possible with gratitude, respect, and humility.

God works in mysterious ways. I have a career I love. I am part of multiple communities that support and respect me knowing my truth. I survived every difficult day and hardship I thought was hindering me. I picked up the pieces and rebuilt myself and realized nothing is permanent.

Freedom came from loss, courage came from regret, hope came from disbelief, love came from betrayal, and beauty came from suffering and pain. And I wouldn’t change a thing.

Jen Browning

Written by

Delightfully average and utterly unique. Admirer of all things clever, beautiful, and crafty.

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