Prison Wisdom & Life Lessons

This is the last week I will spend incarcerated. It’s hard to fully grasp those words. To those on the outside, 10 years go by in a flash. Time moves much more slowly in prison. I can’t look ahead without reflecting on all that this experience has taught me. I’ve healed and grown in every way imaginable. It’s because of this growth that I will return to my family as a proud woman and confident mother.

I’ve lost a lot while incarcerated. My children are all a decade older than when I left them. They were babies then. I’m coming home to young adults. Events, milestones, and holidays have passed without me being able to experience them in person. These are losses I feel deeply. What keeps me going is that I have more years ahead of me than behind me (fingers crossed). I also recognize all that I’ve gained while in prison. It is these experiences and lessons learned that will enable me to leave whole next Monday. I don’t think I’ve ever felt whole in my entire life.

Opportunity changes you. Incredibly, I had to come to prison to find it. But this is my story, and it is one of healing and hope. As I prepare to leave prison, I want to share, as Oprah would say, “what I know for sure” in the hopes that I may help others begin to feel whole.

Forgive yourself. I’ve let my children down. I can’t think of a bigger disappointment than that. Their childhood is not what I wanted for them, and I would do anything to turn back the clock. But I can’t. What is within my power is to admit that I blew it, own my mistakes out loud, and use what I’ve learned to create a better future for my children and myself. When we refuse to forgive ourselves, we are stuck in the past and live in a cycle of guilt and shame. This further damages the people in our lives whom we love the most. What I’ve learned is that we need to treat ourselves as we would anyone else. This self-compassion allows us to end destructive thought processes and strengthens our mental well-being. It’s the first step I’ve had to take to rebuild my future and return to my children as the mother they deserve.

It’s OK to ask for help. This was a tough one for me to learn. In fact, not being able to move beyond the stubborn part of my ego and call out for help led me to prison not once but twice. When I began to slide deeper into my addiction, I wasn’t without strong mentors. They knew. They confronted me. They begged me to let them help. I told them I was fine. I told them they were wrong. Simply, I lied. I pushed them away. I had come out of prison for the first time with so much promise and potential. I was afraid that had I been honest, they’d see me as a failure – a fraud. I couldn’t live with them knowing I wasn’t perfect. I now know that perfection is not a destination; it is a myth. We are all flawed but every flaw leads to a greater understanding of ourselves…if we acknowledge them. Having the courage to admit when you are struggling is what keeps you strong. It allows you to rise and address head-on whatever challenge you are facing. It makes you real. I have found that each time I ask for help, I become stronger. My friends, family, and colleagues learn to rely on me as much as I rely on them. Vulnerability pulls people in, and this creates stronger, more trusting, and more authentic relationships, which leads to a more meaningful life.

Lift everyone; not just those who are similar to you. I walked into prison the first time thinking I was better than everyone. But here’s the thing, when you are stripped of stature and all your freedoms… when you are kept away from everything and everyone you know… you learn quickly how much you have in common with the person standing next to you. When you have nothing, you all long for the same things: love, family, support, opportunity, and a bright future. I don’t look down anymore unless I am extending a hand to pull someone up. It is that embrace of our common humanity that allows people to open up and that’s the first step to becoming whole again.

These last 10 years have been a journey of continuous growth, transformation, and learning, and surprisingly, one I don’t regret. I needed to be here. Today, I am thinking of all those who are without healing and hope. I want you to know that I see you because I am you. There is a better tomorrow. And to my children at home whom I long to embrace, these pearls of wisdom are really for you.

Media interviews with Danna Tongate:

Jun 3, 2019 NBC12 Phoenix – ‘Today in AZ: New Lease on Life’

Sep 7, 2022 ABC15 Arizona – ‘Valley woman’s fresh start outside prison’

Sep 8, 2022 FOX10 Arizona – ‘Woman leaves Arizona prison with full time managerial job’

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