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Starting Recovery with a Criminal Record - Overcoming Barriers to Success

Having a criminal record and/or ongoing monitoring by the criminal justice system makes early recovery even more challenging. Don't allow your past to limit what's possible for today. While probation terms and requirements, 'time hanging', or felony status clearly represent real challenges, they are far from insurmountable.

Here are some answers to common questions and suggestions for overcoming the obstacles you may face.

What Do I Tell People in the Program?

Hard as it may be to believe, folks in AA and NA who are working a good program have absolutely no interest in judging you. They see your past choices as things you did while active in addiction and/or during a different period in your life. They will be supportive and help you to see that some people really do change their whole lives.

It may surprise you to learn that the folks you most admire in the program have very "colorful" pasts. The recovery communities are more inclusive than any other group. Addiction is an equalizer and so is recovery. In both cases, it doesn't matter what you do for a living, what your level of education is or how much money you have - both will embrace you.

How do I Deal with Authority Figures in Criminal Justice?

We struggle with folks in authority. It's just part of our makeup. We learn to do what's in our best interest, which most often means simply treating others the way we wish to be treated. Even if your probation officer is demeaning and degrading, you must treat them with respect. Honesty is everything. Always show accountability and be forthcoming. The worst thing we can do is lie to those who hold power over us.

Be a success story. Show them that some people really do make it. Be open and honest about what you're going through - not because you expect them to care but rather to make it easier for the folks who will come along after you. If you use, admit it immediately - hold nothing back. Instead of trying to hide your fear and discomfort for what these folks can do, show genuineness.

Don't let insecurities and anxiety dictate your decisions.

How Do I Deal with Time Hanging?

I've worked with lots of folks who have years of prison time hanging; many only one positive test away from incarceration.

  1. This compounds the problem of viewing sobriety as something you have to do for the rest of your life.
  2. The concept of "one day at a time" becomes all the more vital to embrace. All you have to do is not use twenty four hours at a time. Make a plan for each and every day. Anything else is unmanageable and a recipe for disaster.

How Do I Get a Decent Job?

  1. Check out your local career center and ask about support in finding a career despite having a criminal record. Many programs offer federal bonding programs which provide an employer insurance and assurances that they can hire felons without concern.
  2. Apply to independent businesses - they are far more likely to give second chances (corporate employers are far more likely to run criminal background checks.)
  3. Consider supply and demand in your options. Fields that have the greatest need for employees tend to be the least stringent regarding a person's background. The restaurant business is an excellent example; nobody is checking references on dishwashers and while that may not be a job you want, it's still a solid start.

One of the few occupations that is very forgiving of criminal backgrounds is the field of substance abuse treatment. Given that roughly two thirds of all addictions counselors are in recovery themselves, it follows that our field is more forgiving. A very high percentage of people in recovery consider the possibility of becoming a substance abuse counselor. I urge folks to investigate state licensing and educational requirements prior to choosing this option.

What Do I Tell People I Date?

Tell them the simple honest truth before things progress to relationship status.

Picking the right time is tricky. A lot of folks favor full disclosure right up front. I urge people to consider how much of their private lives they wish to disclose prior to developing rapport. The dating scene seems to consider the third date as make it or break it time. I see this as an appropriate juncture and I encourage folks to be open and honest but also to emphasize where they are today.

How Do I Deal with Discrimination?

Every state in the U.S. has restrictions based on the nature of convicted crimes and/or felony status, and a lot of resources that people commonly depend on in early recovery may be closed to you. Subsidized housing is often inaccessible and even TANF or other assistance programs may be denied you.

The only solution to these challenges is to work harder and ask for help from those of us who "get it." Local AA and NA is likely your best option for identifying resources. As for coping with the narrow minded folks of the world, John Wayne said it best, "Never let the bastards get you down." In this respect, your past will always follow you, but it does not need to be a source of perpetual shame.

"I did then what I knew to do. Now that I know better, I do better." - Maya Angelou

Be the power of example. Some of the finest people I know happen to be convicted felons. Remember, your past does not define you. What you do next does.

Clinical Social Worker/Therapist
My story is I'm forever a work in progress and I love connecting with REAL people who are doing great things. I'm blessed to be making a living doing something I love. I'm a proud dad and the luckiest husband ever. I'm an aspiring author - check out my recovery blog at: Thanks! Jim

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