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Deborah Jiang-Stein: Staring down Stigma

Lessons from a prison baby.

Contributed by Deborah Jiang-Stein, author of Prison Baby: A Memoir

If I've learned anything from my unique entry into the world and living with the facts of my birth in prison to a chronic heroin addict, it's how to integrate the deepest of pain, grief, and fear into acceptance and ultimately live a life filled with purpose, intention, and play.

For two decades, I felt stigmatized by my prison birth. For others, stigma might translate into divorce, dropping out of college, living as a closeted LGBT person, alcoholic, debt ridden, trapped in a hated job, cancer —whatever we live with and wish we didn't have to, whatever we believe stigmatizes us. Sometimes it can be self-imposed and other times we’re labeled from society. Either way, stigma casts a shroud of shame if we don’t stare it down face on.

The journey of my early fractured beginnings in prison helped prepare me for a medical diagnosis I received ten years ago. I have hepatitis C. It’s a blood carried virus that infects and scars the liver, and can reduce its healthy function. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that today 5.3 million Americans have chronic Hepatitis C in the United States, and more people now die from Hepatitis C than from HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Western doctors consider Hep C incurable. Before I go on, it’s important to know I am healthy and asymptomatic.

Once the shock of my diagnosis wore off, I grew to view this as just one more challenge in living with something I don't like, but must accept. What’s the choice, though? It’s not like I can wish it away. It’s not as if there’s a world where everything is perfect. I learned this after years of working to accept my roots in prison and all that followed: foster care, adoption, addictions, a life in petty crime, and a life on the edge, in the margins of society. I can’t say it was easy, but I appreciate how I’ve learned to live with what feels unlivable.

I’m trying to apply this to my diagnosis and to the stigma it can bear, because Hepatitis C is associated with IV drug users, which I was, as was my birth mother. My born-in-prison story has taught me how to live with hepatitis C because I’ve learned to face whatever I cannot change, head on, with intention.

I’m treating my Hep C with keen attention to my nutrition, and also, because I don’t drink alcohol any more, my liver thanks me, I’m sure. I trust what I know from experience about finding my true deeper self. I'd faced other diagnosis with a variety of approaches holistic: drug addiction, alcoholism, psyche unwellness and mental health issues from early childhood trauma. I've harmonized body and spirit using a variety of treatments, such as Bach flower remedies, Chinese herbs, spiritual retreats and yoga, meditation, tai chi, hypnosis, EMDR, and bodywork in countries where's I'd lived and traveled—foot reflexology in Hong Kong, shiatsu in Japan, massage in Thailand. Healing is all of one mindbodyspirit, a single word in my mind, but not just a single bucket with one approach.

It's not only the fact that I was born in a prison that startles people. Some are even more surprised that deeper meaning rose from the pain and loss, and that I've learned to live this story with purpose and intention. Out of the trauma surrounding my roots, I’ve found purpose greater than myself in working with incarcerated women and girls. The programs of the nonprofit I founded builds and provides empowerment tools so they can plan and prepare for a successful life after prison.

My prison work and life journey are heavy topics, but this doesn't mean I need to be serious about it 100% of the time. It's not frivolous to find humor inside pain and sorrow. The balance I make with play and fun along with thoughtfulness and inquiry, this is what makes my story hopeful. This is what makes it a living story rather than a topic for academic intellectual observation from a distance.

The personal best treasure buried underneath is the freedom as I healed which also unleashed more play. Play has been one secret to my survival, and the amount of play and fun I incorporate into my life is equal to the globe size of pain I used to carry. I’m not dismissive of or shallow about my story, either. I've studied a little about the vital role of play and fun because I used to develop game products as learning and training tools for educators, mental health professionals, and corporate trainers.

There's a difference between a flippant attitude, and the ability for fun and play and laughter once in a while in the face of hardship and adversity. I'm not naïve about this. Quite the opposite. I believe it's a sign of emotional development. I can't change the facts of my story and the trauma that came with it, but I can change how I view it all.

Plenty of research shows that engagement in play opens the brain to learning. Play and fun are powerful tools for transformation when used appropriately. Humor, play, and fun unlock pathways in the brain, similar to the effects of music, and open the brain to increased creative thinking. The fusion of play and fun with healing and growth is what's enabled change throughout my life. I've been able to shift how I integrated my experiences of trauma and grief. Over time, I expect how I view my story will continue to evolve.

And so, when I started to play around with sexy silk fabric and tulle a few years ago, an experiment with crafty-ness, it brought me the greatest of joy. I even came up with an identity the even tough girls wear tutus. Not that I’m tough, but I used to be. The whole tutu idea resonated with my friends and community, both online and in face-to-face life. I played with the concept and wrote a Ten Commandments of the Tutu, and took photos of my tutus draped on trees in the woods and at the beach, and also auctioned a few tutus to support the unPrison Project for my work with incarcerated women and girls. I posted pictures on Facebook and Twitter and it was hilarious and serious and meaningful, all at the same time.

I feel the same way about roller-skating. One of my favorite pair of shoes are my almost-still-new black leather ankle high quad skates with their Bones Swiss race bearings. I’ve removed the toe grip rubber brakes. Whenever time allows, twice a week I hit the roller rink where the DJ plays the best R&B, and once in while shouts out a dedication for regulars at the rink like me.

Besides the pure joy of flight on wheels, skating, or any activity where the earth moves below your feet, is a great test in trust, risk taking, and self-confidence. If I ran corporate trainer workshops today, I’d take everyone skating first, to free the part of the brain that screams fear, to squelch the voice that says, “I can’t.”

Now that I’ve metabolized and accepted the fear, pain and losses in my story, I’ve learned to integrate my rocky past into my present life, and three lessons unfolded:

1) Emotions wash through us and around us, and then the tide rolls out and inevitably, the tide rolls in again. We’re built to ride waves.

2) In the flight, fight, or freeze pattern, sometimes a combo of all three works.

3) Instead of looking for the meaning of life, look for meaning in life, keeping a sense of humor because play and fun are no laughing matters. They’re key to survival.

This week I visited my doctor for my annual blood test. As she pushed the palms of her hands deep into the right side of my abdomen to make sure my liver wasn’t inflamed, which it isn’t, she said, “If you want more protein, think of trying chia seeds.”

She pushed deeper. “Great nutritional benefits,” she added.

“Is it the same kind mushed onto those darling terracotta pet figurines?” I asked. They are.

“I’ll try them,” I told her, “ but they better not sprout out my ears.”

I’m not waiting for the results of my blood tests with any alarm, even though I expect my viral count will be elevated, as is usual for anyone with hepatitis C. Fear only leads to more fear so my attitude is to live as a Seeker. I’m an explorer by nature, an adventurer. I’m always on the look out for ways to enhance my mental, physical, and emotional wellness. It’s the best anyone can wish for, to live with what we don’t like, and then turn it into a life with intention and purpose. I’m open to trying most anything. Even if it’s eating chia seeds.

Deborah Jiang Stein is a keynote speaker, writer, and founder of The unPrison Project ( a 501(c)3 nonprofit working to empower and inspire incarcerated women and girls with life skills and mentoring to plan and prepare for a successful life after prison. She is the author of the memoir,

PRISON BABY (Beacon Press.) This is the first book chosen for the One Read Program in the prison system: Behind Books not Bars Program.

Deborah Jiang Stein is a keynote speaker, writer, and founder of The unPrison Project ( a 501(c)3 nonprofit working to empower and inspire incarcerated women and girls with life skills and mentoring to plan and prepare for a successful life after prison. She is the author of the memoir,

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