My Best Friend Is a Convict & My Father – Valerie Axtle

My father has been in and out of jail ever since I was a toddler. I remember one time when I was 12 or 13, my dad came home from jail after being gone for a long while. I was extremely nervous because I’d only gotten to see him through glass and all of the sudden I was going to see him without it. I was in my room watching a movie when my grandma yelled out, “Valeria, mira quien vino!” Valerie, look who came! I ran out of my room and there he was, in his square, black glasses and Polo hat. When he saw me, he grinned so big I saw all of his teeth. He looked different—buffer and more tattoos. I ran to him. He picked me up and spun me around. I held him really tightly.

That’s when I thought that my life was going to be better. I imagined my dad would finally get a good job, live in a big house with my brothers and sister and I, and be with us all the time. At first we were together a lot. He took me and my brothers to Chuck E. Cheese’s, to the fair, to his apartment, anywhere we wanted to go. I remember one night I was up late watching a movie. It was midnight and I was craving Wing Stop, so I called my father. He got out of bed and went and got it for me. That’s one of the reasons I love my father—he goes out of his way to make his kids happy.

But in not too long, things started going wrong. He began selling cannabis, even when I was with him. I would see him pull out a little bag of green stuff, hand it to a guy, and get money back. I was angry and disgusted, because I felt like he needed to respect that, as his daughter, I didn’t need to see him doing those things. I didn’t say anything though, because I didn’t want to make him feel bad. Soon I started seeing him less. He wasn’t showing up to his court dates or seeing his parole officer, and that’s when everything became a mess.

He was on the run from the law for about a year. He thought that he was gonna be slick and wear wigs and shades and not get caught. I knew he was going to get caught eventually, because I watched a lot of criminal shows, and they all got caught. I used to cry to him, beg him, “Dad, turn yourself in, you’ll get less time, everything’s gonna be okay, just turn yourself in!” But he would never listen to me.

One morning my mom was in the living room with me and my grandma when she got a phone call. As she talked I listened. She kept rolling her eyes and frowning her lips, so I could tell she was hurt and angry, plus, when it comes to my father, she’s always hurt or angry. She hung up and started talking rudely about my father. Then I got upset. “Why doesn’t he call me? Why did he all of the sudden call you, when he never calls me? I always have to call him!” Then my mom said, “Honey, your dad’s in jail. He got caught, I’m sorry.” I froze, my eyes were wide open and I was completely still. I was on the couch, just sitting there, trying so hard to not cry. I was shaking and my throat started hurting because I kept holding everything back. My grandma saw the pain in my eyes and she asked me, “Do you wanna cry?” I kept shaking my head side to side. Then she told me, “Valeria, si quieres llorar, llora. Llora porque no está bien que todas tus lágrimas estan dentro de ti.” If you want to cry, cry. Cry, because it’s not good for all your sadness to stay inside you. When she said that, something unlocked inside me and I cried for hours until my eyes were so sore they hurt.

My father’s incarceration ruined what made me the happiest girl in the world—being with my dad. I felt like my dad could’ve gotten his shit together and he could’ve done better. It made me really disappointed that he didn’t get it together when he had the chance. Even still, my father is my hero and my best friend. Now that he isn’t with me, I feel empty, like a part of me left with him. Now that he’s gone, I don’t have my person to talk to about everything, or tell secrets to or laugh and giggle with.

It took a really long time for his actual court, when he would finally get sentenced. But eventually the day came. It was a Wednesday, and I told my grandma to take me out of school to bring me. Most of my family was there, except for my brother. I didn’t tell him that I went, because I knew that if I did, he would want to go, and I knew he wouldn’t be able to handle it. The judge read the letters that me and my brothers wrote. In the letter I spoke directly to the judge. I said my father protected me and my brothers, never letting us see him angry or upset. I wrote about how he would go out of his way to try and make us happy, even if it meant staying up all night with us to make us feel loved. After the judge read my letter, she spoke directly to my father and said that I was a very smart and bright young lady. Then his lawyer told the judge that I was there. The judge told me to stand, then asked me why wasn’t I at school. “I wanted to see my dad,” I replied. She got mad I wasn’t in school, but then she told my father to get his life together, because he had a lot of support. She even made him turn around to look at us. After court, I asked my grandma, “How many years did he get?” “Tweny-six,” she told me. I couldn’t believe it. I was so mad. It felt like my anger was growing bigger and bigger, like a blowfish about to pop.

Before my dad was sentenced, I tried to talk to him as much as I possibly could. My grandmas would take me to see him. We would all be in the tiny room talking to him, then I would get ten minutes to talk to my dad alone. We would talk about how I’m doing in school, how I’m doing in debate, and how everyone in the family is doing. I felt horrible seeing him like that, in his orange clothing and handcuffs. What felt the worst was seeing him through a glass window and not being able to touch him. All I would get was his hand and mine, pressed together on either side of the glass.

The emotional distance between me and my dad was horrible for me. Now, two years later, it still is. Ever since my father left, I feel like I haven’t been happy. I’m angry that I don’t get to see him because he’s far away in Indiana. I understand that he has done some wrong things and he needs to pay the time, but the least they can do is place him in a prison that’s closer to me and my siblings. I have the right to see my father. I have the right to talk to him in person. And I have the right to hold him.

The anger that was born in me the day my father was sentenced to twenty-six years still lives inside of me. I’m angry with the world, and I’m angry with how my father’s incarceration is affecting me. It’s been two years since my dad was sentenced—twenty-four to go. I’ve been through a lot for a fourteen-year-old. There were times when I was really depressed and even suicidal. No one knew I was suicidal, not even my mom. Feeling that low was really scary.

My grandma put me in therapy at school. I went once a week for the last two years. Therapy was hard for me because I didn’t feel comfortable explaining to a total stranger about my problems. I wanted to know who my therapist was, but therapists won’t tell you about their personal lives. So I asked her easy stuff, like her favorite color (purple), where she’s from (Canada), and what she does besides counseling with kids (counseling with adults). Knowing these things made me feel like she could open up to me. In return, I was able to open up to her—mostly. I still tried my hardest not to cry in front of my therapist and I didn’t tell her that I was suicidal. Therapy helped me learn that if I stop being so angry and complaining about the world, I might just be a happier person. I also learned that it’s okay to cry. I even do once in a while. Being helped by a therapist made me feel like my right to support during my parent’s incarceration was honored.

I deal with my depression and suicidal thoughts by posting quotes of how I’m feeling on an Instagram account called ill_be_here_always. You can follow me if you like. I also talk to my boyfriend and listen to a lot of Taylor Swift’s old country music to try to keep myself from going insane. The biggest thing that saved me was policy debate. It’s really fun to argue over real-world problems even though I have to put in effort to actually get work done. It’s where I let my voice be heard. I’ve met really cool people, and they’ve become like a second family to me, and with my dad gone, I really need that.

For all of the therapists, I’d like to share some of the things my therapist did that made our sessions less difficult for me. I really liked it when there were toys in the room. Some of your patients may be angry or nervous, and for me, when I had a ball to touch or squish at my therapy sessions, it made me more relaxed. As I mentioned in my story, one of the most important things my therapist did was answer some not-too-personal questions about herself. That made me feel like she wasn’t a total stranger and I could talk to her. Some of your clients might not like to cry in front of people, so then they don’t cry in therapy. And like my grandma told me—it’s bad to hold your feelings inside. Every time I wanted to cry, my counselor would close her eyes. That made me feel more comfortable. The final method my therapist used that I found helpful was playing nature music in the background, then asking me to close my eyes and breathe in and out for a minute. It really helped me when I felt angry and frustrated. The last thing I want to say is thank you. Thank you for being there for youth like me, and for letting us know that there are people who actually care.

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