By Erin Evans
Twelve years ago, Patricia Steele — convicted of killing a Lake Ann man while driving drunk — was led off to prison, where she served seven harrowing years, including time in maximum security, side-by-side with the most notorious female criminals in Michigan. In 2015, she returned to her home in Interlochen, ready to rebuild her life.
But first, she had to find a job.
Because of a mix-up with her resume at a state employment program, her resume had gone to the National Writers Series, a nonprofit looking for a business manager. In truth, this was not a job she was interested in — she specifically wanted to help people struggling with addiction. Then again, she really needed a job, so she decided to go ahead with the interview and met with Anne Stanton, executive director of NWS. As fortune would have it, Stanton was also a partner of Mission Point Press, a Traverse City editorial services firm.
Wanting to be open, she told Stanton her entire story.
“She kept asking me questions,” Steele said.
At the end of the interview, Stanton urged her to write a book. At first, Steele was not the biggest fan of this idea. “I said, I’m not writing a book.”
But, over time, she had a change of heart and last year published The Gift of Second Chances: When Shame Isn’t Enough: Seeking Freedom from Addiction. An engrossing book, it details Steele’s story of strength and recovery, as she worked through deeply personal issues during the seven years she spent behind prison bars.
She decided to write the book, she said, after realizing that she already helped dozens of people already by telling her story in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings.
“What I found was, I couldn’t just sit in a meeting and hide behind my story. I had to tell it,” she said.
She recalls a young woman at a meeting who later told her, “When I heard your story, it got me through that night.”
Steele figured that a book might help hundreds, perhaps thousands more people. Stanton introduced her to Mission Point Press, which initially found her a ghost writer. But Steele quickly decided to write the book herself with the help of a book coach and editor Jennifer Carroll to whom she gives her enormous credit.
Getting the words on paper was an emotional rollercoaster, said Steele, who found herself rewriting each piece of the story, from her childhood to the tragic night of the accident to the many years in prison, where she grappled with feelings of shame and vulnerability.
“As I went on, I found that I could write more truthfully,” she said.
Truthful it is. The Gift of Second Chances is Steele’s honest and eye-opening account of alcoholism and what’s it’s like to get locked up for years, looked down upon by society and abandoned by friends. She struggled with allowing herself to become vulnerable and asking for help. Ultimately, she found people she could count on and began embracing all she could be thankful for. As the title suggests, this book is a gift, not only for those it can help through recovery, but for anyone unaware of the struggles of those struggling with addiction or serving time in prison.
The prison scenes are indeed disturbing. Steele describes how she and other prisoners, for example, were not allowed to help a prisoner having a seizure on the walkway.
“There was never any emergency to any medical problem,” she said. “I believe in punishment, but you hope that punishment can come with empathy and compassion … Prison could be a different experience.”
She wishes that prisons offered counseling for prisoners to talk and find out about resources and opportunities that could help them.
As far as society’s misconceptions around addiction, Steele said, “I think, as a whole, [people] don’t understand how it works as a disease. It can take somebody and turn them into someone else.”
“I think the most important thing about people is having caring relationships,” she said. “I think we can’t begin to understand everybody, but we do need to know that everyone deserves respect and someone to care about them, and opportunities.”
Steele continues to frequently speak and share her story at AA meetings. She just wrote her first blog for the National Association for Adult Survivors of Child Abuse and works as a case manager at the Salvation Army in Traverse City.
“Most of my day is meeting with people and either trying to solve their problems or working towards solving their problems,” she said. “Today I’m proud of who I am. I fought hard to be me again, and that I’m proud of.”
She says that she no longer feels angry with herself for mistakes in her past. She admits that she sometimes still suffers from shame and guilt but knows those constant feelings would stop her from being a positive force in people’s lives—a cause to which she’s dedicated her life.
“People’s lives are worth saving,” she said. “I’m an addict. I’m a healthy addict now; I am only a healthy addict because of the people who gave me a chance to be.”
The Gift of Second Chances can be purchased from Amazon or Barnes & Noble.Erin Evans is a senior at Bellaire High School and in her second year of the Front Street Writers program. She plans to attend the University of Michigan in the fall, tentatively planning on a creative writing major. You can find her blog at www.frontstreetwriters.com