This is the story of MJ Allen. A courageous, tell-all of her life changing incarceration and how it transformed her life.
What is Presence of Mind Studio?
The mission of Presence of Mind Studio is to be committed to making the life-changing benefits of meditation available to all. Since Presence of Mind has been open, however, it has become something much, much different. The studio has been a place where people have learned to breathe, found simple and routine mindfulness techniques, and yes, people have meditated. People have laughed, cried, and become self-aware while sitting upon a cushion or couch in the studio. It's become a place of stories and transition.....along with healing. For all those reasons, Presence of Mind's mission is beginning to change to one of facilitating people's growth, inner truth, and self-awareness.
Can you share with us your past?
I was a founder and executive director of a small mental health agency that started in 2003 by a small group of professionals and myself. After the close of a 5 year grant, the State of Maine recommended that we become a mental health agency...we did. The agency was established as a mental health agency in April 2008 and abruptly closed in December 2009....a mere 20 months later. In that time, the agency experienced delayed reimbursement with DHHS. The line of credit was insufficient to cover the costs of the operating the business and, in the end, I made choices that were driven from my ego and pride. Those choices included altering a bank check receipt, scanning and providing to Anthem as proof of payment for the employees health insurance, not paying over payroll taxes to taxing authorities, and tax issue with my personal tax returns. The headlines read as though I embezzled money and that providers went without payment. It is true that providers went without payment. I also went without payment and lost well over $100,000 on top of the $50,000 in legal fees. The tragic loss was that of a great concept and a wonderful program that was built from love and commitment to the people of York County, Maine. At the time I was removed from my position, I actually believed I could not live without the Agency. It was born in my living room, my husband and kids took a back seat to anything Agency related, and I had nearly bankrupted my family to keep the Agency afloat....as it was, I had put our home in foreclosure by diverting the payments into the Agency to keep the lights on and staff paid.
After I was removed from my position on December 4, 2009, I buried my head until the following June when I decided to return to school. I wanted to switch from the administrative side of mental health to the clinical side. In December 2011, I graduated a 120 hour undergraduate degree in Forensic Psychology, just 10 days before I would start a Masters program in Clinical Mental Health and Counseling. It was just 4 weeks after being indicted on 23 counts of theft by misapplication and tax evasion. I had made this whole situation with the Agency worse by continuing to have an attitude of entitlement and had worked full-time and collected unemployment benefits so I had added to the charges that I would ultimately have had to answer for. Through it all, I continued to trudge through, didn't learn a thing and allowed my ego to expand even larger. It was also the same weekend I would be slipped a date rape drug in a glass of wine and experience a sexual assault. My response to it all was to become bigger than life!!! The more I experienced, the bigger my attitude, ego and conceitedness.
From January 2012 to August 2013 was a collision course and I had no concept whatsoever of how hard the crash was going to be. I separated from my husband, lived 2 hours north for most of the week, and still believed that I could never be convicted--I'd done nothing wrong!! In the end, after nearly $50,000 in legal fees and my family's request to please end this whole thing, I took a plea agreement and was convicted for what I'd done. My ego, however, continued to tell me that I wouldn't get jail time---on August 14, 2013--1 day after my 43rd birthday--I turned myself into York County Jail and began what would be a nearly 16 month time in prison.
I remember everything and every moment of August 14, 2013 like it was yesterday. I recall trying to get things in order for my husband so that he could manage the house for however long I was away. I remember saying good bye to friends, my kids, and my dog. I remember standing in my bedroom sobbing and baffled by how all of this could happen to me--why me? I recall the ride with my husband to the jail and how everything in my life seemed to be slipping away. I can still feel what it was like to to leave my husband standing at the door and turning to face my reality...alone! But, the most overwhelming memory of all was the first night. I was alone, everything had been stripped away...literally and figuratively. I was wearing county jail orange clothes, shoes that someone else had worn, and I had no socks. As they say, this was the first day of the rest of my life.
The journey to prison was definitely an eye-opener. I heard stories that were real and raw. I once thought I was a great therapist, what I learned was that I knew nothing about reality...only what the books and the clients share. I met some incredible people along the way, including my meditation mentor. When we first met, I was amazed that someone could spend that much time looking within. I, myself, couldn't manage to get 5 minutes under my belt. I was fortunate to spend most of my 16 months in a pre-release facility with my own clothes, the ability to have pass's into the community with my family, to return to school, and to go to work. Work for me would be a humbling experience at Dunkin Donuts.
While I was in prison, I became interested in meditation and definitely in mindfulness. The anxiety and jumpiness that existed on the outside was ten fold behind the wall. I didn't fear my safety, but the unexpected nearly killed me. Not knowing when someone would start yelling for no reason or we would be told to "lock up" for hours on end. I knew I needed to find a way to quiet my mind and my life. The destruction of my life, a sexual assault, and facing the damage I'd done to my family was with me constantly.
And that, is my past in a nutshell.....
How did being incarcerated transform your life and what would life look like today not having that experience?
The transformation of having been in prison still occurs. First and foremost, I learned that I could actually accept and take ownership of the things I did to cause the situation. When asked by probation, I simply have stated "I will own everything I did, but I will not take ownership of the things I didn't do, but am convicted of so I could begin to put this behind my family". The reality is, I learned a lot about myself, what drives me, where my perfectionistic tendencies and my ego. I also found I had passion for working with women who have trauma histories and bringing a voice to the retraumatization of women through incarceration and how that has impacted the astronomical increase in female recidivism rates in this country. This experience provided me with a purpose for my master's project.
The investigation itself started to provide a glimpse into how people viewed me when I began reading the interrogations of the people who worked for me. That in and of itself, was eye opening. People actually feared my reaction and temper tantrums if things didn't go a certain way. Subsequently, while I was incarcerated, my kids, particularly my youngest, began to tell me what his experience was of growing up with me as his mother. It was the hardest things for me to hear. I recognized that something needed to change and I absolutely had to get my controlling nature and volatile reactions under control. The first few months home were difficult, but I committed myself to my self-care, mindfulness, self-awareness, and daily meditation.
Today, I am able to walk away from conflict and to 'let it go'. I am able to use my voice in a meaningful manner. My kids, husband and I have wonderful relationships that are healthier than they have ever been. I know sitting here today, that had I not had the experience of going to prison, I would have lost everything in my life....potentially, even myself. There were times through all of this that the thoughts of ending my life were very difficult to resist. I would have attempted to be a therapist, I would have done ok, but I wouldn't have been able to really meet people where they are and to guide their ability to look within for the healing and forward movement. I would have naively thought I had a concept of working with people who have addictions, but I wouldn't have been able to fully understand that addiction is not about the substance of choice, it is about something far deeper. All in all, life would have been very, very different and I would have been the same ego-driving person fraught with anxiety and depression, juggling too many balls and scared to death that one of the balls would drop and my world would come crashing down....just as it did!
What is one challenge and one lesson you’ve learned from your experience as a founder?
The biggest challenge I face is getting people to come through to door. Meditation and mindfulness is still not a mainstream tool. Although, I love yoga and especially enjoy the last 15 minutes of any yoga class, but the representation that it is meditation results in people deciding they have done meditation and don't need to come to a meditation studio separately.
One lesson I've learned is to stay true to what I am doing. It was very important to me to offer the group classes as a donation. Because of my history with women who have trauma histories, mental health needs, and incarceration, I understand that professionals suggest mindfulness and meditation, but where do you go? And, when you get there, if you have limited income, how do you pay for it? For me, it is a personal mission to make this tool available to people...no matter their ability to pay.
How important is having a daily routine?
Having a daily routine and building a daily meditation practice is extremely important. I describe that your daily routine is like training for a marathon. You don't go out and run a marathon without training and you don't experience the long-term benefits from meditation and mindfulness without a daily practice. The daily practice is like your training for when you need to be self-aware of your reactions, deal with a difficult situation, or manage the day-to-day stressors we all experience.
What do you like to do outside of work that directly impacts your practice?
I love to hike!! For me, there is nothing like the feeling I get when I lace up my hiking boots, take Gracie (my English Springer) off the leash, and hit a trail. I find myself, my center and my calm in these escapes. The sound of the birdsong, the smell of the forest, and the feel of the uneven earth beneath my feet keeps me grounded and in the present moment, which then translates into my being present for clients and groups in the studio.
Can you tell us one invaluable resource that has helped in the growth and development of Presence of Mind Studio?
That’s an easy one….the people who surround me every day are the ultimate invaluable resource!! After everything I have been through, I still have people who believe in me. Those people have helped me see the vision and one of them was gracious enough to provide the funding for me to open the studio and pay the overhead costs while clients were finding me.
What is your proudest personal and professional accomplishment?
Aside from being a very proud mother, my proudest personal accomplishment is coming out of prison changed for the better. As I look back, I realize the crossroads that I stood, one was to be the victim and weak, the other to take control and find the silver lining and the strength within myself… I chose to acknowledge and appreciate the strength that existed within me.
My proudest professional accomplishment was attending graduate school and obtaining my Master’s degree despite going to prison in the middle of it. It wasn’t always easy to trudge forward not knowing, and oftentimes not believing, that I would ever be allowed to have my license to practice as a Licensed Professional Counselor, but I still moved forward. As I write this, I am still unsure if I will be granted licensure, but I have not let it deter me from being a champion for mental health needs and prison reform.
I would like to share repeatedly 1 message to the world, on your behalf, what should I share?
The message that resonates with me the most is taken from what a dear professor said to me when I disclosed that I would be leaving and going to prison. He said “each and every one of us are one fine line from being incarcerated on any given day." John's message meant so much to me and has resonated in how I try to conduct my life without judgment of others. One small shift in my life and I could have been addicted to substances, homeless or have taken a life while driving drunk…life can change in a heartbeat, so be kind today and view those we encounter with compassion and understanding.
What is your favorite inspirational/motivational quote?
“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment” ~~Buddha
In one word, describe yourself: