Being a life coach may conjure up images of clients with yachts, celebrity status, and top of the range cars, but believe me, this is not always the case. I have been fortunate for the last decade to be a personal life coach specialising in women’s issues, although I have worked with both male and female clients, having coached hundreds of people from all walks of life.
One place you may not expect to find a life coach working is inside a women’s prison, but that’s exactly where you would have found me 10 years ago, where I coached inmates for the next two years. This was not the glamorous world of celebrities but the harsh reality of prison life, poor mental health, bullying, and self-harm. It was here that my real training began as this wonderful opportunity gave me great insight into the lives of the women behind bars, whose crimes ranged from petty theft and prostitution to murder.
I worked one-to-one and formed professional yet intimate relationships with all those I coached. Sadly, there were no elaborate rooms with dimmed lighting or a wonderful ambience to conduct the sessions – only stark white walls without windows. Untrusting eyes met my gaze as I was given the once over by the inmate and, for that hour-long session, there was a hesitancy to confide in me. After all, I was just another face in a sea of prison officers, psychiatrists, and other authorities that trooped their way through the prison gates on a daily basis.
One by one, I was able to break through the institutionalisation, building up trust and rapport, spending many hours while the women bared their souls, who are sometimes moved to tears but not showing it as the painful memories of their crimes came back to haunt them.
On one such session, a pale-faced inmate confided in me about the years of living with a partner who not only abused her but took great pleasure in doing so in front of the children. Until one day she snapped and let us say he won’t be doing that to anyone ever again. Laying her hands on the table, she began rolling up her sleeves to display raised red weal marks like train tracks running up the whole of her arm, where she regularly self-harmed to relieve the inner guilt. I had never seen anyone’s pain displayed like this and it begged the question: ‘How was I going to coach someone whose mental state was such that she was unable to plan the next day of her life let alone a future outside of those prison gates?’
I soon learned that coaching in this type of environment meant adapting very quickly and did not necessarily mean working on individual goals with some of the inmates. I learned it was a question of being able to give them hope and a way of coping inside, away from loved ones. Sometimes that meant just listening to the pain and regret of committing a crime that cost their freedom and how turning to God for forgiveness had helped. It was only then we could discuss how to do things differently in the future. Women often shared difficulties yet to come at the inevitable consequences, which in many cases meant children been taken into care.
My relationship with the women I coached became somewhat special as I came to know everyone personally. The sessions we had always involved some reflection, revealing innermost secrets I was privileged to be a party to. Whatever the crime, I held a deep compassion for each and every woman. They were human; they made mistakes and I saw how, in my own life, there were times I too could have found myself in a similar situation, so the motto became: ‘There but for the grace of God, go I.’
After months of working together, there were release dates and the inevitable fears of going back into the outside world where they would be judged yet again for their crimes. Lost partners, families who had turned their backs in shame and in some cases potential homelessness faced the inmate. Little wonder then it was tempting to reoffend or go back to a life of prostitution.
Women shared their innermost fears and hopes for the future and, where appropriate, we put a small plan together to work towards after leaving the prison. We discussed their sentence, what had been learned, and how confident they felt to put into practice the techniques I had taught. We laughed about how when first meeting me they were dubious about this dodgy-looking woman and how they had grown in the time we worked together. When the day came to leave the safety of the prison they now called home, there were tearful goodbyes to their fellow inmates and warm hugs for me. But best of all I treasure the handmade and written cards thanking me for the wise words of encouragement I gave, the support, and newfound hope for a future they once thought to be bleak now had potential.
Ten years on and still coaching, I am so grateful for those two years. They taught me not to judge – to see the spark of good in everyone, even in the direst of situations. I learned so much about myself and had seen mirrors of my own life experiences while working in the prison. But much more than that, it gave me an immense passion for coaching women, to help people triumph over adversity, and to have a creative desire for writing that still remains with me today.
Annette Greenwood helps those moving from potential life crisis to feeling much more in control on issues such as lack of confidence, self-esteem, among other issues.