The great escape

First, she was abused. Then came cocaine and crime. It took a stint in jail to show Denise McLaren that life was worth fighting for. Find out what it takes to climb to the top when you've sunk to the bottom.

Moving forward

It was here that Denise started to become more aware of what she had lost: her freedom, her self-esteem and her relationships. She met with a psychologist and, for only the second time, told someone about the abuse she had suffered as a child. Hearing someone say that the abuse wasn’t her fault released her from the pain she’d been carrying around all those years. “For the first time, I believed my life was worth saving,” she says.

So, she saved herself. Spirituality played a role in her recovery, too, and she slowly began to make peace with her crimes. “I don’t want to give the impression that I’m a victim of my childhood,” she says. “I take full responsibility for the choices I made, and I have to wake up every single day and live with that.”

But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to talk about what happened either. Denise says that most people don’t realize how much of a personal question it is to ask why she was in jail: “Often, I’ll say, “Well, why do you want to know?’ If someone shows a general interest in me and really cares about me or if answering her question is going to help someone in the same situation, I have no problem telling them, “This is what I did. This is what I was sentenced for.’ But if I feel as though I’m feeding somebody’s morbid curiosity, I don’t go there.” Instead, Denise wants to keep the focus on who she has become—a transformation that started when she was still in prison.

Guimond recalls how Denise would come and talk to him about her life and how their conversations often sparked some personal growth in him, too. “I grew to respect her, and when we were talking in this room, I was also thinking about my own stuff,” he says. “We’re not supposed to call them “friendships,’ but Denise and I were—and are—friends.”

These relationships are what motivate Denise and help keep her moving forward. She and her mother are closer than they’ve ever been. And for the first time in her life, she’s in a healthy relationship with a woman named Susanne, with whom she feels comfortable just being herself. Then there are her connections with the women from the EIFW, who give Denise a sense of purpose. “I know that my life had a ripple effect—there are primary victims and secondary victims,” she says. “The only way I know to make amends to those people is to show them that my time in jail served me well. I can stay clean and sober and use my life to help other women make better decisions than I did.”

Denise walks through the prison’s security gate and out to her car, feeling good. But freedom brings her down just as much as it lifts her up. She admits that the women will stay on her mind—that she will worry about Lisa later that night. “What was in me that allowed me to move on, and why did I deserve to get my life together?” she asks. “What are these ladies missing?” These are questions that she asks herself every day, and they’re the same ones she’ll try to answer again next month, when she’s back inside the chapel at the EIFW.

Denise starts the ignition and turns out through the gates, down the long drive and onto the road under an open Prairie sky. It’s time to go home.

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