by Morgan Henson
West Branch, Iowa
Reality is harsh. It can be cruel and ugly. Yet no matter how much we grieve over our environment and circumstances nothing will change. What is important is not to be defeated, to forge ahead bravely. If we do this, a path will open before us. (Ikeda Sensei, daisakuikeda.org)
The morning, in October 2017, when Navy police barged into my barracks room to arrest me for selling LSD and ecstasy marked a low point in a very bad year.
Since childhood, my low self-esteem caused intense anxiety. I wanted everyone to be my best friend. If that didn’t happen, I thought something was wrong with me.
When I joined the Navy in 2015, I found myself in an environment with new people. I clung tightly to those childhood notions of wanting everyone to like me. Then, in 2016, I was sexually assaulted twice. My world felt broken. I distrusted everyone and couldn’t even look in the mirror because I was horrified at my self-image. Unfortunately, sexual abuse is an all-too-common experience in the military. It’s still painful to remember, but I’d much rather be open about it to encourage others going through it, so they can find the courage to get the help they need.
Drugs helped me feel better for a brief time. I also noticed how people always wanted to be around those selling drugs. What a great way to get people to like me, I thought. Selling brought the temporary happiness of people talking to me more than they ever had. But neither this feeling nor these friendships lasted long.
After waiting for over a year for my trial and a demotion, I was convicted in February 2019 and sent to the brig for four months. I was scared. I thought everyone in jail was bad, evil masterminds. But the incarcerated women I met were wonderful people who supported me. They were sincere, with dreams and aspirations. They were just people who had made mistakes.
I instantly clicked with one woman in particular. As we talked, she told me that she practiced Buddhism. Then, I remembered. In boot camp in 2015, I had attended several Buddhist meetings, where an SGI-USA leader would come to the base and teach us how to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. I felt a sense of relief and tranquility there. I felt at peace when I chanted. I attended only a few times, but the seed had been planted.
In the brig, my friend’s encouragement really helped me start to transform my karma, and we held meetings twice a week to chant and study Nichiren Buddhism. I was even able to subscribe to the World Tribune and Living Buddhism. By delving into my Buddhist practice, I gained an inner freedom and confidence like never before. I felt freer in prison than out of it. My greatest benefit was learning to appreciate myself just as I am. I no longer look in the mirror in horror. I’ve grown to love myself and my body and don’t rely on what others think of me as the basis for my self-worth. I still struggle sometimes with comparing where I’m at in life to others who seem to have it better. But I know this just takes me away from the goals I’m chanting for.
Immediately after my release, I contacted the SGI-USA Chicago Culture Center and got connected to a local district. With their support, I received the Gohonzon on Feb. 16, 2020!
Inspired by what I’ve learned in the SGI and by those who’ve helped me, I want to use my past struggles to inspire others with low self-esteem. One of my goals is to become a volunteer at a women’s prison and encourage the women to get through their challenges. I feel I can because I have been in the depths of hell. I want to be an example of someone who has transformed karma into mission.