#SeeMe Podcast with Melodie Mills

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#SeeMe Q&A with Melodie

“People used to see me as a monster and I want to be seen today as Melodie. I’m an independent, vibrant, hardworking, dedicated woman, and that’s how I would like to be seen. I don’t want to be seen as a monster or a felon.”

We’re kicking off the Association’s #SeeMe campaign with a conversation with our very own Melodie Mills. Each day, Melodie’s helping people in Oklahoma City experiencing homelessness start a new life in recovery. She’s amazing at her job because she truly understands what they are going through and how to overcome the greatest of barriers.

Listen to Melodie’s podcast at www.mhaok.org/podcast


In Melodie’s own life, though, she hasn’t had many second chances. Instead, her battle with addiction led her to spending just over five years in prison. At one point, she felt like society saw her as a monster not as someone in need of life-changing substance use treatment. That’s why Melodie is one of the many faces of the #SeeMe campaign.

The heart of the #SeeMe campaign is really driven by the fact that we all like to look away when we see people who are panhandling on the side of the road, people experiencing severe mental illness, or people who are experiencing homelessness. This can make people uncomfortable. All of the sudden, people look away to anywhere they can, their phone, the radio, anything, that isn’t that person outside the car window.

The #SeeMe campaign is about challenging everyone to make eye contact with people who we want to look away from, because that’s how we’re going to see what unites us — our humanity.

Q: Melodie, we appreciate you being so open with your story because we believe changing lives can happen when inspirational people like yourself have the courage to share your story. So, to begin, can you explain how you ended up in prison rather than receiving treatment?

A:  The way I came to being involved with the justice system was, it was absolutely terrible. I was 14 years old when I had my first encounter with the jails, I guess it would be, or the juvenile system. That's when I started using drugs and alcohol. That's how I grew up. Some of my family members were drug dealers, very violent and gang-affiliated. I was under the impression that the only way that you can get through life is to have the drugs, and the drugs gave you the power. I learned that's just not the case — not at all.

Q: While you were incarcerated, what could have made a difference in helping you move towards recovery?

A: What happened with jail and prison and rehabilitation was not what I wanted. What would have been amazing would have been, "You clearly have a drug problem, why don't we get you some treatment?" That was never an option. That was never said to me after 10 felony convictions, eight of which were drug-related. Nobody ever said, "You have a drug problem, Melodie." All they did was send me to prison. My last felony conviction, I went to prison for just over five years. It was only supposed to be 1-1/2-year sentence and it turned into a combined total of almost seven years. I'm a 10-time convicted felon. I have two violent crimes, and it has taken me places I would never imagine and I wouldn't want anybody else to go there — ever. It's a scary place.

Q: As someone who has been involved with the justice system, experienced homelessness and faced so many challenges in your life, how did you once perceive yourself in the public’s eye, whether that was correct or not?

A: The most hateful things that I believed — and that was the key, I believed — that people looked at me like I was monster because we need here we have a violent crime. You know you hurt somebody to know that people looked at me like I was a monster when really on the inside I just wanted love. I just wanted some guidance. I just needed one person when I didn't have that one person. People looked at me and they were afraid of me. They judged me for being a drug addict. They judged me for being homeless. They judged me for being a felon. I was always judged.

I've walked into rooms, and my Mom was guilty of this, too, she would clench her purse. I would say, “Mom, I've been sober for five years. What are you doing?” You know, it's things like that. It's hard to break that stigma even with your family. As long as I keep doing the next right thing and everything that I do, that stigma will eventually be broken. My mom saw a drug addict for a very long time. My mom saw somebody who suffered in silence for a very long time. Now I know without a shadow of a doubt what she sees and what everybody else sees is somebody who is independent, somebody who is powerful, somebody who can do anything that I set my mind to because I'm not going to stop.

Q: What was one of the first big steps in taking a step away from addiction and towards treatment?

A: The first time that I realized I had a drug problem was actually in prison in Washington state. The preacher came to talk to me and he knew things about me. He was pointing his finger at me and he was telling me things. At first, I was a little caught off guard because I was like, "How does this guy know things about me?" But it wasn't that he knew things about me, it was that he knew things about the type of human being I was. He said, "Melodie, do you think you have a drug problem?" I was like, "No, I don't think the drugs are the problem. I think it's not having a fair chance in life." I gave all these excuses and then that was my epiphany. I finally realized I had a drug problem. That preacher changed my life. From that day on, I just started moving forward, going through problems and working through everything that ever caused me a problem in my life. I will never forget him as long as I live.

Q: What was it like when you got out of prison and went looking for a job?

A: When I got out of prison, I was, I was told, well, you're not going to amount to anything. I couldn't get a job. Nobody wanted to hire me. Um, instead of giving me five minutes to talk to me and meet me in person, they based everything on this piece of paper that I would fill out to try to get this job. The application stated, you know, that, um, I was a drug addict. I was a violent offender, but nobody would give me five minutes. And it was right at the 90-day mark. It's where I was either going to go back to what I was doing and just continue in that vicious cycle or move and relocate.


Q:
What advice would you have for employers who are considering someone who has been justice involved?

“If I could ask employers to change something about the interview process, I would ask them, “Don’t look at the piece of paper first, meet the person first.”

A: If I could ask employers to change something about the interview process or the background screening, I would ask them, don't look at the piece of paper first, meet the person first because it's a human being who is there, you know? And if you have to look at the background, look at it after you meet the person. Because once you meet that individual, you're going to know immediately, yes, they're going to be an asset or maybe they're not an asset for me, but they might be an asset for somebody else. Stop using our past or their past against them for their present and their future because it's the past. When is an employer going to let go of the past? When is society going to let go of the past and look at people for whom they really are? It’s the human factor.

Q: You must have been frustrated with your life at that point trying to get a job. So what was it like when you finally got a job?

A: I tried everything to get a job and nobody could look past that background ever. Then I started networking with my friends in the community and found a company that accepted people with felonies. That was the best thing that ever happened to me. I was a machine operator for that company and they gave me my work ethic. They taught me how to be accountable for myself, taught me how to work because I didn't have much work history, and I'm grateful for that.

After about a year and a half, I wanted more, something different. I just decided to act on faith and went and volunteered for a company. Even though I had rent and car payments, that volunteering turned into the best opportunity that I could ever imagine. And it's brought me to Mental Health Association Oklahoma. I can't be more pleased and satisfied with everything that I am able to do. I have skills and I wouldn't change anything because everything that I've been through my entire life has created the human being I am today. And, really, for the first time in many years, I can say that I'm truly happy and satisfied with myself. I love myself. I can teach other people that it is OK to be who you are. Just because you might have some setbacks, that's not who you are. It’s just some things you have walked through to be who you are meant to be.

Q: What do you love about your job at the Association? We’re so happy you’re walking alongside people as they courageously move off the streets and into a safe place to live where they can connect to vital treatment services.

A: The Mental Health Association of Oklahoma has really been a dream come true. They didn't even ask anything about my background. They were not concerned what I had done, where I had been. All they were worried about was who I am today. They saw me and that's all that I ever wanted was just see me. Don't see what I used to be. And they've given me the most amazing opportunities, which has allowed me to be able to go and work in the field with other people who are just like me. They have felt invisible or are currently feeling invisible that feel like they don't have any options. To be able to take them and walk hand-in-hand and give them a purpose is just beautiful. And it's the Mental Health Association of Oklahoma has really changed my life and I'm truly grateful.

Q: If you could change the public’s perception of you, who do you want them to see?

A: People used to see me as a monster and I want to be seen today as melody. I'm an independent, vibrant, hardworking, dedicated woman, and that's how I would like to be seen. I don't want to be seen as a monster or a felon.