By Casey Coughlin
“I started my addiction, drinking and drugging, when I was thirteen-years-old and it continued throughout my adult life,” Kathy Wyatt says. Now released after serving nine years in York Correctional Institution, Kathy describes her upper-middle-class childhood as nothing short of average; complete with private schools and summer vacations on Martha’s Vineyard. Her father died when she was young and was buried on Christmas Eve, marking that day in Kathy’s mind nothing short of tragic. But after the grief had passed she made a sincere commitment not to let her father’s death darken the joyful holiday.
She dropped out of high school months before graduation and made a life for herself in sales. Lying on job applications by including some college on her resume, Kathy admits, “I had a secret life that my family didn’t know about. It was exhausting to say the least. I portrayed one person and I really was… I didn’t know who I was I guess, looking back on it. When the accident happened, everything just crashed.”
In October of 1999, Kathy stayed up all night using cocaine. The following afternoon she went to the mall, ran errands, and took a bunch of prescribed Xanax to fight off a head ache. On her way home, while waiting to make a left hand turn, she collided with a motorcyclist. The driver of the bike died and in 2001, Kathy was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
“It’s what had to happen for my life to change.”
Kathy knew the key for her staying sane in prison was to keep busy. She became involved in every activity available and completed her high school diploma, gained certifications in typing and culinary classes, and was hired by different teachers to be their aide. She gained entrance into Wally Lamb’s writing workshop and helped facilitate the Alternative to Violence Program, which taught the women how to resolve a potentially violent situation in a non-violent way.
It was the women Kathy interacted with in the Alternative to Violence Program that really motivated her to make Christmas special. For one exercise the participants would be asked to draw their happiest childhood memory and then their most painful. “Say there were 20 girls, 17 of them would have Christmas as the most painful memory. I always thought of Christmas as a wonderful time. So every Christmas, where ever I was, whatever tier or unit I was in I always made a big deal.”
While in prison Kathy discovered she had a talent for drawing. So to decorate she would draw pictures of reindeers and stockings and cut them out with nail clippers and distribute them to the women in her unit to color while she went to work. “They would sit around and color and everyone would get excited.”
She smiles as she says, “I would buy Christmas cookies that would come in special Christmas packages and I would put them outside the doors of the girls. And this one young girl came up to me and said ‘Miss Kathy this is the first Christmas present I have ever had.’”
Other years Kathy would plan months in advance to purchase her neighbors small presents from the commissary. Because you are limited on the amount of items you can buy Kathy would have to start early, collecting extra chapsticks and address books and sticking them away for later.
“One year we made this amazing tree. I was a teacher’s aide and I told my friends who worked in the main school that I needed green construction paper – so under coats and everything (a few sheets at a time) they got me all this paper. At that time I was living in Industries, which didn’t have any partitions, it was just bunk after bunk after bunk. I had all the young women in my class create a Christmas tree branch and we made this big beautiful green tree on the wall. It was huge. I would have anyone who got a card all year round or neat paper that they didn’t want any more give it to me. I would just cut it up with nail clippers and put it together like a mosaic, so that’s what the presents would look like.”
An unpredictable element in Christmas decorating is end of the year lock downs, a week long period when the entire prison is searched top to bottom for contraband. For the entire five to seven day period all activities are cancelled and all the women are held in their cells. Kathy recalls one Christmas, “I remember one time in Zero Building we decorated, again with the construction paper, smuggling, smuggling, piece by piece we made paper chains. The tooth paste they give you if you’re indigent is terrible tooth paste but makes great clear glue. That’s what we used to glue things. Usually [the guards] would leave them until Christmas Eve, but this one year they had a lock down right before Christmas and they came through and destroyed all of our decorations.”
She says the feeling of surveying the scene after the lock down was over was like when the Whos woke up Christmas morning after the Grinch had stolen all their decorations. Kathy and the other women band together and never let it get to them. Instead they would find humor in imagining the vertically challenged guards struggling to jump up and tear down the chains. “I always said we would rebuild. And we did. Always.”
Nine Christmases later, Kathy is now out. She obtained a job at a drug rehabilitation agency called CCAR, which strives to put a positive face on addiction recovery. She has a small poodle mix that joins her at the center every day. She is sober and dedicated to helping others change their lives. Now Christmas is different, it honors the women still inside. “Last year was my first real Christmas out of DOC since I went into prison, and for my apartment I bought a little tree, potted, and I bought little tiny lights to put on it. But I made every single ornament out of origami. Just so I remember.”