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Saunders, J.W. (2000). Living on the edge: reflections on the addictive and intoxicating nature of working in a women's prison. Free Associations, 8(2):140-150.

(2000). Free Associations, 8(2):140-150

Living on the edge: reflections on the addictive and intoxicating nature of working in a women's prison

Jessica Williams Saunders

The First Time I stepped over the threshold of the prison was towards the end of my dramatherapy training in 1989, when the group I was training with had a two day placement to run a drama workshop in the Education Department. Over these two days we worked in small groups with the women who had volunteered to come and take part, drawing together as a large group at the end of each session to share the work that had taken place. In the last of these gatherings I experienced a sudden rush of feelings causing my hairs to stand on end and holding me spellbound and enthralled as I stood amongst the group. It is hard to capture in words quite what that moment was like and what had evoked it but the sense I had was as if I had been given a hit of some potent substance that raced through my body, filling me up and leaving me feeling quite euphoric. The substance that seemed to evoke my response was the energy in the room; words I associate with this energy are: raw, passionate, consuming, angry, erotic, powerful and addictive, the kind of high that can leave a person feeling that they are invincible, that anything is possible. I would say that there was a sense of hope in it all except that I believe it went beyond the edge of hope into something more sinister. The quality in that grey room with its barred windows had an unreal and intoxicating feel to it, as if the high spirits emanating from the prisoners had infused my blood stream with something closer to mania than hope. At times in my life when I have experienced a genuine sense of hope, the kind that isn't attached to any particular experience or event, neither is dependent on some external factor to give it life, it feels as if it stems from deep within me, and that it is rooted profoundly in the centre of who I am. It is sustaining and life-enhancing, my spirits are lifted by a feeling of real substance.

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