Work Friends is a new interview series that digs into the complicated realities of people with interesting jobs.
Sydney Allen-Ash, Co-Editor of Early Magazine: I know a little bit about you and your background, but I'd love to hear it in your words. How would you explain the type of work that you do right now?
Penny MacLean: Right now?
PM: Okay. So, right now I'm in the gig economy, I guess, to a certain level, because I've retired from long term service. I've had many careers that range from stockbroker, entrepreneur, and then in the Ministry [of Corrections] with lots of different pretty interesting responsibilities—crisis negotiator, a tactical team, you know the people that solve the big problems. Before I was leaving the Ministry, I was creating for myself an exit strategy that would couple my retirement with some kind of gig economy thing. And so I got the training for Mental Health First Aid—and, of course, I had quite an extensive background in it already—and then I launched this private practice of teaching while I was still working in the Ministry.
As a senior staff member I had tons and tons of credits in the bank for time off and all that sort of thing. So I was sort of doing double duty. I had times when I was working six or seven days a week, but it proved fruitful to me. Then when Dougie Ford, here in Ontario, gave an opportunity for some public service workers to get an early exit I had that in front of my superintendent before the ink dried with my signature. And, low and behold, I was granted it. I was one of the few people that had granted an early exit.
So I got the heck out a year or so early. And at that point I had a private gig set up with St John’s Ambulance and I also had Conestoga College come on board and ask me to pinch hit for a couple of instructors that weren't able to. I did that on a number of occasions and proved my worth because my business experience and expertise spans 50 years. You know I was a stock broker? I was one of the first licensed women stockbrokers in this country.
SA: That's amazing.
PM: So, anyway, I managed to get that Conestoga piece, and I'm now their faculty lead. I do pretty much all their mental health first aid training. So, it's a very eclectic sort of thing. And I'm absolutely my own boss in that I'm financially secure. I actually have the good fortune to be able to do something that I like when I like to do it, and how I like to do it.
SA: Yeah. What a freeing feeling that must be.
PM: It is. But it's not a fairytale thing. I don't believe in the term luck, luck is when hard work meets preparation. It's as simple as that. At one time when I worked in long term drug rehab people would talk to me about luck. And I'm like, no, you make your luck. Behind every successful person is not a lucky person. So, when people come to me and say, oh, you're so lucky you have this. It's like, no, I created this. I sacrificed for this. I was disciplined for this. I had my visions, and I worked through them pretty systematically despite having children and a life and tragedy and loss and all kinds of things. It's that determination and perseverance that comes from being internally validated and internally motivated as opposed to externally validated or motivated. It's far more important what I think about me than what other people think about me.
SA: Yeah, definitely. I'd love to hear about the kind of full-time work that you've been doing before this.
PM: Okay. So I'll speed it up because you could be here all day. I'm this old as dirt for God sakes. Fire was the theme at my prom. We just discovered the wheel. [Laughs] Way back in the olden days, right out of high school, I never went to university until I was working, and I worked my way through my degrees in universities. I started out in the brokerage business. I worked my way up to being a licensed stock broker for a number of big organizations. I worked for the Toronto Stock Exchange in market surveillance, all that crap, and went through all the incredible amount of sexism. I actually had people tell me I wasn't allowed to wear pants to work and, being the person I am, I bit back a little bit and said, so does that mean I'm not allowed to have a period?
This is back in the days where you had six weeks of maternity leave [in Ontario]. Six weeks. Anyway, so, stock broker, had a very huge, fundamental shift in my political views in terms of capitalism and all that sort of thing, went back to school. And I, first of all, wanted to be a doctor. They talked me out of that. They said, no, you'd get too bored. So then I said, okay, law, because a lot of my clients were doctors and lawyers. So I wanted to be a lawyer. So I went to the University of Victoria and very quickly discovered that law is a big sellout. And so I decided, no, that's not for me, and that's when psychology—something in the humanities—grabbed me, really grabbed me. I went that route and from there I got into long term drug rehab, doing some clinical work with that, learned an awful lot. And then from there joined the Ministry of Corrections, the Ontario Provincial Corrections and I had a lot of different roles during that period of time, that 25 years I was there.
I was a correctional officer, went through some absolute hellish stuff as a woman in a male institution, hellish. And I'm not talking about the inmates. Never had a problem with an inmate. I was a correctional officer, a rehabilitation officer, a discharge officer, I did escorts doing prisoner transport. I was a cell extraction team leader in a male institution. So that would be the person that directs the people going in to solve the riot issues, with riot gear and everything, and that, again, was not only huge physical demands, but a lot of backlash for a woman being in a position of authority with a male group. Anyway, did that and decided—well actually—I got injured by one of the male staff and it was a life changing injury so I couldn't do it anymore. So I decided to be a rehabilitation officer, and I went to exclusively working with women in corrections. Women in conflict with the criminal justice system, that really resonated with me, really grabbed my heart, and I also became a crisis negotiator.
So just like in the movies with the FBI, you know when shit hits the fan, they call in the team and you negotiate with a person or people in crisis. It's basically advanced communication and you do a lot of listening and you talk and create this relationship with a view to deescalating it and creating a surrender plan so nobody gets hurt. I was very good at it. Over a period of 10 years doing that, every single crisis negotiation that I've done has been with a person with a mental health issue. Unresolved, unrecognized, or sometimes just very complex, not managed well. 100,000 people in custody or in conflict with the law I've worked with in that 25 years, and most of those people have an increased burden of mental health issues. That began to really grow on me and then working with the women as also a provincial mediator where I would go and do a bit of, basically, interpersonal psychotherapy with staff that aren't playing nice in the sandbox, which ultimately translates to bad communication and once you restore the communication, they're talking and shaking hands and all that. When I was working with the women, I was also in the field in probation, parole, and that sort of thing, lots and lots of different responsibilities, I really gravitated to the women and their plight.
So some of my specialties were working with women who've been humanly trafficked. I've done a lot of work in human trafficking, with the women who were survivors of it or helping women to maybe look at an exit strategy or supporting them if they don't want to leave, because that has to be realistic. Educating the women in custody of the risk and how they can help and what to look for and what if it's their daughter. It was a lot of educational work, opening up people's eyes, working with police forces, helping construct critical care paths for women who are exiting because there's awful lot going on that people don't realize. It's not just about, “If you don't like it, leave,” it's so much more complicated than that. So that was one of my areas, and the other one of course, was Traumatology. Understanding that trauma and addictions go hand in hand, trauma is a pipeline to the criminal justice system.
“You're giving me these Sisyphean tasks, I roll this boulder up the hill every day, I go home, I come back, it's at the bottom again."
SA: Traumatology, wow. I’ve never heard that word.
PM: You go to the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver and you will see trauma turning to addiction.
PM: I'm very passionate about all of that. And so when I saw or experienced the moral trauma of seeing how bad prisoners are treated… I'm on an oath of confidentiality. I can't talk about what I've seen in any direct way but I can guarantee you this, it's not just violating human rights, it's violating moral rights, moral codes. It is absolutely mind boggling, but it's not sexy, and people don't want to hear about it, they don't want to do anything about it, and it doesn't matter how many chains you rattle with politicians, it ends up going nowhere. I was bashing my head against the wall with this, I likened myself to Sisyphus. I had to explain to my many, many different managers about the plight of Sisyphus and say, “You're giving me these Sisyphean tasks, I roll this boulder up the hill every day, I go home, I come back, it's at the bottom again. You're permitting staff to treat women like animals, to humiliate them, to degrade them, and you're taking a person who's already probably experienced, getting a score of nine or 10 out of 10 on Adverse Childhood Experiences and you're retraumatizing them.”
Anyways, that cost me a lot of, I think, probably a lot of moral trauma. That's taken me time. Now I walk my talk though and so I protected myself, done my selfcare, been resilient and very adaptable. So anyway, so then that brings us up to when I look at this whole notion of Mental Health First Aid. I have this quote that is my tagline now on my email signature from Desmond Tutu saying, "Stop pulling people out of the water down river, go up the river and find out why they're falling in." And that really resonated in terms of that Sisyphean task, because you only have so much energy with people that are militantly ignorant. Now I feel like I've gone upstream. I cannot make Corrections be decent to women or men or youth who are criminalized for a variety of reasons. I cannot make people be compassionate or empathetic. En masse, I can't change the reality of what their lives are. But if I can maybe stop some people from falling in the river, that's good work. Maybe they don't have to go to jail.
I've been doing that since like 2015, teaching Mental Health First Aid, and I have a stack like this high [motions to shoulder height] of evaluations from my students. It's life changing for them, not everyone, but for many, many people, it's life changing. The amount of people that have come to me and say, “You know what? It's changed my life. I sat down with my daughter after I was in class with you, and I apologize to her for not hearing her or seeing her and judging her. And we had a heart to heart and now we're talking and she's going to go get some psychotherapy.” And it's like, wow, it gives me goosebumps. In a factory that I was working with just at the tail end of before COVID started, the general manager came to me, shook my hand and said, "We have made back the money we've spent in training. We have saved a life here." I'm like, "What?" He said, "Because of your training, two of my supervisors noticed a problem with one of their staff who was suicidal. And they recognized it, they responded to this person in a really appropriate way based on what you trained them to do." And they helped him and he went and got help and he's back to work and he's doing well. And that young man came into my class, the last class I taught there. He sat in the front row, and he had a world of problems on his head, but he, in his evaluation for me, he said, "I feel like a new person now. People care about me." He came and talked to me. He said, "Since the staff have approached me they're treating me so much differently." He said, "They care about me. Sometimes even bring me a sandwich at lunch if I haven't eaten." It's just like the world of his pain got reduced. So those are just a couple of little things, but I hear this all the time. So you can only imagine how that makes me feel.
SA: Oh yeah. Totally.
PM: Or people that say, can I talk to you after class? I'm having a problem with my son or my daughter, my wife, or my girlfriend, or my partner, and I said, look, I'm not an expert, I can't fix you, but what I can do is I can listen. And I can maybe help you brainstorm some supports and maybe not make you feel like there's something wrong with you. I'm really not into diagnosis.
When you diagnose that person as this, this, and this, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. There's all these words that we use to label a person, instead of saying, look, you know what, everybody's different. Nothing is more complex than the people puzzle. The big thing is the empathy and nonjudgmental-ness. If I can teach people to do that then they can talk to their spouse differently or their partner differently, or their employees or their kids, and it makes that little bit of a difference, I don't need it to come back to me to know that it's good work..
SA: Yeah. I mean, there's so many things that you've said that I want to touch on, but I think the thing that really intrigues me is that switch. At what point did you realize that you weren't going to be able to change the system from the inside out? You weren't going to be able to burn it down and reform it and whatever. It wasn't going to work, you had to work elsewhere, you had to work, as you said, upstream. What was that deliberation like for you?
PM: I really didn't want to leave the women because I was a lifeline for them. But by the same token, I can't fix the world. At one point I was responsible for getting women out on temporary absence. So they would be out in the community through the parole board based on a hearing to determine their suitability. My job was to do the risk management, the risk assessment, take the case before the board, and if it was granted I would monitor them in the community. And I also looked after women who were signed to intermittent periods of custody. So that would be when the judiciary, in their wisdom, said to a woman, “Okay, you were bad, and so you're going to have to come to jail every weekend for the next 10 weekends.” In what reality is that rehabilitative? It's retributive. It's not rehabilitative.
And so I got most of those women out on pass, so I would help them at home on the weekend instead, and what our agreement would be, you’ve got to stay home unless there's an emergency. If there's an emergency you call me and you go to hospital, otherwise you’ve got to stay at home. No drinking or drugging because if you get caught, you're going to really blow it. But I also let's look at what we need to do to put you in a position where this doesn't happen again. What is it that you need? Is it financial security? Is it food security? Is it treatment for trauma? What does it look like?
And then of course, many, like 70% of the women, have children. So they were able to stay at home with their kids. I was very successful at that, and had lots and lots and lots of women out. And then all this in one day, by the stroke of a pen, with a new arse hole in power, who took it away. And the woman that took it away did not have the education, did not have the wherewithal, did not have the heart, her heart in her head were not connected. And it really, really, deeply, deeply, shattered me because I felt so good about doing that and I was able to provide women with a principal opportunity to make some changes, and to feel supported maybe for the first time in their life. And to have the ignorance of some people that just had zero caring, for them it was all about optics, and all about optics and cover your backside and all that sort of thing. So I think it was the moral trauma. That's why I was like, I can't do this. I turned to doing some other stuff for a while and got some good programs in. But when I tried to push those programs forward I was met with a block, like trying to get the women an opportunity to visit with their kids on Skype.
SA: Never got it?
PM: No. They talked a good game, though, but no. But I got all kinds of great opportunities for the women, I got them out doing volunteer work in the community, looking after community gardens, and got Humber College to do a horticultural program where they actually got educational support. And when they left, they could finish the program for free. And they got all kinds of good things, but it's like, you know what? There needs to be more than one person willing to make it happen. So, it was unfortunate. It's maybe traumatic growth, you experience the trauma and you say, that's not good enough for me. So I got to find some way to make this have meaning. And the only way I can have it make meaning is to leave the women where they are because sooner or later I'm going to die, I can't help them forever, and try to make some change out there in the community. Because the whole judicial system is broken and it's bad and it's punitive and it's humiliating. Dostoevsky said, you can judge a society based on the way they treat their prisoners. And if people really knew the truth they would be up in arms. But unfortunately, like I said, it's not a sexy conversation.
"I guess it's the words of a 65 year old woman that's been beating her head against the wall for so many years, running that boulder up the hill and saying, no, I just got to break off and do what I could do."
SA: I’m curious if after and during all of the protests of last year where prison abolition became an actual concept discussed in the mainstream, was that a heartening moment for you? Like, oh wow, people are actually noticing, they're actually caring about what’s going on in prisons. Did that feel like a cultural shift for you?
PM: Not really.
SA: Why not?
PM: Not really. I mean, I was an abolitionist before there was such a thing as an abolitionist, and I was quite clear about. I was the most left wing person in that whole Ministry. But I think that I have two minds in it. There are some people that get it but there's other people that are protesting for the wrong reasons and don't understand. I'm going to just say it, they don't know shit from Shinola in terms of what's really happening. They don't understand the context of it. You'd have to see it and you have to be in it and witness it before you can get a true sense of how it is, you have to really talk to women, or men for that matter, that are in that situation before you can really understand it.
So it bothers me when people just jump on the bandwagon like a lemming and they don't really critically analyze why they're doing it. I think there's a lot more work that needs to be done. [The protests] haven't had an impact on the provincial system or the federal system in Canada, it's still business as usual. I talked to someone just a few days ago—I still get lots of people that reach out to me who are traumatized, even through COVID—and they've stopped all programming for the women. So you see, it hasn't had a change. This is so insidious, the only way it's going to get fixed is to blow it up, it's that insidious.
I'm just really disenchanted, I guess, is the most polite word I could say. Disenchanted with the lack of integrity. And so I've pulled it all back and said, well, then I guess all I can do is what I can do with one person at a time, and just try to make my mark, because I'm not going to fix the system. I guess it's the words of a 65 year old woman that's been beating her head against the wall for so many years, running that boulder up the hill and saying, no, I just got to break off and do what I could do.
And I think I've earned that ability to have a little bit of peace and feel good about what I do. I'm very much less a supporter of trying to change government and more a supporter of grassroots movements. That's what has power, grassroots, and that takes time and it takes a lot of energy from a lot of people.
SA: Yeah. And hopefully will be more sustainable.
PM: Well, I think it can be, and this is where the generational piece has to come together and the breaking down of this polarization.
SA: Definitely, definitely. What you've been saying about moving away from a system and just finding it to be an impossible problem to solve, and finding your own kind of locus of control, your own area where you can actually make an impact, that really resonates. And also, I think there’s a general naivety in how people think change happens, which is vastly different from how change actually happens, which is like marginal and not sexy and very difficult, and it takes you years to try and get a Skype call organized, like that kind of stuff, which I think a lot of people don't understand.
PM: Yeah. Absolutely. And for people to talk about something like prison abolition, you need to know your stuff. You need to study it, you need to look at history, you need to study what's going on. You also need to look at the other side of the coin because I've also supervised people who have murdered people. Even with the mental health aspect, there was this young man who murdered both his parents because he had schizophrenia and they were keeping him locked up in the house. And he killed them. He didn't want to kill them. But he can't just be out running around on the street either. So is jail the right place? I'd say, no, it's not the right place. A hospital, maybe, and maybe if the family had more support and the stigma was dealt with, then maybe it never would've happened. But then I've also met people who are absolute 100% dyed-in-the-wool sociopathic psychopaths. And they need to be locked up. They do.
And regardless of where they came from or how it happened, I've seen my share of some pretty horrible cases where I see to myself, you know what, this person should not be out in society. So again, maybe we have to look at that whole end of it as well. I would say 90% of people in jail shouldn't be there, absolutely. So should it be smaller? Yeah I think if they spent more money on community supports, and maybe even supervising people in the community. And maybe if I had a caseload of only 20 people, instead of 120 people, I could meet with them every week, I could talk to them, I could help them obtain the things that they needed to keep them safe. I think that would work. It would be cheaper. I think the criminal justice system is the number one industry in this country. It makes so much money. But there's also this small contingent of people who are really dangerous, so where do they go? We got to think of something. Albeit it should be humane-
SA: Right. Of course. Yeah.
PM: But how do you construct that? I really don't know. I don't have all the answers to it, so yeah, I believe in abolition as in the sense that 90% of people should not be in jail. There's alternatives to incarceration, absolutely, but they need to come up with a system that's going to actually support people, not just let them out, because then that will be chaos.
"...the average person is going to be having between five and 15 horrific traumatic events in your life. And you don't know when or how that's going to happen. You just don't know."
SA: I realize we only have like 12 minutes left. So I want to maybe pivot and ask a couple of practical questions about your career. If someone was reading this conversation, heard about your work and they were like, oh, what would that work look like for me? What would you suggest they do?
PM: Before you start, you decide you're going to jump into the gig economy, you need to do some homework. Do you have the financial stability that you can weather the storm if it's not happening as quickly as you want it to? How do you build your brand? How do you build your brand? Are you going to spend money to advertise? Are you going to go word of mouth? You going to do both? How do you get out there? What are your strengths and weakness? So it's all and fine to say, well, I'm really good at this, but what's your... For mental health, for example, where is your education and experience? For me, I'm in a situation where I have enough experience in education that there's really no questions I can't answer in class. And if I can't, I'm honest about it.
SA: Yeah. Another thing that I was thinking about is with this kind of work, like counseling of any kind or with work connected to mental health, I wonder how much of your own personal trauma do you have to feel resolved in before you can help other people in theirs? How do you kind of balance those two things? Because it's not like you just stop having tragedy in your life, it's okay, “I'm 45 now, I'm not going to have any more.” No, of course not. Your traumas are ongoing and you're working with other people. So how do you balance that?
PM: That's a really good question. I think you do get good at whatever you practice. But you're right, I don't care how old you are, the average person is going to be having between five and 15 horrific traumatic events in your life. And you don't know when or how that's going to happen. You just don't know. And I've had my share of them and because I've survived my share of them, I know people can grow with trauma or they can become frozen in the moment of trauma. I've had an incredible amount of trauma in my life and I've learned from it and I've had that traumatic growth. So, I walk my talk. When I'm talking to people about resilience and adaptability and wellness and intentional recovery, I do it.
So I don't just talk about it, I do it. And so does the stuff trigger me? Sure it does. Sure it does, but I'm honest with myself and I don't try to ignore it. It's acceptance. It's the difference between suffering pain and suffering, is acceptance. So I accept and I honor the feeling and I let it go. If you try not to feel the feeling, that's when all the other crap happens.
I teach a lot of nurses and paramedics and firefighters and first responders and say, I don't care how good you are at your craft, you absorb other people's trauma. Doesn't matter what you do. It happens. So don't kid yourself. And that's where that self reflection, following your own advice, having people to talk to or reflective time, and certainly mindfulness comes into play. A lot of people have this idea that mindfulness is this woo-hoo snowflake stuff, and it's like, oh, for gosh sakes. As I teach people, depression is fueled by thoughts of the past. Anxiety is fueled by thoughts of the future. When I'm doing something mindfully, whatever it is that I want to do, I'm not thinking about the past or the future. That's why it's good for me. It's like a nice little vacation. So I don't care if you're playing Candy Crush on your phone or on the floor playing Legos with your kid or walking in nature with your dog and just being in that moment, you're not think about past or future. It's good for you and it gives you, your brain, a chance to have a break. It's a marvelous machine, this organ between your ears, and it will fix you. It will find a way if you let it. Open to it.
"The most important thing you can do is say, my success rate for getting through crap so far is a 100%."
SA: Wow. Beautiful. Wow. I feel like I could talk to you all day. Is there anything else that you want to share that we didn't get to talk about?
PM: I guess aside from the occupation or aside from what I do for a living, I think it's really important for people to know that it's okay not to be okay, and that it's normal. We're not all going through the same thing. We're not, it's different things for different people. And talk to people, reach out to people. Nothing has bothered me more with COVID than people talk about social distancing. It's for Christ sakes, we need to physically distance, not socially distance. You can still be very close socially, just observe the physical distancing. I think it's had a huge impact on the mental health for people.
This is probably something you shouldn't talk about, but there's a number of companies that I've worked with or am working with that have lost staff members to suicide during the pandemic. This is real. This is real shit. I just wish people would take the training or find something that's going to help because the training for Mental Health First Aid isn't just about helping others, it's about you.
The most important thing you can do is say, my success rate for getting through crap so far is a 100%. So I can get through this. Especially in the area of human resources, who gets more of that stuff than HR people do. What's your mechanism for being able, so that you don't get slimed with everybody's stuff? It's like that sort of engagement that has your full empathy and compassion, so you're really there, you're really impressive. But then when you walk away from it, how do you detox yourself and show that self empathy and self compassion for yourself? So that you can be well and have a long and happy career because passion fatigue and burnout is real.
SA: Yeah, definitely.
PM: So that's what I'd like to see. With all the wonderful professionals doing great work out there, I see so many of them burn out. The counter measure for burnout and compassion fatigue is looking after yourself, intentionally recovering from what you go through every day. That's the most important thing, is if you look after yourself, then you can write your own ticket. And if you look after yourself, anything's possible. So that's numero uno.
SA: Yeah. Numero uno, yeah. Number one life lesson, for sure. Okay. Amazing. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. This is great.
PM: Well, you're most welcome. You're most welcome.