Stephanie Maez Won’t Do It All By Herself
When her son was jailed for a crime he didn’t commit, the former legislator dealt with her pain in isolation. A powerful experience in nature spurred her to turn to her community for support.
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Stephanie Maez told her story to producer Tanvi Kumar for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I remember being in the courtroom when they first had his first arraignment. I can close my eyes right now, and hear the shackles and feel the cold of the cinder block. It’s just devastating to see somebody you love so deeply in pain and you can’t stand up and give them a hug.
I’m the executive director of the Outdoor Foundation. Back in 2015, my son, who was 18 at the time, was wrongfully accused of murder. He spent almost a full year in jail. Ten-and-a half months for this crime that he had no knowledge of, was not a part of, didn’t commit. He was innocent. At that time, I was serving in the state legislature, and it became really high profile in the media. It was just a really horrific time.
I was very much in a place of survival and just getting through the next day. I also have a daughter, who was not even nine at the time, and had to try to explain to her what was going on. It was getting through the day, getting through the next court hearing, getting through the next media interview.
There were multiple times throughout the course of the wrongful arrest where my son was in jail, and I would actually sleep on my dad’s back porch, because it faced west and west was where the jail was. When I would sleep on his back porch, I felt closer to my son in a weird way. The fact that I was actually outside and I could hear the birds and the wind, there was something really comforting about that, for me as a mom.
There was this bench probably about a little less than a quarter of a mile away from the actual facility. If you sat on the bench, you could see the chain link fence, and you could hear the rec yard, and the prisoners playing basketball. So I would just go, even on my non-visitation days, and just lay on the bench and look up at the sky.
Ultimately, the charges were dropped and they found the real murderers. I had this expectation that when he was going to come home from jail, we would have this white picket fence life. That everything was going to go back to how I thought it was going to be: he would go back to school and I would potentially go back into public office. It was so far from that when he came home that it was almost debilitating, because he had experienced so much trauma in jail and came home with really severe PTSD. I think as a mom, when you see your child in so much pain and suffering, there is nothing more helpless of a feeling than that.
I started drinking really heavily, to cope and numb all of the pain. At the same time, I was numbing the joy. The world became so gray and lost all of its color. I became so numb. It was really a tough time. I found myself just going deeper and deeper into that dark space. It was a really slippery slope to a place of a very unhealthy relationship with alcohol.
Finally, I took my butt out into the foothills of the Sandia mountains. It’s not a real strenuous hike, but it’s enough to get the heart pumping a little bit. It’s about 15 minutes up to the top. To the west, you can look over the city, and to the east you can see the front of the Sandia mountains. It was dusk-ish. I remember closing my eyes and listening to the rustling of the trees and the birds, and that it was just peace. Just complete peace. The weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders, and I could just hear and feel and sense and see in a whole new way. It was almost divine intervention from nature that was like, you need to knock this crap off. And I did, and I quit. That was seven years ago.
I went through really intense therapy. I went to group sessions. It quickly became that I would find myself on the trail running instead or downing a bottle of wine at night. It became a place for healing and growth and getting stronger, and has been ever since.
A lot of the stoic philosophers of hundreds of years ago have said, “Maybe the obstacle is the way.” Maybe it’s through these hard times that help us become better people and learn and grow and expand. I’m not saying that we should all have to suffer in order to be better people. I am saying, though, that there is contrast in life. There’s good and bad, there’s easy times and there’s hard times. And life is so beautiful, sober.
I used to isolate myself, and I used to say I’m going to handle it by myself, I’m just going to do it. And there’s so many people who want to be there for you and want to help. You’re not alone. It can feel so alone. It can feel so lonely. But you’re not.
Stephanie Maez is a former state legislator in New Mexico, where she has sponsored and supported a slate of social justice policy proposals. She is now executive director of the Outdoor Foundation, and works to create equitable access to the outdoors. Learn more about her efforts at outdoorindustry.org/participation.