I recently did a podcast interview which was like no interview I had done before. We didn't talk about the psychology of change, or how I became the first person in New Zealand to graduate with a doctorate right out of prison. We didn't talk about my viewpoints on prison rehabilitation. Instead in the interview we talked about the dark side of how I found myself in prison, my past criminal behaviour and the demons that led me in that direction. It was stark. There's shame and regret, and as hard as it was I knew this was an interview I had to do. The medium allowed for that level of raw, unedited conversation.
In 1995 I was arrested for murder. I was an eighteen-year-old high school dropout, a drug addict and had for a number of years been living a life of crime to fuel my addiction. In 1996 I was sentenced to life imprisonment with the minimum allowable non-parole of 10 years. I spent time in maximum security prison continuing my drug habits and spending time in solitary confinement for misbehaving. Being locked up in that community reinforced my negative worldview, and for me, that was my "coming of age".
After a few years of repetition, I made a choice to try and get an education. With the support of an incredible network, I completed a Bachelor's and Master's degree in prison, and entered into a PhD program in psychology while still in incarceration. Upon my release I worked in a firm specialising in industrial and organisational psychology, and in 2006 I graduated with a PhD in psychology.
I shared the interview with a close friend; a friend who I trust who has known me throughout the journey, before the addictions, during my sentencing and over the last 21 years where I have worked to rebuild my life. His immediate response after listening to the interview was - Why did I choose to revisit the past in such graphic detail? Why would I want remind people of the negativity of who I was when I have been so determined to move my life away from it?
We live in a time where it's easy for people to create personas divorced from their true self. They become heroes in an artificial world. I never want to be that guy. My career has grown so far without my story being distorted, but as my work is becoming internationally regarded, for which I am grateful, I knew that I needed to ensure what I owned the narrative that is Paul Wood.
I realize that it is my responsibility to own the reality of my background with real honesty for the sake of others who have made terrible choices. These people deserve the chance to be supported in change. To reduce awareness of the extent of my behavior limits just how much change is really possible. Based on all the support I got from people who knew the reality of how accountable I was for my own circumstances, I would be doing others a disservice if I let people think that I was in some way less culpable and therefore more deserving to have the opportunity to change my life.
I never want my story to be distorted by my personal achievements. I come from a loving family. I was provided for. There were interventions and attempts to save me from the hell I was creating for myself. I was as much a perpetrator as a victim in my criminal past. The emotion and mental anguish I experienced is a nightmare that I tried to dull and escape by doing the things that led me to lie, steal, abuse myself and subsequently violently take the life of someone else. This interview is 'putting it on record'. In all its ugliness, the whole story, no matter how extreme at each end, is the same narrative of the life of Paul Wood.
If our idea of our story is distorted, we can never affect real change. It's too easy to make bad choices again or fall into the trap of not being motivated to make change if our point of reference doesn't begin with the truth. There are people who will want to change parts of my story because it makes them uncomfortable. The cognitive dissonance they experience tells them that the guy who I used to be could not possibly be the man I am today. They would like there to be explanation for my past behaviour so that I could be seen as a victim triumphant in adversity. This allows them to avoid questioning their prejudices, and having to deeply consider what is possible in terms of personal transformation. But the truth has been told.
I am authentic in the life I live now as a mindset coach, a speaker, a father, a son, a friend, a partner. I will always live with my past and I do this not by pretending that it does not exist. I carry my story because it exists, not as a burden, but as an acceptance of who I am now and where I have been.
Dr Paul Wood is a coach, speaker and director of What's Your Prison?