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Emily O'Brien

Mind over Matter: Our outlook can shape our outcomes

Can the way in which we think shape our body and our world, or is our mindset forever a prisoner of the chance and circumstance of our environment?

I was once addicted to drugs. Despite being a young female entrepreneur of a successful social media company, my mind was on a treadmill of dependency: to quell the stresses of work and the emotional strain of my parent’s divorce, drugs and all-night-parties numbed both the pain I felt, and my connection to the world around me. I was self-medicating.

At this point, my personal story unfolds a bit like a disaster movie. I met the wrong guy; he convinced me to go on a tropical vacation; he had tricked me, and suddenly, under the threat of violence while very far from my home and loved ones, he convinced me to become a drug mule for him.

At the age of 26, I was caught smuggling cocaine through Pearson International Airport, and was eventually sentenced to four years in a federal prison. In 2018 I began serving a prison sentence at the Grand Valley Institution for Women, in Kitchener, Ontario.

This is where the disaster story transforms into one of redemption. 

Going to prison wasn’t the end of me, it was the beginning. Isolated from society, I could finally cleanse my mind of the pressures, stressors, toxins, and drugs that had shaped my thinking up to that point. Prison was the catalyst for a second chance; a complete mental reset. I knew I could do better, and I made the conscious choice to chart a new path in my life.

Everybody deserves the opportunity for a comeback.

My company, Comeback Snacks, was started behind bars. One day I noticed how making popcorn in the shared prison kitchen was pulling women of all backgrounds and dispositions together. We shared stories, flavour ideas, and recipes; we found peace and joy in our snacks, and in the human connections being made across a hot stove. This was a vibe and mentality that taught me that every single person is a human being with their own unique story, worthy of love and respect. Every single l person is capable of a comeback in their lives, against whatever is afflicting them – and popcorn, at least for me, could be a medium to accomplish this in myself, and to inspire it in others.

Being an entrepreneur behind bars wasn’t easy. It took assistance from friends and mentors on the outside to get rolling, especially because ‘snail-mail’ was the best form of communication. Over time, as I was on parole, racing back-and-forth from retail events to parole houses in time for evening curfew took its toll. But my team and I never gave up. From equipment malfunctions to failed flavour combinations, we looked at every obstacle as an opportunity to improve and grow.

Today, Comeback Snacks can be found in more than 750 retail outlets across Canada, including larger chains such as Sobey’s. We’re expanding into Western Canada and the US, and the future looks bright. Our excitement and our passion is not only fueled by making great popcorn, but by eliminating stigmas about formerly-incarcerated persons, and encouraging employers everywhere, and society generally, to give others a second chance. Everybody deserves the opportunity for a comeback.

As my mind and outlook became focused on something outside and greater than myself – my business, product, colleagues, social causes, breaking down stigmas and helping others in need – the cycles of depression, dependency, and self-medication that had previously steered my actions, dissipated. I forgave myself for my past transgressions, and focused on what I could do in the present and future to better the world. 

My mentality began shaping my reality. I was achieving a form of profit essential to every business owner. Not simply a financial one, but a new sense of purpose and meaning. An emotional profit. A feeling that I was making a difference in the world as I wanted to, as I always knew I could.

My journey from prison to becoming a female entrepreneur has taught me that the power to make a comeback is inherent in all of us. All it takes is the choice to chart a new path in one’s life, and the dedication to see this new path through to the end, even when times can get tough. It can start in prison, in a kitchen, in an office, or anywhere you choose. You have this potential and ability within yourself as well, and I wish you the best as you navigate through the world and aim to achieve whatever form of meaning or purpose is intrinsic to you and whoever you know you can become.

Emily O'Brien is the Founder of Comeback Snacks

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