James LasterMy mom died when I was young — 15. I didn’t know how to deal with it. I didn’t understand myself. I became self-destructive and got locked up for selling drugs. I was unhappy for years.

It was more than 10 years before I actually started to get over losing her.

Eventually, I became sick and tired of being down and out. I realized I was not happy. My “happiness” was based on all the wrong things: drugs, alcohol and other people.

As I began to look at myself, I knew I had to change. And change I did. I no longer need anyone else to be happy.

What you think about me is not my happiness. I don’t need other people’s approval to be happy. And I realize now that while I’d love to have had my mom around, I don’t need her to be happy, either.

I don’t even need my freedom. Locked in a cell with little connection to the outside world, surrounded by solitude, I can still enjoy happiness and enjoy myself.

One thing I learned while I was sitting in solitary confinement is once you are in a cell long enough, you begin to look closely at yourself. You have plenty of time to think. Not only are you locked in by yourself, you’re also locked in with yourself.

And if you don’t like who you are or if you are unhappy, you’re going to have a tough time.

I now recognize my past mistakes. I no longer let them define me as a person. I no longer beat myself up. I can be perfectly happy all alone. Because I love myself. When I look at the man in the mirror, I can honestly say that I really like who I see.

I used to be unable to say that. I’ve taken some big steps in a short time. I am a completely different person than who I was five years ago. I take my sobriety seriously. I take my workout seriously. I take the way I conduct myself and the way I view and treat others very seriously.

Life is a gift and I love it.

In prison, I have discovered what it means to be happy. Yes, I’d much rather be free. But my happiness does not come from outside sources such as relationships, freedom, money, love, educational or business accomplishments or alcohol. My happiness comes from within.

I still have rough days, but overall, I love life.

It’s been a bumpy road and I’ve been through a lot. I have endured, and I have overcome, and I will continue to overcome.

Eventually, within the next three years, they will open up these gates and let me out to begin the next chapter in my life. And I don’t have anything out there: no home, no car, no clothes.

What I have is determination and happiness.

I’m not even discouraged by these truths. I don’t have a clue as to how I’m going to put my life together and start my life over. All I know is that I’m going to do it. At all costs.

My intention is to shine as bright as the sun on the morning my only child was born.

Until then, I will continue to educate myself and learn all I can to help me in my journey. My prison sentence is the easy part. The hard part lies ahead of me once I am released.

And yes, it will be hard. But I will find a way to make things work.

The lifestyle I used to live is behind me. I have no desire to live like that anymore. I will not surround myself with people who indulge in criminal activity, drugs, violence and things of that nature. I hope to find new friends and a new support system of people who are interested in seeing me succeed.

I want to be someone the community is proud of. I want to give back to the community and, if possible, I would like to help people avoid situations such as my own.

And when these gates roll open, I’ll have my chance and I look forward to taking full advantage of it.

Live and let live.

James Laster is serving an eight-year sentence for aggravated assault on a gay man. In a recent interview with Dallas Voice, he talked about turning his life around and wanting to make amends to his victim and the LGBT community.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 4, 2016.