The Struggle with Mental Health Behind Bars
Big Man called me over to the cell bars and whispered that he had that grandaddy skunkweed. I turned away in reflex. Wanting nothing more than to tell him to fire it up. But every time I get loaded I end up sitting in self-disgust, feeling guilty, trying to will myself out of the euphoria. I’ve got too many people outside waiting for me to do something, anything.
Tonight, I’m at work detail. My job assignment is tier-walker/nurse’s aid. This is just saying I’m supposed to stop the celled prisoners like Big Man from hanging themselves. I’m also a pair of arms and legs for them during my eight-hour shift. Always the graveyard shift. Sometimes I just sit and watch television. I used to consider television a time-suck. Later, I realized that living in books for years on end robbed me of my ability to relate to other people. Now, television is my way of staying down to earth.
But things tonight are really chaotic. The cadet running the lockdown unit got whipped in the face with chain restraints. An inmate got gassed down. I don’t really know if these were related. All of this happened right before I walked in.
Oblivious, I go down the tier with a push broom to tidy up a bit. This is really not part of my work assignment, but when I sit down to work on my writing I like a clean environment. I can’t help but draw from my surroundings. Not always good in a place populated by broken people. At times the madness is so thick on the air you can feel it against your skin.
I’m working on a manuscript, my fourth draft. I’ve named it “On Everything I Love.” Where I’m from, this is a reference to a solemn pledge, that what follows is the unfiltered truth. The story is a place for me to exist with my family. To reconnect with the ones I’ve lost or left behind when I came to prison. It’s crazy that I’ve been here 25 years. I was only 19 when I left. Writing puts me in a place where I can thrive and pursue and feel free and whole. These things I associate with retaining a healthy enthusiasm for the future. They are, I believe, my alternative to stressing over the past.
I found out, late, that I like being outdoors. Trapped in spaces smaller than a broom closet, sometimes for months on end, like these men on the tier now, is commonplace for me. I’ve done a year or more like that once or twice.When I first decided to try my hand at writing, I approached it like I do everything else I’ve learned. I just dug in, moving intuitively.
But I love the sky over my head. There doesn’t have to be trees. I just dig having the warm sunlight on my skin. And movement. I believe all Gemini are mercurial like that.
When I first decided to try my hand at writing, I approached it like I do everything else I’ve learned. I just dug in, moving intuitively. A few self-help and textbooks, no formal instruction. The first few drafts were raw. I had to really grapple with technique. This would pull me away from actually focusing on the story.
Today, I no longer have to do this without guidance. Between my editor and my agent, I’ve learned enough to really tear into my writing. With confidence that between the two of them editing I can catch whatever else I need to address beyond the story itself. This way, even my missteps are enlightening.
My link to my “agent,” my friend Zach Lazar, is essential in another sense.
I’ve had to grow to manhood in a den of thieves, where the most common notion of friend is someone who isn’t your enemy. Even this changes with the circumstances from play to play. I’ve had close friends become mortal enemies in the space of an hour. Because he broke the code. Or, because I’m from Shreveport, and someone from Shreveport attacked his homeboy. Here, when, say, New Orleans and Shreveport are no longer at odds, we’re back friends—no hard feelings. This is all expected behavior.
Zach, on the other hand, is not at all like the personalities I live with and hold close to heart in prison. He’s an altogether different animal. He has his own code he holds to. His own expectations. At times, this has led to some less than smooth exchanges between us. It’s been said that we carry on like brothers. And, though some of his ideas are clearly foreign, I can identify with a life guided by principles. Real recognize real. I judge this mutual respect and commonality to be a better model of brotherhood.
Creativity and strong friendship also happen to be powerful tools for managing mental health.
I’ve never wanted to not feel anything. Rather, I’ve wanted to be able to feel whatever occurs to me. Whatever strikes me. Whatever resonates. Without the sensation being destructive. Emotion, for me, is a bridge connecting from my core to the world around me, to a whole other plane of interaction with my surroundings—seems like a whole other level of existence.
For about a year, I had a good thing going on this front. The dormitory I was in was full of familiar faces. It was violent as hell, but the men around me were solid. Then, security just up and moved me. To the worst possible environment. A dorm full of slicksters. There are always a few, but a whole dorm? Around this time, my homeboy got murdered. No one’s really sure how. He was around my age and from my hometown. We met in the system in the mid-90s and grew to mid-life on this prison farm. He had just been released. He didn’t last a year before we lost him. Before we heard.Every year, on the anniversary of the day we first arrived at the prison they bring us in for an annual review.
My grandfather, my brother, my youth: unimaginable losses. Each time there are not just hours, but weeks, months of stress. Years. The grief unvented because incarceration locks you under a pressure all its own. The need to present a solid front and manage the personalities you’re pressed in with. The need to salvage your relationships and figure out how to make some type of life. Coming to prison at 19, there was also the need to educate myself, to be able to communicate, to forge a fight in the courts. Just major prerogatives. It all made proper grieving look like a less than efficient way to spend my time.
But, grieve I did. In every empty moment, long and hard. Apparently in the most unhealthy fashion. Someone dying, the appellate courts ruling against my appeal—I’ve learned how grief locks me into right brain thinking. My body feeling strange.
The new dormitory, my homeboy’s passing—what I’m describing are two colossal triggers for a mental health episode.
Our minds are hardwired to interpret stress as a perceived threat. A gland in the middle of our brain responds to this perceived threat by sending signals to our gut to release adrenaline into our bloodstreams. This fight or flight should only last as long as it takes to confront or evade the perceived threat that triggers it. But adrenaline in the bloodstream is gratifying. It feels good. This is why stressing, itself, is so addictive. When we stress habitually, though, it strains our muscular, digestive, and nervous systems. This has been my problem. Wrong thinking patterns and stress addiction that have exposed me, unwittingly, to muscle spasms, anxiety, and gastrointestinal issues.
Of course, all of this is what I learned afterwards. In real time, it was much more confusing.
In the dorms nowadays, it seems that almost everyone is hunched over a tablet playing videogames. Personal playlists blaring in their ears.
When you turn the tablet on, the power-up screen says “JPay Stay connected.” JPay is the name of the security tech company that sells us the devices.
The tablets have changed the way most people approach doing time. Take this in context. The tablets don’t connect you to the world in a flood like a smartphone. You can WiFi the institution’s phone service and place calls. You can send and receive emails. Rent movies, television series. A few other things. It opens a world that is big enough. Like a bathtub compared to the ocean. But how valuable is a personal bathtub after years of sharing showers?
With the COVID-19 pandemic pushing most activities outside, you can see how important it is to “stay connected.” The packed weight pile. The Muslims at communal prayer. The bible studies. You can overhear it in snatches of conversations at the fence where guys from our two yards gather to commune, hustle, and politic. It can be interpreted from our alone-together pursuits: plenty of television, books, and, of course, the tablets.Countless hours of quiet stress, unhealthy brooding over life’s loses in solitary. In the dark, these ugly influences inhabiting my mental state like infestations.
The one thing that pulls us all together at once is the news. Local or national broadcast, doesn’t matter. We’ve all at some point faced life-altering decisions and have been appalled by our own ignorance. All over the prison, the news will always take precedence over whatever else is on TV. For someone who has spent the majority of his life reading about history, it kind of hurts to follow events on the news and know that history is happening, yet again, in your lifetime… To feel you have something to add… Hell, to not have been in the free world during the Obama Administration. It’ll all motivate the hell out of you.
It starts subtly. Everything seems to draw your attention. Your peripheral is way too pronounced. You can’t get comfortable, your body aches.
In prison, your whole mindset sustains wear and tear over the passage of time. Warding off subliminals from the system and the guards who are its agents, people in general whose gestures say I am a prisoner, nothing more than this cluster of stigmas and limitations. Your unconscious constantly downloading this trash with each encounter. The worst people often fare best psychologically over the course of long-term incarceration. It’s because they have better conscious control of their nonverbals. But the more you feel, the more difficult this becomes.
You’re irritable. Not good when almost everyone around you seems to have a nervous tic. Someone’s always sucking their teeth, tapping a table. Their tics begin to elicit strangeness in you. Shivers and anxiety attacks. Like a resonance. It was a connection that mortified me. I didn’t know what to think, or what to do with that.
My frustration. Even before they’re actually acting against you, you’re already all but fed up with the people around you. If you lose it, here, there’ll likely be fist fights. Nothing serious. Restraint, though? Seems like the right response, but paranoia and hallucinations lay down that road. You find yourself sweating petty shit. A lot of arguing, resentments left from things you let pass. Things you THINK you let pass. Offenses you could have misread. You’ll flirt with real assaults, battery. It’ll all lead to the cellblocks. A two-man cell. That’ll lead to more fighting. A very bad loop.
Take a cold self-inventory. Stop the spiraling. Starve the physical sensations and you begin to starve the anxiety. Deny it the emotional fuel that clouds the distinction between what you feel and what is real.
Every year, on the anniversary of the day we first arrived at the prison they bring us in for an annual review. Here, in recent years they’ve added what’s called a PREA protocol to the battery of questions they ask.
PREA stands for Prison Rape Enforcement Act. Probably some well-intended legislation. What it has become, though, is just another way for prison officials to play head games with us.There is a difference between what you learn and what you’ve felt. What you, in fact, still feel and have just come to carry.
The last time the PREA protocol questions were posed to me the room was full of white folk. Two guys and a woman. Significant. I’m a Black man. And, at 43, I was probably the oldest person in the room.
“Do you DENY or ADMIT sexually harassing someone, or being sexually harassed?” (Like my involvement is a foregone conclusion, to be owned up to.)
I told him to never fix his mouth to ask me that again.
He blustered a bit, offered a backhanded threat. Ultimately he blew me off. Like I MUST be mental.
The whole time I’m looking at my questioner. At his smug, bored expression. Sitting there secure in his free world clothing. I recognized that this guy would be sodomized within a week, were he ever imprisoned here. Without question.
And, in less than a month, this questioner would come to accept it. Without question.
Furthermore, this questioner will never understand the internal price of forced celibacy.
In Louisiana, there are no conjugal visits in prison. Sex, itself, is a punishable offense, by state statute and the inmate handbook. To enforce this, there are all kinds of rules to thwart sexual consciousness. No “R” rated movies. No pornographic publications. No music with explicit lyrics. As if the penal system here is actively trying to suppress the very notion that the state prisoner is, in fact, a man.
But, you don’t stop being a man because a legislative body votes that you aren’t, or chooses to no longer acknowledge that you are. Instead, you are forced to grapple with sexual awareness like a dog on a leash. Held by two masters: you and the law. You find that sex is not just an act. We think in sexual terms, conscious or not, constantly.
During imprisonment, our thinking gets institutionalized. Dick, as an icon, no longer carries a clean natural signal of masculinity and procreation. It morphs into a weapon, a tool of offense. You have to guard against your dick offending others, against them offending you with theirs. And, by association, phallic symbols such as shafts, cars, pencils, buildings, and, yes, even the clitoris, will come to carry the same meaning as dick on an irrational, unconscious level.
Mind you, this doesn’t mean you look at a pencil and SEE a dick. No, you see what anyone else sees. But, the sight of the pencil can at times whisper, unconsciously, with the phallic associations it’s taken on. For example, you’re standing there and a curvy woman walks by, catches your attention. Someone walks up, just then, and asks to borrow a pen. You flinch. You know it’s just a pen. You just don’t know why you feel some type o’ way about handing it over.
Similarly, here in prison, pussy is not a clear symbol of femininity and fertility. She is an object of much needed release. She is also prey, an accusation or insult, a challenge to your manhood. She is slavery.
Again, in translation, sheathic symbols such as kittens, cats, clothing, water, the mouth, and the body’s curvature have come to carry the same meaning as pussy. Again, on a distorted, unconscious level.Abstinence, for me, wasn’t a necessarily conscious choice, it was the result of my remaining true to myself. My response to the situation.
True story. I walk up to a locked security gate. Two social workers are already standing there waiting. One young and sexy, the other aged and cultured. Now, of course, I’m standing there admiring the young lady. But, then, the older woman bends down and starts beckoning one of the prison’s ubiquitous cats. “Here kitty, kitty…”
I get this queer feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’m not too distressed about it. By now I’m well versed with it all. BUT, it occurs to me—from her timing and her tone of voice—that she knows exactly what she’s doing. For me, it’s only further confirmation. I’ve figured this shit out!
I can hear my homeboys signifying, “I’m strait! Ain’t NO bitch in me!” Haha!
As I write this, I realize that my mistake was ALLOWING myself to be boxed in.
I take my time moving down the tier with the pushbroom, sweeping all the trash to one side of the floor. This way I can catch a narrow run pushing it back up front. As I work my way past the guy’s cell who got pepper sprayed, he asks me to bring him some cleaning supplies. He’s still got gas all over everything. Big Black dude, he’s standing there buck naked. Moving in the small space like he’s unconscious of that part. Water pooling on the cell floor from his ordeal with the people.
When you get the pepper spray on your skin the toilet water is also your bath. Through this whole dance you’re usually screaming obscenities back and forth with security. Jerking the barred cell door, anything to make noise. Rebellion improvised.
He’s obviously still excited.
But, this is his mess. The madness trashing his world. I’m focused on the litter in mine.
I absently tell big Black dude to take it down a bit. I’m reaching for mindfulness. Next I know, he’s throwing sour milk, bleach, and piss on me. When I smell the bleach he’s splashed on my shoulder, I fleetingly wonder why he asked me for cleaning supplies in the first place. Involuntarily, I note the sulfuric smell of aged milk. It occurs to me that foreign piss smells like ammonia.
I continue to clean, working the trash on up the tier with the pushbroom. Determined to not allow him to force me to live in his filth. I do tell him that this is how monkeys protest, throwing their waste.
I just 2Pac, Hold my Head, like the song say. My chin up. I keep it moving. I walk off the tier to make some fresh mop water. Roll that back on the tier… Next I know, I’m standing there pissing in the mop water and tossing the whole bucket back at him.
Let’s delve a bit deeper, here. I’ll keep it simple, but I feel it necessary to go back into the causes of my personal issues mentally, and bleed some relatively complex ideas into our conversation. To further illustrate how the confusion and paranoia of a mental health disorder can take hold, in the context of prison’s suppression.
When I first arrived in prison I wasn’t completely socialized. By socialized I mean the opposite of institutionalized. For example, girls have continued to symbolize growth, responsibility, and happiness for me. I left my mom’s house at 17 to make a home with my girlfriend for our daughters. Strong social cues there. Because my girls meant so much to me. This impression has never been corrupted during the course of my very long incarceration.When you get the pepper spray on your skin the toilet water is also your bath. Through this whole dance you’re usually screaming obscenities back and forth with security.
But, at 19, my mind was still largely susceptible to conditioning. Indeed, I allowed it, as a survival strategy. Abstinence, for me, wasn’t a necessarily conscious choice, it was the result of my remaining true to myself. My response to the situation. But during this time, I was reading anything I could get my hands on.
Imagine knowledge actually paining you. Paining you because you are not prepared to confront the knowledge of negative and positive, aggressive and passive energy in the sexual sense. You’re not ready to juggle a contemplation of purely masculine and feminine principles. Not when you’re institutionalized and hemmed in by prison’s forced celibacy.
Mentally, the implications are too hot. Reading anything I could get my hands on took me to random places. The seven hermaphrodite demigods of hermetic cosmogony. Or Freudian narcissism. The nature of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. The Lucifer Mysteries. You don’t really know what to do with this class of study. But, you don’t know that. It’s just some cool reading material to you. Like a young child that stays up late to sneak and watch horror movies. You don’t appreciate exposure and its implications. You have become like the biblical Adam after tasting the fruit. When he ran off as God approached. As if he could hide from God.
Your irrational behavior is confusion, absent mindedness, and being jumpy at odd moments. Nausea and indigestion when some sight, noise, or notion triggers you unconsciously. “Here kitty, kitty!”
Socially, you confront the same question God posed to Adam. “…Who told you, you were naked?”
Awareness is your burden.
What followed was years of exposure. To literature, artwork, and media that only informed and heightened my awareness of symbolism. To case law particulars that described the most depraved criminal acts, during preparations for my appeal. Countless hours of quiet stress, unhealthy brooding over life’s loses in solitary. In the dark, these ugly influences inhabiting my mental state like infestations. Then, the body goes through several hormonal stages similar to adolescence’s puberty. When I entered one of these flushes in my thirties I was broadsided by a shattering cocktail. An institutionalized mindset, awareness, and hormones. I can remember telling one of the big homies in confidence that I didn’t feel like myself. All he could tell me was that “there’s a dark side to the game, man.”
At the same time, the people around me were changing in weird ways. Violence and aggression surrendered to regret. Ambition to disillusionment. Playing on our need to simply be better, the turnkeys insinuated themselves as father figures. Had us courting their favor, valuing their approval, truly remorseful at their displeasure. Like that shit was natural.
But, it isn’t natural. You’re getting cored out. To deal with the inner disquiet it all creates, the people around you shoot themselves right back to the superstition of the dark ages. They find religion. All spiritual fervor, overzealous worship, and talk of demons. Fanatical prayer for divine intervention.For me, bullshit wouldn’t hold. I’m not into lying to myself. It’s irrational.
For me, bullshit wouldn’t hold. I’m not into lying to myself. It’s irrational. You recognize prison officials elevating your friends’ sincere worship to a level of theatre. Revival meetings. And, you got no better answer. You’re left defenseless facing an inner world you can’t escape or live with. You hear of suicides. The most unlikely people. You don’t know if they were killed by correctional officers, a short-con gone bad, or surrender.
Imagine finally getting the life-giving information you need to repair and rebuild. You zero in on the culprit, your mental health. You learn about triggers, their mechanisms, and more encouragingly, the elasticity of the brain. You see a way forward. But you still can’t find peace. You find, rather, that mental health disorders are not easily dispelled. That there is a difference between what you learn and what you’ve felt. What you, in fact, still feel and have just come to carry. Your cross, that thorn in your side.
I’ve learned to allow my dreams to correct me. Often, I’ll wake in the small hours and just lay there. Let whatever residual feelings from my dreams linger. Not too invested, just looking at them. Like you would a toenail after you’ve peeled it off. I think about what I was just seeing in my dream. What the different elements mean to me. How they translate.
This is how I’ve learned to—I dunno—check back in. Catch back up. I phrase it like this because this is where I began to sort things out. To discern what was real from what was my madness. In this moment, it feels as if the mental health episode had me walking in an alternate reality. Fitting, really, that my dreams would offer a route back to objectivity. My unconscious being the cause to begin with. Like a child who throws a tantrum, then turns around and tells you what he saw while you were preoccupied.
Afterwards, it’s disheartening. That this mind so many admire me for could mislead me so completely. I hear about Kanye West, another Gemini/creative, and I wonder if the madness, itself, is a property tax our type in general must pay for our creativity.
Late night, early morning.
I’m checking my tablet sync to see if I have an email from Zach, or Doug.
Doug Siebold, my publisher, is only just now starting to gradually flesh out for me. Up until recently, he was this obscure Chicago bigwig who contracted me, by grace of God, via Zach’s diligence. Sent me a sizable check for my troubles. My first book, entitled, This Life. He’s had a publishing company to run, though. When he finally turned his attention to my project it was still kind of surreal.
The other day, Doug showed me something. He emailed me to tell me about how he’s approaching the cover treatment. On first encounter I disagreed. So much so that rather than running my thoughts by Zach, first, I decided this would be Doug and me. Somebody gets that… I took my time and typed Doug out an email arguing my point. I went over and over it. He’s my editor, too, right. So, it kind of felt like I was preparing a term paper, I imagine. I sent this out to him, not feeling as confident as I did when the idea to do so first struck me.
Doug hit right back. Let me know that he was hearing me, that we were on point in a lot of what I was expressing. He even referenced Outkast. I was like, this cat know about Outkast?!! I can fuck with him.
What it all boils down to is courage and confidence. Be brave enough to let things, internal and external, play out.
Also, in terms of strength and balance, nothing helps the male psyche so much as the female. Her presence, simply interacting with her. My mirror. Nothing is more essential. I say this plainly. And to it, I’ll only add, “thank you.”
Never fails. First security creates the chaos, then they pull you out on mental health call-out to ask you how it feels.
So, I’m sitting in the Mental Health Office and the social worker is asking me the normal battery of questions. Have I been taking my medication? I don’t take medication. Why am I on the mental health call-out? A few years back I was hearing voices. How is everything, now?
I look at her. Fleetingly recalling her from that day with the older woman at the security gate. “Here kitty, kitty.” She’s one of those diminutive women who look rather young in passing. But, when I focus on her I realize she’s no baby. Attractive. Somewhere around my age, look like. As I look at her it strikes me how long it’s been since I’ve had sex. 25 summers. And, I’m arguably an attractive man.
How is everything, now?
I tell her I’m cool. She says okay.
Then, I get up and leave.