Saving Your Mind: Mental Health in the Age of Corona
“This is some next-level shit. I thought I’d seen it all in my 20 years in prison,” said Murder (no real names used), my Quarantine Sanitation Specialist co-worker, as we dragged another fellow sick inmate to the hospital wing.
His voice cracked and I thought I noticed a tear in his eye, but never said a word about it. I understood completely.
We worked in the COVID-19 quarantine building of our prison. We were glorified janitors, but often tasked with moving and caring for sick or dead inmates. There were four of us; two morning-shift and two afternoon-shift inmate workers. At the peak of our outbreak, we worked seven days a week, double shifts, sweating through our full PPE gear, and missed meals—too busy to even stop and eat. It was only at the end of the day, during my shower, before heading back to my unit, that I would finally have a moment to catch my breath. Sometimes I couldn’t and broke down—hiding my tears as I let the warm water wash over me. My co-workers, all tough, seasoned convicts serving lengthy sentences, admitted they also had setbacks and suffered everything from nightmares to migraines since starting this job. Double D, one of the morning workers, once asked, “How can anyone ever be the same after having seen what we’ve seen and done what we’ve done?” Good question, I thought.
I also wondered when or if things would ever go back to normal and when (and if) they did, when would I ever fully re-recover? Or was I somehow permanently changed? See, I’ve read that the brain is like a computer, it reacts to whatever is programmed into it. The neuroscientists call it neuroplasticity. David Eagleman, author of Livewired and Stanford neuroscientist, explains: “What you spend your time on changes your brain; you become the information you digest . . . we can never go back to being the person we were before.” In other words, we are always morphing into the next version of ourselves—good or bad.
For those of us in prison, this feels especially true. I am not the same person I was seven years ago, upon my initial incarceration. Some of that is general maturity gained through the years, but some of that is also something else. These walls have a dark magic capable of changing any man. Tara Swart, author of The Source: The Secrets of the Universe, the Science of the Brain, says folks in this type of environment go into “low-power mode.” Prison living is a mind-dulling, never-ending, never-changing routine that can cause permanent psychological damage. I have seen this manifest in my fellow inmates through elevated levels of anxiety, stress, and fear. Many become depressed, or OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder], and have difficulty re-adjusting to social norms like touch and personal space upon release back to society. Humans are social creatures by nature, it is not something you can just turn off and not expect side effects.
These protocols have meant even less social connectivity among the inmate population—all movement was cancelled. Also, we were further disconnected from our loved ones out in the “outside world”—all visits were cancelled and calls were severely limited. This past year we felt our cells turn into crypts, we were buried, but not yet dead. We mourned our previous lives, livelihoods, and selves again. A year of mental deterioration caused by COVID lockdowns will take another year to heal.
Caroline Leaf, author of Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess, believes the mind has incredible self-healing powers. She recommends a “healing boost.” One of the five-step processes she recommends is countering negative thoughts with three positive, hopeful thoughts. This will increase theta waves, the good brain energy, which in turn tells our body to relax and feel good—everything is going to be okay.
For example, instead of wallowing in the thought that we can’t see and hug our loved ones, we should flip that thinking and focus on being grateful they are safe and healthy and being happy with the reduction in positive cases and with vaccine availability, and visualize the moment when we will be able to see and hug our loved ones again. Maybe spend this time writing them a letter telling them how much you miss and care about them. The point is not to let negativity take holding in your thinking. As they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
I’ve seen incarceration change people through renewed relationships, deeper spiritual lives, and greater appreciation for life.
Let Go and Let Live
My new cellie, Grumpy Smurf, lived up to every bit of his moniker. If he wasn’t mean-muggin’ the guards he was stomping around the cell like he was killing roaches. It was the last thing I needed. I was a recent born-again optimist who was desperately trying to avoid falling any deeper into the well.
At first, we barely spoke. He was a generation older and from a street culture I did not understand. The few times we did try to talk, the conversation inevitabily led to his troubles with his wife or how the system had screwed him. These are not unique complaints in our shadow world. What could I say? I get it, me too buddy. It was no use, he couldn’t hear anyone past his own anger. I worried how long we might be stuck together, when an idea struck me. It was something my mom had done when I was a kid. Hell, it was worth a shot.
On his birthday, I offered him a piece of hard candy, but with the caveat that I couldn’t pry it out of his closed fist. I pretended to try to open his hand and then went into my box and offered him a whole, fresh honey bun (his favorite) in exchange for the piece of candy he was clenching in his fist. He looked at me skeptically, but the deal was too good to pass up. I opened my own honey bun and we joked as we ate them.
I told him the story of when I was a kid and struggling to fit in at high school. We had just moved into a new town where I didn’t know anyone. I was a skinny, lanky kid, with big ears and a mouth full of braces. I hated my life. I was angry at the world and took it out on my family and anyone else who stood in my way.
My mother had done the candy trick and, like my cellie, I also traded up. She told me I was holding onto my anger so tightly I wasn’t giving any space for anything new or good to come into my life. I needed to open myself up to new joy. “You can’t hold onto the past if you want a better future,” she said. “Let go of the pain, frustrations, and rancor, and you’ll start to see a whole new world of possibilites. The truth is, we can’t change what has already happened, but we can choose how we live today which will direct our tomorrow.”
“I see what you’re saying . . . and I appreciate it,” he responded softly.
We talked all night. He vented all his frustrations while I patiently listened. I told him of my own struggles with forgiveness, how my faith had helped me forgive others and myself, and of my newfound happiness. We discussed a quote I had posted above my bunk: “When you forgive others, you take away their power over you.” We came up with a radical idea. He would write down the names of all those he felt had wronged him, he would pray over them, forgive them, and then flush them down the toilet. It was as if a weight was lifted.
He looked at me and in a peaceful whisper simply mouthed, it’s over. I got chills. I’m not saying there was something supernatural at work that night, but I’m also not saying there wasn’t. I said, you’re back in control of your life, enjoy. He nodded his head and went to bed.
Shortly after, I was moved to another building, but occasionally I’d see him walking to chow area or at the law library. He always went out of his way to greet me with a smile and ask if I needed anything. People stopped calling him Grumpy Smurf, he was simply Brian now. I learned he had reconnected with his estranged family and was working a good job at industry and even volunteered at the prison hospice.
Years passed and we ended up on the same deck again. He was unrecognizable. He looked younger and more energetic. New, young inmates looked up to him and sought him out as a mentor. I heard him talking to one of his young mentees in the dayroom, “Okay, now hold this candy tightly, don’t let me get it out of your hand.”
Leo Cardez, a pseudonym, is an inmate at Statesville Correctional Center outside Chicago.
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