Being locked in a cage day after day is an experience that no one can truly understand until they’ve gone through it. All too often, people talk about the hardships and damage which arises from this environment or the damages of living a life that leads one to prison, but rarely do they hold both at the same time and think about how they compound each other.
I was recently given a new neighbor. Someone I had as a neighbor about a year ago. Back then he was going through some serious psychological issues. Screaming out self-directed profanities at the top of his lungs at all hours of the day and night. As if that mean little voice that we all have in our heads which tells us how terrible we are had direct control of his voice. He would rage at himself, beat himself, and curse himself, all while the rest of us were locked in our cages around him, baring witness to his pain.
After a couple months, he was finally approved to be moved to SOU, “Special Offender Unit.” a psych ward within the prison.
I don’t want to ‘diagnose’ him out of hand, because all too often what a person is going through is belittled and dismissed by the act of diagnosis. So I’ll say this: by his own admission, he hears voices.
I didn’t think much of him after he left. Didn’t want to. I spoke to a few of my confidants about my feelings around hearing him scream transphobic slurs, among many other things, at himself in the middle of the night as I tried to sleep. Then I moved on. While I had no desire to erase what ever damage had brought him to that extreme level of suffering, to move on I had to let myself forget, just a little bit, the panic of being woken from a dead sleep to that.
And now he’s back. In the cell right next to me. But different.
I’m not sure what treatment he may or may not have received in SOU, but I do know he received a Bible if nothing else. Now, when that angry voice begins he counters it by shouting Bible verses at himself. Mostly Romans and Acts.
Notice, a shift from shouting hate speech to Bible verses was enough for him to be considered well enough to not be in SOU anymore. In no way is his suffering less, he’s just employed a religious construct to help him deal with it. Thus his mental illness can be socially understood as a spiritual struggle, not as a psychological struggle and his suffering becomes acceptable.
To me, this is not actually better, and I doubt this represents a real improvement for him either.
Because we are locked in cells right next to each other every day, the sounds of his suffering is an unavoidable part of my current environment. Because I witness it, his suffering becomes my suffering. And not just because hearing his screams impact me, which they do.
Hearing him randomly yell at any given moment is scary because it forces me to recognize the potential within me, to have ended up like him. Schizophrenia and bipolar are common in my family tree. If I hadn’t faced my demons I very well could have ended up screaming at nothing, arguing that I am not a voice in someone else’s head with delusions of existence. Because that was the form my madness was taking back when I was a broken toy with little to no idea of how to fix myself. Back when I was little more than the traumas I suffered before prison and was spending 20 hours a day locked in a cell.
Thankfully, I made choices which have resulted in me reclaiming my sanity. Choices which rewrote the stars and created a reality where I am destined for a different fate.
Sadly, there is no way for me to bridge that gap for my neighbor. He has to find his own way and all I can do is practice compassion and kindness and hope he is able to make the choices he needs to make to reclaim his own sanity.
Just as not everyone has the internal resources to adjust to living in prison, not everyone has the internal resources to adjust to living in their own head.
So the next time you see someone who is obviously going through a mental health crisis, as difficult and scary as it is for you to witness, remember that it is infinity more difficult and terrifying for the person going through it. You can’t fix it for them, but you can gift them a little kindness.