by Daniel A. Rosen |
October 8, 2022
Roll up your pants legs, this sh*t is about to get kind of deep.
Sometimes I wonder how long it’ll take until every other thought isn’t about prison. And the answer probably is: until I stop giving prison all that free space in my head to define and dictate the ways I move in the world.
I’ve written a good bit about my time inside – and this won’t be the last piece about it – but this one is expressly an effort to un-entrench some of the most tenacious claws those years have in my psyche. What I find myself struggling with, perhaps more than anything, is a literal labor of love: connecting with other people in an open and genuine way. It’s an effort that I know is worth it, don’t get me wrong, but the last six years in prison have made it even more of an uphill battle than it already was for me.
Something I read recently gave me the push I needed to jot down these thoughts. A smart friend who I listen to suggested Lauren Hough’s book, “Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing.” And it made a lasting impression on me. Some books, like people, seem to cross your path right when you need them. Hough talks about her experiences growing up in a cult and being gay – and how much harder it actually was to “come out” about her cult background, at least with “normal” people. How getting past the shame and fear and stigma about it didn’t happen until she started writing about it. And maybe I’ve always known deep down somewhere that these little letters I pen to myself hold the key to my deliverance too, but it didn’t hit home entirely until I read Hough’s book.
“All those secrets we keep and the lies we tell to keep them rot into shame,” Hough writes. “That shame isolates us. We’re shaped by our experiences, but when we see those experiences through shame, all those experiences feel like failure.” I read those lines again and again.
That self-imposed isolation comes from the same grader who always gives you an F and sees only the flaws in everything you do, and it’s awful. You keep within yourself – not because you have to anymore, like you did in prison to survive – but because you assume no one would want to be near you if they really knew you. The “you” that is your crime, your conviction. The you who is the judge who sentenced you, the prosecutor who made you out to be the worst human being in the world, a victim who called you “a monster.”
Hough describes feeling validated in connecting with other former cult members, and similarly, it’s freeing to connect with others who’ve been locked up. There’s so much I don’t have to explain. I already know they feel the same stigma that I do. It’s enough to say, “I was locked up too.” I know not one of them is going ask what I was locked up for, or judge me. With everyone else, it’s the great unstated fear: those are exactly the first things they’ll do. Sometimes I’ll add that I did six years, most of it in Virginia state prison, just so they don’t think I did some cushy year at a Fed camp because I’m a middle-aged white man.
So, you isolate yourself. At the very least, maybe – you gravitate toward spaces where you’re around only others who were incarcerated. Or people who work on prison issues, or justice reform, because they’re not going to judge you like everyone else. Maybe you have some old friends from before who still talk to you – but a lot of them will have disappeared, check in a few times after you come home but then go about their lives. You were gone a long time, after all.
And the thing is, about isolation – that’s all I really had in prison. I think it’s all most people have. You show no one anything about your true feelings, because you cannot be vulnerable there. Cannot. That’s a recipe for being taken advantage of, for being depressed and miserable. And there’s community inside, but it’s a form of community built on shared circumstance, not genuine bonds – with very few exceptions.
To make things worse, I was really good at being inauthentic before I got locked up – it’s a major part of the equation that got me there. I wore a mask all the time with everyone, told people what I thought they wanted to hear, and lied to myself and everyone else. I ran from my feelings as far and as fast as I could, doing everything I could think of to distract myself from them. The addictions and misguided thinking that led me to that cell aren’t that different than those of the drug addict who can’t stand himself and finds ways to dull the reality of his existence.
The hardest thing, maybe, is figuring out how to move amongst and speak to what Hough calls “normals” now – those who haven’t shared those traumatic experiences. The new ones who I’m just meeting for the first time after coming home. It’s scary, and sometimes I just want to blurt out: “lets-just-get-this-out-of-the-way-now-I-was-in-prison-and-now-you-probably-never-want-to-talk-to-me-again-I-get-it-no-worries-nice-meeting-you.” I know it’s not rational. I know intellectually people might actually hold all sorts of differing views about incarceration. You never know who did 30 days in jail on a drunk-and-disorderly, or has had an uncle locked up – or alternatively, who’s been the victim of a violent crime and might be triggered by your words. And sharing the reality of those years isn’t for everyone, but it’s stressful trying to figure out who it is and isn’t for.
Now, as I work to build more authentic connections with people, I find myself struggling against not just decades of learned behavior and the masks I developed over a lifetime, but six years of prison-issue perma-frost mask too. For someone like me, prison was the last thing I needed, in terms of building skills to connect more authentically with people now. After all that, I’m supposed to find ways to relate to myself and others honestly and openly? Talk about a steep hill to climb. It’s a lot easier to lie, watch porn, and sleep with strangers you meet online.
And yet, I’m struggling up it, because I know it’s the only path I have out of the wilderness of these last years when I lost my way. I sometimes feel like I’m walking around now with a neon “CONNECT WITH ME!” sign on my forehead. When I find someone to talk to, I often overshare, and I’m aware of it. But to mix my metaphors – as wide as this chasm is, I’d rather overshoot and still get across it than fall short. So, I look for connections everywhere. I talk to strangers at the grocery store. I go to Meetup events, and free concerts, and engage random people purely for the sake of human connection. It’s low-stakes and it’s good practice, and I’m constantly surprised at how often people respond positively. A lot of folks have had a connection deficit these past couple years of the pandemic, after all.
I got two tattoos done about a decade apart; both of them are about relativity. They were meant to be reminders to me that connection is the fabric of the universe, in both a spiritual and physical sense, and that we exist in relation to one another. I marked my skin permanently in the hopes that the ink would cement what hadn’t firmly taken root in my brain and my heart, and clearly it wasn’t enough. I still struggled with relating authentically and conducted my life before prison as if it were a solo act – as if those markings on my arms were just meaningless decorations.
I’m working hard now to shed the self-deception, selfishness, and misguided thinking that led me to spend six years of my life in a cell. The vulnerability and expression of feelings that comes with genuine connection and relation to others is uncomfortable. But the isolation of these last years, even before prison, was infinitely worse.