On Isolation

I awake in a sweat, dazed and disoriented. I turn my pillow over to the dry, cold side underneath, and think: a few seconds ago, I was walking along Sherbrooke Street on a sunny summer’s day, rummaging through second-hand bookstores.

Not now. My eyes adjust to the dim light. I can discern small straight furrows running between the painted cinderblocks of my cell wall. I am still in jail.

A prisoner’s dreams can be deceptive. They exist in a realm beyond the drab gray walls that contain us in our tiny individual 7 x 10 foot cinderblock realms. The world of dreams is alluring, seductive.

When I sleep, my spirit travels to other places. Dreams bring me people I love and loved. My dream worlds have no limits. Everywhere I carry my regrets and my melancholy – but in my dreams I have the capacity to make amends, unlike my current state. That’s because prison quarantines not just from friends, but also from those who have been hurt by crimes.

In these brief moments of respite, it is natural to ask – would suicide bring me full time into this painless world of reverie? Would opening up the human envelope send me off to a better place? It’s a choice that is often made.

An elderly man with not long to go on his sentence complains for months about being in physical pain. He is turned away by the health care facility many times. Eventually, even fellow inmates who at first tried to help him push him away: his complaints become chronic and repetitive. He begins to sleep on the floor of his cell to manage his agony. I become accustomed to passing him as he slowly shuffles along his way. Occasionally he flashes me an intense, knowing stare.

One gray Monday afternoon, an emergency siren wails. I replace my tools at the prison factory where I work and file back to my cell. When we are finally let out, we learn that the old man is out of his pain.

That night, some of us sit in a circle at chapel: 20-odd inmates, a community volunteer and a chaplain who asks us to express our feelings. One man had seen the old man swinging in his cell, too late. Several men express shadows of personal guilt, I among them. Could we have done something more to help?

One participant, clearly informed that the old man had suffered severe psychological problems rather than medical woes, gives an impassioned speech calling for more psychiatric services behind bars. Together, we pray. But prayer will not bring this man back.

Is this life the illusion? Is the dream life real? Philosophers and religions have argued the point for centuries.

The books of Raymond Moody keep me on this planet. An emergency room doctor, Moody was the first to chronicle what the medical profession had always known but never talked about – that patients who die for a time and are then brought back experience roughly the same events in the same sequence, regardless of sex, age or religion.

The near-death experiences of people who attempt suicide, then come back, are uniformly awful. They don’t go to a better place. Their woes, their struggles, their psychic pain all follow them into the next realm. They will be stuck in the same ruts for eternity. When they are revived, Moody reports, they choose life.

If you die here, someone tells me, no one will cry. Still, there is reading, writing that can touch people I have never met; there is sports on TV. There are penpals, sulight, the rare visitor. There is even the possibility, maybe one day, of making amends. I tend to think the world is a dream that represents all we have. And we will, we must, always find a reason to live.

Staying alive in such an isolated place means finding an interest, a goal, a purpose. “It’s when you’re alone in your cell that the demons come out of the wall,” one inmate tells me. “You can’t be alone all the time, or else it’ll kill you.” But how to find positive, life-affirming company in a place where so many are up to no good? During the darkest years of his 27-year incarceration, Nelson Mandela found respite in poetry and literature. He taught his fellow prisoners to read. Then he had the reading prisoners teach other non-literate prisoners how to read. He found reasons to live in education and literature. He spread these interests to other prisoners, doubtless nipping many suicides in the bud.

There are many ways to give sufferers hope. You the intervention counselor are in the best position to judge the means in the situation you are dealing with.

Book excerpts Quebec Suicide Prevention Handbook (2014), Éditions TNT

Suicide Prevention Hotlines:

Québec: 1-866-APPELLE (277-3553).  CLSCs can also help you.
Canada: Canada Suicide Prevention Service 833-456-4566
U.S.: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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