Letters From the Eastside – Letter Ten

Dear Son, 

This message came for you the other day from Cousin Contagious. I am keeping a copy of this and I am placing this in the collection of letters which you have asked me to hold.
I hope this letter finds you at a good time and shows you that there’s more appreciation for you than you think. 

We all have tough times and, son, we all live through dark moments. I hope that you can see this now and I hope that you read between the lines here.

Love always,
Mother Directional

Dear Brother Bewildered,

It has taken me some time to come to grips with where I am in life. Then again, of course the shame of my past and who I’ve been or what I’ve done is enough to keep a person running from themselves. I know this because I have run away from who I am and how I’ve felt for as long as I can remember. I’ve been through hospitals and jails and treatment centers. If I’m being honest, I’ve been through it all.
Whether I was too short or too thin, too fat, or too out of place for whatever the reason may be, I never felt comfortable in the crowd. I never felt comfortable being alone either which is because I never felt comfortable being me. Since this was the case, if I saw myself this way, then everybody else would see the same things.

I never thought that I could be good or talented. I never thought that I could be anything other than me, a junkie with a rap sheet. So what did I do? I proved people right about me.
I fit into an image to hide the cracks in my story. I pretended not to care. But the truth is I really did care. I just couldn’t fit. So, I acted as if. I walked around the neighborhood acting and lying and living as someone else for as long as I can remember. 

I never knew what it meant to truly love a person. Of course I love my family. Of course I love my brother or your Cousin Courageous. Everybody loves him!
I love my Mother and Father, your Auntie Believer and Uncle Achiever. Everybody loves them too! But I’ve been locked in a spell of “What about me?” for such a long time that I’ve become lost on an endless journey that in fairness, none of this is ever endless. When it does end, none of this ends very well.
I love everyone in our family. I love them all and each of them for different reasons.
But this is not about them nor is this about me or you. No, this is about the truth behind who I am and why I’ve been this way for so long. This is an explanation as to why we find ourselves on the same path or locked in the same habitual loops of destructive living.

First, I want to thank you for your letters. This is a lonely place. Then again, prisons are not built to be comfortable or accommodating.
I am alone in my thoughts and with no one to really share my feelings, I think it would be safer if I place them here and send them off to you.

Secondly, I would like to respond to your offer to be a means of support. You were right when you said that things are different for us. You are born as you are and I am born as I am – or, “I am as God made me,” says one of my counselors. 

There are no two exact matches in this world. We all come from our own experiences and we all have our own unique interpretations. We all have our own version of incentives and we all have our own intuitions. We might be similar.
We might understand each other and we might relate to one another. But no two people are exactly the same. So, I appreciate your approach. I appreciate the fact that at least you understand and that you’re not trying to preach or judge or tell me what to do. That’s helpful and at the same time, I admit this is a little intimidating because there is no bullshit in you. This means if I spoke to you I would have to face the tones of my truth. That’s what’s so intimidating. It’s not you or your love. No, it’s me and my fears.

Here I am, writing to you from a table where we eat our three meals. I sleep in a bunk in a room with about 35 other men who, like me, are here because they’ve struggled with substance abuse and alcoholism.
I have a chance here to make something of myself. I suppose the biggest problem is not how to live a good life. The question is not why or how to stay clean. Everyone tells us what to do and how to do it. Everyone knows the steps – and I don’t just mean the 12-steps or the 12-step programs.
We all know what to do but, somehow, there seems to be a problem with the application process. We get disconnected when something happens and our minds automatically go back to old default settings. We go back to the thing that worked in the past. Even if it never really worked out too well, our minds were trained to go back to the same reward system to ease the pain or calm the stress.

I have to say that our habits know us better than we know ourselves. The Chaplain tells us the devil knows us better than we know ourselves. That’s why it’s been so easy for the devil to win. He’s a nice person but I don’t think he understands much about mental health. He keeps telling me the bible can save me. But that’s not for me . . .
They’ve been teaching us that a habit is something the body can do without the mind’s input. I’m not sure whether I agree with this or not because the body is nothing without the mind’s input. I mean, we have knee-jerk reactions and reflexes, but all systems are wired to the brain which is what I’ve been focusing on. I’ve been wired to think and believe a certain way for a very long time which makes it hard for me to change. By the way, they keep telling me that I have to want it. My answer to them is how can you expect us to want something if we don’t believe it will work. To tell the truth, I want to drink. Right now, in fact. I want to get high. I want to flush it all away. But why? Sanity would tell me that doing this is what led me to where I am. but then if this is the case then why do I still want to do the same things?
This is what I am learning about!

It seems more to me that people are a series of trained ideas and behaviors. The more we grow, the more we adapt to a world with habits and formations of beliefs that help us survive. The conversions of life, so-to-speak, and these ideas of rehabilitation are strange to me. 

Telling a person, “Hey, you know all of those things you do which you believe help you get through the day – even if it ruins your life in the end?”
Yeah, well just say goodbye to that shit. Say goodbye to your belief system Say goodbye to the things you’ve known for so long and say goodbye to the substance that helped you settle the nerves. Or, say goodbye to the drink that lets you put the world on snooze. Or say goodbye to the pins and needles which you shoved in your arm to create a mental separation – to ease the pressure or to slip in some kind of quasi-cocoon, to feel warm and comfortable. Yeah, say goodbye to everything you knew about.
Say goodbye to the rituals and the routines that made sense to you.  Say goodbye to your understanding about the rules of transaction and the interaction between you and the rest of the world; because now, as of this very moment – you are never going to do any of those things again.

People say this without realizing how intimidating the changes really are.
I get that there’s a piece of everyone who wished they could be different. If you ask a serial killer if they wished they were different – they would tell you “YES!”
If you asked an alcoholic, do you wish you could quit? They would say the same thing – and if you asked a junkie what do you think they would say?
(Perhaps I should say a so-called junkie . . . they’re teaching us not to say things like that. They’re saying that we shouldn’t use names like drunks or addicts in here because they say this holds on to stigmas – but little do they know, stigmas aren’t going away, at least not any time soon. They have their stigmas and we have ours – but let me not digress and get back to the point.)
If you ask someone who is stricken with depression or riddled with anxiety or any of the countless disorders that are out there, what do you think they would say if you asked if they wanted to be different?
Of course, they’d say yes.

Even if we want to quit – or like it is in here; this is a prison and guess how many of the people are here more than once – nearly everyone in here with me has been incarcerated at least one time before. Most of them are repeats or even “three-peats” as we call them.
By the way, jail is another addiction. Yes, it’s true. As crazy as this sounds, jail becomes habitual. It comes to a point where people find themselves in the same loop – and once more unto the breach dear friends (I think you taught me this from Shakespeare) or we can say it’s back in the saddle again.
To be honest, some of the people I’m in here with are talking about their rap sheet as if their criminal record is a badge of honor; as if this somehow glorifies who they are or where they come from.
And even them, if you asked them honestly, “Do you wish you were different?” most of them would say yes. But the idea of them being anyone but who they are is too unbelievable.
Each time they try to change or each time they take a shot at rebuilding their life, something always happens to destroy their hopes. So, they go back to the life they believe they’re destined to live. 

It’s a belief process. Whether we change our beliefs through religion or come to an understanding through a self-help program – we have to find a way to replace our thirst or solve the quest for rewards and comfort.
Otherwise, if we can’t sleep or if we can’t calm down – or if we can’t believe that there’s a way to live our life and level the playing field so the world doesn’t seem so goddamn unfair; and if we can’t find a way to be safe, or protected, to be happy, or to be comfortable in our own skin – or if we live in doubt and if we live in the constant belief of shame and that, at best, this is all we’ll ever be – then so be it. This is all we’ll ever be.
This is when we find ourselves back to the old comfortable discomforts. This is when we go back to the only ideas that make sense to us.

See, what no one talks about is the weight of our emotional strain. I know what a paper cut feels like. I know how this feels and I know how this stings. I know what it’s like to break a bone. I know you do too because I was there when you broke your ankle after you jumped down a hill – and then you tried to walk home, which was the worst idea ever.
I know how much an ache hurts or if I have a bruise. I understand why there’s pain because I have physical evidence of the pain. But emotional pain and emotional discomfort does not come with a physical representation – it only registers in the brain. We can’t see it. We can only feel it. I can’t look in the mirror and see the wounds. But I know they’re there. Bleeding out, unstoppably. . .

Or better yet, if I lift up a weight of 10lbs, I know what this weight feels like. But weight in the heart can be heavy and sometimes infinite. There’s no boundary or physical description, just weight.

I can’t put a band aid on this. I can take a pill though, right? Because a pill makes it all better, right?
Some drugs are good and some drugs are bad. Right?
I get that. So does every other person on the street or in the bar. We all understand this. But still, there’s that infinite weight; there’s that need to feel better – or to feel something or nothing or anything at all. There’s a need to make sense of our life but, Brother, sometimes we never seem to realize that there is no rhyme or reason. Sometimes life just doesn’t make sense. Sometimes things just don’t work out but we always need to know why. We always want to find accountability. We dissect every thought and every feeling. We question everything.

Are we good enough? Are we worthy?
Is something wrong with us?
There’s a man who comes in here on Sunday mornings. He says things like this. He teaches us about ourselves and invites us to question our assumptions about how we think and or what we choose to believe.

We have to wake up early for him on Sundays, which no one wants to do, But then again, most of us here in the North Wing appreciate him. We look forward to this as much as we can look forward to anything in prison. 

We are all a system of science. I know this now. I think this helps me click into a better understanding. I think that by understanding more about my science; then the more I can change my pathology and help create a new life for myself. I understand this now. But I have to believe this. Otherwise, none of the lessons I learn will stick. 
Unless I learn how to apply this, I’ll end up back in the saddle again and go back to my old settings.
I have to change my actions to change my thinking. I have to switch my shame and find my faith. Otherwise, I’ll find myself back in the symptoms of doubt – and then I’ll never get out of here. 

By the way, they took a body away yesterday. He was a young kid too. Third time in prison. He decided to kill himself. I guess what the Chaplain said was true. For some people, the only way out is jails, institutions, or death. Neither of the three are attractive and none of the three keep people from going back to the drugs or their drink. 

One of the ex-governors came in and gave his speech about us “Addicts” and how he wants to help. He asked us what he could do to “coerce” or “compel” people to straighten up. Of course, everyone wanted to answer with a bright shiny answer and put their best foot forward. But me, I chose to answer him honestly. I told him that no one is taking a drink out of someone’s mouth or a needle from the arm or a pill from the jar unless that person wants them to. 

But, give someone something to hope for. Give them a reason to change their belief system. Give them something to see.
We are all “what’s in it for me” kind of people. So, I told them, let people see what’s in it for them. Let them feel the proof. Otherwise, as soon as a moment of doubt comes or as soon as another disappointment comes along to shake hands with our shame – we’ll be right back out where we were before we came in here. 

That’s an honest answer. I told them you’ll have to change a person’s belief system before you can change their habits. 

It’s like a devout Catholic – try convincing them that there’s no God. Or try to convince an atheist that there is a God – and see where this gets you.

Try to give belief to someone who wants to die all the time and sees no point in life. If you can do that, then you can save their life. It’s all about us. This is all about the way we believe in ourselves – or the ways we don’t.

My favorite cousin – you, Brother Bewildered, I think you fit in this category as well. You are one of the few people who I believe in yet you never believed in yourself.

Do you remember that time when they scraped me off of the bathroom floor because I wanted to end it all – you were there for me. You never forced what you thought or told me what to do. You didn’t push. You just listened. Or better yet, you didn’t listen to solve my problems or come up with an answer – you listened to understand and let me come to my own conclusions. For the time being, that was life saving. 

Please do not quit what you are doing. I know that you don’t have much faith in a lot of things. And neither do I, for the most part. But I do have faith in you.
I know who you are. I know the good and the bad of what you’ve done. But there are things about you that no one else can do in this world. We need more of you. Not less.

I just wanted you to know that.

Love always,

Cousin Contagious

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