By Christie Buchanan
I know people mean well when they spew forth trite expressions like: “God won´t give you more than you can handle,” and “Fake it till you make it.” But sometimes it´s just not the time for all that. Sometimes silent acknowledgement of misery is quite powerful. It can be comforting, steadying, especially for those folks who tend to be closed-off and shut in with their emotions. Like I am. I said recently that I don´t know where to turn from here. Things, bad things, have been piling up on me faster than I can process and I don´t know how to slow them down. Life is speeding by totally unaffected while I´m trying to figure out where to put my foot down again, and take the next step. O.K.
My grandmother died toward the end of March. She would´ve been 98 in June. “She´s not suffering now.” “She lived a long, full life.” “She´s with your grandfather again.”
That´s all good and well but . Owwww!! I hurt. How are frilly empty—albeit well-meant—phrases supposed to make me feel better? I can´t just forget about how sad I am, how much I miss her and how crappy I feel for being here instead of with her when she died. I can´t just put all that way deep down inside where it´s dark and cold and echoey, so it can fester and swell and eventually explode in a toxic rage on some poor undeserving person who just happens to be within firing range. No thanks.
That´s what I used to do—shove it all away and act like everything was rainbows and butterflies. The only emotion I ever let go of was anger and that was really just target practice. Weee! I never cried, I never felt, and I sure as hell never talked about anything deep and/or emotional. My first prison nickname was “Ice Queen.” Nice.
I didn´t want to be that way but basically had no coping skills or decision making skills…or skills. I just sort of floated through my life like I was away at a Girl´s School or something. I stayed up reading all night and slept all day. Eventually I was given a job (in the kitchen, of course) so I shifted into “work-mode.” I´d be in there 14 or 15 hours every day. It was an excellent distraction. I could be a robot. I slept through the remaining 7 or 8 hours of the day. But that can only go on for so long. Even the most stubborn, locked-down person will eventually spring a leak. The pressure builds up to the point that, like it or not, the seams bust.
I literally begun to come unglued. It was horrible for me because I had all these emotions and stuff beating the hell out of me but no earthly idea how to handle them. And it was horrible for the people around me because I just unloaded on everybody. It was intense and irrational and scary. Looking back, it feels like I left a swath of devastation and destruction a mile wide and ten years long behind me. It´s a miracle I actually have friends. I´ll get to that in a minute.
I managed, by the grace of God, to pull myself together. I finally hit a wall that slammed me down so hard I had no choice but to get my butt in gear and it took years. It´s still happening. I broke down and asked for help—first for my temper, and then slowly everything else. The D.O.C. slaps band-aids on stuff with what they call “Treatment Programs.” These are usually 8 to 12 week long expeditions into the myriad problems that led us all to commit our crimes. The counselors run the programs, which have informative hope inspiring names like “Breaking Barriers” and “Stop and Think” or “Anger Management.”
The problem is everyone is burned out and jaded. The system doesn´t work and we all know it, so while these so-called “treatment programs” look good on paper, in reality they are akin to hollowing out the Grand Canyon with a teaspoon. The counselors are under-paid and over-worked and just read straight from the book or show a video. The inmates sign up to get a certificate and satisfy certain prison requirements. But there´s no real substance to any of it. On occasion someone will really put forth the effort to learn and change. But the effort is solo and private. I was sort of like that. I wanted to get healthy—to find a peaceful place in my head and my heart where I could settle down and do something valuable with all this time I´ve got. I got out what I put in. But those groups were merely a jumping off point. Over the years I have endeavored to get involved in various groups and counseling because I can´t do it on my own. That was the biggest hurdle for me to get over—pride (or is it control?)—thinking I didn´t need anyone to help me. Now, years later, I am healthier than ever.
This became clear to me the night I found out my precious grandmother had died. I got a letter—it was horrible, but there was no other way to contact me. My roommate was at work and I had what passes for privacy and cried my face off.
First point of healthiness: I cried—really, really hard. I remember thinking at one point how awesome it was that I just cut loose like that.
After 15 minutes or so, I smeared my face back on and went to the phone. My sister answered on the second ring. She talked—I cried. It was awful. Dizzy came over after a bit and held my hand.
Second point of healthiness: I let her. When the call ended, I gulped air and managed to tell her what happened. Then I called back.
The housing units (wings) aren´t that large considering this is the only maximum security prison for women in the entire state. So, out of 65 women, there were only about 15 in the rec room. Everyone else was in for the night watching Black List or something. Dizzy managed to discreetly let someone else know what happened—never once letting go of my hand. I was slowly surrounded by my amazing friends, all concerned and saddened. My awareness of the events which occurred during that second phone call is sketchy at best. I was crying hard and trying to inhale all while intensely focusing on what my sister was telling me. However, some things do stand out to me like shiny tear drops caught in my eye lashes. The warmth of their hands on my shoulders and the comforting closeness of them…a hand reaching over my shoulder and collecting all of my snotty tissues. It was such a gentle, unexpected thing I had to inhale sharply, which filled my lungs with much needed oxygen, and looked up into Tracy Lynn´s sad and smiling face. She lost her grandmother too, and not that long ago. I knew she was feeling all that again as she empathized with me. Erin was kneeling beside me with her hand on my knee and tears on her face. She lost her daddy about a year ago and I could see every day of her grief in her eyes.
Third point of healthiness: awareness of someone other than myself. My friends were grieving with me but also over their own losses. Tracy Lynn moved around behind my chair and took my hair down and combed it with her fingers. Elizabeth brought me cold, damp paper towels. These women who I have lived with and worked with—survived with—were supporting me with love and care. I was so grateful to have them all with me.
As I hung up the phone, Sharon lifted me out of my chair and wrapped me in a hug. Then Elizabeth hugged me…then Debby, then Tracy Lynn. Then Erin and Lauren and Jenna. Then Dizzy, who never let go of my hand. Watch command called count and they (my friends, not watch command) asked me to come back out afterward to sit and talk or whatever.
Fourth point of healthiness: I said I could. There would be no denial of or shoving my emotions in this time. These women who I love were reaching out to me and by Jove I was reaching back. I was not going to pretend that I was O.K.
We sat together for a couple hours talking and even laughing. I told them what happened as told to me by my sister. I have always talked about my grandparents a lot, so they were fairly familiar with her. I cried some more, although not as hard. They shared their own grief with me and I was comforted by not only how easily we talked, but also by how completely they understood all the different emotions I was grappling with. It was an amazing experience for me, but I struggled to tell them how much I appreciated and needed them. We broke it up close to midnight. I was exhausted and wanted to sleep for several days. As we said goodnight I was showered with more hugs and Tylenol and offers of “…anything you need…” No one suggested I “fake it till I make it” or brought out how “long and full” her life had been. And although we discussed God and Heaven and our faith, no one pressured to tell me how much God would or would not give me to handle. I fell asleep that night still crying, still feeling from the horrible news, and yet somehow okay. Genuinely okay.
I once said we have a choice in here: survive or succumb. What I didn´t say was what that means. I see people succumb to this way of life all the time. Usually women brand new to the system do it pretty quickly. They just give in and adopt the behaviors they see around them. Perhaps it´s easier that way for them. Going with the flow is always easier. I was too pissed off at the world when I came into the system to succumb to it. Surviving, however, is a long, difficult process involving determination (stubbornness?) and a desire to get healthy (sheer willed), maybe with a bit of confidence (pride?) in there, too. If those things aren´t already present or don´t at least show up pretty soon after you´re sentenced, you will ultimately “yield to something overwhelming…” and succumb.
Cruelty is a living, breathing, “liquidy” thing that ebbs and flows with the current mood of the day in prison. Cruelty abounds and dictates which way you fall when you enter the razor-wired gates. I have found that surviving starts with how you respond to cruelty, because your first experiences in prison will be cruel. Indifference can be a powerful weapon against cruelty. And I managed to grab on—and hold on—with both hands. It helped me find ground solid enough to step out and begin to change…to survive.
Surviving is more than just getting by relatively unscathed every day; surviving is finding the room to stretch and figure out what went wrong (what led you to prison) and then making changes because you care about more than just canteen or getting over on the State…because you care about your relationships and your future. Surviving is not compromising so much that you lose yourself or conforming because it´s easier than putting up with the cruelty that comes after those who´re different. Surviving is leaving behind the person you were and becoming the person you want to be.
It has benefits, too, surviving does. I have met some incredible people over the years. People who want to live and not “just get by.” People who would probably be indifferent towards me if I´d caved-in way back when. They are my friends. I love them. Some have been with me a long time and were there when Doug was executed. Some have been with me a little more than a decade and were there when the turn downs started rolling in. And some are relatively new, but were there when I was told I only have the right to die in prison after doing a hell of a lot more time. All of them have gone through their own struggles and losses and I have tried to be there for them when needed. I have learned how to hold a hand and clean up snotty Kleenex. I´ve learned how to listen and be a steady presence in the middle of the chaos. I´ve learned this from them. I´ve learned that it´s part of surviving. So is letting them do those things for me—so is reaching out for the outstretched hand.
I grew up very close to my grandparents. I adored my grandmother and talked to her every Sunday of my incarceration. She was the last one to go. I´ve lost them all while I´ve been in prison. But this one hit the hardest. I think because I let it.
|Christi Buchanan 1003054|
Fluvanna Correctional Center
P.O. Box 1000
Troy, VA 22974