The specter of depression accompanied me in my prison experience from the very beginning. It was always there, just over my shoulder, at the edge of my consciousness, a black hole of despair and darkness. There were times in the county jail, awaiting trial and then sentencing, when I just wanted to lie down and die. The moment I received a 30-year no-parole sentence, my knees buckled. My lawyer had to hold me up. It was surreal. I could hear the prosecution celebrating, just as they’d done when the jury returned a guilty verdict on all counts. I experienced my life ending right there on the spot. The reality of losing my son, my family, and my entire life as I knew it hit me with a pain and devastation I’d never known. My mind was spinning. I could barely focus on my surroundings. The only thought I could hold on to was Don’t let the bastards see you cry.
I had witnessed the U.S. Marshals making fun of prisoners’ reactions to their sentencing while sitting in the holding cell at the courthouse during breaks in my trial. I had promised myself I wouldn’t give them the pleasure of seeing me break down.
Somehow I violently studied down the pain at that moment. Later that night, alone in my cell when I desperately wanted to cry, I couldn’t. They put me in an isolation cell in an otherwise empty wing of a county jail with a camera on me. I assumed I was under suicide watch. It was a long, dark, mostly sleepless night, sitting at the edge of an abyss. At the darkest moment, something rose up in me, and I made a decision to live and to survive. The darkness remained with me, though, always inviting me—as if the possibility of giving up would be an escape from my pain.
In prison, there’s an edge of depression that you deal with all the time, especially when you have a long sentence. The time felt endless. Sometimes I felt I’d been in prison for so long I couldn’t see the end. There was no light at the end of the tunnel, and I didn’t know if I would get out of there alive. In our hospice program, I worked with men all the time who were my age and younger, who came down with cancer and never got out—dying alone in prison. I also thought about the violence. If you kept your head down, you could avoid most of it, but you just never knew.
Ultimately my years in prison became a powerfully transformative and deeply liberating experience for me. But inside, the feelings of pain, loss, and hopelessness still arose frequently. Most of the time I managed not to dwell on the fact of my time, the years, months, and days I had left; or it would have driven me nuts. Sometimes it was just unavoidable, though, and I would find myself staring my sentence of 25 years straight in the face (reduced from 30 upon appeal some three years into my prison journey), with nothing to take away the pain. I’d see and feel the reality of never going home. I’d think of my son growing up without his dad. It would bring me to the most acute edge of pain, beyond what I imagined I could bear. I’d find myself at the point of screaming, or beating my head on the concrete wall of my cell, or just collapsing into a black hole of despair and darkness.
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