Life In Isolation

Jason Holland has served twenty-five years on his life sentence. He is committed to his own rehabilitation, the rehabilitation of his peers and leaving the prison system better than he found it.

I know isolation. I know change and uncertainty. What it means to have your world toppled upside down. To feel so hopeless and out of control, and to feel like it would never end. There was a four-year period of my life where the only physical contact I received from another human being was the feel of a correctional officer placing handcuffs around my wrists. That only happened whenever I left my cell to go anywhere else.

I’ve learned quite a bit about doing time in isolation. Learned how to cope in both good and bad ways. In my case, I was (and still am), a prisoner. I brought my isolation upon myself. Right now there are many people in the outside world struggling to cope with isolation, through no fault of their own.

Look at COVID. Look how quickly something so small brought the titans to a halt. We’ll get everything up and moving again in time, sooner or later. While we’re waiting for the world to get back to some semblance of life as we know it, I figured I’d share a little of what I’ve seen work for me and others when really pressed by the stress of isolation.

A friend recently wrote to me and asked me for pointers and how to deal with it. Here are my suggestions.

Develop a routine and stick to it

In prison, we all develop a routine of some sort to occupy our time. Especially in isolation, there were certain consistencies amongst us. Things the majority of us did daily. Cleaning our immediate areas, exercising, listening to music, some type of studies, corresponding with loved ones, hobbies, leisure reading or TV time. Most of us kept schedules where we did all these activities at some point throughout our day.

Even if you don’t want to exercise, do it this is huge for the mind and body connection. At the very least, dance around to a song. My brother and I were cellmates at one point and there was a period of time when he would dance with headphones every morning to put himself into a good mood. People walking by the cell would get a big smile, because the dancing was so out of character for “Mr. Cool“. Their smiles would encourage him further. It was painful to watch. My pain would also encourage him further. Just a few minutes of dancing (and my pain) really worked for him.

Find a way of keeping perspective and bringing your self to center

Remember, the good news is, this will pass. In the interim, a few minutes really thinking about (and feeling!) your blessings can help. If you know how to shift your focus to what you’re truly grateful for, you stand a better chance of putting yourself into a resourceful mindstate. Recognize when fear is driving and shift gears. A simple belly breathing exercise, counting each in-breath, and out-breath for 4 seconds can be enough to slow your process. The key here is applying it.

Figure out what you actually have control over. Surrender the rest

One upside to crisis is that you get to learn where you have control (and where you don’t). Your control lies in how you respond to a situation but not much else. It’s worth taking the extra moment to decide upon the right response to your circumstances. Surrender the rest. At least, if you can come at things from the proper perspective, with a thought out response as opposed to a knee-jerk reaction, you give yourself a better chance for a good outcome. I knew a guy who had been housed in an isolated environment for 40 years, yes 4-0, and he told me they were only three things he had to do every day. Work out, wash his towel, and write his wife. He kept it simple and kept to the things he could actually control. Granted, he did other things like study and whatnot, but these were his happy extras.

Find a way to help someone else—be of good service. Get out of your own self-obsession

A really good way to make yourself miserable is to have the “me, me, me“ syndrome. An effective way to shift out of that is do something nice for a friend, or even a stranger. Help him or her solve a problem. Offer encouragement. I used to get a lot of happiness out of doing artwork for family and friends, knowing how much they appreciate a gift like that. My buddies and I used to make homemade birthday cards for the guys around us. That way, even if they didn’t have family, they knew someone cared for them. Kindness can go along way. You may be a life preserver for someone else. You never know. Simple enough, right?

My friend who wrote asking for this device told me she had quit smoking 30 years ago and has never really had cravings. She said that since the lockdown she really wanted to smoke. She said she had, “what the hell?” moments and asked what I thought about these moments. I’ve had plenty of “what the hell?” moments and made some pretty bad decisions attempting to cope in poor ways. The mind will come up with all kinds of zany and destructive ideas in an attempt to alleviate discomfort. This is why it’s so important to have a plan in place for how to refocus and redirect our energy. This is where the conditioning of a proper routine and the above practices come into place. And, this is where we impose our will, so that the plan works. There are plenty of tools and advice to be found online. 

I can’t tell anyone else what exactly they should or shouldn’t do. I can only offer suggestions. Hopefully, these suggestions are of some benefit during the crisis and beyond.

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