I have been pondering a blog for a few days now, wondering whether I have enough content and if the things that have been on my mind are even worth talking about, the fact that I havn’t stopped thinking about it tells me I need to write about it to get it off my shoulders.
We had a lecture on Crime, Mental Health and Substance Abuse. I have been in prison, witnessed hardcore substance abuse for 16 years and also endured the absolute torture of living with, loving and supporting my mum with mental health issues, I think its fair to say that what I am about to write, doesn’t come from an inexperienced, naïve view point.
A single word was mentioned in lecture, this word hasn’t left the back on my mind since I heard it. ‘Unsettling’. In context, the word was used in a sentence while discussing anxiety and depression. The fear of something unsettling the routine of daily living. I am no mental health expert and I do not have personal experience of any mental health problems, believe it or not. What I do have is a concern, when I think about the word ‘unsettling’ and while I consider the context I have been able to apply this to a part of my life that has only been recognisable and apparent since my release from prison.
Prior to giving examples of time where I have been unsettled, I have to say, they are not things I am proud of and writing this and admitting it, is hard.
Firstly, ill talk briefly once again about prison life, for me. Actually, It may be worth a brief, pre-prison first, to understand the change. Prior to prison I had a routine and structure, in general. This being, working at set hours, living with my daughter in our own apartment, socialising at certain times, even down to simpler things such as getting up and going to sleep around the same time each day. Such things that happened during the day that were not planned but equally not scary, happened. Things like unsaved and unknown numbers calling my phone, bumping into people at the shop or around town, hearing of arguments or disagreements between friends and friends of friends etc…These things happened, they still do. I have no reaction or thought to these situations being anything other than part and parcel of life, prior to prison. When my phone rang with calls I wasn’t expecting, I answered. With no such thought as, what are they ringing me for, what have I done/missed? When someone knocked on my door, I answered with little hesitation. I opened my curtains in the morning, I agreed to go out and do things with little thought and my ability to make quick decisions were not deflated.
Then I went to prison, my house was a cell, my family became prisoners and my jobs were not chosen but forced upon me. Settling into prison was somewhat easy, a forced routine with nothing productive. 8am, roll call outside my cell door. Off to work, then lunch, then work, dinner, gym, 8pm roll call, bed. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Of course, things at times disrupted my routine but accepting I was in prison with no choice and no control, these unsettling phases were somewhat not unsettling, more like an inconvenience. In prison I had no decisions to make, maybe the living conditions were so unsettling I began to feel a sort of protection from a regime that ran from day to day, the same. I got used to seeing the same faces, I went to the gym with the same people, ate with the same people, slept and awoke with the same people.
There was a whole office in Drake Hall, full of staff sat at desks being paid to work in the office that was named ‘resettlement’. I can say from personal experience, they did no such thing. Maybe, they would be better renaming to ‘unsettlement’ and start preparing prison leavers for an unsettling life, at least they would then be doing exactly what they say on the tin. With no resettlement and no unsettlement, this is where I had a problem with the word ‘unsettling’. A regime and environment that doesn’t prepare you for release after forcing on you a period of your life where they are in command, is even unsettling to think about, but it is happening, and it happened to me.
I thought about 3 things, within 5 minutes of hearing the word ‘unsettling’. These situations, would have never had such an effect on me, had I not endured two years of decisions being made for me, not with me, about my own life.
1) Two years ago, around this time in December. I had worked from 8am until 8pm in a very busy retail shop, with less than a twenty-minute break. The shop was busy all day and by 8pm I was knackered. I needed to get home, make dinner, shower, sleep and be back to work for 8am the following morning. As I was walking from the shop to my car in freezing weather and almost pitch black, I noticed an old woman in front of me who had dropped her handbag, with the content of her bag and purse falling all over the ground. This lady was very old, frail and obviously freezing cold and not many people were around. I just walked straight passed her. I thought about stopping to help but because I didn’t anticipate this happening, I just panicked and walked off. After about 15/20 steps I looked around at her, kneeling to the ground and thought to myself, bloody hell Michaela, go and help her. I had an iphone with a torch, I was a lot more capable and able to be on the floor collecting this lady’s things. I turned around and walked back, as I got a few steps away from where the lady was, on the floor, she looked up at me, put her arm around her things on the floor as if to drag them all to her quickly and she looked terrified, shaking her head at me. That pissed me off. I was thinking, did she think I was going back to rob her? Does she know I was in prison? I know it shouldn’t of and I should have just said, ill help you collect your things. But, the look on her face after I had beaten my own battle in my head to go and help, was quite upsetting for me. Had this of happened before prison, I would have stopped to help, if the lady didn’t want help I would have left with no real irritation and I probably would have forgotten about the incident after two years. This one, stays with me.
2) Last year, I had dropped off my car for an MOT. I walked to my mum’s house over a railway crossing which lead to a field. Over the other side of the railway track, in my path on the way to my mums, was one of her neighbours who was on the floor after slipping and falling on some stones at the bottom of the crossing. I looked at her and saw her in pain with a swollen ankle but she didn’t see me before I saw her, so I looked at her, looked away and carried on walking. Nobody else was around and even as I was walking away I was screaming at myself in my head, ‘Go and fucking help her Michaela, she can’t bloody walk’. After walking for a minute or two, I turned around and walked back. I asked her is she was ok, helped her up and assisted in getting her home, she lived two bloody doors away from my mum. I still can’t believe I didn’t just stop straight away but this is how anything ‘unsettling’ to a planned routine now affects me.
3) In more recent times, I was at home pottering around the house after a visit from my mum. She had left and I was then home alone. After about twenty minutes I heard a knock on the front door. I ignored it, thinking my sisters were at work and my mum had just left. My curtains are closed indefinitely since my release from prison, so nobody could see in. I stood in the kitchen listening to the knocks. Finally, after a few minutes they went. About half an hour later, I realised my mum had left her phone, so I took it to her house and she told me she came back around and knew I was home but knew I wouldn’t answer the door if I didn’t know who it was, and she didn’t have her phone to call me as it was in my house and that is why she came back.
Now, I don’t know if little things like this affect people who have no mental health problems, who haven’t been to prison? I simply doubt it, I could be wrong. If we consider the amount of women who are in prison today, at least 45% of these women will have been assessed as suffering from anxiety. Personally, I don’t fear or feel anxious about situations that may present themselves, I simply lose my ability to act within seconds of seeing something that unsettles me. My quick decision making to act somewhat lacks in times when situations that present are unexpected. This I know, wasn’t a problem prior to prison.
Now I feel completely unsettled, knowing the resettlement office when I was in Drake Hall, wasn’t fit for purpose, knowing that I was settled prior to prison and now I live, not in fear but with an inability to make quick decisions in life’s unforeseen situations. I mean no harm by this and I know that what I am doing, when I do it, is not the right thing to do, that is why I have always gone back within minutes, however it is something that stays with me.
A system that creates, generates and thrives on the socially awkward, the system that disables you to make decisions, and the system that then sends you on your way, into a big unsettling world, I hate you sometimes, for the person you have made of me. In the moment when I walked away from a woman who was in pain and in need of help, I was too afraid to stop and help because you built a girl to survive in an environment that was hostile, harmful and to routine. You did that by instilling in me that my decisions were wrong, that I needed to think before I act and that wrong choices are so massively punishable. Do you even consider unforeseen events, such as a former prisoner seeing someone in need of help…..do you consider that prisoners, would actually stop and help someone in need, and if so, how is enforcing so many decisions on a person’s life considerate of a time, this person may need to make a quick decision to actually help someone. When you told me to think about my actions and to take time to make decisions, were you thinking about me walking passed an old woman in the dark who dropped her bag all across the floor, and needed help. How long would you have suggested I thought about how I should act? What programmes do you run for prisoners, to prepare them for life on the outside, apart from the course where you asked me had I even considered having sex with an animal, because I can honestly tell you now, that really didn’t help me at all in real life. What was the role of my probation officer in my transition from prison to returning home, apart from the threat of recall should I be late and miss an appointment, for the numerous times she did exactly that with no consequences. Are you taking away our minds, brains and abilities to act and live, in the hope that we return, to be another number on your treatment programmes that fail miserably?
To the system, in my own way to adapt and react to the environment you forced up on me, I fear that the damage you have done will be forever present. Habits learnt and thinking skills I needed to survive in prison, with no resettlement or help to reintegrate, have left me with a dysfunctional mindset which to the average person who hasn’t lived with that I have, doesn’t have.
Prison should have been the punishment, the resettlement office staff who are being paid, should have done their job and instead of giving me treatment with questions asking about sex with animals, when I was in prison for a single fight in a nightclub, as a teenager, you should have been more concerned with my release and preparing me, than you were for building me into a prisoner.