Thursday, July 3, 2014

Problems on the Outside

The Frustration of Being Inside When There's Trouble on the Outside

Two weeks ago I received terrible news. A close family member was in the hospital with a serious infection. Last week my family went through a big, very difficult adjustment - a huge move from one country, one continent, to another. This week - so far so good, all quiet on the prison front. But next week - who knows? Life is full of little surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant.

And where was I throughout all of this? You already know the answer to that rhetorical question: sitting here, twiddling my thumbs and pulling my hair, wishing I could help. When trouble strikes on the outside this can be a very difficult place to be.

I'm not the only one. I have a friend here on the inside who just broke up with his significant other on the outside. Another friend is estranged from his ex-wife and hasn't seen his children in 3 years. Yet another recently suffered the death of a sibling. A neighbor of mine in the barracks was telling me yesterday of a mother with cancer. Walk around the barracks at 3 a.m. and you will find many sleepless faces: most of them are up nights worrying about something or someone on the outside that they're powerless to fix or help.

I suppose it's no surprise. Life goes on, whether we inmates are a direct part of that life or not. Gather up 300 guys together and you're bound to find the full gamut of human experiences - traumas, joys, heartbreak, heartache - in their relationships on the outside. Many of these experiences would be hard whether or not we were "here" and our loved ones were "there". But something about the "here" of it all makes them so much harder. 

One reason, I think, is that we men like to solve problems - at least that's what I learned from reading Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. In any event, I certainly do. But from here I feel stymied, cut off. Calling, organizing, rallying, comforting: all these "ings" are much, much harder from behind bars. Case in point: my wife asked me to arrange for a family member to babysit our kids. A simple request, right? But it turns out the family member wasn't approved for my prison e-mail or telephone. Writing a letter would take weeks of back and forth. So I was forced to go a slow circuitous route through other family members.

But that's really a minor example. The true difficulty comes when loved ones are sick or sad or lonely. Telephone and e-mail are great but they sure don't beat a hug or a kiss or a kind word whispered in the ear. With children the difference is particularly great, the urge to reach out and comfort and caress instead of mumbling exhortations into the phone is overwhelming. When your child is sad or hurt or crying you want to kiss his knee and brush his tears away. It's as simple as that. 

A big problem is that, as prisoners, we already feel to a large extent as if we're derelict in our duties: not there because of our own mistakes to raise our children, support our families. When trouble strikes those anxieties, those feelings of guilt, of failure, are compounded. We want - no, need - to be there to help, to fix, to console. So that leaves us prisoners pacing, frustrated, unable to be there for those we love in the way we wish we could. In the way we would have otherwise been had we not screwed up so badly that we ended up here.

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