Into the Lives of Others
“What’s it to you?” the captain asked Trina after she pleaded with him to help get her friend out of seg. Guards had boxed her pal during Chicken Sunday’s lunch for alleged flagrant disobedience – she refused to switch tables when ordered to do so. Trina had already appealed to the lieutenant who steered the entire procession to seg who told her:
“Look, I was nice. I let her finish her chicken before they took her.”
Now Trina was getting no further with the captain because her friend’s problem, as the captain plainly pointed out, was just that: the friend’s problem. Not hers. And Trina needed to focus on her own problems.
I agreed with the captain. I’d been devising a plan to pass five envelopes to Patty who forgot to buy them to send out the Christmas cards she made illegally on the library computer. Patty’s problem was hardly a calamity and it was hardly my problem yet I still felt some need to help Patty solve hers.
The only thing separating compassion from codependence in a prison is blurred lines. But I’m a good girl so I can’t see the lines at all. When the other inmates looking for envelopes or shampoo or some other boost find me, I let them bug me until I give in.
Analyzing how much or whether I should do favors or lend assistance to the other inmates takes up too much of my time. I never know how much assistance will set off alarms that sound “ENABLING!” and how little assistance makes me heartless. I thought – and was taught – that if you’re able to do something to help another, then you should do it because even a minor contribution can make a major difference.
My thinking descended from from a very identifiable, tangible source: a lithograph that my parents and my aunt Nancy had commissioned around the time my youngest sister was born. Brown and orange, the print had a very primitive feeling with large eyes and angular faces in contrast to the Greco-Roman inspired décor in my parents’s salt-box colonial home. Inscribed within was verse from Edwin Markham:
There is a destiny that makes us brothers
None goes his way alone
All that we send into the lives of others
Comes back into our own
After reading Markham’s words every day for decades I developed a personal viewpoint that everyone should be helped at all times. In hindsight, I admit that it was probably the return on sending out, that prospect of inclusion, a destiny of connectedness that shaped my thinking more than the duty to send out.
But my sending out got lopsided. Sending out put me in. In trouble, in prison, in toxic relationships. It put me in the Disciplinary Office here for helping someone try to reduce her sentence. It has, at times, cost me my health, money, time, friends, respect, self-esteem and lists of opportunities. Trying to help someone, taking on their problems, is an addiction to me. I depend – pathologically – on the idea that if I don’t do what’s necessary to aid someone when presented with the opportunity, then my failure to help will cause irreparable damage. In my mind, I can prevent the wreckage pending in someone else’s life with just slight effort – five envelopes, only five – and make all the difference in their lives. This But-If-I-Don’t delusion’s traced my thoughts so many times that it’s practically left grooves in my brain.
I don’t remember my first fix but the shackles were fixed on my mental slavery after my parents’ accident in Ireland, while they were vacationing. Broken neck for mom, crushed pelvis for dad. When we finally delivered them back to the states (Ireland is third-world, medically speaking) neither one wanted to remain in the hospital even though they both needed surgery and more time to convalesce. So they signed themselves out against medical advice to heal at home. With me to care for them, of course. With his broken pelvis, my father slept on the couch each night, falling off to the white blare of CNN.
Because he had to twist his body to sleep comfortably, he usually fell asleep with one arm extended from the couch, clutching the remote control. And when he finally nodded off, he would drop the remote and the silver and black plastic would clatter and make a noise bigger than the fall. Sometimes the plastic tinkle of the battery cover’s landing would follow the crack. I could hear it from upstairs.
Each of the twenty-five times it would fall each night – for months – I would wake in my childhood bed and go downstairs to check on him. I convinced myself that the one time I heard the channel changer fall to the floor but didn’t pad down the stairs would be the one time that the remote fell, not because my father’s grip grew slack, but because he suffered a life-threatening heart attack, stroke or other CNN-induced cardiac event and, if I didn’t do my groggy stumble downstairs, whatever ailment struck him would kill my father because I wouldn’t be there to snatch him from death’s clutches.
So I trudged down, collected the parts and put them together before I handed the remote right back to him after I confirmed that I wouldn’t have to answer the dispatch operator’s question: What’s your emergency?
I had to make that call years later, when he actually did have a stroke. And then, too, my father discharged early from the hospital against his doctor’s advice. To accommodate him, my mother remodeled the house for handicapped access and rented a hospital bed for my father’s home office, the one whose beige fabric-covered walls still held the Edwin Markham lithograph that screwed up my head so much that I saw nothing wrong with slavish service, even to people who weren’t making sensible choices. My father would remain in the hospital bed until midnight when he had to move – had to, had to move – to the couch to watch CNN and drop the remote as he fell asleep.
I was even more frightened that if I failed to respond to every splintering plastic sound every twenty minutes, my father really would die because he had suffered the stroke I subconsciously expected of him for years.
As I helped him dress to go out to lunch with a friend one morning – he had a social life, not me – he asked me not to come downstairs so much during the night. It was disrupting his sleep.
I can file that under “Your Sleep?” or “Ungrateful Son of a Bitch” but where it belongs is under “Boomerang” – the excessive concern and codependence you send into the lives of others can bounce right back at you and fail to help anyone and even harm yourself.
After I loaded him into the car I stormed back inside, grabbed the remote and over grass made tensile from frost, treaded to the edge of my parents’ yard and hurled the remote so hard into our neighbors’ yard that I almost lost my balance. I put some good spin on it because the battery end was weighted; it twirled through the air, into an among branches, logs and chicken wire. I don’t know what the remote landed on because, as far as I can tell, that was the only time that fucking thing ever landed silently.
I sent it out of my life when what I really should have tossed was my neurotic obligation to do every little thing that might, in some imagined scenario, make a life-or-death difference. That obsession was the only thing that the prison let me keep when I got here.
In here, I run and slide into obligations and then I bristle when the job chafes too much. I should say no to inmates who want help with paperwork, like a woman here who tried to kill her husband three times. Sentenced to fifteen years – five years for each attempt on his life – she wants to reduce her sentence and she wants me to help her do it. I should say no upfront, that her sentence is fair and she has no chance of modifying it. Just like it’s not my duty to help her, it’s also not my job to educate her on her reality, nor is it my place to steal her hope. That hope might be all that propels her from one day to the next. It may be insane, but it’s not illegal, infectious or impolite so it can harm only her and no one else. I have no role to play in it.
But I’ll do what I always do which is send into her life a nice written motion that I convince myself is just a running start for her handling (accepting?) her own problems. But it will only create another need for help. And I’lll help again because I’ll figure that, if I’m in for a penny, I’m in for a pound even if it will make me broke and broken, tossing remote controls over property lines. I find myself in this position repeatedly because I think this motion, that envelope or that bounced television accessory will make some type of crucial difference in someone else’s life. It’s a really arrogant thought when you understand it because the only person who can send help into someone’s life is herself. Once people realize that, they usually can handle things themselves, like my father did.
“No.” It wasn’t a lie. I hadn’t seen it since I lobbed it outside.
“I just had it here last night,” he said as he peered around the sofa.
“Dunno. I didn’t see it.”
He called the cable company and some little shit in a Cablevision van delivered him a new one to let fall every night. I didn’t get up for every drop, but I did get up for many even though I know my father is still alive and he doesn’t need me to continue to be. Addictions are hard to tame.
I doubt that it’s entirely fair for me to say that no one can make a difference. People have sent things into my life that have helped me and a majority of those people work in this prison. Sending something good into others’ lives is creating the conditions under which others can make a difference to and for themselves. If I’m concentrating on someone else’s problem when that remote sails back into my life, I won’t know when to duck.
THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM FEBRUARY 29 – MARCH 6, 2016
Thursday, March 3rd marked the 25th anniversary of the beating of Rodney King, the event that sparked the Los Angeles riots and sent anti-police sentiment into the lives of jurors who eventually acquitted O.J. Simpson of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman approximately four years later. The next day, March 4th, it was revealed that a knife that had been excavated from Simpson’s property and given to an off-duty L.A.P.D. cop who took the knife home with him for the next 15+ years. With a police department this clueless, is it any wonder that O.J. walked?
The CPAC (Conservative Political Action Committee) conference was held this past weekend in National Harbor, Maryland, despite the fact that Trump refused to attend. One attendee, Milwaukee County, Wisconsin Sheriff David Clarke says justice reform is based on three lies. Watch the video and note the part at 1:45 where he shoos away any countervailing evidence with the “lies, damned lies and statistics” line. And then wrongly attributes it to Benjamin Franklin when Mark Twain said it. Apparently, there are lies, damned lies, statistics… and stuff that comes out of this guy’s mouth.
A report from the Pew Center for the States issued on March 1st details the where’s and why’s of correctional officer shortages. The reason for the shortages? Prison populations are growing and aren’t expected to stop, contrary to reports that we’re decarcerating.