Lost and found: Finding therapy behind bars

“What brings you here today?” the polite, cherub-faced counselor asked.

I paused for a second, looked to my left out the window, and said, “Somethin’s wrong with me.”

“What do you mean?” she calmly pressed.

“I can’t seem to feel anything. It’s like I’ve lost all emotion,” I said stoically.

I watched her carefully as she jotted something down in her little notepad. I tried reading it but couldn’t. “How the fuck did I end up here?” I thought as I glanced at the door. She caught me and said nothing, just scribbled more in her notepad. I was nervous. My thoughts raged with contradictions, like they had for the past week. 

“What’s wrong with me?” I screamed via my synapses.

In the 10-plus years I’ve been incarcerated, I’ve never voluntarily seen the inside of the mental health building. It wasn’t because I didn’t have reasons to. I just always seemed to fight my way through whatever mental hurdles I was dealing with at the time. There were a lot more of these hurdles than I was aware of at the time, due to my life being one big traumatic event. Hell, my earliest memory is of my father throwing a TV at my mother. I was 2.

Prison is nothing but a barely competent insane asylum. Everyone here—staff included—is mentally and emotionally unstable. How the “powers that be” don’t seem to understand that crime is as much of a mental health issue as dementia or schizophrenia is beyond me. But that’s a story for another day.

As I alluded to earlier, my mental health has been shaky since conception. It didn’t help that I was raised in a culture that viewed getting help for mental health issues as taboo. It was OK to get shot and go to the emergency room for physical treatment, but it wasn’t OK to seek any mental health care for getting shot—nor was it ever offered. Thankfully, I’ve never been shot, but trauma is trauma. Like so many others within Black culture, my trauma went untreated for years.

I’ve been dealing with depression my whole life and never even knew it. I can remember multiple instances before my incarceration when I experienced depression. Once, it got so severe that I cut myself off from everyone and hid at my father’s house. My lifelines were my brother, cousin, and best friend, who popped up out of nowhere and helped pull me out of depression with their brotherly love.

Even after that episode, I still wasn’t fully aware of what I experienced. I knew that I’d been depressed, but I had no clue what that really meant. To me, it just meant that I had sunk deeper into my feelings than normal. It wasn’t until I reached prison that depression took on a new meaning.

After arriving at my intake facility, I reached out to mental health services because I was showing signs of depression. They diagnosed me with “situational depression”—a cookie-cutter term used to politely tell guys in my situation: You’re in prison now, deal with it. All the diagnosis did was reaffirm my negative view of mental health treatment.

I waded through depression for close to four months. The days seemed to blend together into one monotonous, gray blur. I felt unmotivated, alone, fatigued, and worthless—the complete opposite of how I’d usually describe myself. Eventually, I was able to return to some semblance of my high-energy, forward-thinking, pre-prison self. If I’m to guess how, I’d say the more pressing matters of prison served as a distraction. That and my passion for writing, which also helped a bunch.

It was years before the murky fog of depression descended into my life again. I suffered a severe knee injury while playing basketball, and it left me feeling extremely vulnerable. I felt levels of loneliness and helplessness that I’d never experienced before. I also endured indescribable levels of pain, all while still in prison. At the time, I didn’t think it could get much worse.

I considered seeking professional help, but I couldn’t forget my initial introduction to prison’s mental health services. So, I decided against it. Instead, writing helped occupy my thoughts. Months later, it took getting into a fight and winning, all while awaiting surgery, to balance my internal scale. In a sense, I won two fights that day. 

However, that victory would not last. I eventually learned that it’s impossible to win against an unknown foe. I knew what depression was, but I didn’t understand it—a fact I had to face about four years later. I was abruptly forced to relocate to another facility four days after my early release petition was denied. I struggled to adapt to my new surroundings, and I faced trouble in paradise with my girlfriend. When it rains, it pours.

I considered myself familiar with how to handle depression and its symptoms, but the ensuing weeks showed me how naive I was. Like being stuck on a downward-moving escalator, my depression gradually worsened, and it negatively affected my relationship. My girl, whom I’d confided in from the start, was doing her best to help me. But she was also a trigger, and her help sometimes felt counterproductive.

I lost countless hours of sleep trying futilely to untangle the knots of my mind. Even worse, I struggled to tap into the one resource I had that could potentially help: writing. Most days, I felt like I was in the Sunken Place, watching myself suffer, completely immobilized and unable to do anything about it. To say the experience was debilitating would be an understatement. I spiraled to the point that I began to become all too familiar with the dreaded s-word.

During my previous bouts with depression, I dealt with mental and emotional side effects and faced only a couple of triggers at a time. Shit got real when the mental and emotional side effects reached an all-time high and the physical side effects entered the game. I completely lost my sex drive and almost all of my physical energy, a terrifying shock that only made the situation worse. I’m almost certain I also had a few mild heart attacks during this period.

The three words that changed the course of my life were, “I need help.” Within hours, I was sitting across from the counselor. She actively listened as I tried to articulate the nonsense in my head. She made me feel like it was safe to let my guard down a bit. Most importantly, she changed my outlook on seeking mental health care. Nevertheless, it still took a few weeks before the suffocating depression relaxed its hold on me.

I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. If I hadn’t been already, having the book “Depression for Dummies,” by Charles H. Elliott and Laura L. Smith, basically fall onto my lap sure made me one. Just days after seeking mental health services and while standing in line for copies in the library, the book caught my eye. Of all the placements in the library, it just so happened to be within my line of sight. It felt like some sort of divine intervention. Whatever the case, the book came at a perfect time.

I read “Depression for Dummies” cover-to-cover, taking notes along the way. The book helped me understand what I was experiencing and why I was experiencing it. Phrases like life lenses, pleasure busters, guilt, and rejection issues were all things I’d unknowingly dealt with my whole life. These issues may very well have played a part in why I ended up in prison.

I’m in a good headspace now. And yet, I’m fully aware that my work is far from over. I’ve dealt with a lot of trauma in my life that still needs to be properly addressed. Thanks to my girl, the mental health counselor, “Depression for Dummies,” and the cumulative strength built from my own experiences, I actually look forward to therapy and counseling. I strongly encourage everyone suffering in silence from mental illness to do the same—especially Black men and the larger Black community. We’re long overdue.

The Right to Write (R2W) project is an editorial initiative where Prism works with incarcerated writers to share their reporting and perspectives across our verticals and coverage areas. Learn more about R2W and how to pitch here.

Olethus is a writer/poet and a native of Cleveland, Ohio, serving a 19-year sentence. He's been writing essays for the past eight years and is currently seeking his freedom while teaching himself how to...