This mental health office is pretty nice for a government room. There are ferns and lush ivy, and they seemed to be thriving. There are maps and trinkets all over, as if someone real works here. As if they might have a real name and maybe a whole life outside of these four walls.
As if maybe there is still life outside this prison.
In my hand, I have five pebbles collected from the Yard, on the way from my cell to here. I shift them from one palm to another, counting.
The man behind the desk says nothing, for a while. I like him. He isn’t my therapist, or in charge of my mental health specifically, but I feel seen.
Of course, what he is seeing right now is my least favorite version of myself. I have a trail of small hives under my eye. My body is frail, and the anxiety is shaking it.
I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder as a child, so I have had a lifetime to learn the quirks of it. I know what I look like during an anxiety attack, during a panic attack, during a bad bout of anxious things. I know what I look like after.
This is after.
“The thing is,” I finally say, moving the pebbles, “I couldn’t breathe.”
“You weren’t breathing.” he corrects.
“You didn’t.” He holds his ground and for the first time since entering the office, I look at him directly. I want to argue, but somewhere under my nerves, my education claws to the front.
He’s not wrong. I could breathe. Anxiety has no power to suffocate.
But I wasn’t breathing then, I didn’t breathe earlier, when my body felt like nerves and I sat down in the small tiled shower room in my eight-woman-cell and curled up to die.
Being mentally ill in prison is unsafe. It fundamentally changes your institutionalized experience. This attack could cost me what little autonomy I still have. If I need drugs to manage this, I’ll be ineligible for programs that could send me home early. They’ll remove my access to the drugs every time I move prisons, and only reissue them if I am re-diagnosed. That means I’ll be going through deep withdrawals at least once in the coming year. I’ll be housed in environments where the varied mental illnesses around me could take my time, inmate slang for having an additional sentence to serve based on situations you find yourself in while incarcerated.
Still, I decide to be honest. I explain what happened, and look away. I watch the vines curl in the plant pots. I find Texas on the map. I count my pebbles, one, two, three, four, five.
“Listen,” he says, “I’d be worried about you if you weren’t having panic attacks. This is a very different world from what you know.”
Outside the window, the sun is shining and the sky is so blue it smothers. Two women with names tattooed all over their faces walk hand in hand. Someone is dancing on an electric pole and the overhead announcements are threatening to group punishment if it doesn’t end. There is a prayer circle made up of only white women, a prayer circle made up of only black women, and a group of latinx grandmas playing kickball. There are armed cops everywhere, and the ground is dead and dusted, but that innocent little vine in this office stretches toward freedom with all its might.
I wonder if I could survive here, too.
Two weeks later, my bunky steadfastly eats her bible, page by page. We are still in processing so she, like every other mentally-ill-and-usually-medicated woman here is off her drugs.
She takes the reddest of my pebbles, the one I always start with, and eats it, too.
“One”, she says, triumphantly.
“One,” I agree, tucking the other four away.
That night I cry myself to sleep, absolutely sure the red pebble is a foretelling. In my dream, my hands turn to vines, curl toward a prison yard, and die.
My second big panic attack hits on a different prison yard. I don’t know what line to stand in for medication. Sweat pours down my face, which looks admittedly suspicious on a cool December night. When the officers ask about it, I say I have a mental illness, but my street diagnosis is not in my file. They make me strip down so they can search for drugs.
“Listen,” says the lady officer as she pats me down, “It’s probably a good thing you’re worried all the time. It’ll keep you safe.”
Pebbles two, three, and four are shaken out of my pockets, but pebble five survives the stripping.
I carry it and my twice-blessed prison-anxiety with me for another year.
I roll it between my fingers as I wait at the gates for my mom to pick me up. It presses into my skin, leaving little indentations.
When it cuts my finger, I let it fall to the floor. “Five,” I say, a small goodbye prayer for a small piece of earth.
I am nauseous and nervous, but I know everyone will say it is normal.
“Six,” I say, looking at the prison. It is a small goodbye prayer for another small piece of earth.
My finger is bleeding. I want to die. I might be already dead. I want to be freed from the plant, cut from the steam. I am the ivy that does not reach toward sun. I am the ivy that curls into itself, breaks its own spine, eats its own dead leaves.
I am the fern that does not survive, the plant that dries into prison yard dust.
I am unsafe everywhere, and I don’t blink as my mom drives me into freedom.
In a Target, I can’t decide what line to stand in, and the tops of my hands bead with sweat. I can’t breathe, I mean, I don’t breathe, I mean, I won’t breathe, I mean.
I mean, a part of me never got off the shower floor. A part of me still lives in a prison cell where my face is pressed to wet tile, and my hands are vines that only know how to wither leaves.
I don’t know how to tell people that I lived in a place where everyone whispered demon– promised I’d be safe if I kept panicking. I don’t know how to say I wasn’t cared for properly. How I don’t know how to not be scared.
On my way out the door, I stop to collect five pebbles. I pick them carefully, staring down at the concrete, laughing at the little dandelion that has pushed its way through a crack and bloomed. The sun is bright. The sky is so blue you could put a tablespoon of it in your pocket.
“I want to die,” I tell the dandelion. I am a small piece of earth praying for a small goodbye.
I notice that her leaves are broken from her breakthrough. I notice that her roots are still trapped, that many of her petals have fallen. I notice that she is thriving despite that, and I wonder.
I wonder if I could survive, too.