We all have bars

Posted: October 15, 2008 in prison, general
Tags: , , ,

It’s always amazing to me when someone points out a connection between two significant things in my life, which I never saw before. In this case, being a cancer survivor and working with prisoners.

Last week I was at my first retreat for cancer survivors. Not typically one for those sorts of group-hug, make-yourself-vulnerable sort of experiences I came close to cancelling my reservation a half-dozen times. If one of the coordinators hadn’t included one of my favorite poems at the bottom of one of her emails I probably would have cancelled. But, like a good writer, I took the poem as a sign and went.

It was during the opening circle (see it even sounds group-huggy!) one man said that he worked with prisoners and realized that those dealing with cancer and those living behind bars share some similiar experiences. The one he identified in the short time he spoke was that he found prisoners, like cancer patients, are capable of being brutally honest. Perhaps it is the realization by both groups that time, free time, is precious and so we don’t see the point in wasting it by talking about the same old, expected, comfortable b.s. We’ve got big questions to ask. Who am I? Who do I want to be? What’s the point of my life? We want to talk with others who aren’t afraid to ask those questions.

A cancer diagnosis thrusts a person right up against her mortality. Prison does the same. Perhaps that is why I find my time at Monroe so rich. I constantly find myself saying to others, “The guys are just so honest. I can’t find that on the outside.” 

As I thought about what the man in the group said over the past week I would add to his observations that both cancer and prison preclude ever going back to “normal” — whatever that was. Before the doctor gives you the diagnosis you are one person, afterward you are another. The men at Monroe will always be prisoners, even when they are released. You go to prison and the outside world will never be the same. What’s more, you will never be the same in it. You know something about life that so many others never will. You have survived something that many others will never even have to think about.

I think most cancer survivors can relate. I know more than once since my diagnosis I have felt like I was looking at the world from some place outside of the normal world. From my own box, with my own walls and bars. I felt handed a sentence. I felt the responsibility of it, as well as the resistence to it. And until you’ve been in there, you just can’t know what it’s like. You can’t imagine. I realized, being at this retreat, that it is important for me to connect with other cancer survivors. It’s like connecting with other writers. They speak my language, they get my humor, they share my fears, my anger, my questions and my joy.

Doing time, I suppose, isn’t only restricted to those guys up at Monroe. I wonder if it’s possible that my cancer diagnosis helped to do away with my fear of going to Monroe to do the work I’ve been wanting to do for so long. What do I have to fear? Really? My only real fear now is that I’ll waste what time I have, and I refuse to do that. So I go where there is real, honest conversation. I go where people have been to or at the edge.


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