“Homecoming” by Akili
October 20th, 2019 was a momentous day for me. After 25 years of living in hell I was released on parole. I can still vividly feel how soft and silky the new clothes I wore felt against my skin. How the air smelled outside the prison’s gates and guard tower, fresher and sweeter than inside the open yards of Centinela State Prison. I felt an overwhelming hope and joyous anticipation for all life had in store for me. To say I was giddy as a child on Christmas Day is an understatement. However, even as I exited the prison bus to the arms of my fiancé and the limo that awaited us I also felt an almost overwhelming anxiety and fear about the new world that lay before me.
Thanks to an amazing support system coming home was not plagued by the problems of finding a job and attempting to access public services to obtain the necessary documentation needed to live in the world, such as; a birth certificate, social security card, and driver’s license, most returning citizens experience. Immediately upon coming home I entered a training program which afforded me a great paying job. However, I found myself experiencing PICS symptoms such as helplessness which would manifest into hopelessness, an intense immobilizing fear, and flashbacks of the violence I had experienced in prison, with continuous nightmaresi leading to my inability to sleep. Each day I dealt with internal anger and rage which led me to isolating myself. All of which eventually lead to a short-lived relapse of substance use.
My first experience of Post Incarceration Syndrome, I remember occurred a day or two after my release. My fiancé and I were eating on the outdoor patio of a restaurant in San Diego CA. I felt my senses being overwhelmed by the intensity of the moment. Here we were in the fresh air, the ocean breeze washing over us and a menu with a plethora of foods. As I sat there looking at the menu, I began to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of choices. My hands began to sweat. My vision blurred. The movement of cars up and down the street even at their slow pace begin to make me feel afraid. I started feeling panicky. Another experience I recall occurred while using the public transportation system. Just entering the crowded bus was an ordeal. As I climbed the two or three stairs to meet the driver the sheer volume of noise sent my system into a visceral reaction. I could feel my breathing grow shallow and the beads of nervous sweat developing on my brow as I stood adjacent to the driver fumbling to use the bus ticket the parole office had given me. Things had changed so much, no longer did you use cash or show your pass. Now you swipe your ticket like a credit card, and I felt out of place. Walking to the back of the bus I began to feel claustrophobic and found myself reverting to a prison mentality where I began sizing up the men on the bus as potential threats and assessing whom would need to be dealt with first if something should kick off. Unaware that PICS existed I could not understand what these rattling chains inside of me meant. So, I began isolating myself in plain sight. Instead of catching the bus I elected to walk the 3 or 4 miles after class to meet my ride home.
Avoidance, however, as a tactic only offered temporary relief of the symptoms and lead to greater escapism as the issues worsened. Even though I secured a great paying job. I found dealing with the diverse opinions of coworkers and the authoritarian style of my supervisor lead to flashbacks of prison. Mentally exhausted and physically tired from work I found myself unable to sleep or sleeping far too much. Which lead to a deep depression. One of the biggest mistakes I made was holding all this inside. I feared being viewed as weak. Even more importantly I feared viewing myself as broken. I had survived prison by telling myself every day that I would never be counted amongst the broken men. Those that prison had destroyed. Now here I was in the world falling apart. My self-image was crumbling before me and there was nothing I could do about it. Soon thereafter, I made the fatal decision to get high. It started with a beer after work to calm my nerves. But for an ex-addict one is too many and a thousand is never enough. Which means this only lead to a greater need for intoxication. The higher I got the quieter the rattling chains seemed. Only that was not the truth, things were getting worse and I was blurring my defense mechanism. Soon I found myself engulfed in a full-fledged active addiction. Nothing mattered at that point except getting high. What was worse is the drugs only intensified my PICS. No longer could I passively aggressively function. Pretending things were fine on the surface while ragging internally. My rage was starting to surface. Each day I found myself closer and closer to committing acts of violence. The nice shiny image of post-prison success I had cultivated had crumbled like a sandcastle and I found myself faced with an ultimatum. Either enter treatment or die out here running from a ghost only I knew existed.
On December 8. 2020 with the love and support of my fiancé and family I entered Mariners Inn. During the 30-days inpatient treatment program at Mariners’ I attended many groups and was given insight into my addictions and the trauma that caused them. However, the most insightful group I attend was the New Life group facilitated by Mr. George Cain. In this group I learned about prison mentality and how trauma was at the root of the issues. Attending this group inspired me to research my condition and it was through this research that I learned about Post Incarceration syndrome (PICS). I started assisting Mr. Cain in facilitating this group and found my life’s purpose in working to inform others about PICS and working to change the prison system from one of further harm and trauma to one of healing and rehabilitation. Although I am not out of the woods yet, and the ghosts of the past still rattle those chains I am well on my way to a full recovery and look forward to the day that I can say I have silenced those chains.