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From Surviving to Living
From Surviving to Living
(05) A PADDED ROOM: Pursuit of The Good Life
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Suicide watch in Shakopee takes place in the facility’s segregation unit. While inmates are most often taken to seg for disciplinary reasons, suicide watch and health concerns are other reasons why segregation is also used for administrative detention.

It was October, 2011. Seven months had slid by since my arrival at prison. Entering prison I sensed my life had hit rock bottom. No. No, no, no, no. Up to this point I had simply been given some painful life lessons, a new place to live, and an ugly new set of clothes in a laundry bag. Rock bottom doesn’t come so easily.

How do you define rock bottom? Has there come a time in your life or the life of a loved one when you’ve felt a need to “redefine” it?

In the months since my orientation I had become dizzy with the constant emotional pain from within and without. My sense of security eroded, and I found myself with competing feelings of disbelief about my circumstances and crushing agitation over the reality of my situation. My stress became so acute I began wetting my bed at night.

In October my husband left Minnesota with our 4 youngest children and moved to Washington state. My parents had given me a few days warning of his plans, and I’d done whatever I could think of to prevent it. During those days I felt sheer terror and was panicked that this might actually happen.

My sense of security eroded, and I found myself with competing feelings of disbelief about my circumstances and crushing agitation over the reality of my situation. My stress became so acute I began wetting my bed at night.

In the months leading up to my sentencing and incarceration, my husband’s mental health had deteriorated to an alarming degree. He became suicidal and threatening, dangerous to himself and others. His current employer let him go, and he could not pass an employer mandated drug test in order to obtain a new job.

I felt forced to request an Order for Protection for the safety of myself and our children. It was granted, and I was given custody of our children. My husband was only allowed supervised visits. Upon my incarceration I passed custody on to my parents. I felt good knowing my children were safe with my parents.

One Thursday night in October 2011 I called my parents’ home and my newest nightmare began. “Your husband has told us he plans to move to Washington state with the kids,” my dad informed me. He continued, “He said he intends to pick them up here on Monday and drive there with them.”

‘He’s been here already, saying horrible things. He’s threatened to kill us, shoot us right where we stand. Says he’d kill you if he could.’

“What?!” I shouted, taken completely off-guard. “You can’t let him do that! You have to call the police if he shows up!” I cried. Trembling started in my stomach and began working its way out towards my arms and legs. Tensing, I tried to stop the shaking I knew was coming. “Dad! Don’t let him take them!” I pleaded. Now I was shivering from head to toe, teeth chattering like I was in a blizzard without a coat.

“I’m not sure what we can do to stop him,” my dad answered. “He’s been here already, saying horrible things. He’s threatened to kill us, shoot us right where we stand. Says he’d kill you if he could.”

Maybe I should call the police myself? Slamming open the kitchen cupboards I grabbed for the phone books, wondering, ‘Would the police even accept a phone call from prison?’

With a growing sense of horror I hung up the phone and fled to the dayroom. Surely other women here might have some advice? My mind was racing with ideas but none of them were usable. Ugh! I felt so helpless and useless!

My husband was already on probation for previously violating this same restraining order. Maybe I should call the police myself? Slamming open the kitchen cupboards I grabbed for the phone books. Throwing them on a nearby table I traced my shaking fingers over the pages, wondering, ‘Would the police even accept a phone call from prison?’

Jotting the numbers I needed on scrap paper I charged back down the hallway to a phone and attacked the keypad. The police station did indeed accept my phone call and the officer who accepted my call was very considerate and helpful. I explained my reason for calling and my concerns. She recommended I give this number to my parents. Feeling a little better I waited for Monday to come.

Monday the nightmare birthed reality. “He took the kids,” my dad told me over the phone. “We called the police, but they were busy and didn’t arrive until 40 minutes after he was gone. I’m sorry.”

Stricken, I called my husband’s phone immediately. I struggled to dial, the numbers, the keypad, all jumbled – my fingers turning numb. My husband accepted the call, but simply passed his phone to one of our children. “Hi Mom!” Tommy answered excitedly, breathlessly. “We’re on our way to Washington!” Adventure sang in his voice. I could hear wind blowing through the open windows of their vehicle, cars passing as he struggled to be heard over the noise. Someone called for Timmy to roll up his window in the background.

I called back and back and back, desperate to turn that car around, to stop this nightmare. I pleaded, begged, became a pathetic mess. Finally in utter desperation, I threw out, ‘I’m going to kill myself then.’

My stomach lurched; I thought I might throw-up. I cast around in my mind for what to say but came up empty. My hesitation must have said something all by itself. Tommy’s enthusiasm changed to a more calming, reasoning tone. “Dad asked us if we wanted to go. It’s not like we can’t come back if we don’t like it. It’ll be fine, Mom,” he soothed.

I sucked in a sob. Tommy passed the phone to Lukas. I don’t even remember what I said next. 15 minutes came and went, and I called back and back and back, desperate to turn that car around, to stop this nightmare. I’m sure I pleaded, begged, became a pathetic mess.

Finally in utter desperation, with an act of immature manipulation I threw out, “I’m going to kill myself then.” I dropped the phone, dead inside, and went to my room.

My choices had led to my increasing awareness that I knew much less than I thought, I wasn’t in charge, I did not call the shots, and my last ditch efforts to save the ship were pathetic at best.

I was on a train, a speeding bullet, a horror show that was gaining speed and getting uglier by the minute. I was used to the illusion of feeling I was in control. I had always enjoyed micromanaging, being bossy, being a know-it-all (that’s so attractive isn’t it?), being in charge and calling the shots.

Well I certainly wasn’t very good at it. Look where it had gotten me! My choices had led to my increasing awareness that I knew much less than I thought, I wasn’t in charge, I did not call the shots, and my last ditch efforts to save the ship were pathetic at best.

Some time later, maybe 15 minutes, maybe hours later, a guard knocked on my cell door. I opened it and she asked if I would come with her. In flip flop sandals I slumped after her out of Tubman and across the courtyard to the Core building. Passing the OCO desk I dully noticed Ashley waiting for medical. We continued on deeper into the building and I was shown into offices I’d never seen before. I was ushered into a deep cushioned seat and told to wait.

A few minutes later another guard entered and took a chair. Several other guards arrived and remained standing. I would later learn the seated guard was the Watch Commander. With a look of concern he said, “Your husband called us. He says you are threatening to kill yourself. Is that true?” I turned a flat stare in his direction. I felt nothing. I was wilted, suffocated, past caring. A small table stretched between us. My eyes dropped to the candy dish, colorful wrappers capturing my attention.

“Take her to seg. I don’t know what else to do with her.”

“I want to help you,” the man continued. “Have you taken any pills? Did you do anything to hurt yourself?” I raised my eyes to his face again, then studied my hands in my lap. Nothing mattered. My face felt numb, breathing seemed a wasted effort. I sighed. We all waited. Finally, looking up at the guards in the doorway, the Watch Commander echoed my sigh and with a shrug he quietly said, “Take her to seg. I don’t know what else to do with her.”

Suddenly hands were gripping my arms, lifting me from the chair. Metal handcuffs were clicked into place behind my back. Cold metal pressed against my wrists as each guard clutched a bicep and directed me out of the room and down the long walk to seg. Again we passed medical, Ashley’s face dropping open in shock as I whisked by her with my escort.

I felt mentally fractured. From Wikipedia: “Acute stress disorder (ASD, also known as acute stress reaction, psychological shock, mental shock, or simply shock) is a psychological response to a terrifying, traumatic, or surprising experience….The DSM-IV specifies that Acute Stress Disorder must be accompanied by the presence of dissociative symptoms, which largely differentiates it from PTSD. Dissociative symptoms include a sense of numbing or detachment from emotional reactions, a sense of physical detachment – such as seeing oneself from another perspective, decreased awareness of one’s surroundings, the perception that one’s environment is unreal or dreamlike.” This describes my next several days. So does the word “broken.”

I was asked to dress in a “pickle suit.” The pickle suit is sometimes called a banana suit. It’s a green or yellow … gown…made of thickly quilted material that is shapeless and formless. Its purpose is to keep the wearer from being naked while removing any opportunities for self-harm. I was not allowed to wear anything else.

The room’s furniture was just like a jail cell, with everything bolted to the floor including a toilet. I was not allowed to have toilet paper or anything else (I could request a few squares of toilet paper at a time, when needed). No books were allowed, not a thing. The room had a camera and I was watched day and night. I was not permitted underwear, which was unfortunate, as I had my period. I had to bleed on myself, the pickle suit, and the room. That’s just how it was.

As I stared at the wall or ceiling it seemed I was staring out through a broken lens, as if the entire world had cracked and gone wrong – jagged seams and cracks splitting down the middle and ruining my understanding of everything.

The days passed in a fog for me. Time had no meaning. Everything was meaningless. I felt I understood nothing. I was in a daze. Sometimes a nurse would appear at the door with meds. I was told to come to the door. I would stand there stupidly, uncomprehending. I was passed a cup, and would stand there, unaware I was holding a cup. I was told to put water in the cup, and I would just nod, not making the connection, that I needed a cup and water for meds.

At times I slept, at other times I tried to think about my life. I came to no conclusions about anything. I knew nothing for certain. As I stared at the wall or ceiling it even seemed I was staring out through a broken lens, as if the entire world had cracked and gone wrong – jagged seams and cracks splitting down the middle and ruining my understanding of everything. I wondered, ‘Was everything I had ever known been …wrong?’ I was shaken to my core. I no longer trusted myself, I no longer unquestioningly trusted nor believed I knew my parents, I no longer understood the world and how to move in it.

I eventually came to myself. I wanted to know how my children were doing, how my family was doing, and in short, I wanted out of seg.

I want to pause here for a moment. It’s important to stop and realize that even when we come to the end of ourselves we don’t find God as a result of discovering we are not Him or cannot do His job ourselves. This episode caused me to recognize my need more fully, but I still had yet to meet the Master. I had heard lots about Him (from second-rate had sources), and believed that was good enough!

Luke 6:46 “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?…49 But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.”

I put in the request and thought I’d be returning to my regular room and job shortly. That did not happen. Instead to my surprise, the prison accused me of selling drugs (my own anti-depressants) and I was disciplined with an additional 14 days in seg, albeit this time in regular seg clothing.

Well, I was certainly getting the full tour.

Well, I was certainly getting the full tour. I had not been selling my pills, but I also hadn’t been taking them exactly as prescribed, which is against the rules. Prior to incarceration, I had been prescribed a very high dose of the anti-depressant Effexor, higher than the FDC recommended. The prison doctor chose to prescribe a lower dose, within the FDC guidelines, for obvious reasons I guess.

I was not feeling well on this lower dose. Considering all my recent stressors, I’d decided to take matters into my own hands. In the 3 days leading up to my seg visit I’d increased my dose one pill each day (so I was short 3 pills). This is a rule violation.

Released from seg two weeks later, the prison doctor agreed to raise my dosage.

This did not solve my problems. There were more challenges to come. I was still hurtling towards rock bottom.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Holly describes reaching what she feels is rock bottom upon entering prison. How do you personally define “rock bottom,” and have you or someone you know experienced a moment that felt like hitting rock bottom? How did it influence your or their life? Are you experiencing this challenge today? Do you need help?
  2. The passage highlights Holly’s escalating emotional pain, including her bedwetting as a response to stress. In what ways do people manifest stress physically, emotionally, or behaviorally? How do you cope with stress, and what coping mechanisms have you observed in others?
  3. Holly recounts the challenging situation involving her husband’s mental health, custody issues, and the threat of her children being moved to another state. Can you empathize with the complex emotions and decisions she faced during this difficult time? How do external factors impact an individual’s mental and emotional well-being?
  4. The passage explores Holly’s feelings of helplessness when her husband takes their children to another state, despite her efforts to prevent it. Have you ever felt powerless in a situation, and how did you cope with or overcome that sense of helplessness? Are you struggling with these issues today? Are you looking for support?
  5. Holly admits to contemplating a desperate statement about self-harm during a phone call with her husband. How do you interpret her emotional state at that moment? Have you ever felt similarly desperate?
  6. Holly reflects on her perceived loss of control and how her choices had led to a realization that she knew less than she thought. Have you ever experienced a situation that challenged your sense of control or understanding? Where did you turn for help?
  7. The passage describes Holly’s experience in segregation (seg) after expressing thoughts of self-harm. How do you view the prison’s response to her statement, and what are your thoughts on the use of segregation as a disciplinary measure?
  8. Holly undergoes a period of acute stress disorder, feeling mentally fractured and detached from her surroundings. Have you or someone you know ever experienced symptoms of acute stress disorder, and how did it affect your or their daily life? Are you affected by this situation today? Do you need help?
  9. Holly touches on questioning everything she had ever known and feeling a loss of trust in herself and her understanding of the world. Can you relate to moments of profound self-doubt or a reevaluation of your beliefs? How do individuals rebuild trust in themselves and the world after such experiences? Are you unsure where to turn in your own situation?

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