The sad death of Robin Williams highlights something we all tend to dance around and avoid because its such a taboo subject. I see a lot of my Facebook friends have these bouts, these moments of overwhelming hopelessness that crush our very will to live. What many of you don’t know about me is that I was what’s called ‘A Listener’ in prison for several years.
Prison Listener’s are a group of black T-shirt clad inmates who are trained by the Samaritans to listen. They don’t give advise. They don’t tell you to wise up. They don’t tell you they understand. They felt the same thing and go on to tell you about their own experience. However, they are all there because of their own experience of near death or something similar. I met a guy in Northern Ireland (and many of you from Lisburn and Dunmurry will know him) who became a Listener. As young people this guy was an out and out hood; never away from Rathgael Youth Detention Centre. Ironically we were in the same gang together as kids and I bumped into him on a prison wing thirty years on. When he joined the Listeners I was a bit dubious and sceptical as I knew his previous. As I sat in his cell swapping stories about the lunatic stuff we got up to as kids I asked him why he became a Listener. He told me with utmost sincerity about cutting down his cell mate in time to save his life. The screws gave him an extra tenner for his tuck shop. It had changed him forever and for the better.
Listeners are called out at any time morning noon or night to sit with guys who feel rough. They don’t have to be suicidal. It is one of the most draining yet rewarding things I have ever done in my life. There is nothing that shocks me any more. Heard heartbreaking stories of abuse and violence and much much more inflicted on young boys who are now problems to society. The thing about the Listeners, as the Samaritans, is that everything is confidential so I’m not in a position to repeat any of it.
However what I can share is a short encounter with another old friend when we got reacquainted. He told me of his addiction his depression and suicidal thoughts. This person told me how, he or she, had these thoughts every day. They had the rope in the car every day and had the tree picked out years ago. They told me the thought was there every day the only problem would be if you seen them heading down the tow path with rope in hand. This person was surprised and commented on the ease they felt when they shared with me. They hadn’t told anyone about this, in comfort, for years. I had my listener hat on and we actually laughed during our encounter. My friend left me with a spring in their step and we still talk and there has been no sign of anyone heading down the tow path with rope in hand.
Stephen Fry recently posted a great tweet about depression. This highly intelligent and funny man also suffers crushing bouts of depression. What he emphasises is not to try and understand it but to be there for the person no matter what. Don’t try and find a cure. Be receptive and wait for them to come out of it and Listen.
There are many horror stories out there and a lot of big guys think they are tough by belittling these feelings or shrugging them off as nonsense. I used to get abuse as a do-gooder in prison from some very vocal wankers. One particular guy received a comforting Mickey Irwin blow that left him sparko on his bunk. Ironically, i was sitting listening to him pour his heart out a few weeks later at three o’clock in the morning.
There are times when you sit and wonder ‘what what was that all about’ and you realise that you think you are in control of your mind and body but alas you are not.
Suicide and thoughts of it swept over me today like never before. I have read so much literature relating to this topic on prisoners by Shadd Maruna, Alison Liebling and Ben Crewe that I thought it might give me a heads up when the inevitable moments arrived.
Not the case – it swept through me, in me and around me. My heart was beating like a trip-hammer. My breathing via Sudashran Kriya and meditation helps but the worry and the fear and anxiety is impossible to suppress. Went for a walk and ended up at a family members house where a few others had also popped in. We talked and laughed and joked and it went, this feeling, as fast as a … Well, it went anyway.
This is an experience that nobody can tell you about unless you’ve felt it. This what many have felt before me and many will feel after me. Where on the re-integration brochure does it warn you of this? Where in the narrative of the rehabilitation blanket does it give you guidance? Why did I not phone someone who could tell me about this? Is it because I’m a man, is it because I’ve got pride or am I so used to not showing weakness that I forgot what it’s like to feel humanity.
I spent forty minutes in the company of nearest and dearest and it reminded me more of what I have to give up for a little bit longer, BUT, and it’s a big but, it also reminded me of what I have to look forward to. There are simple things in life like a child’s laughter or smart quip that makes you smile inside. This smile, for me, shines through and I hope that my experience of temporary darkness today, might, just might mind you, help some other poor soul who feels overwhelmed by the enormity of the re-integration process. Have documented nearly everything. Like the mad scientist who has to experience the bad side effects of his potion in order to heal the sick.
I’m happy I’ve experienced this as i now know how it feels and can tell others if they are inclined to listen.
Ahhh, the art of Listening.
It does not have a boss or controller this depression. This wave/tsunami swept over me again yesterday – on the bus on the way home from a Job Centre interview. Jumped off the bus two stops before I was meant to and got home and under the covers as fast as I could. I cried and screamed and shouted and slept for about two hours. It passed. The thing is – I know what it is – it’s a process, a frightening one yes but all the same it will pass. I’m lucky I know it, what about those who don’t? Think it was the questions at the Job Centre, they did nothing wrong by the way. For me, My hypothesis is that after six years where every question asked by a prison officer can end up with one getting in the shit one becomes mentally processed to be guarded – much more than guarded, some might call it fear or the bodies way of dealing with an abnormal situation. It’s about time somebody paid attention to this. One minute I’m sitting with a beautiful woman signing up for ‘Tango’ classes the next I’m wanting to throw the ropes up. I never will, but I know there are those who don’t understand what’s happening to them and they end up back there or underground.
Have a care folk. Take a breath. Take time and Listen to your friends. You never know they might ever so quietly might be suffering in silence and asking their friend to listen, not do, just listen.