I know a thing or two about surviving and even thriving in the midst of extreme isolation. I did nearly 17 years in various prisons in Minnesota that ranged from super-maximum Oak Park Heights to minimum security Lino Lakes. Within those years I had to learn several critical skills that allowed me to not just survive the extreme isolation a prison can produce, but to thrive against the odds of it all. Following are 4 lessons I want to impart to the community in the wake of the artificial isolation COVID-19 has produced.
- Remember, that “This Too Shall Pass”
It is critical to recognize (and I mean really, consciously recognize) that the time of isolation you are experiencing right now will come to an end. Sometimes it is easy to find ourselves trapped in the now where we feel the weight of the moment. Hard or difficult times may seem so looming that they block out logical reasoning. We have all gone through rough spots in our lives, and we have gotten through those moments.
A familiar term often used in the military to signify clouded judgement and poor decision making during stressful moments brings light to what we all might be feeling right now. The “fog of war” defines moments when we simply can’t see clearly because of assumed tragedy or distress. If we take a moment to think logically, based on past events, we know the fog will clear. Clarity and situational awareness will return, that is logic. And in these times, to hell with logic, right?
In war, cannon and musket fire produced battlefield conditions which made it difficult for soldiers to see what was really happening around or ahead of them. I can only imagine the terror, fear, confusion, desperation, and anxiety that dominated their thinking. The military cautions its warriors against allowing themselves to be so caught up in the moment of difficulty that they lose sight of the overall goal, which is to win the war. Doing so underscores the importance of having a strategy. Strategies give us something to fall back on when the going gets tough.
In these uncertain days of COVID-19, it is critical to be strategic and to have a long view. Firmly recognize that no matter how tough or uncertain things may seem, this time will pass. The clouds will fade away. The sun will shine again. Reminding myself of the inevitable while I was in prison for 17-years was the only way I am able to pen these words today. I knew I had to speak life to my situation.
This virus will be contained. This too shall pass.
Make that a mantra central to your day-to-day living and know in your deepest fibers that tomorrow will come.
2. Mine Your Mind
Social isolation is a two-edged sword. We are by nature very social and communal beings. Most of us crave human interaction and we suffer mentally in the absence of human touch. This is a truth that makes social distancing particularly a difficult time for those of us who are extroverts.
I can relate deeply to the pain of isolation. I have had my fair share of (shall we say) ‘less than voluntary’ trips to solitary confinement. After a few years of this I began to develop my mind very intentionally and without allowing myself to be lost in distraction.
I was incarcerated at 15 years old. I had not yet completed junior high school. One of my greatest frustrations was my inability to understand many of the words people around me were using. I felt underdeveloped and mentally vulnerable. During one of my forced isolation stints, I made up my mind to expand my vocabulary. I grabbed the dictionary and wrote the definition of each new word I came across on the prison wall five times. Within a month the entire room was filled with newfound words like conflagration, loquacious, supercilious, rapport, rambunctious and hors d’oeuvres. The more I learned, the freer I felt. Even though I was in extreme isolation with little or no control over my physical body I used books as tools to learn more about myself. This self-education journey made me feel as though I was entering new astral planes. Books were my red bull. They gave me “wings.”
The notion of self-education being tied to self-liberation is not a new concept. In fact, the word “educate” comes from the Latin word educare, which means to “bring forth, or to pull out.” In other words, a person’s education should be used to help them become who they are. Books are tools used to “pull out” the true you. I used my time in extreme isolation to go on a self-discovery journey that has to date been some of the most meaningful time I have spent on this earth.
Use this time alone to expand your knowledge and to get to know yourself on an even deeper level.
3. Reveries to the Future
I once read that in order to go forward, we must know where we have been. When I was a kid I used to get so frustrated trying to solve mazes and puzzles. I zipped through the pathways and constantly ran into dead ends. After zigging and zagging this way or that way, I huffed and puffed in defeat and traced a path from the beginning of the maze to one of my first decision points. I chose left instead of right or the reverse leading up to the completion of the maze.
This was indicative of how I did my time in solitary confinement. I wrestled with the big question: How did I get here and how do I get out and stay out for good? Foxhole days and nights allow time for reflection and challenges some of our most deeply held beliefs.
After the quarantine was ordered, I began therapy and daily meditation. This of course, was a very vulnerable decision, and I know it will be for many of you as well. I decided to invite someone else into my mental space to help me explore and examine its content and think through what I need to work on. We all know blocks and barriers could potentially prevent us from becoming our greatest self. It is my hope that with the help of the Therapist, I am able to identify blind spots.
The types of individuals who complete solitary confinement are divided into two groups:
The first group consists of incarcerated people who are older and have been locked up for a while. This group is often very quiet, reflective, aloof and contemplative. They constantly read and rarely, if ever, talk to others. They could be found sitting alone with their thoughts and visibly toiling with themselves. They recognized that not only are they locked up, but they are also locked down in prison within a prison.
The second group could easily be classified as relentlessly restless. Their voices were constantly projected out of their cells either shouting, singing, talking, whispering, or mumbling. They made noise through the night and rested through the day. Rarely did this group have a moment for conscious and quiet introspection. In fact, the last thing in the world this group wanted to do was sit alone with thoughts of past hurts, wrongs, failures, victories, triumphs, love, hate, passions and promises. Silence for them is intolerable. Being alone with their demons is intolerable. They did everything and anything within their power to avoid the deafening silence.
Which group do you belong to? Are you willing to sit and toil with difficult thoughts? Do you need to reach out for support as you explore your inner world? Your inner recesses?
I am finding an amazing personal peace that I consider to be my next level of my personal development. This journey can only occur with a willingness to embrace solitude and discomfort. I feel discomfort when I practice my daily morning meditations. It’s all so new, and yet so invigorating.
4. Movin’ and Groovin’
It is very tempting to lounge during a time of quarantine and allow the days of solitude to go by without being proactive or forcing your body to be active. This is an easy, yet destructive trap that offers the illusion of comfort.
I know how easy it is to freeze in place during isolation. I was sentenced to thirty to ninety days each time I was sent to solitary confinement. We called it “the hole.” In the “hole” I cycled through the full range of negative emotions that scaled from grief to rage. Early in my incarceration, my mind typically settled on rage. I was overcome with anger, depression, longing, and regret. I literally laid on the bed for hours and stared at the ceiling. Ruminating. Reminiscing.
Sometimes I did a quick workout to break up the monotony, and I felt a little better about my lot in life.
The reality is that in those moments the last thing in the world I wanted to do was get off the bunk and do anything. I just wanted to ball myself up and forget that I was buried in a concrete grave.
The danger of giving in to the urge to isolate and shut down is that it only increases the physical and emotional pain in your body and mind. We all need to get up and move, or it will cause suffering mentally and physically.
Let me be blunt. If you are stuck in a rut at home in the age of COVID-19 then get up, get out and do something. Go for a walk and explore the beauty of nature. Go bird watch. Walk, jog or roll around the neighborhood. If you have a significant other, use this time to do things together to enhance your relationship. Do something.
These four lessons applied together will provide for a healthier and more productive quarantine for you and your loved ones. Life is all about perspective. We all have a choice of how we will assess and adjust during these uncertain times. For some, these are completely new and uncharted territories, but for others these are familiar practices. Some of us have experienced days of isolation and we know what that is like. Though we experienced tough times, many of us came out unscathed — -you can too. We can get through this together and come out on the other side stronger and wiser for the journey.
Elizer Darris is the Founder and Lead Consultant with Darris Consulting Group. He is a nationally recognized speaker and political activist in voting rights, ending mass incarceration, and governmental affairs. He also coordinates the Smart Justice Campaign for the ACLU of Minnesota. He can be reached at email@example.com.