790 Days - Part Nine - What kept me going

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Isabelle S.

There is a nearly miraculous power behind decisions. I’ve heard somewhere that, on average, a human being makes about 35,000 decisions in a day - this counting every infinitesimally small, almost unconscious choice we might make, between choosing to reach for another piece of toast, or choosing how we feel about how our significant other responds to us.

Decisions are powerful.

And I really learned of their power behind bars. Prison is a place, almost the trademark place, where one might think of a person as deprived of choice. And that’s pretty accurate, in one very evident light. In another, the most crucial decisions in my life have been made in this space, where I was most physically restricted.

I think most of us are familiar with the idea of traumatic life events (potentially) leading to spiritual realizations, or major life shifts. Unfortunately, they can also come with depression, uncertainty, ostracization, loss of property, relationships, and personal identity, and many other effects besides.

What separates one person from another in a place like prison very quickly comes down to one thing: the power of decision. Those who are considered successful within its walls come to this place by hard work, that much is evident. It isn’t easy to live every day when you’re in prison, for anyone, I think. No matter how much you get used to it, there remains a part of you acutely aware of all the things you’re missing: your niece’s graduation and your daughter’s first birthday; the cool feel of roughened bark under your hand; the smell of coffee in the morning, when you’re lounging around the table with nothing yet to do. You really know what you don’t have, when you don’t have it. Cliché, but true.

And the power of decision is what kept me going. I realized, if I wanted to move forward, the only part of my life I could develop any grasp of was my own relationship to what was happening around me. I had to learn to separate myself from the consequences, and keep going. I had to decide to be happy, because what I didn’t have wasn’t going to come to me anytime soon.

So, I decided to notice the small stuff. The trees I was privileged to see from the window four bunks down and two bunks north of me became some of my best friends in the two years I spent in Coffee Creek. (As a side note, I was housed in the minimum-security facility. Within the medium facility, in its halls and its cells, there are no windows.) I would look to those trees when I needed support, or reassurance, and it meant the world to me to know there was something I could count on just being there.

Life is funny in this way; you never know where it’s going to take you. But you can be certain of how you choose to handle it - that much, I believe, is firmly within your grasp.

The writer underwent two years at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Oregon, convicted for charges directly related to an active drug addiction.