No. I didn’t string myself up by the fairy lights, fatally overdose on sprouts or choke to death on a chestnut. I made it through the festive season. Just. Though let me assure you that Christmas is not a holiday for any mother and that goes double for the prison wife.
When we arrive at Highpoint South on the 23rd I am astonished to see the visitor’s centre wall to wall with decorations: a far cry from last year’s desolate dearth of cheer. If I’m at the dentist or the supermarket I couldn’t give a toss whether or not they have bothered with the tinsel: I know I count in the free world, or my dollar does… but this display of festive cheer means a great deal to me here.
You see, when the visitor’s centre feels safe and warm and cheery, the children imagine that their dads are being similarly cared for. They aren’t of course, (although to the prison’s credit Unit 12 also had decorations this year and phone calls until 1am on NYE which was very sweet), but every word and demonstration of kindness to prison kids is magic balm on their fears: their fathers live in a universe they have never seen, with people they don’t know, for reasons they may not understand, so the friendlier we can make their interface with this unfamiliar world the better.
Prison children are twice as likely as their peers to experience mental health problems. They worry about their jailed parents more than you could ever know unless you have watched them do it and wondered again and again to yourself how our current policy of mass incarceration could ever make the UK (much less the world) a better place.
Tala and two other incredible children are the subject of a CBBC documentary for “My Life” called “Missing Dad” about having a father in prison. It screens at 5.30pm on Monday the 15th Jan. I still can’t watch it without crying with pride and sorrow…
Happiness is the greatest act of defiance a prison family can perform against a system specifically designed to prevent it. Jail is about punishment pure and simple: vengeance occasionally couched in the deceit of deterrent, and so, as a natural born rebel I set about trying to bring yuletide “happiness” to the household.
I buy things. The tree. The nosh. The presents. Then I fill the diary. People. Places. Stuff for the memory box. It works… sort of. The family remains vaguely upbeat, at least, we are busy enough not to slump.
Children want christmas to be like when they were small and still believed: brimming with magic, sparkles and copious chocolate, crowned by the impossible benevolence of Saint Nick.
My kids no longer believe in much however and no amount of material tat can wipe their memories clean again. Besides, it turns out that Christmas actually really is about being with the people you love. Without them it’s hard to rejoice.
New Years Eve was my best for decades but I greet Jan looking considerably worse than is fair cop for the amount I have drunk. I wake up with a burst blood vessel in one eye. Great. Hello freaky red eye lady. Ordinarily I wouldn’t leave the house looking or feeling this grim but Grandma must be redelivered back to the Midlands before she turns into a pumpkin or thinks she has.
Taking a person with dementia out of their environment isn’t wise. When you return them they tend to have forgotten simple things like where the bathroom is or how to use the phone (with which they now attempt to turn on the TV). Mildly funny… but mostly just sad and very very tiring.
By nightfall I have a migraine so profound that I’m puking repeatedly teenage style. By 2am I’m delirious and call Okha, the only person I am sure will be awake. I want her to search the net and check that my brain isn’t bleeding or exploding or something… the eye is really freaking me out! I know… I’m a drama queen and google is guaranteed to terrify us all, but nothing would surprise me about my life (or lack thereof) any more.
Google doesn’t disappoint of course and confirms imminent death so I call 111. The phone doc asks if there is another adult in the house. Tala is sobbing uncontrollably next to me terrified by the demise of her remaining parent, and grandma, previously a nurse, midwife and the most caring and competent woman I have ever known, can’t even find the light switch to her bedroom today and probably doesn’t count. “No… there’s just me” I say between retches… in a tiny village in the back of bloody beyond.
It’s just a headache of course, but then the doctor starts probing my mental state. Have I been experiencing feelings of hopelessness of late? Have I been persistently depressed? Well yeah…! Duh…! I consider putting it to the medic that she might feel hopeless and desperate if her husband was doing a nine stretch for film making, but decide to lay off the sas and cut the poor innocent lady some slack. The pain is taking its toll and rendering me almost docile plus she has just confirmed that I’ll live for which I am thankful when all is said and done.
In his book “Lost connections” Johann Hari, a depression sufferer himself for many years, explores the convenient medical myth that sadness is basically a serotonin deficit fixable by drugs. It isn’t unfortunately. Prosac might take the edge off for a few months but 65 – 80% of people taking anti – D’s are depressed again within the year. The only people who really benefit from medicating gloom are Big Pharma.
What Hari found was that just as every human has basic physical needs (food water shelter etc), we also have basic psychological needs. He writes:
“We need to feel we belong. We need to feel valued. We need to feel we are good at something. We need to feel we have a secure future and there is growing evidence that our culture isn’t meeting those needs”.
Oops. Depression is about environment, not broken brains.
The same is true of both offending and recovery therefrom. Humans malfunction in hopeless environments. Sadly prison (being the epitome of a pointless, thankless existence) threatens to make everything worse for us all.
Here is my antidote and my prayer: Thank you to the governors and staff who are working against Grayling’s murderous legacy and improving things under the radar. Thank you to those inmates who support and care for each other as best they can. Thank you to the families and friends who visit and give the incarcerated something to come out to. Thank you to whoever sent Rob a box of chocolates. He isn’t allowed to receive them and the prison have sent them back but it was a lovely thought. Thank you to everyone in the prison reform movement striving day after day to bring awareness and sense to this most senseless of worlds. Thank you to everyone out there who has a heart and a head and cares about people they might never have met, whose lives may be very different to their own. We all belong together. We’re a community. We can change this step by step, opinion by opinion. We matter and we have meaning. There is always hope.