My most important accomplishment was the most difficult and was one that had to be made before I could accomplish much of anything. Stating the problem simply: it was the need to change my state of mind–to get from “here” to “there.”
“Here” was where I found myself locked in a concrete box the size of a parking space and “there” was when I chose to overcome my daily mental state of feeling great unhappiness and hopelessness.
For most of my life I felt inferior. I felt inadequate. These feelings were caused primarily by low self-esteem, depression, sadness and sorrow. I felt like a failure for not finishing high school where I thought everyone learned everything. I was sure that after high school people had no problems. They knew how to talk and act and dress, and so on.
Because I had gotten into trouble as a child and was sent to reform school I thought troublemaker and menace to society were written all over me in scarlet letters. To make matters worse, I was Mexican and felt that people saw me as an inferior minority of a predominantly Caucasian community; where it was considered superior to be a Caucasian. Self-pity accompanied my feelings of inferiority.
It took me years to gain self-respect and to get rid of my deep feelings of inferiority. I felt society treated me as a second-class citizen and this rejection of me underlined my already strong feelings of inadequacy.
Just before my eighteenth birthday I found myself in a position where I had no place to live, I had no job, no way to live, and nothing to live for. I lived in constant psychological pain, only half realizing where I was at times due to any misuse of drugs and alcohol. That was how I lived for most of my teens and young adult years.
I believe we all have several major turning points in our lives–graduation from high school, college, getting married, having children, getting divorced, etc. These turning points may be changes in ourselves–the discovery of a new way of looking at things or of a new way to live or, like in my life, they may be brought on by some unusual circumstances outside ourselves. Often we don’t realize we have passed a turning point while we are living through it. We need the perspective of a backward glance in order to recognize it.
Ironically, my first major turning point came to me after experiencing months of extreme isolation in a maximum security cell. I was alone with no one but myself, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I saw no one but the prison guards who passed out food trays three times a day and a shower twice a week.
I was so depressed that I made no effort to wash up in the mornings nor to keep the concrete box I was locked in claan. I ate, defecated and slept in this small space for months. I had gotten into a routine: I’d eat breakfast, lay down and go back to sleep until the noon meal arrived; eat, lay back down until dinner, then eat and escape back into sleep again. Sometimes I went days without even turning on my tv. I was barely alive.
My life had become an agony of loneliness, depression, unhappiness, and hopelessness. Although more than anything else I wanted to kill myself, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Other prisoners in my immediate area were regularity attempting suicide. Finally, one day I realized that I couldn’t go on another day as I was. I either had to live or die, I couldn’t continue to just exist in misery. I thought about the steps I would have to take in order to start living again, and in sorting out all of my emotions, I realized that the ones which were most destructive were my depression and self-pity. I knew that within me dwelled an awesome power that I could harness through my thoughts and emotive states. The day the guy in the cell next to me attempted to hang himself I decided that I was going to overcome my depressive mental state by depending on my own powers and limited resources. My greatest accomplishment was finding the courage to throw off my self-pity and depression. I was determined to find a way to turn my unhappiness into happiness; my hopelessness into hopefulness. But how?
The first day I decided I was going to read a positive book and think of something pleasant instead of something negative, and I found I was feeling less miserable. I forced myself to concentrate all day on only positive thoughts.
The first night I felt so awkward. I was actually tired from reading all day and thinking of nothing but pleasant thoughts. I was determined not to go back into the darkness I had been existing in for so long. Gradually I began to get used to positive thinking and found that my days began getting better– I was becoming less miserable.
It had never occurred to me that I could feel happier when I thought about interesting and positive things than when I thought about painful things. I’m sure it must seem ridiculous to many people that that was such a remarkable revelation to me. It is something millions of people already know, and lots of books have been written on the subject of positive thinking. However, at the time it was a brand new idea to me. This would be my key to survival.
The next day I woke up thinking about negative thoughts again, but I didn’t want the misery that came along with it so I forced myself to search my mind for something positive to think about. I have always had an interest in studying law (I secretly promised my dad at his funeral that I would become a lawyer) so ordering legal books from the prison law library was my solution. I began thinking of different areas of law I could study and this filled up two days of positive thinking.
My legal thoughts were the only pleasant things I could think of to put in my mind, so for the next two or three weeks I forced myself to think about them and allowed nothing else to enter my mind. I planned to study so many different areas of law than I could possibly learn before I was released back into the general population.
I began realizing I was hurting less and less. I was still feeling bouts of depression and self-pity, but I didn’t get discouraged. I kept my mind firmly on my legal studies. I had made what was, I am sure, the most valuable discovery I shall ever make in my entire life. I had learned that we can choose our thoughts and by choosing our thoughts we can, to a large extent, control whether we are happy or unhappy.
I felt a sense of panic when my segregation time ended, though. What would I think about now? What would I do? The minute I was released back into the general population with all the other prisoners, I requested to be placed on law library call-out. After a few times of showing up, an old acquaintance came to my rescue. He suggested that I enroll in a legal correspondence course. I decided to take the hardest paralegal course available because I thought it would force me to do a lot of interesting and challenging reading which would occupy my mind.
To my amazement, I discovered I was able to comprehend the fundamentals of effective arguments to the principles, structures, and assumptions that underlie our complex legal system. My brain was now working overtime. It had never occurred to me that I could ever become a certified paralegal while in prison, but the law librarian assured me this was possible and encouraged me to take the legal courses I was contemplating, which I did. By the third month I was carrying a full-time course load. A year later I completed the curriculum and graduated with honors. I was now a certified paralegal and began encouraging and teaching others how to perfect their criminal appeals. Imagine me, the poor little Mexican boy, teaching American legal studies to other inmates. I think I am doing well, and I love this line of work. I am now contemplating beginning work towards an associates degree in criminal justice.
My almost primitive effort to keep myself sane by thinking happy thoughts instead of painful ones led to another real turning point in my life; it caused me to literally stumble into self-education, which is now leading me to have a career instead of a job.
My hope is that maybe someone will be feeling a little down and will read what I have written and say, well, look how bad things were for him and then see how much better they got.
I’ll close with this quote from Plato: “Our eyes can be turned toward the light as well as toward the dark… we all have eyes, though we do not know where to look.”
Written by: Rejujio Palacio (179695)