Why Chronic Illness is a Bit Like Being in Prison

Bear with me with this one… I haven’t been sleeping well at all recently which means lots of midnight Netflix and crocheting sessions for me. My documentary of choice at the moment is a series about inmates in different American prisons/jails (there’s a difference, I’ve learnt!) and their experiences of being incarcerated. Not very light hearted, but I actually find ‘people watching’ fascinating. Plus I spent most of my career working with pupils who were ‘at risk of offending/reoffending’, so it’s doubly interesting for me.

But some of the stuff inmates were saying in interviews didn’t just resonate with me in terms of thinking about my ex-pupils. Now, clearly I do not have lots of gang tattoos, or a gang for that matter, unless you count my crocheted animal menagerie, but I did find myself empathising with them because of the situation I find myself in- being chronically ill. Here’s how having a chronic illness is a little bit like being in prison…:

You have a long wait and a bunch of ‘hearings’.

Prisoners have to jump through the hoops of the justice system, and a lot of that time is spent waiting for a 10 minute hearing, to then spend more time waiting. Which is a lot like being on the waiting list of hospital tests and doctors’ appointments. I’m talking about when you’re home all day every day feeling awful from chronic illness, not managing to maintain most of your lifestyle but having an upset stomach or migraines sometimes. Your life is on hold until the next ‘bit’.

Then someone tells you your fate and you get sentenced.

After all this too-in and fro-ing, someone hopefully has the balls to turn around and tell you how long you’re going to be dealing with the illness for i.e. your sentence. It could be a few months, a few years or life. The one advantage of being a prisoner is that they usually can’t wait to tell you the verdict once they have one, whereas with chronic illness there’s a lot of beating around the bush and reading between the lines involved- doctors don’t like committing to things unless they’re 100% sure, which doesn’t happen often.

You might get ‘not guilty’ and get to walk free.

Yep, you’ve got a long term condition, it might be forever, but take your meds and you’ll be able to get on with your life, except maybe for a couple of periods of illness.

You could get probation.

Which means you’re not out of the woods. You’ve had a scare e,g a heart attack, but make some lifestyle choices, take some meds and reflect on how lucky you’ve been and you can eventually get back to your life before with some changes. Except your offence will be taken into account in any future cases e.g. if you have another heart attack, you will probably end up doing some jail time.

Jail Time

Jail is where you go where you’ve either not been fully charged or you’ve got a really short sentence not worth sending you to prison for (according to my documentary). You’re sick for a little while, you might have to go to hospital a lot and have some nasty treatments, but once you’re done you can say you’ve ‘beaten’ the illness. Sometimes illnesses come back (reoffend) and you have to do a similar thing again.

You might get a long sentence.

Of a few years or even life. Except it’s not ‘without parole’, so you’re secretly hoping that someone somewhere has made a massive mistake and will release you from prison and say you don’t actually have the illness or that it’s made some dramatic improvements. Or that medical science progresses and gives you a new treatment. It’s a long shot, but, just like the prisoners, you have to have something to feel hopeful about to get you out of bed. And, just like them, you make the most with what you’ve got and take each day as it comes.

Or you could get Life Without Parole.

One guy said ‘I’m never getting out of here, so what’s the point in trying? Why bother being good when it won’t make any difference to my sentence?’ I found myself agreeing (I hear you bro’, in my best gangster accent!). Some of us are stuck with our illnesses forever. They won’t get better. It’s bloody miserable thinking that ‘this could be it’. In my case, I doubt medical science will come up with anything while I’m still alive since the current treatment is archaic enough already it would take miracles to come up with something life altering. Plus no one cares because it’s rare. You have to watch the ‘free world from your window’, which is what another inmate was doing. He watched cars on the highway all day.

Death Penalty.

Obviously we don’t have this in the UK. But it was weird- a lot of the death row inmates said they hated being there, they had no quality of life, they spent 23 hours out of 24 in a cell by themselves with next to no possessions or human interaction, but they still wanted to avoid the death penalty and live like that for the rest of their lives. I have some human interaction, but I spend a lot of time by myself during the day, can’t go out myself and don’t have a lot of freedom because my illness limits me so much. It’s hard work every day, but I still want to avoid the ‘death penalty’ too.

You get a lot of visitors to start off with.

The inmates found that a lot of their families came less and less frequently the longer they were in prison for. They didn’t really know why, it just happened. It obviously puts a strain on the family outside of prison too. There are a few core individuals for each inmate who keep coming, but very few had regular visitors once they’d been there 5 years.

People take sides.

Inmates found that people either fell into the ‘we think you’re guilty/innocent’ camps. There was no in between. It kind of is the same with chronic illness, since a lot of people seem to think that chronic illness is something you inflict upon yourself, which it isn’t.

You suddenly start to appreciate little things.

One inmate got moved from max security to a slightly lower level. He’d been in isolation for 10 years and finally was able to have a roommate and access to the commissary. He loved drinking ice water because he hadn’t had that option in max security. I’m kind of the same with some things now. I like being able to make my own cup of tea because it’s one of the few things I can actually do for myself. And I like tea. I feel a sense of achievement from finishing something I crochet in a way I wouldn’t have done before.

You don’t have any choice but to keep getting up every day.

They get up to the same routine. I get up to the same routine. There’s no spontaneity. You feel trapped. You get communications from people out in the real world and wish you were there too. Thankfully, I don’t have a prison warden breathing down my neck. And I don’t have to sleep in a dorm.

Here’s the thing though. What I have learnt from this programme is the fact that you can actually just be in the wrong place at the wrong time. People make bad choices and end up in prison e.g. did you know that if a murder happens at the same time as you’re committing a crime, even if you had nothing to do with it, you end up being charged for that murder too? So one woman was robbing a shop to feed her kid and someone else came and shot the owner. He got away, she didn’t. She got charged for murder. You can equally have an accident which leaves you unable to walk because you decided to do cliff diving. And, let’s face it, everyone is kind of bending the ‘law’ to suit themselves, so it’s just a matter of time before you get caught e.g people smoke, drink alcohol or eat unhealthily but because they haven’t had to worry about the consequences of it yet, they don’t- everyone assumes it’ll happen to someone else.

But illness doesn’t happen to ‘someone else’. It happens to a lot of people, it just depends on the degree and the sentence. It’s great if your illness is short lived, like a year or two even (even if it is scary), but for those of us serving long sentences, it doesn’t get any easier every day just because we’ve been serving time for it longer. However, there are some inmates and some people with chronic illness who are determined to make the best of what they’ve got and find other ways of enjoying the freedoms they do have. Every little counts.

If I suddenly start expressing a need for gold teeth or trading food stuffs for favours with people then someone needs to at least try and bail me out. For now, I’ll keep getting up every day, watching the world via social media or my window and crocheting my gang members.

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