What do you fill your days in isolation?
Time is a weird concept. When you have an established routine of work, family, leisure, sporting and social commitments, 24 hours a day often do not seem enough. However, those same 24 hours can feel like the toughest to get through when your world is turned upside down. Due to the current Covid-19 health crisis resulting in loss of employment, services and business ceasing that many engaged with, sporting activities cancelled and leisure services gone, the daily routine of many has been lost.
“Keep your head down and do your time.” This was the advice of my lawyer as I was taken to prison. I didn’t understand what ‘do your time’ meant. I thought about it and also thought about the questions my psychologist asked me at every visit. Did you get your exercise in this week? Did you go out singing? Have you started reading any good books this week?
I could not change my situation. Acceptance gave me the ability to focus on what I had to do to cope being locked up 23 hours a day. If I did not accept, mental torment would’ve not allowed me to do so. Negative thoughts tried to creep in daily and if I didn’t set a plan quickly, these would’ve filled my mind and then unhealthy behaviours would follow causing a cycle of beating myself up.
If I was in my usual environment, how would I be spending my time? What do I have available to do these or similar activities? What activities support my mental health? How do I engage in these activities in this new environment? My list included:
- Reading a good book
- Solving mathematical problems – my son gained permission to send in a 3-unit maths textbook!
- Crosswords, Find a word, Sudoku, and other similar puzzles
- Scrapbooking and journaling
- Writing letters – this allowed me to stay connected with my family and friends despite being physically isolated from them.
- Writing a book
- Watching TV (something I hardly did outside a prison environment)
So, I wrote out a daily timetable hour by hour to get through each day. The toughest aspect was that it was so hard to motivate myself to follow the plan because early on I believed that I was not worth looking after. When your identity is taken away, having all that makes you who you are stripped from you, I felt that I did not exist. I wasn’t worth existing. I was even given a MIN number to replace my name.
I began with a 45-minute exercise routine, 6 days a week. It is amazing what you can do with no equipment in a confined space. (I will share a separate post on this), then I would ‘put my face on’ and comb my hair. My ex-mother in law stood by this no matter what she was facing. It was what she did to make her feel like herself and face the day. I had no basic makeup or even a brush or comb for a month, so I bartered for some in exchange for neck massages until the time for monthly shopping list, for those kinds of items, came around again. I followed the timetable I set every day whether I felt like it or not. I just did it.
One afternoon after we were locked into our cells, I was listening to the small transistor radio I had with my headphones on. My favourite song came on. The Special Two by Missy Higgins. I sang it at the top of my lungs and sat smiling after as just doing that made me feel like me again. One of the beautiful women I met in there a number of cells down yelled out, “Eleni was that you? Shit, you can sing!” Prison Karaoke! There should be more of it!
I made sure I completed my exercise routine and was dressed in my greens and ready for ‘muster’ by 8am every day. Muster is a roll call in prison. You are not called by your first name but your surname, standing outside the cell door that has your MIN number on it. Yes, it was de-humanising. Yes, muster did make you feel like an animal. But doing the things to fill my day, that meant something to me and helped manage my mental health made me feel like I was coping.
So one day, when an officer called us all by our first name at muster, it was so noticeable. I felt my eyes well with tears but then smiled. Yes, I am Eleni and as best I can, I feel like I am me in these circumstances. And if I can survive in these circumstances and not lose sight of who I am, then I know I will cope with other life challenges. This is the power of having your own unique plan to fill your day when life as you know it for yourself comes to a halt.
If you are distressed or in a crisis situation call for help!
- Lifeline: 13 11 14
- Suicide Call Back Service 1300659 467
- Mental Health Crisis Numbers
- Emergency 000