Alone in a Crowded Room

aloneOften times, isolating from others is the way that I deal with stress. Removing myself from all stimuli has – for years – been my go-to coping mechanism for when I need time to sort-out whatever may be causing me stress. This mechanism has only increased after my release from prison, since in prison, alone time simply does not exist. Thus, time in a room with no one around is still somewhat of a commodity for me. Productively, I understand that I would be better served by seeking the guidance and/or advice of others more often in my times of struggle, but as I seek to become a more independent person, I have been trying to handle issues on my own. I am currently (and forcefully) separated from my true support system – my wife and daughter – so it is incumbent upon me to be more self-supporting, and the way I do that is to isolate and function apart from others.

I understand that it is not entirely healthy to handle stress in this manner. I do, however, have individuals who are willing to be an outlet for the things with which I tend to struggle. The obvious person, my wife, provides whatever moral support she can whenever she has the opportunity to be with me, but I hesitate to spend too much time on this because our time together is so limited that I do not want to monopolize our time by simply complaining about what may be stressing me at the moment. The other not-so-obvious person who has become a tremendous support to me is my boss – an attorney. She has taken it upon herself to ask me regularly how I’m doing – how I’m really doing – and the mere retort of “I’m fine” does not appease her. These conversations have often lasted over an hour, and she is likely the sternest voice of reason in my life right now. She’s the person who tells me the things I need to hear (but may not particularly want to hear) when I really need to hear them.

However, regarding the tactic of isolation as an avenue of dealing with stress, I do not feel that it is entirely unhealthy either. For me as an individual, time away – alone – to truly evaluate a situation is one of my paramount keys to making positive and productive decisions moving forward in a given situation. For example, following my parole meetings, I always leave feeling discouraged. I feel like although I have done my best to walk the straightest line possible, I am singularly critiqued for what can only be described as the “what-ifs” of everyday life. Showing up at the parole office does not seem to serve as a status-check on my progress in society, but rather seems to be used as a reminder that everything positive I have done since my release matters little – if at all – and the only thing that matters is “what-if” this unlikely scenario or that unlikely scenario might happen. Then, of course, I am the weak-minded argumentative convict who must be shackled into social submission. This is my typical reaction to every meeting I have, and it is extremely discouraging. I feel like I spend my time in society being positive and productive, following the law as I always have (with the exception of my offense), but when I walk into the office, none of that matters. This is one of the biggest cognitive distortions with which I currently struggle.

“You’re not special, and nothing positive you do matters,” is the impression I left with after my most recent visit. And as a result, I spent the evening alone, replaying the meeting in my mind, trying to figure out where I went wrong, what I said wrong, and why it is that even though I’m making so many positive steps in life, no one at the parole office seems to care. Coping with this, alone, isolated from people, was beneficial for me because it gave me the opportunity to straighten my thoughts, remove emotion from the equation, and attempt to see the situation from a logical perspective. And following this quiet time of reflection, I came to understand that the rules that are in place because there really are people in the parole system who break their restrictions every day, who are (and will always be) criminally-minded, and who don’t care about whether or not they are living a positive life. And while my struggle still stems from wanting to be seen and treated in a positive light by those who oversee my supervision, I must be content with the fact that the situation is not as it seems. It does not matter how much of a positive or productive life I am living, it does not matter whether or not I am able to adequately fulfill my roles as a husband and a father, and it does not matter if I am living a life as a happy and content human being. What matters – in the context of my supervision – is whether or not I’m following the rules. This is how it was explained to me at my recent meeting, and this is how I need to approach my supervision from this point forward.

My time alone – my personal time to reflect – led me to understand the base logic of the situation. The time I spend alone to mentally and emotionally digest my problems does not (as I see it) cross the bounds into being wholly unhealthy. It is merely my personal way of dealing with stressors in a manner that helps me organize my thoughts and emotions so that I may encounter any given situation rationally and without emotion.

My other deflective reaction to stress is something that I really am trying to remedy – when someone who cares asks me, “What’s wrong?” or “Are you okay?” I simply reply that I’m fine or that nothing is wrong and pretend like nothing is bothering me. And on the somewhat-rare occasion that something is bothering me to the extent that others notice, I need to appreciate and take advantage of situations in which someone cares enough to ask how I’m doing. This is why the attorney I work for has become such a helpful part of my life. She is a combination of nurturing and reasoning. She genuinely cares how I am and is not afraid to ask and speak as a comforting voice in a time of stress; however, she is also a very wise voice of reason, and she has lived through so much and has so much knowledge and advice to bestow, that I would be a fool not to listen and heed her words.

She is the one who spoke with me at length about not taking my family restrictions personally, especially after I was recently denied the request of seeing my daughter when she was hospitalized. I explained that it is difficult not to take these things personally because people are making bureaucratic decisions about my personal life, and as I saw it, it did not get more personal than someone else making decisions about how I interact with my family, and these decisions were being made by individuals who pass down these edicts from nine-to-five, Monday-through-Friday, then go home to their families, while I spend all day every day away from my family. But she pointed out to me that this perspective was faulty. She framed it for me in a way that appealed to my continuous drive toward logic. She helped me understand my situation in the larger context of the system itself, not just my own personalized and individual situation. “You’re a name and a number,” she told me, “and that’s just how it works.” She explained that it was not logical for me to try to be a person in a system that impersonalizes people as a general rule. In the eyes of the system, I am not a person, I am my offense. The system doesn’t see an educated, professional, husband and father who made a bad choice in life; the system sees me as #104403: Sex offender – no face, no family, no hobbies, no favorite baseball team or preference of sushi over Chinese food – just a number and a label. She explained this in a way that did not belittle me, but rather, helped me understand the perspectives of others.

This positive interaction has given me the inclination to vocalize things more, to talk-out my stresses with people – especially my boss – because sometimes, hearing the perspectives of others can be just as beneficial – if not more – as taking the time to sort out my thoughts alone. But one of the things I still am apprehensive about is how this willingness to be more open about my stressful situations will fit within the context of the social contract. Because as far as proper socialization goes, when a person approaches another and says, “How are you?” the socially acceptable answer is “I’m fine” or “I’m well.” It is socially awkward (to say the least) to answer the “How are you?” question with “I’m not well at all. I’m stressing about…etc.” This becomes an awkward social burden on the individual who asked the original question because, in reality, people don’t particularly care “how we are” and inquiring about someone’s well-being has become more of a shallow greeting rather than an inquiry of concern. Thus, a person must be mindful of who is asking the question before divulging the true answer, not to mention other factors that may be in play such as the setting of the question, the context of the question, the mood of the person asking the question, and the motivation behind the question itself. The “How are you?” question is a simple one, and yet, the immediate reaction by the person asked is very complex. We all must abide by the social contract, so the challenge in my own context becomes: When is it permissible to answer this question in an honest manner, and when is “I’m fine” the preferable response? My assumption is that it’s like buying a big truck after driving a car for many years; eventually, you just get a feel for it.

Moving forward, my goal with handing stress is to attempt to isolate a bit less (though I still need the solitary time – as does anyone) and attempt to allow those who care to know what is troubling me and provide them the chance to give feedback, advice, or simply the opportunity to express that they care about my well-being. In addition, I will also seek to maximize the benefits of my other coping skills that make me feel positive and productive such as writing, graphic design, and competitive running. These hobbies are an amazing outlet for my desire to be constructive and my time doing either of these three things is as therapeutic to me as any sit-down session I could have with a professional.