A couple of years ago, I was wrongly convicted for a crime I didn't commit in New Zealand. I spent a solid length of time in the Maximum Security wings at Paremoremo prison prior to my appeal being heard and my convictions being wiped.
Prior to going to prison, I wasn't the best role model in the world. I was a patched member of an outlaw motorcycle club (of which I am no longer a member) and was doing bad/negative things in life. I saw myself as a "tough guy" mentally as well as physically. I had dealt with and dealt out a lot of death, destruction, violence, but never felt like I’d cracked.
Going into prison changed me. It broke barriers mentally that were holding back so many issues, and it all seeped out at once. The funny thing about jail is when you have a mental break, you basically become two people. The first person is the one that exists when you're alone and in your cell, broken, tired, depressed and insane. The other is the "public image", the tough guy who "doesn't care about being in jail", who can fight and brawl and stab without a second thought.
During my first maybe six months in prison the pressure built and then the cracks really started to show. I had (and am still with) an incredibly attentive and understanding partner, who worked her butt off to fund our phone calls, and provide me with art supplies, books, CDs, clothing and shoes whilst in prison. She also wrote to me every single day, and did not once give any reason as to why she shouldn't be trusted. Her life revolved around waiting on my calls in the morning, working and studying through the day, and spending her nights writing letters, poems and drawing me pictures, or brainstorming ways she could make me happier given the limitations of prison - whether it be printing photos, making books of our memories and more.
So, six months in, the pressure burst, and I changed overnight. I became incredibly insecure, and jealous. She would answer the phone happy (because I was calling) and I'd assume it was because another man had made her happy that day. I’d be fine on the phone, totally grounded and in love, but the moment I hung up and went to my cell, my mind would go crazy. Thinking up psychotic scenarios where she's cheating on me, where she's stringing me along to leave at any moment, and so on.
I would write her these crazy letters, accusing her of cheating then the next day call and be my normal self again, only for the cycle to repeat day in and day out. After a few weeks, we reached breaking point. She understood this wasn't me, but didn't know how to get the real me back. She made a last ditch attempt - told me to work out my issues by sending me a blank journal and telling me to detail my life for her. This was my saviour, and is still my form of therapy today.
I started writing and realised that when I release the insecurity, paranoia and so on onto pages of a journal, the thoughts leave my mind for awhile and I can cope a lot better.
About six months after this, I was released on appeal. The appeal was heard Friday, I found out Sunday, and was out of jail on Wednesday.
But I had been fully institutionalised without realising it. I’d developed an incredible social anxiety, and I suffered from severe PTSD, nightmares and depression. I felt utterly conflicted to be home. I was happy to be out of jail, but the real world was so much more difficult.
Anywhere I went in public, I was totally overwhelmed by people, wondering who could tell I was a "jailbird". I felt immense guilt; I had come home but the friends I met in jail hadn't, and that was a hard pill to swallow. I also felt horrible about myself as everyone kept telling me how "happy" I must be to be home from prison. Problem is, it's hard to be "happy", through the range of mental illness I was experiencing, and I felt guilty for that. I couldn't force myself to be happy, but everyone was telling me I should be - which meant something must have been wrong with me.
Fast forward to current day, and I'm about two years removed from prison. I still struggle every day. I have constant flashbacks; I get overwhelmed by anxiety, have nightmares every night about all the times I was stabbed, or had to stab people in self defence. The suicides I witnessed first hand, the memories of my own attempted suicide in prison. The treatment I received from guards, the drawn-out court process I endured just to have my innocence proven.
The paranoia I live with daily knowing my former gang would take my head off if they saw me because they consider me a deserter. These are things I deal with everyday.
My saving grace, the thing that gets me through, is not medicine, or traditional therapy, it's my ability to be open to those around me so that they can try to understand what I'm going through. It's the love of an incredible and strong woman, and the resolve to never return to prison or a life that can put me there.
I find great solace in the stories of others who struggle with their own illnesses and demons, it lets me know I'm not alone, and I find great pride in sharing parts of my story so other people can understand that there's more to the so-called "tough guys" you'll meet in life.