Faith or Mental Illness?

I want to apologize to Mary for having acted as if she made complete sense to me. But how else was I supposed to hear her story if I didn’t believe it, at least right then? The fact remains, though, I am uneasy with Mary. She says things that, to me, could not possibly be true. And she says them as if they were true, with utmost confidence. This is actually familiar. It sounds a lot like faith.

Among Mary’s claims are that she is in law enforcement, that investigators are looking into evidence of a potential bombing plot that she uncovered next to a trash can outside the T station, that she is an advisor to President Obama. She recently suffered a stroke, caused by “abuse from the Department of Transportation.” Her watch is purposefully set 30 minutes ahead.

One of Mary’s most-wished-for goals in life is to publish a pamphlet she wrote a long time ago on mental illness and “psychiatric rights to informed consent.” She cares about the government following regulations, and about the rights of patients. She also makes afghans for babies who are in the hospital, and carries bright yarn with her. The T-shirt she wears reads “Grow Strong Faith, Harvest Hope, Show True Love.” Continue reading

The Hardest Thing to Lose

Of Walpole State Penitentiary, Jim says, “I grew up in that bitch.” He scissors his arms while he talks, but I don’t sense rage, even though, after hearing him describe his ordeals, it is tempting to recommend an anger management course. Listening to him, I contemplate solutions the way I might for a maladjusted 8th grader. But Jim is 54. He has been in and out of prison since he was middle-school age. And I’m not here to fix his problems, anyway.

Jim says people keep starting fights with him. He has quit everything else: cocaine, stealing, hard liquor. “That’s the only thing I can’t solve,” he says. He is small and trim. Moves quickly, despite a broken shoulder from the last scrap. He tells people, “come at me again like that.” What if he tried not saying anything? I think this, but don’t say it. It feels like a suggestion that comes only from my perspective, one that can’t easily imagine the kind of life he lives or the people who surround him.

Solemnly and with great passion, Jim describes what it is like to be without women in prison. Continue reading

What She Knows

When I first glimpse Dawn, I see a young woman in thick black eyeliner, plucking her brows using a pocket mirror, coin cup beside her. She looks healthy and strong, with nice coloring and lots of wavy blonde hair. She tells me later that she feels ugly without makeup.

Dawn is a former landscaper and political activist. A body piercing artist with 28 holes. A poet and bass guitar player. The future owner of a shop selling natural herbs and oils. An advocate for awareness of the abuses of women’s human rights, especially in Africa. She knows how to walk away from a cruel man. She knows how to gauge who she can trust by whether, if you give someone a little, he or she just wants more. She also knows how to solve her depression.

I lean in for this one, seeking wisdom that has eluded me so far in life. Continue reading