Growing Through Depression: A Toolbox for Mental Wellness

By Faith, Latyra, Kima, Rusty, and Stephanie; Women in Re-Entry at the People’s Paper Co-op Arts & Advocacy Fellowship

From PHN Issue 39, Winter/Spring 2019

The following is our truth. Our voice. It’s written by powerful women, all formerly incarcerated. We want you to remember your worth, to know that we hear you, that you’re thought of, and that we’re sending our love!


I know what it’s like to be depressed and behind bars. Waking up, day after day, living in a box… not knowing when you’re going home… Locked down. Feeling like a number, not a person. I’d sit and wait.

I hid, didn’t let anyone see that something was wrong. It got so bad that I didn’t even want to take a shower. You couldn’t get me off that top bunk to do anything. All I wanted to do was sleep my time away… I separated myself from others. I was on 23-hour-a-day lockdown, and I was so scared that I was never going to get out of the hole…. Days went by.

It added up. No phone calls for days. No one called my name. No mail came. No money on my books. I didn’t have enough support. I couldn’t see my children. I couldn’t find any hope.

It was hard to find energy; hard to work out. My legs got heavy, and to this day, I have to take meds for restless legs syndrome. Real talk, it almost seemed like I lost the ability to walk, or even stand up. All I wanted to do was eat cakes and soup. I put on so much weight. I felt ashamed. I got sick, had panic attacks, had seizures. It felt like I was crying all the time.

I was worried that something was wrong at home. I wouldn’t call, or I’d call too much. I couldn’t describe how I was feeling. I didn’t believe anyone would understand where I was coming from. I was angry, so angry, but numb on the inside. I would get in arguments and fights all the time. I became more distant with my family, I drew into my shell. My blood pressure was high; my family was scared for me; I didn’t want to live.

I never thought or realized I was depressed. I thought it was just withdrawal from drugs. I didn’t recognize the feeling. But now, I have a word for it, which means I can face it.

And now we’re free… we know some things… and we wanna help in any way we can.

We Have Some Suggestions:

It’s important to stay calm; to realize that you’re not alone (outside or in), and that there are caring people out there fighting for prisoner’s rights. It’s important to take time for yourself. It’s easy to get wrapped up in negativity, but try to think of something beautiful, a place, a room, a thing…. It’s important to slow down, to breathe! Write down your feelings, moment by moment, or day by day. Keep a positive attitude, dream, pray if that’s something you do.

Looking back, I wish I would have read more to feed my spirit; worked out to stimulate my body; gotten in touch with meditation to quiet my mind; and tried not to “think” so damn much, because at some point, my thinking drove me into a state of depression. I would have worked on self-control, given myself positive affirmations, learned to breathe for the first time, and found a happy place to go in my mind. It may sound stupid or simple, but it matters so much. I would have done breathing exercises every day; sometimes, it just starts with something simple.

Staying Physical Is Important!

Work out however you can. Jog or walk, do jumping jacks, sit-ups or squats… Try practicing spreading your toes, one at a time. Anything is helpful! Write down goals so you know you’re improving.

Take Care of You!

Treat your beautiful self (brush your hair while counting, to chill your mind). Write to friends, to family, to yourself. This can be difficult, but find someone you can trust; someone you can talk to about what you’re thinking, feeling, and struggling with. Think of a funny moment to make you smile or laugh.

Forgive yourself.

Don’t give up, keep your head up.

Take Care of Each Other!

Communication is everything. Try not to isolate yourself, and allow others to express themselves. Make others feel loved and cared for. Create a judgement-free zone or space. Allow them to be who they are; feed them healthy information. Work together on projects big and small, whatever it is: cleaning, writing, reading, working out. Talk to each other positively, play games together, meditate together. You’re more likely to get what you also give, so give love, show love, check on others to see if they’re alright.

Know that you are not alone; we’ve been through this and still carry it. We wear masks to survive, but we’ve started taking them off, because we realized that mental health is real — we all experience it and shouldn’t be embarrassed. Don’t beat yourself up or punish yourself; get out of your own head. Take care of your mind, body, and soul. Everything you need is inside you. You are powerful!

With love and solidarity,

Faith, Latyra, Kima, Rusty, and Stephanie; Women in Re-Entry at the People’s Paper Co-op Arts & Advocacy Fellowship


Circuit Workout:

Do the routine 3 times, with a 30-second break between exercises. Modify the number of repetitions of individual workouts by activity level.

  • Squats (multiples of 5)
  • Push-ups (multiples of 5)
  • Jumping Jacks (20+)
  • Plank (1+ minutes)
  • Lunges (10+ each side)
  • Crunches/Sit-ups (multiples of 5)
  • Burpees (multiple of 5)
    • Start standing
    • Crouch down and place your hands in front of you, shoulder-width apart
    • Jump your legs back so you end up in a push-up position
    • From there, jump your legs back in towards your hands
    • Straighten up and jump with your hands stretched into the air
    • Repeat

Meditation Exercise:

  1. Go to a happy place or memory
  2. Create a detailed scene in your imagination (speak details out loud or say it in your mind)
    1. Go through specific sensations of the scene: sights, sounds, smells, textures…
  3. When passing thoughts enter your mind (things not related to your happy place), simply imagine putting those thoughts on a cloud and blowing them out of your space

Mindfulness Exercises:

  • The Five Senses
    • Notice 5 things you can see — pick something unusual
    • Notice 4 things you can feel
    • Notice 3 things you can hear
    • Notice 2 things you can smell
    • Notice 1 thing you can taste
  • Depression — Sorting Boxes
    • Focus on your breathing
    • Notice any thoughts, sensations, or emotions that come into awareness
    • Image there are three boxes: “thoughts,” “sensations” and “emotions”
    • Continue to focus on breathing, and observe anything that comes into your awareness
    • Identify these things, and sort them into the corresponding box
    • Continue clearing your mind by sorting as long as your concentration allows
  • Unwanted Anger
    • Sit comfortably, eyes closed, and notice places where your body is touching the floor, cushion, or chair
    • Take deep breaths and exhale quickly
    • Think back to a recent mild episode of anger, and experience the anger you felt in that moment
    • Disregard any other feelings (guilt/sadness)
    • Turn your attention to how you are experiencing the anger
    • Bring compassion to the anger — remind yourself that anger is natural, and hold it with love and understanding
    • Say goodbye to the anger, and bring your attention back to breath and rest
    • Reflect on the experience
  • Anxiety
    • Focus on the sensations that arise in your body when you are anxious
    • Be present and in the moment
    • Allow yourself to think the anxious and distressing thoughts — don’t fight them
    • Breathe and let go

The People’s Paper Co-op is coordinated by Courtney Bowles and Mark Strandquist. Assistance for the exercise section was provided by Drexel University medical students, Anna and Coca.

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