By Leo Cardez
From PHN Issue 36, Spring 2018
Our minds can be our best friend or our worst enemy. In prison, we spend a lot of time alone with our thoughts and living in our heads. This can be a blessing or a curse.
I have three pre-set thought patterns I shuffle through on a daily basis. First, I have my worst-case-scenario mentality where I imagine losing my appeal, catching a new case, death in the family, or experiencing some serious health issue. These are some of the things I fear the most. I try to catch myself when I fall into this negative mindset. I notice how tense I am, with my fists balled up, neck still, and my body tightly wound. I then breathe deeply and let myself relax my muscles. I “come back” to where I am presently and try to be present; noticing the sights, sounds, and smells. Once I realize my nightmare scenarios are only in my mind, it’s easier to let them go. Now, I understand many of my fears could and can come to fruition, but they’re not going to right this second. I know I can cope with the present moment and will cope with any other moment when it presents itself, but it’s a waste of time and energy to focus on what I cannot change. Also, it’s been said, and I agree, the fear we feel about a lot of these horrible possibilities is greater than the thing itself. I can remember suffering through sleepless nights thinking about prison. Those thoughts and the accompanying dread were far greater than my actual prison experience.
The second thought pattern I experience is the “It is what it is” mentality. I just imagine things will never change, and life is just like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day. These thoughts make me feel powerless over my own future. They paralyze me and drive me to inaction and complacency. I’ve found that the only way I can overcome these thoughts is through “baby steps.” Whenever I start to go down that rabbit hole, I try to imagine a future that’s just a little bit better. For example, when I think about the menial minimum-wage job I’ll probably be stuck in upon release, I imagine myself moving up into management. The next time, I think maybe I can make it into senior management, and so on. But I have to be careful with this approach, as I’ve recently fallen into my most dangerous of fantasy creations.
The third thought pattern I get caught in is when I rewind the clock and create alternate realities, thinking about what could have been. Most times, I think about what it would be like if I win the lottery. I go through extensive planning of what I would do. I take it seriously. I do research on money-management strategies and make lists. I can (and have) spent hours living in these fantasies. Sometimes, I’ll even go to bed early just so I can focus and concentrate on these imaginary circumstances. They’ve come to consume me. They help me “escape” the dark, dank, concrete box I live in. I fear I’m becoming addicted to them — I need them now. I get anxious when I can’t “go there.”
When this happens, I realize that first, I need to give up the fantasy and dream about a more realistic goal; becoming a published author, for example. Then I need to daydream about the next step I would have to take to make those goals into realities. One step for me would be writing a book query or making an outline for a book. It’s by creating “healthy fantasies” that we can vastly improve our lives. Daydreaming and fantasies can be good for the soul. Creativity and imagination are crucial to envisioning our futures and achieving our goals. Just remember, the key is keeping a healthy balance and always pushing ourselves to get out of our heads and into our lives.