Managing Uncertainty

By Leo Cardez

From PHN Issue 47, Fall 2021From the new Department of Corrections leadership to politics and the coronavirus pandemic, inmates live in volatile times. In prison, all we know for sure is that we don’t know shit—we live off of rumor and conjecture. And that’s not good for us. The damage caused by our unpredictable circumstances causes havoc on every aspect of our being.

  • Activity increases in brain areas associated with fear and hypervigilance. Persistent uncertainty can alter the brain’s architecture and increase the long-term risk of depression and cognitive impairment.
  • It affects our body through a cascade of stress hormones released as part of the fightor-flight response, making us sweaty, dilating our pupils, quickening our breathing, and tensing our muscles.
  • It affects our thinking as we become more reluctant to take risks and less likely to focus on future rewards. Also, our perception of time changes: The present seems endless, and we feel cut off from the past and future.
  • It affects our feelings, creating unease. Research shows that waiting for sentencing generates more anxiety than the sentencing itself, which may bring a sense of relief. (I can attest, the year I spent waiting to be sentenced was the longest and hardest for me.)

Incarceration during this historic epidemic seems to hold more questions than answers: Will I or someone I love get sick? Are my job, school and cell, assignment secure? What do the election results mean to our shadow community—are there any criminal reform initiatives on the horizon? And when will my facility go back to normal—if at all?

Not knowing what tomorrow will bring creates physical and emotional stress. The good news? There is a proven way to cope: Make a plan. “Failing to plan is like planning to fail,” says Prison Counselor Brooks. “Planning does something to you; it gives you a sense of control in your otherwise uncontrollable circumstances. Control what you can.”

Above my desk/pseudo kitchen of my cell I have a calendar. In early April 2020, it was full for the next two months with school assignments, planned visits from family and friends, work and volunteer schedules.

The pandemic quarantine lock-downs blew all of that out of the water—leaving everything blank. I would write my TV schedule just for fun. But it meant nothing… Like many others, I found myself in unexpected territory—marooned with my celly, no job, and feeling anxious as COVID-19 turned my world upside down.

Then two fellow inmates and friends died from COVID, and my mother was fighting for her life in the ICU. That really messed with my head. It was like, Is this really happening? This is a nightmare come to life.

That reaction is not unique. Humans are biologically wired to dislike uncertainty. In psychological experiments, people prefer suffering a strong electric shock immediately versus waiting up to 15 minutes for a milder jolt. (Could this also be why detainees will often accept a higher offer from the state’s attorney office versus waiting an undetermined amount of time for a possible—and probable—lower plea deal?)

“We have this very complex system of emotions because they do things for us,” says Kate Sweeny, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside. “They motivate us to act in ways that are beneficial for our well-being and survival. If you’re too comfortable with uncertainty, then you won’t work to resolve it, and many more bad things could happen.”

It may seem silly to plan when everything is up in the air, but that’s exactly when we should start. The key, experts say, is setting small, achievable goals with realistic expectations for what you can accomplish in the long and short term—all of which may help you manage the stress and anxiety of the constant unknowns.

“Inmates can push past fear and feel more empowered in their lives when they feel they have a say in their future,” says Counselor Brooks. “Prison is a mindfuck, and these walls have dark magic capable of taking so much from a man. Inmates must exercise some type of future thinking in order to survive—otherwise, they just feel like they’re stuck in a barrel at the bottom of the ocean with no options. I can’t imagine a worse feeling in the world.”

At the height of my worries, I had a long conversation with my family. We talked through all the what-ifs: What if I got sick and died? What if they did? We talked through our fears, and by doing so, took back their power over us. It wasn’t easy at first, but the longer we spoke, the better we all felt. And we all left feeling as if a heavy weight had been lifted.

As inmates, we already know all too well that many things are out of our hands, so we can’t stress about every little thing. Hopefully, this pandemic is teaching us to take things as they come and affect our future through small acts of planning.

MAKE A PLAN

In the past, I’ve used up to three planners at a time. I’d have one for work, another to track my meals and exercise, and still another for personal use. You may be wondering, how many to-do items could he possibly have when he’s locked in an 8×12 iron tomb for 23 hours of the day? Well, that’s because there’s a lot more to planners than to-do lists.

I use the first couple lines on the daily schedule to post the daily menu, track my meals, post my exercise goals, and track my progress. The next line is my ‘spiritual’ space. I remind myself to pray and meditate, jot an inspirational quote or Bible passage, identify three things to be grateful for, and name at least one friend or family member to connect with that day via either a call or a letter. Lastly, I schedule some downtime for myself, whether that means solving some puzzles or playing cards with my cellmate.

Next comes my ‘household’ line. I use it to remind myself to clean my cell, do laundry, and any other cell related obligations. I also note new items mentioned on inmatetwitter (aka the rumor mill) or save a new convict chef recipe.

Probably one of the most important uses of a planner is a journal (i.e. diary). In prison, it is imperative we self-advocate for any personal or medical needs we may have. Therefore, tracking doctor’s visits, counselor meetings, grievances, etc. becomes crucial when addressing issues.

Planners aren’t some magic panacea. When the COVID crisis hit and my mother fell ill, I struggled to fill the pages. Days passed without so much as a peep in my planner, but I knew I needed to get back to my routine. So, I started small, writing things like, “watch Shameless episode” or “share a celly meal.” That’s okay, one day I’ll look back on those days and know that’s when I struggled. Those blank pages will speak louder than anything I could have written … and that’s the point.

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