Shattering Illusions

9 min readSep 8, 2020

“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” — Kahlil Gibran

I had a tumultuous relationship throughout college that ended in flames right before I went to prison. It consisted of hurt feelings, insecurities, and multiple breakups that were punctuated with subsequent periods when we were happily “back together.” Naturally, all of the words that I would use to describe the relationship now were only obvious in hindsight. The introspection began when the emotional wound was finally exposed; allowing me to see who I was and the dysfunction of the relationship I used to be in.

Before I went to federal prison, I was in a small county jail that had grouped the inmates by age. Since I was 23 at the time, that meant I was surrounded by young and wild kids the entire time. Crimes were all over the place, ranging from a guy who stabbed his pregnant girlfriend 27 times to kids who came in for fighting in high school. It was extremely chaotic. I tried to spend as much time as I could reading but it was difficult given the noise and lack of privacy during the day (we had to keep our cell doors open in the daytime). When I wasn’t reading or hustling cards for food, I daydreamed. Part of that daydreaming revolved around my ex-girlfriend. Emotionally I was still codependent, but I didn’t know that at the time. Fantasies would drift through my mind. Maybe she’ll write to me. Maybe she’ll visit me. Perhaps there’s even hope that we could get back together years from now when this is all set and done. I didn’t realize how toxic these thoughts were or how they made me anxious.

Two months into my sentence, my parents came to visit me at the jail. For some terrible reason, this jail did not allow contact or even face-to-face visits. You had to pick up a phone and look at them through a screen, and all you got were 20 minutes. You were both technically in the same building, but that’s about it. It was an awful visiting experience for your loved ones. They just wanted to know that you were safe and be able to hug you, and all they got was this feeling you were in another world.

On this particular visit, my parents told me that my ex-girlfriend had reached out to them. At that point, I hadn’t had any contact with her in over four months. My heart was beating with excitement. Apparently they had told her to write to me and she had agreed. I couldn’t wait to get her letter. The fantasy of reconnecting was starting to become real.

Less than a week later, a guard came into our unit and shouted for mail call. He called my name and I went to grab the envelope from him. I saw her name on the return address. I walked really fast back to my cell and opened up the piece of paper. All it said was, “I’ll edit your manuscript.” Weird, I thought. Not at all what I was expecting. Instead of pausing to think about the cryptic message, I decided I would write her back. I wrote out on a full page about how I was learning to adjust to my life on the inside and finding a new routine. I also wished her the best upon graduating from college in the coming weeks. Then I hurriedly put it in an envelope and slipped it in the mailbox in our unit.

As the days went by after sending her letter, I couldn’t help but let my mind drift back to the fantasies. Maybe she’ll come visit me. Maybe we can patch things up and get back together. It was so easy to drift away to these limitless possibilities.

Less than two weeks later, a guard entered my unit in the morning and came to my cell door. “This letter is for you,” she said. That was odd. Mail was always delivered in the evenings. What I learned later is that since the guards at this particular jail read every letter, they gave “bad” letters to inmates in the morning. This ensured that they didn’t go to sleep on the bad news or information, lest they hurt or kill themselves or their cellmate. Though the rooms are supposed to be suicide proof with no edges and nothing to hang something from, if you want to die, you’ll find a way. Less than a year earlier, an inmate found a way to strangle himself with his sheet wrapped in a very sophisticated way around his neck and his commode. He successfully died.

When I read the letter, it felt like my ex-girlfriend had taken a knife and dragged it down the inside of my chest. She held nothing back. Everything that I’d done to her that she felt hurt by was in there. It was the most scathing thing anyone had ever written to me. And it hurt. I couldn’t deal with it given my circumstance. Why the fuck would she write that to me in jail?

I walked out of my cell into the dayroom in a rage. Fuck that bitch. I don’t need her. Anger would be my salvation from hurt.

Seeing Reality

“How have I been complicit in creating the conditions I say I don’t want?” -Jerry Colonna

It took me about a year to really get over that incident and start moving on mentally to where I could think about the letter or her without getting emotionally triggered. Part of what helped was just adjusting to being locked up. The biggest piece, however, was taking ownership for my decisions and the mistakes that I’d made in many aspects of my life. When it came to my past relationship, I wasn’t looking at it from my ex-girlfriend’s perspective at all, just mine. It meant going from “she did all this stuff to me,” to acknowledging the role I played in making our relationship unhealthy. I was a drug dealer that had lied many times to her over the years about how I had stopped selling but continued to anyway. I hung out with drug addicts and other people she didn’t like, and continued to do so even though she would warn me, not to control me, but out of concern. It’s not that she didn’t do anything wrong, it’s just that I couldn’t see any of the things that I had done wrong, thus I never apologized. I was too busy focusing on the lies of others but oblivious to the lies I was telling myself.

Inmates see prison as either a blame game or a second chance. There are many people in both camps, but I gravitated towards those who saw their time inside as an opportunity. Being around these people made me reflect differently on my life. I had to take ownership of my past decisions. One of the biggest ironies of a plea deal in the American justice system is the phrase “acceptance of responsibility.” It gets used so much to describe the formalities of a conviction that it risks losing meaning, but the words are incredibly powerful. I signed a plea agreement that said I had accepted responsibility, but I hadn’t yet in my mind. I was still blaming others. My ex-girlfriend was just the tip of the iceberg. Once I took responsibility internally, the world shifted. I was there because of choices that I had made. No one else made them for me. I made choices in my relationship that hurt me and my ex-girlfriend. No one forced me to do that. Accepting realizations like these can be painful, especially when your prior narrative was focused on the perceived actions happening to you, rather than the choices you were making that influenced the outcomes that you saw.

To put it simply, I went from thinking that life had thrown me a curveball of unfairness to accepting that I had thrown the curveball at myself. The universe was not an arbiter of fairness. Life didn’t owe me shit. It never did and it never will. The trajectory of my life was in my hands. The people who understood this on the inside instantly became free. Prison was just a constraint and everyone in life had constraints. Constraints don’t tell us we can’t do anything, they just create the boundaries in our lives. It’s up to us to figure out what we can do.

Most people may not be able to relate exactly to the constraints of prison, but the lockdowns and disruptions from Covid-19 are analogous. From my own life, the people I’ve seen struggle the most with this transition are the ones who couldn’t accept or adapt to the new constraints — often taking for granted what they perceived to be normal conditions. They assumed that their perceived stability was a guarantee on the future. In reality though, this just created a psychological burden that made it more difficult to adapt. Switching between constraints, especially drastic ones, can be extremely challenging. It’s also asymmetric. Moving to a more constrained life tends to be the harder adjustment, whereas decreasing constraints tend to be easier to adapt to.

But despite less constraints being perceived as easier, I’ve come to realize that absolute freedom is overrated and leaves much to be desired. This was something I only figured out when I was free. Our modern society puts freedom in all contexts on a pedestal, but being totally free has a tendency to leave one feeling listless and empty. Don’t get me wrong, freedom from bondage and violence are extremely important for one to feel safe. It’s when we take it too far that problems arise. Learning to pick the right constraints can make one thrive in ways that absolute freedom cannot. It’s why games have rules. Imagine playing chess in which any piece could move to any other square based on the whim of the individual. It wouldn’t make any sense. I went through my younger years abhorring all rules and the authority that enforced them. Finding a boundary just made me ignore it or break it. I thought I could do whatever I wanted simply because I wanted to do it, and I used the example of rules that made no logical sense as justification for all rules not making sense.

As I continued to process my past relationship and what my role was in contributing to the conflicts that it had, I began to have the overwhelming urge to reach out to my ex-girlfriend. I didn’t want to reach out in the hopes of getting back together, but to apologize and acknowledge the hurt that I had caused. But the longer I was able to process these aspects of my life, the more I realized that apologies like this weren’t always going to happen, nor would they be appropriate in every circumstance. You don’t know where someone else is emotionally years after not speaking to them. Sometimes the very act of reaching out can bring up all sorts of hurt and feelings that they may not want to revisit. What looks like an act of compassion and reconciliation can sometimes just be an act of selfishness. True closure and forgiveness is ultimately an internal process. This is a powerful truth. It means that no one can hold anything over your head and that it can also be achieved even if the other person refuses to speak to you or is no longer alive.

I look at relationships differently now. As I’ve delved further into who I am, I’ve become more aware of how my actions contribute to the state of the relationship. I acknowledge that I play a part in the dynamic, be it good or bad. I try to also see people as they are, not who I want them to be. This is harder than it sounds, as my mind can drift away effortlessly into fantasy. There’s also the resiliency of going through more relationship conflicts through time. It gives me a reference point from the past that can reassure me that despite what I’m feeling, I’ve probably felt it before and that there is a path through it.

A humbling and powerful reminder that my ex-girlfriend’s letter taught me was that events that happen to us are only good or bad depending on the timeline in which we choose to assess them. In those first moments that I read her letter, it was quite an awful experience. Through time, though, it ended up being extremely valuable. It helped me to sever the illusion in my mind that I could not do on my own, and became a catalyst for self-reflection. She did me a favor, but only with time was it possible to see it that way. Ultimately our current understanding of life and who we are is the summation of all our past experiences and the lessons we carry forward from them. Wishing to avoid something because of suffering ends up being questionable in the end, for what else does it remove from your life? When we realize that associating events in our lives as being net positive or net negative is not a static endeavor, it frees us to the possibility of knowing we can tip the scales of fate in either direction. It’s a choice that falls on us, for better or worse.