I walked around this ‘land of the free’ and peered through my bars. I lingered over easy laughter and shuffled back to my cell. I dragged my chains along, artfully hidden as I attempted to live a life bound by prison guards. I noted the wide skies and open hopes of visitors, listened to courtyard chatter of spontaneous trips and carefree goals; fine for them, but after decades of time served, it became easier to wish small, dream in baby steps. I was resigned. I had been released too many times, only wind up right back on the same cell block, having missed the familiar safety and structure. I applied for parole again and again, craving escape the second I returned, never managing to remember parts that rubbed soft skin raw as I romanticized prison days akin to summer camp.
After a while, it was easier just to settle in and accept my lot. I was giving up. I had become one of those names met with rolled eyes, ‘a lost cause’, a ‘lifer’, and in the world of self-imposed prisons, there is a hierarchy where ‘lifers’ reign. Rather than a jailhouse for criminals, I did the rounds: hospitals, locked units, and treatment centers scattered around the country. For the most part, front doors were unlocked and participation was voluntary.
As my own jailer, it was up to me. I had three choices. I could flee from help, snuggling into sickness as I waved my white flag and escaped in the night. I could turn my back on health, escaping my cell but sealing my own miserable prison eternally shut. I could stay, decorate my cell, adapt to new routines and changing rules, and know only an institutional life. Or I could try the key in my pocket. The key that didn’t unlock hospital wings or start get-away cars. When you create your own prison, locked cells and confiscated shoelaces are irrelevant. If you are the first to volunteer, line up to sign the lease and don’t know that there’s life outside of the prison, then it’s not the judge that decrees your fate
Sentences were handed down by a locked soul, and fear that handcuffs hope. If you start to believe that there’s nothing better, that joy isn’t an option for you, the delusions cross over into reality. I convinced myself that I was just as happy as you were, waving good-bye after prescribed visits and stacking one more brick around my heart for protection. I believed that this was as good as it gets, and fell prey to my lies that I didn’t care, didn’t dream, and was perfectly content. I defended my victim title, pointing fingers and listing excuses for why my name once again appeared on the cell block roster.
But the truth was I carried my freedom key wherever I went, a touchstone of optimism despite claims of defeat. I memorized its edges just in case I ever wanted to use it, just in case it was true that my laughter still existed, and was just dusty from a lack of use. After decades of self-imposed incarceration, worn out from bars and locks, I began to ponder life outside. I began to test my freedom key, small bites of joy as I glanced over my shoulder, not straying too far from the guards.
I unlocked my arms and reached for friendship. I twisted the knob of rigidity and stretched my boundaries, slowly, inch by inch. I made copies of my key, sharing with family and friends for the moments when I misplace my keychain, along with my motivation and courage. I unchained my determination, struggling to scrape off the stubbornness that had coated it for years. I learned to unfasten worry, to manage rather than fall prey, to reach out rather than slip down quicksand. I unbolted the door, and inhaled freedom.
Still, I was unaccustomed to the strength of the sun, requiring monitoring and guidance in order to develop a thicker skin. I still am tentative, testing out dreams only after I check for the safety net. I sometimes find myself in old locked cells, although at least now I know the escape route lies somewhere within me. Sometimes I forget my motivation on the kitchen table, or let my hope slip between couch cushions. Sometimes I stand behind familiar bars, content with the familiar, even if it is concrete walls.
But today I get to live in the land of the free. Today I join the ranks of the living, liberated from rusty chains and paralyzing fears. Today I know how to laugh until my stomach hurts, and the blessing of daydreaming. I get to have carefree moments, and samples of balance. I sip hopes and educate myself on how to dream big. I am released to love, and can find gratitude in the breeze of silence. I am free to make decisions and stumble over failures; free to dare and explore, and free to learn the language of my soul. I am free to romp in parks, eat ice cream for dinner, and trip over old baggage. Mostly, I am free to make my choices and opt for thriving over surviving.
Today I get to live in the land of the free.
Happy Independence Day, Lauren.