For the first time during my 20 years of imprisonment, I needed to see a mental healthcare professional. I pride myself on having a strong mind, a mind that wasn’t broken even after a judge sentenced me to 55 years to life, or after breaking up with my girlfriend three years into this self-inflicted ordeal. I have never tried to escape my problems in a bottle or haze of smoke. Until this moment, I’d never needed help to solve my problems. However, this was something very different.
I was in a cell block at San Quentin State Prison: 409 cells crammed with 813 people on lockdown to try to prevent further spread of COVID-19 which was raging through the prison like wildfire. It felt like the walls of my 6x9 foot cell, with its metal sink, toilet, bunk beds and my cellmate, were compacting ever inward, offering more threat than protection as the virus circled around us, passing from cage to cage.
Alarms blared constantly, accompanied with calls of “Man down, man down” telling us that someone else had been hit, and hit hard by the virus. We all knew that it was somewhat random who’d be next, who’d be hit hardest, who we wouldn’t see again. It’s hard to explain how close death felt during these times, and how out of control, how helpless that made us feel.
When I could, I tried watching TV as a distraction, but all I saw on the news was that the infection rates in New York City, where the majority of my family lives, were very high and climbing. I received news that a cousin and his wife both died of COVID, and I couldn’t stop worrying for my mother and other relatives.
Then, amid these fears and rising rates, George Floyd was murdered. The demonstrations began and kept on going, even as a few days later COVID-19 deaths in the US passed the 100,000 mark. I watched the protests against the police with tears in my eyes, unable to process, yet again, the ongoing genocide against my people. The numbers, and the names, kept coming: Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Jacob Blake… and again I was overwhelmed by that sense of helplessness, the feeling that nothing I could do would ever make up for the life I took, the cycles of violence I helped keep spinning; and that nothing I could do would ever stop the police from killing more Black people. More than ever before, I felt trapped.
And then I watched myself, my body, as the virus caught me: first, a headache set in; then it was a lack of energy, a congested nose, a lack of smell. I feared the worst, but I got lucky. After a few days, my symptoms started to clear up, and I was able to get back to my desk and get some writing done. But I felt too depressed to achieve what I wanted. I found it hard to even get out of bed.
Knowing that something had to change, I knew I had to put my pride aside and request medical help. I filled out a form describing the depression and anxiety, turned it in, but doubted if anyone would be able to help during the outbreak. Thousands were infected, dozens still on my tier because the hole, which was also used for quarantine isolations, was filled to capacity.
About a week after putting in the request, a woman with short hair and wearing a mask stopped in front of my gate. “Thomas?” she asked. I said she was in the right place, and she explained that she was from the mental health department. Wearing masks, we conducted a short therapy section right on the tier, through the iron bars.
I described what I was going through. She said she understood, and gave me some breathing exercises which started with tensing up one part of my body then releasing that tension on the exhale. The exercise required me to begin with the head, move down the face, and go all the way to the toes, engaging each muscle along the way.
I tried the breathing exercises after she left. Deep breaths calmed my body and got me through anxiety attacks, but they didn’t magically clear the depression. Then, on 28 August, I read reports that Chadwick Boseman had died at 43 years old. His death hit me hard. I couldn't help but think that he was a real superhero, the real Black Panther, and with his death another chance of my being saved was gone.
But then I saw part of a speech he'd given at Howard University. Dressed in a black cap and gown, he talked about how the “struggle prepares you for your purpose.” Those words echoed, loud, in my head. The struggle prepares you for your purpose. The lockdown, the murder of George Floyd, the COVID deaths. The struggle prepares you for your purpose.
I felt my perspective begin to flip. Yes, I was stuck in the cell for days at a time, but I had books I’d been meaning to read, a typewriter and stories I wanted to write, and a world now more aware and more eager to hear from Black voices. Had there been no COVID lockdown, I would have been working in the media center, co-hosting Ear Hustle, writing for San Quentin News and making short documentaries. These jobs would have kept me too busy to advance towards my other goals of being a writer, an author, and an advocate. I had an opportunity.
I started getting up every morning at 5am and working out. I would then eat breakfast, and start writing. Mostly recovered from the virus, I began writing like it was an all-new career. I kept writing and reaching out, and managed to get 19 pieces published in one year. There was a story about discriminating against people who committed violent crimes for Business Insider. Others about the importance of language when referring to someone in prison for the Marshall Project and Brennan Center for Justice. I was able to remind journalists about speaking truth to power for NBC Universal Academy. I got my voice out there.
I was able to see that suffering, loss, and struggling can, with the right support, provide opportunities and energy to accomplish things that can serve a greater purpose for our society. I know my struggles won’t ever end – there will always be obstacles and doubters, and I know that mental health issues don’t just disappear – but I know now that, even in the face of death and depression, I can get through things. The struggle prepares you for your purpose.
RIP to Boseman and all the martyrs whose deaths improve our lives.