Some pain in this world we will never get over — somehow, we just learn to live. Others are a little more complicated…
I will never forget September 30th, 2021. It was an unusually warm autumn evening for the Pacific Northwest. The sun was setting over the coast. The sky a wondrous combination of blue, pink, and purple. The air just crisp and cool enough to remind me of the season. The sounds of birds chirping and laughter fill the air. I occasionally gaze into the distance to admire the beautiful view just beyond the treeline. I can’t help but think to myself how lucky I am to be alive. Some mysteries have that effect on one’s soul. Probably why I love sunsets so much…
Spirits high, I decide to call home to check in with my baby brother.
He answers, and after a few awkward pleasantries, I sense something’s wrong — “Just spit it out, bro.”
“Mom called a couple days ago. She wanted me to tell you… uhhh, I’m sorry, bro… your biological mom passed away.”
Silence. Then as the ringing in my ears begin, my chest tightens and I struggle to breathe — my legs quivering beneath me.
Suddenly, the air gets colder… the sky more sinister. The wondrous sunset transforming into a fiery blaze burning in the sky. The birds and laughter now an annoying chatter as I try to regain my thoughts and composure. The razor wire and fences, which were just invisible to me moments earlier, closing in, complicating my view of what was once a beautiful wonder. Complicating my sunset. In an instant, my whole world changes, yet it’s actually more of the same.
Here I am at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center — serving 65 years.
My first love… gone.
The Rona’s latest victim…
I hang up the phone, head back to the only part of the yard that allows me to fully see the sun over the buildings and barriers caging me in, and tragically realize that this is the first sunset I’ve ever experienced in a world where my mother no longer exists.
Will I ever be able to face one again?
I didn’t grow up with my mom. Raised by my father and stepmother, my memories of her are a blurred mixture of what I could vaguely piece together. What was real… and what I wished was real. Unfortunately, her own trauma and demons kept us apart most my life — a story for another time. However, I still remember as a child yearning for her. Needing her. Trying to guess the next time I’d see her might be. Wondering if she was missing me. Wondering what I did wrong. Wondering why I wasn’t good enough for her to ever come get me. If I’d ever be good enough.
Did I deserve her love…?
Did I deserve love at all?
Our family’s legacy of trauma — the gift that keeps on giving.
I snap back. Prison is no place for weakness. No place for fear. No place for vulnerability. No place for healing. I wipe the moisture from my eyes, afraid that if I allow the dam to break any further, the tears of a lifetime may be too much to bear. That they may never stop. Fearing that if I let anybody see me, I’ll be yet another victim — a fate worse than death.
In a place that thrives on violence and isolation — “feeling” is a finite resource I just can’t afford. So I summon all the strength my heart can muster up, begin to numb my pain, and step by step I try to forget…
I make the trek back to my cell. Begrudgingly feinting smiles and avoiding eye contact along the way. Paranoid that everybody can hear my thoughts and see my pain. Mad for allowing myself to feel at all — even if for those few short moments.
Back in the safety of my box, I wait for my cellie to leave, giving me a few precious moments alone. I press my face into my pillow and scream in agony until my throat turns coarse and can no longer produce any sounds of grief… any sounds at all.
In a cruel and perverted way, I’m comforted by that familiar loneliness. Yet in this comfort, I still can’t allow myself to cry. Afraid the tears will reveal my vulnerability… my hurt… my weakness. Afraid the tears will make it real.
But now more afraid that someone may have heard me.
There are no real resources dedicated to mental health, trauma, and loss in prison. Providing people with nowhere to turn to for assistance, prisons have become a hotbed for untreated trauma and despair. And in a lot of cases, prison has become the source of trauma itself.
The criminalization of pleas for help have oftentimes led to long stints in the Hole on “suicide watch.” Trapped in a cold room with nothing but a thin smock for warmth and comfort. Stripped of all personal property, clothing, and human contact — leaving people feeling even more isolated, humiliated, and rejected. It seems as if the only responses are mind numbing pills, indifference, or segregation.
Humanity and dignity a forbidden language.
Culturally, it’s also just generally something people from BIPOC communities have never felt was significant enough to address — deemed more a weakness than an actual need. Shunned for speaking out. This was no different in my Asian American household. So mental health issues continue to prompt feelings of shame, embarrassment, and at times, resentment.
Many of the survival skills people learn growing up and are forced to practice in order to cope with life in an inhumane prison culture are not positive skills when applied to interpersonal relationships. So it should come at no surprise that years of repression turns hurt into more hurt, and pain into rage.
The ugly truth.
It’s this same ugly truth that revealed itself on a phone call later with my girl, not knowing how to deal with loss in a healthy way, or even how to receive support and compassion, I snap at her for contacting the prison and miraculously getting approved for an emergency visit. A visit that I didn’t even know I needed. More concerned about the negative implications and consequences, I immediately regret telling her about my loss at all. Too suspicious, I’m conditioned to shield myself from kindness. Trust — yet another foreign luxury I can’t afford — a taste unpalatable to my broken spirit. I’m blind to the love and empathy my heart viscerally rejects. Blinded by fear.
I don’t deserve her.
She didn’t deserve that… the gift that keeps on giving.
Its been about a year since I learned of my mother’s passing. It remains a memory that’s fresh in my mind, and heavy on my heart. A pain too deep to cure? Or am I just afraid that any sort of healing will somehow erase her presence forever? That those childhood questions of “ever being good enough” will somehow be answered with something too painful. Maybe I’ve known the answer my whole life.
Afraid of the truth.
Some people say “love” is the remedy to pain. That when our hearts are broken, we should love harder. But what happens when we don’t know how to love? What happens when it is that same love that leaves us vulnerable to pain in the first place? What happens in a world where love can mean the difference between victimization and survival? When we have become addicted to the numbness?
Sadly, there is no happy ending to this story. And as long as prison, isolation, and that familiar blind-eye continue to be the defacto answer to all our issues, the story’s ending will remain the same. There is no easy fix. No miracles today. Like me, there are multitudes of people dealing with mental health, trauma, and loss in these cages alone with nowhere to turn to for support. Countless stories of heart break and anguish… a lifetime of questions left unanswered. And also like me, people feeling helpless and isolated.
In this incestuous community where we are bonded by our grief and hurt, yet separated by our fear and insecurity… sometimes all we have to remind us of our lost humanity are our sunsets. Sunsets that bring us joy. Sunsets that bring us pain. Sunsets, that carry with them, our trauma and happiness as they fade over the razor wire. Left wondering why even they abandon us to this tragic reality… and if we’re good enough for them to ever come back.
Felix Sitthivong is a journalist, organizer, member of Empowerment Avenue, and advisor for the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group (APICAG). Through APICAG, Sitthivong has organized immigration, social justice and youth outreach forums and has designed Asian American studies courses, an intersectional feminism 101 class and an anti-domestic violence program.