Sacred Solitude – Damian McGuinness
It’s now 22 years since I stood in the dock and the judge sentenced me to six years imprisonment. I didn’t feel anything inside, I remember feeling completely numb.
People think prison is scary, and it is a little. But you’re locked behind a steel door most of the time and being guarded when you’re not.
It’s easy to describe the environment, and it isn’t that bad. Most people just want to do their time and get out as soon as possible. What’s difficult to describe is how losing your freedom feels.
At the moment we’re beginning to understand how it feels to lose a little bit of our liberty.
It can be sad, lonely, frustrating, boring. People are rightly concerned and anxious about jobs and loved ones. I feel some of those emotions right now, but it doesn’t compare with how it feels to be incarcerated, and completely lose your freedom.
I’ve seen amazing acts of kindness, people going the extra mile to support the poor and vulnerable. I’ve experienced a great sense of community spirit, coming together to applaud or NHS. In away it has restored my faith in humanity.
Being in prison is dehumanising tough, you’re given a number to replace your name. I still remember mine now – BD7539. Your life is completely out of your control. You don’t have a say in anything.
One of my lasting memories going through that process is I didn’t realise how much I’d taken my freedom for granted. I didn’t understand how valuable freedom is.
I don’t think anyone really does until you’ve lost it.
Imagine how your stomach turns into a knot when you think something bad has happened, or you get a phone call and it is really bad news. In life that feeling passes, but in prison that’s what it feels like all the time.
On top of that you sit and ponder all the wasted opportunities. Life is full of opportunities and potential. It’s really easy to see that when you don’t have it. Even though I lived in a socially deprived area and a broken home, I realised there were so many things I could have done differently or better.
Being alone gives you chance to reflect on these things, and it can be easy to beat yourself up. Before you know it, you’ll be depressed and wallowing in self-pity. Your brain becomes your worst enemy, it starts pulling out memories and regrets. You’ll replay them in your mind and hate yourself for not doing things differently, better.
You need to keep your brain busy. I hadn’t read a book in years and I found reading again. It was amazing! Not only did it keep my brain off my back, it boosted my mental health in a massive way. I could read three novels a week.
It’s funny to see how many people have suddenly taken up jogging in Blackpool since the lock down. It’s similar in prison. Nobody really feels like exercising when they’re on the outside, but once that is threatened (like now) or once it’s gone (like being in prison) you realise how important it is for your physical and mental well-being.
Doing something simple like a few sets off press-ups or sit-ups in my cell immediately made me feel great… (suddenly feeling convicted about my reluctance to exercise as I write that)
Meditation, – whether that’s Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or anything else, taking time to focus on a higher power. I got in trouble off the guards because I was Anglican on Saturday, Catholic on Sunday, Buddhist on Tuesday and a Quaker on Thursday.
Reframing the situation can be really powerful.
As you know I met powerfully with God during my time in isolation. Seeing God’s plan in all things (or reframing) is amazingly powerful at turning a negative situation into a positive one.
I’d read a quote in a book that said something along the lines of:
God will sometimes isolate the patient to get his attention. I just knew that this is what God had done to me. Knowing it was God’s plan helped me to forgive myself for all the poor choices and decisions I had made leading up to getting locked up. It also gave me a deeper appreciation of His grace.
I often describe my time in prison as my honeymoon with God. Once I had encountered Him and began spending time with Him. It stopped feeling like I was locked inside, but more like He had locked the world out so we could be together.