Question Time: Suicide

DJ Jonty Skrufff asked: what was your greatest moment of despair in jail?

For various reasons, it took me years to openly talk about the time that I contemplated suicide in jail. Firstly, I broke the law and deserved to be punished, and I’ve always feared coming across as self-pitying if I mentioned being suicidal. Secondly, fresh out of prison, I wasn’t in the right place psychologically to look back at that time in my life. Being asked to write a self-help book last year forced me to go back in time to when I was suicidal. Here’s how I described what happened in my new book, Lessons: 

“Lockdown, everybody!” a guard announces at 8pm in the maximum-security Madison Street jail in May 2003.
We trudge back to our tiny two-man cells, slam our doors and rest on our bunks. A burly redneck guard enters our cell to perform a headcount. As part of a security procedure to check if an escape is in progress, he bangs a cane against the vent, the cement-block walls and a tiny bulletproof window caked in filth at the back of the cell.

Just before lights out at 10pm, movement starts at the cracks in the decrepit walls, accompanied by rustling. American cockroaches the size of almonds are lining up like an army waiting to invade, shuffling against each other in the competition for space, with their long antennae protruding. They move ever so slightly back and forth as if they can barely wait. As soon as a guard hits the light switch, they flood the room. Every now and then, one drops from the ceiling and resumes crawling on the grimy cement floor. Having arrived before me, my cellmate wisely chose the top bunk to avoid the cockroaches pouring from the gaps around my bunk brackets, inches away from where I sleep. Walking to the toilet, I crunch a few cockroaches under my shower sandals. When I grab the toilet roll, a cockroach darts from it onto my hand, tickling my fingers. My arm jerks, losing both the cockroach and toilet roll.

Nauseous, I sit on a stool, wondering how on earth I’m going to get to sleep, disgusted yet in awe of how alive the walls look. Tired of flicking them off my feet, I cocoon myself in a sheet and lay down sideways on my bunk, crushing a few cockroaches. The only way they can crawl on me now is by entering a breathing hole I’ve left in the sheet. Inhaling their musty odour, I close my eyes, but I can’t sleep. Listening to the swamp-cooler vent – a metal grid at the top of a wall – hissing out tepid air, I feel cockroaches moving on the sheet around my feet. Am I imagining things? My eyes keep opening to see if they’ve infiltrated my breathing hole. With my body cramping, I rotate onto my other side. Facing the wall, I’m repulsed by the cockroaches zigging and zagging just inches away. I return to my original side. The sheet traps the heat of the Sonoran Desert to my body, coating me in sweat, aggravating my bleeding and itching skin infections and bedsores, some of which look as if I’ve spilt battery acid on myself. The ticklish sweat tricks my mind into thinking that the cockroaches are on me. I want to scratch myself, but I know better. From sweating constantly, the outer layers of my skin have turned soggy. Squirming on the bunk fails to stop the relentless itchiness of my skin. Eventually, I succumb to scratching myself. Clumps of moist skin detach under my nails. The heat trapped by the sheet is unbearable. I discard the sheet, resigned to giving up my body to the cockroaches. They start out tickling my feet, limbs, palms…

Having not slept properly since my arrival in the cell several days ago, I start hallucinating and hearing voices whispering threats. Facing a maximum 200-year sentence, I’m at breaking point. Although I committed crimes and deserve to be punished, no one should have to live like this. I’m furious at myself for making the series of reckless decisions that put me in here, for losing absolutely everything and for causing my family to suffer. I remember what my life used to be like…

And just look at me now. Reduced to nothing. Maybe never getting out of prison. Do I really want to spend the rest of my life in this kind of environment? Hell, no!

I think about taking a razor blade to my wrists and bleeding out. The thought gives me an unexpected sense of comfort. I now have a choice. I’ll wait until a guard does a security walk, slash my wrists deep and just lie here with the cockroaches. The guards won’t notice until the blood starts spilling from the bunk and by then it’ll be too late. I wonder how long I’ll take to die. I imagine that when I get so weak that I can’t move the cockroaches will crawl all over me.

Before committing suicide, I want to say goodbye to my family by taking a last look at their photographs. I grab an envelope containing the maximum seven pictures permitted in my personal property. I stare at the caring and loving faces of my mum, dad, sister and the fiancĂ©e who talked me into quitting the Ecstasy business. Tears pool and spill and streak down my cheeks. I close my eyes and see my mum weeping at my funeral. She’s going to get a call saying her son’s slashed his wrists in an Arizona jail cell. I can’t put my family through that. Shivering and sobbing as silently as possible on my bunk, I hate myself for lacking the courage to end my life – unaware that it takes more courage to carry on.

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Shaun Attwood

2 comments:

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