09 Aug I am Enough from C. Delia Mulrooney
I walked back into prison—hearing the metallic buzz of the doors locking behind me, smelling the antiseptic chemical air cut with adrenaline and testosterone—and felt myself shaking. I said hello to the guards, entered the ladies room to change into my borrowed uniform and looked at myself in the mirror above the rust-stained sink. My eyes flooded with tears and I leaned in close and allowed myself to whisper the words that had been echoing through me for the last two weeks, “I don’t want to do this anymore. What am I trying to prove?” I splashed cold water on my face and shook off the foreboding feelings. In a classroom nearby, ten men waited for me to take my place at the front of the room and connect them to their creative writing…ten men who just happened to be convicted felons. There was no time for me to be overwhelmed or to listen to my quiet little inner voice. Instead, I was expected to be resilient and to listen to them tell about the bones they had broken, the glass they had shattered, the women they had violated…their words were like blades and I wasn’t allowed to flinch. I headed into the hallway, ignoring again my instinct’s insistent impulse to run. I didn’t know it then, but it was the last morning I’d face them…the last morning I’d try.
Hour two of class and a man raised his hand to read the piece he had written. By the second line, a knife had emerged in his story. By the third, it had met with the woman he was raping. By the fourth, my stomach rolled and my tough façade was crumbling fast. By the time the guard grabbed another student by the back of his neck and pinned him to the floor for an infraction, my heart burst, a piñata in my chest—emotions spilling everywhere. I looked at the other men in the room and willed them not to move, not to do anything that would render me a tragic footnote in some prisoner’s story. The room was stormed by a whole crew of guards in seconds, class was dismissed and, for the millionth time, I vowed never again to ignore my emotions and my intuition.
You see, this was not the first chance I had to trust the honest, muted voice inside of me that offered advice…and, like so many women, this was not the first time I’d disregarded it as being “overly emotional.” I have always wanted to be tough…strong…brave. Growing up sandwiched between two brothers (with an athletic, plucky oldest sister) I internalized the idea that being fearless was the only way I could prove my worth. I climbed the neighbor’s pear trees with a pocketknife in my hand, overlooking the sting of my skinned knees and the fierce cloud of yellowjackets competing with me for the sun-warm fruit. I read Peter Pan and found sweet, delicate Wendy completely maddening…shunning her introspection for Peter’s bravado. I told the scariest ghost stories at slumber parties to establish my nervy nature, and later, secretly dated the boy with the motorcycle who was five years my senior (with a girlfriend besides) because he was the one who would show the rest of them that I was bold, audacious…enough.
The truth is, however, I was fooling no one. I was then and have always been dreamy, sensitive, easily-wounded, tender-hearted, vulnerable and thin-skinned. I cry passionately and often. I am prone to fragile moods, melancholy and deep weaknesses. I remember everything. I feel everything. This has always been something I viewed as a deep character flaw. If I could just “fix” this defect in my personality then I would somehow be good enough. When my emotions start running high, I typically start running away. I ignore them, snub them, call them girlie and push myself fiercely in the opposite direction. What this has meant, though, is that the choices I make to prove myself to others have all too often wounded me again and again. It is a complex process, to try to accept my femininity and fragility and feelings and to recognize their inherent value.
Standing in front of that room full of prisoners, I did have altruistic intentions—I am a writer and a teacher and I believe in the value of literary expression as a therapeutic and dynamic art. I wanted to reach these men and to allow room for their creativity to inspire healing for their own scars as well as the ones they’d inflicted on others. And, in fairness, this was my second semester of prison teaching—the first was, indeed, mostly gratifying and effective. But as soon as I knew that this particular group’s dynamic was off, I should have honored my instincts and my own needs for self-care. For weeks, I struggled to connect with our common humanity, pretending like I wasn’t having violent nightmares based on the stories they told, imagining that the menacing texture of the space between us just wasn’t there. I cried my entire drive to the facility and couldn’t go into the house after it was over to face my children with the horrors of their stories still so fresh in my mind. I wanted to prove I was courageous, resilient and powerful enough to take anything. I felt like, by quitting, I’d show my damaged, female self. But, after the incident on my last day, I was forced to honor my intuition, acknowledge my frailties and consent to my honest reactions—not the ones I feel I am “supposed to have”.
Not all of us are facing down a room full of inmates to prove how intrepid we are, but there are infinite emotional prisons we put ourselves in: acting like we haven’t lost sleep for weeks with worry over our teenage son, pretending when our boss drops yet another project on our desks that we’re supremely confident and eager, denying our tears when someone we care about shatters our delicate heart. All of these displays of bravado are ones we take on to show our protected, powerful selves and deny our exposed, unguarded ones. Allowing ourselves to be bold and confident with how we really feel, and realizing we are still enough, even with our broken, bruised spots—requires a staggering act of strength and will. Ultimately, I have prison to thank for setting me free and making me realize I don’t have to prove anything anymore. Ultimately, just as I am, all on my own…I am enough.
About C. Delia Mulrooney
C. Delia Mulrooney is a freelance writer, poet, editor and teacher. Her poetry, fiction, essays, interviews, and reviews have appeared in a variety of online and print publications. She is Editor of the Columns Department for Literary Mama Magazine, which is a popular online publication and hotspot for reading and resources “for the maternally inclined”. She has taught writing and literature at the college level since 2000 and has been a facilitator for a variety of workshops and organizations. In 2008, she won an Emerging Artist Fellowship from the State of Delaware Division of the Arts for excellence in fiction based on work with her first novel manuscript. Delia has completed a second novel, started on her third and is currently pursuing her MFA in creative writing at Goddard College. For more information, please visit her website.