What Gratitude Looks Like

By Whitney Langford

It’s morning. I can tell because there is movement nearby. Signs of life. It feels so good to sleep. I haven’t been sleeping well lately. I keep my eyes closed. I think I about what I will do today. I just want to watch Netflix and hang out with my boyfriend. The thought of my boyfriend brings sudden anxiety where there was just serenity. I can’t watch Netflix. Why can’t I watch Netflix? And I won’t be seeing my boyfriend. This sudden onset of reality startles me out of my dream. I open my eyes. A dingy cinderblock wall is inches from my face. The paint is chipping slightly in some of the cracks. There are a few words written very small in pencil, “Help me.” And “Lucinda loves Mimi forever.” Suddenly I feel as though I am falling. There is a pit in my stomach. A wave of heat runs through me. I’m not at home. There is no home anymore. This realization is so completely crippling, I can feel it in my toes. Total devastation. And it’s only 6:00 am. As soon as the reality of my situation set in, that I was no longer Whitney anymore, instead I was Langford A214, it meant I was in for another long anxiety filled day with nothing to look forward to except when the med nurse came at 8:30 pm to give us our sleep medication. P897787 is how I was known for 9 months out of my life. Just a number. Any time I wanted to do something – make a phone call, write a letter, make a request – I had to write or punch in that number. The fact is, my life up until that point had taken a huge nosedive. It was either stay in maximum security jail, in a pod with 18 other women, sleeping on a metal slab with a 2 inch mattress that was completely worn out in the middle so that I had bruises covering my hips and no pillow, or if by some miracle I get released, then I would have to go live with my boyfriend’s babymama and their three wild kids somewhere selling drugs and dealing with the type of guys that come creeping around when my boyfriend wasn’t there to keep us safe. Looking back now, years later, I thank God every single day for intervening because I know that if we hadn’t been pulled over on that dark August night that I would probably be dead right now. I might be alive physically by some chance, but inside, in my soul I would be completely gone. I had turned my back on everything I had ever known and believed in. The lies I told myself to continue on were the only things keeping me going every day. The fact that I was able to justify orchestrating robberies on a weekly basis now seems completely insane. The fact that we didn’t use guns or any type of violence or even threat of violence was what made me able to justify what we were doing. It had gotten to the point where I found pleasure in helping make plans, choosing the store, even going along on rides once in a while to see how it all went down. The fact that I had become the one that people should fear while out at night never occurred to me, and when it did it made me feel powerful. It made me feel dangerous and like a force to be reckoned with. That’s how stupid I had become. The biggest lie was that I even wanted to be with the guy I was with. He was completely awful. All we did was argue, nonstop all day. When we weren’t arguing I was anxiously awaiting when we would be because it was guaranteed that there was an argument in store, it was just a matter of time. It was our arguing that had me out that night. I didn’t want to sit at the apartment after spending the entire afternoon and night arguing relentlessly with each other. And in front of her. His baby’s mother. We had been forced to live under the same roof after the police task force had raided the apartment where my boyfriend and I lived after he had robbed a store and the products he took were traceable. That was when men in black suits and bulletproof vests with huge artillery rifles wearing masks surrounded our apartment and told us to come out with our hands up. That was my chance to get away. If I had left then, I would never have seen a day in jail. At least, not because of that situation, but the way I was living, jail was one of the only options I had left. It was either jail or die by some awful means living with the type of people who weren’t afraid of anything. In so many ways I was dead already. I had no connection with the person I once was at one point in time. Before the depression. Before the drugs and alcohol had become the only way to escape the pain of the events that had happened in my life. Which was another lie. By using drugs and alcohol to cope with the pain I was only avoiding it. I was not dealing with it and processing it. If I had just gone through the pain at least it would eventually subside and I would be able to move forward. But instead I chose to sit in my suffering in order to justify my drug addiction. To stay stuck in a life of crime and lies. People who say they never had a choice are lying because there is always a choice. At any time it is possible to do the right thing and turn your life around. The problem is that the right thing isn’t always the easiest and that is where people get confused about not having a choice. We all have a choice, to work hard for a living that may not pay as much as quickly as we want it to. To earn the things that we have. To live freely. That may not sound appealing but after spending 9 months locked away and forgotten, in a cell with a metal toilet that has a sink attached to it so that the water you drink comes out from above where you use the bathroom, after living that way working a minimum wage job sounds like a blessing. When you wake up every day and can’t even see your own reflection because there are no mirrors and the only thing close to it is a piece of reflective metal bolted to the wall that has so many dents in it from the women who lived here before me punching it leaving knuckle indents that warp the reflection into something of a fun mirror, you stop trying to see what you look like. The fact is if you catch a glimpse of yourself it’s just a shell of a human being. Dark circles around your eyes, your skin is pale and doughy like uncooked bread. You are bloated in ways you have never seen before, to the point of being almost unrecognizable. So much of your hair has fallen out that if you were to braid it, it would be thin at the end.  And in a way you don’t recognize yourself because as time goes by reality starts to set in, and the real you, the one you were avoiding for so long, starts to come back. Your inner voice that has been muted for so much time, it starts to tell you that you look nothing like yourself. And you have not been yourself for a very long time. It’s a nightmare when you don’t ever know what time it is. Paula Dean meant it was close to dinner time. Barefoot Contessa meant we only had one hour left until our trays of food arrived. The 15-inch TV that sat blaring inside of a bulletproof box that was secured into a cinderblock wall with industrial nuts and bolts, and it was our only way to tell time in the land of the lost. The beginning of The Pioneer Woman meant we should get ready to line up for our daily allotment of government-issued slop. That’s what our dinner was called, slop. Like the disgusting regurgitation they feed pigs on farms. We were the animals, this building was our dank and dirty barn house. We were kept locked inside this cement walled entrapment with its metal doors that slammed when they opened and slammed when they shut. There are no clocks in this place where time is all we’ve got and is the thing that is killing us one minute at a time, each second spent trapped here tacks on another ounce of panic. Of anxiety. Of complete devastation. When you live in a place where you are not even allowed the privilege of looking at a clock to know how much longer you have to stay awake until you can go to sleep to try and escape this inescapable nightmare, when you find yourself having to tell time based on what show is playing on The Food Network you know that your life has taken a turn for the worst. The goal was always to try to sleep until that show about how different foods are made with Mark Summers, the guy who you grew up watching on Nickelodeon with a giant pie slide and trivia questions that could lead to a head covered in green slime. That’s when you spend every single day being startled awake by the sound of a detention officer yelling so their voice echoes in the acoustics of this cement and metal holding cell block that chow has arrived. Chow was some type of code word for food, which was administered by a stone-faced detention officer who was just as irritated about being awake at 6:00 in the morning as I was. Sometimes they smelled like human beings. Their aftershave and deodorant was like a cool breeze on a miserable hot day. We were not provided with hygiene products and the ones that were available to us at cost were ineffective at masking the smell of our pungent anxieties and fears that caused us to sweat from our pours in ways we had never smelled before. When I was finally released, wearing nothing but a paper suit and carrying everything I had owned for the last 9 months of my life in a brown paper bag the outside world felt foreign. I can’t even remember how many times I asked my mom to bring me clothes. As if she would forget. Things that made a woman feel like herself again. Not having my clothes was something that added to feeling dehumanized. My mom and I went to eat at Denny’s. At lunch I had trouble ordering and my teeth started chattering. It was 98 degrees outside. I wasn’t cold. It was just all so much. Going from a cement room for 9 months straight where the only outings you ever have are spent with chains looped around your ankles (the kind they use to padlock fences) on a metal bus with no windows except for tiny slots way up at the top so you can’t see out, to having your pick of any item on a menu with 5 pages front and back is the definition of sensory overload. It took me a while to adjust to the real world again. To having choices, and having a mother who loved and supported me even when I made mistakes. The road to recovery was slow and rocky at first, but in time I began to adjust and to heal after so much time in such a dark place. Thankfully, I can say that today I no longer live that way. In fact I live a life that is much better than I could have ever imagined. I am sober today. Today I work a twelve-step program, and I have friends who are sober, too. I have a job that I love, selling dresses and cute outfits to women who look like me but are nothing like me in terms of life experience. Today I have a room to go home to, where my belongings are safe and never in jeopardy of being stolen. I have a relationship with my family today, something I went without for so long that having them back only reiterates how much I truly missed them. I am working every day to become a better person, and to be helpful to those around me. We have all struggled somehow in this life, but those struggles are what make us into stronger, more interesting people. Were it not for these troubling times, there would be no story to tell. So today I am grateful for the time I spent locked up in county jail, and for the time before that when I was living a life meant for someone else. Anyone other than me. There is always hope, and if you make the right choices, even if they seem difficult or wrong, even if they go against everything you have been telling yourself for a long time, it will lead to a better future. My life is beautiful today and every day it gets better. For that I am thankful.

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