No, Social Isolating is Not Like Jail

I was up with the dogs this morning, letting my wife sleep as long as possible before she has to go into her shift at the hospital. She’s been put on duty to stand outside the elevator in a modified hazmat suit and take every visitor’s temperature who is coming into the respiratory unit and have them sign in and out. I was watching TV and heard multiple people complain that the social isolation they’ve experienced over the last four or five days is akin to jail.

Fuck off, no it’s not.

I went to jail for six months in early 2014. I was in county jail, not state prison, and I was in a minimum security pod under protective custody — in Maine. I don’t believe jail gets much more mild than that, and I’ll still take social isolation any day. The drama queens and hyperbole spewers need to chill out and recognize they’re in for a long ride.

In jail, at least when you get there, you have your underwear taken from you. Until you buy some from the commissary, which can take more than a week after you arrive, you’ve just got the thick, rough fabric of the jail pants rubbing against your parts.

You also, at most, only get to change your clothes every two days. You can change your underwear, once you get it, every day, but the uniforms are cycled in and out on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. On Tuesday and Thursdays, they’ll wash your whites.

In jail, you get your meals when they say (6 a.m., 11 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. in my case) and while you don’t have to eat what they provide, they aren’t giving you a menu to choose. I stopped eating meat when I was there because I couldn’t identify it and heard horrible rumors about the low standards by which food for incarcerated people had to meet. I actually mostly survived off junk food and oranges.

In jail, basically every day is the same. Time takes on a different cadence. It’s surreal. Even when people come visit, it’s not like they’re the same people because their lives continue yet yours is same as it ever was, same as it ever was.

A book cart came around in jail twice a week with a very poor selection. Thankfully, I was able to get books sent to me as long as they came direct from Amazon. But that’s because I had the money to do it. Most guys don’t. There’s also only about a 14-inch TV that got about 12 channels. Once I was there long enough and got tenure I instituted a system for picking shows based on seniority, but in most pods I was told it was based on muscle. And I still had to watch 4 hours of country music videos every day which was like torture. I still can’t hear Marin Morris sing “My Church” without having flashbacks.

I wrote two books in jail. Wrote. No access to computers. Or pens. Or pencils of a proper length. While in jail, I estimate I wrote 500,000 to 600,000 words. All with those pencils that you score mini golf with that are one-third normal size and have no erasers.

In jail, you sleep on a mat similar to the ones you used to do push-ups and curls on in gym class, except even thinner. You don’t have a pillow. It’s lights out at 11 p.m., but the lights never go fully out, and a guard does a headcount every 90 minutes, opening and slamming a large metal door, waking you up ever damn time.

burnt finger

But, perhaps the biggest difference I’ve experienced in this social isolation that is not like jail is an injury I sustained yesterday. I burned the tip of my left middle finger and it’s now got a giant blister, as you can see in the accompanying photograph. In jail, there’s no access to any flames or heating elements (although I learned if you take a staple from a magazine binding and plug each end into a light socket, you can create a circuit that is capable of creating enough heat to light a cigarette) of any kind. How did I mess up my finger? By touching the top of the Crème brûlée I was making before the sugar cooled off after firing.

Yeah, social isolation is nothing like jail.

 

Four Years and A Feeling of Distance

Today is the fourth anniversary of getting sentenced in court. It was a Friday and like they were there through most of my ordeal, my wife and father accompanied me to the County Building.

I was full of anxiety, fear, hope, nausea, etc. My emotions were pinging far harder than they are pinging today. In fact, I’m barely registering the anniversary today.

This may sound like a strange analogy, but I can’t immediately think of anything else that springs to mind. When 9/11 happened, it was a huge, huge deal. You know what I mean if you were around at the time. It changed so many things in the world in an instant. The following year, every TV network had memorial shows. Then, as time went on, the networks stopped covering the anniversary and left it to cable channels. Eventually, the only cable that seemed to care was History Channel, but even they stopped making new documentaries eventually. Now, we have a world where many people who could remember 9/11 are dead and many who can’t because they were too young. Hard as it is to realize, someone coming out of college now was alive for it, but doesn’t remember it.

My sentencing was a pivotal piece in my legal ordeal and it was the unknown hanging over everything in the two years between arrest and sentencing. I was a healthier version of myself than I’d ever been walking into that court room, but I knew logically, you can’t just let someone who did what I did go free. You have to send some kind of message and the six months that was handed down seemed fair to me. I would have felt lucky with six weeks and totally screwed with six years. I know others still have differing opinions, but as I always mention, none of our opinions matter, just the judge’s, so I’ve learned to accept it. It’s also much easier to accept now that it’s so far in the rearview mirror.

This is the first anniversary of sentencing since completely being rid of the legal system, as I left the probation system in mid-2019.

I hope it’s a sign of progress that I’m moving on from an anniversary day causing deep emotions, and not that I’m somehow becoming cold to the events or what I did to end up in that position. In many respects, I can never just “move on.”

The day makes me a little sad because it reminds me of my wonderful lawyer who died a couple of years ago. He was a class act who never judged me and just wanted to help a guy who clearly made a horrible mistake but was trying to fix himself. His nudging toward rehab and reminding me multiple times it was about getting better, not about pleasing a judge, have stuck with me to this day.

Even if I’m not feeling strong emotions today, I thought it was important to at least mention it, remember it, and pause to check in with myself how I’m feeling over the whole situation against the backdrop of where I am now.

Stories from Jail: Realizing the Role Intimacy Plays in Sex and Porn Addiction

As a man of above-average means and intelligence, I was thrust into a world very unfamiliar to me with men I otherwise would never have had the opportunity to engage with when I served six months in the local county jail in early 2016.

There was the occasional outlier (I was in minimum security and in jail, not prison, so I admit I didn’t see the worst of the worst), but I would guess that 60% were there tied to drug/alcohol abuse, 25% for domestic violence and 15% for sex crimes. Maybe some were awaiting trial, while others were serving their sentence, or temporary locked up because of a probation violation, but in my non-ethnically diverse area, this is how it broke down with the 60-80 guys I got to know during my time there.

For someone on the outside who enjoys buzzwords of the day, they would have seen this group of men and immediately said, “This is the very definition of toxic masculinity.”

As somebody who, at the time of my sentencing, had just done nearly four months of inpatient rehab for alcoholism and sex/porn addiction, along with hundreds of hours of one-on-one and group therapy, I think I served as a bit of a de facto life coach/advisor for many of the men.

One of the reasons so many of these men trusted me with their stories was because they knew I sought help for my porn addiction. Despite being locked up for other reasons, the vast majority of these men had clear issues with both sex and pornography.

I recall one man (a domestic violence offender) who came to me off to the side one day and told me that he’d heard me talking to other guys. In his early 30s, he said if he did the math, he probably had slept with 1,500 women. When you break it down as two or three one-night stands per week over a little more than a decade, the number isn’t so unrealistic.

I remember his saying to me, “It sounds like a lot of these have only been with three or four women in their life. It makes me think I may have a problem.”

Another man, there for a probation violation because he was belligerently drunk in public (again), confided in me that he watched 5-6 hours of porn every day and even when he was holding down one of his rare jobs, he’d go to his car during his lunch break and watch porn on his telephone. It had never occurred to him that this could be an issue.

“Sometimes I watch with buddies, sometimes by myself and I don’t *Insert your favorite euphemism for masturbation* a lot of the time. When I’ve had girlfriends we’ve watched it together,” he said.

“Why do you watch it with other people?” I asked.

“I dunno. Cause it’s funny. Or sexy. It’s like a bonding thing I guess,” he responded.

“How else do you bond with people?” I followed up.

“It’s not like I only look porn. I meet a lot of people in bars,” he said.

“Isn’t that the reason you’re here?” I asked, motioning to nothing in particular in the room, about the same size as a doctor’s office waiting room we shared with 6 to 10 other guys.

“I’m gonna think on that,” he said.

Later that night, he came to me, asked to sit on my bunk (standard jail protocol) and said, “I feel good when I drink and I feel good when I watch porn. I don’t feel good too many other times. So maybe like you, my porn watching is just as bad as my drinking and I never knew it.”

“At least it’s not too late for you,” I thought to myself, yearning for the day in the near future I’d be released, hoping he’d get help before his porn problem ever become as critical, or depraved, as mine.

It was in that moment that I recognized while I thought I had real intimacy in my life, I wasn’t unlike many of those men.

I was surrounded by plenty of people in my real life, just like my fellow inmates were. It didn’t matter mine had better jobs, higher educations and could afford nicer things. It didn’t matter that I had two loving parents, a supportive wife and kids who thought the sun rose and set with me while they may not have been that lucky. None of us were willing to stick our neck out and create relationships that went deeper that what was on the surface.

They never felt unconditionally loved, trusted and cared for by any parent or guardian early on, or by any partner as they grew and entered into the world of adult relationships because they were unable to give what they were getting…and when I thought about it…it was my story, too.

Isn’t the physical act of sex and the visual stimulus of porn completely just on the surface? We all intuitively understand the difference between “having sex” and “making love.”

Intimacy is vulnerability, and it’s not just about being physically intimate. When those men came to me with their issues, they were being vulnerable. They shared things with me I never would have shared with anybody.

Despite being more than two years sober at that point, it dawned on me that my recovery had miles left to go and it had nothing to do with porn or sex.

The Legal Ordeal Sparked by My Pornography Addiction is Finally Over

I know that I said I wasn’t going to write this summer, but allow me this one indulgence as I celebrate coming off of probation after three years. It is the end of the road for the legal part of my porn addiction fallout.

On March 20, 2014, as I was sitting in my parents’ house just hours after being arrested on a charge of possession of child pornography and subsequently bailed out by my wife, I uttered a sentence that has stuck with me straight through then to the day I write this, July 27, 2019: “The only thing we know for sure is one day this will all be over.”

Today, at least as far as the law is concerned, I will complete paying my debt to society. This is my last day of probation and closes the book on this chapter of my life.

I won’t go into the last five-and-a-half-years of my legal saga or even talk too much about the addiction or recovery here. Lord knows there’s enough of that all over this site, which will have its second anniversary at some point next month.

I guess what I want to let people know is that whatever hardship you’re going through in life, whether you created it or not, if it affected your entire circle or just you personally, if it caused the destruction of relationships or public humiliation, believe it or not, it will one day be over and there’s a likelihood – however hard to believe today – that you’ll be a better person for it.

Obviously, in the year or so leading up to my arrest I was not a healthy person, but I can look back over my entire life and see a mentally ill person, driven by ego and fear, who was a shell of the person I am today. Perhaps I don’t have 1/10th the friends and acquaintances I once did and I’m not a participating member of my community (both things that I do miss), but the trade-off is a healthy body and soul, and deeper relationships than I could have imagined with the family members and friends who did stick around.

The life I led back then seems like 40 years ago. Once in a while, I’ll stumble upon a box in my garage that contains trophies and plaques recognizing the work I did professionally, politically or otherwise. I’ll stumble on the box that has a stack of magazines I was the editor/publisher of or a box full of briefing papers from when I was a city councilor. It’s like these things are written in a foreign language. The person who cared more about this stuff than his family has long since left this Earth.

What probation did for me

Three years ago tomorrow, to the day – ironically on my wife’s birthday – I walked out of jail after 27 weeks, into fresh air for the first time during that stint (which was disappointingly underwhelming), understanding that while the worst of it was over, I still had three years of probation to follow.

After about six months, the minimum time allowed, my probation officer was transferred from a sex offender specialist to a regular PO because they’d long earlier established I was almost no threat for recidivism. They recognized I got sick and had been doing everything to get better and maintain my health. I was treated with great respect and understanding by both POs. I think they knew that there were other people they needed to keep much closer tabs on.

I credit probation with being the section of my ordeal that allowed me to put the period at the end of my addiction. Six years ago, I couldn’t have told you what it was going to take to stop me from using alcohol or porn. Certainly not a dorky intervention. Today, I now know it’s the law. The specter of returning to jail for a slip-up helped put my recovery in a place where I’m almost positive it’s permanent.

It became clear to me a long time ago they were not going to check my computer or test my urine, which they had the right to, but by that time, I had tasted this better life and wanted more.

Looking ahead

Tonight at midnight, I can go buy all the tequila and dirty magazines I want. But I’m not going to do that because it’s the roadway to a life that I never want to visit again. I probably wouldn’t have purchased either three years ago, but probation gave me the time – and the potential scary consequences – to really build my “new normal.”

The reality is, tomorrow – my first day of legal freedom in 5½ years probably won’t be all that different than today or yesterday.

When I said, “The only thing we know for sure is one day this will be over,” in my parents’ living room in March 2014 I was specifically talking about the legal ordeal.

I didn’t realize that was actually the day my previous life was thankfully over. The last three years have been practice for this new, better life…and the one thing I hope for sure is that there will never be a day that this life is over. I mean, I know I’ll die someday, but until then, this is the ride I want to be on.