When music saved my life

This is not my usual sort of blog. It’s not about some aspect of Autism or mental illness. It is about that most powerful or entities which has inspired love and hate and pride and power – music – and how it promoted my survival against a collection of hostile forces, including myself.

I want you to come back to the late 1990s with me. I was in my twenties and I was in prison. Ethics, morals, hope, fulfilment – these were concepts for other people. I was a skinny, confused scared kid in a dangerous world. I wanted bad things to happen to me. I was violent and self destructive. I could not survive long outside of an institution of one sort or another, I was seen as a lost cause, a management problem, a no hoper. I agreed with these perceptions of me and could see no future.

I was a very poorly behaved prisoner. I was always in the management unit with close supervision. Management prisoners were locked in one building all the time and if we weren’t into the outdoors bits of the prison is was always supervised, on the way to somewhere like the medical centre and in handcuffs. Independence was not a word I ever used. I spent the vast majority of my time in prison in management. There was very little to do. The other women listened to hip hop music, most of which I wasn’t keen on. They gave each other manicures and talked about their boyfriends and kids out there in the world. I was never hated but didn’t have much to say to many of the other women.

Life in management was boring and repetitive. You were locked in your cell from 6 pm to 8:30 am. It was about eight metres by two metres with a shower, toilet and foam mattress and limited storage space for all your bits and pieces. There was no conversation or human contact once you were in there unless some crisis occurred where there was a buzzer you could press and wait for a bored officer to respond. You would get a 250 ml milk carton for your coffee and tea which were rationed out in little plastic tubs. In summer the milk would go off in a couple of hours outside the fridge, You would have all your cups of tea at once in a fight against the milk turning into its inevitable lumpy rancid mess.

I am an extrovert. I respond to human company quite well so spending most of my life by myself was a challenge. Sometimes I would commit some infringement which would result in ‘the slot’. That meant up to 28 days in a row in solitary confinement with no cigarettes or human company save for the medical staff with your meds and the officers tantalisingly unlocking your cell door to do count only to vanish without so much as a ‘Hello Purkis.’. One time I got sent to the slot for 28 days and  was out for an hour and then the Governor came and gave me another 28 days! There were other punishments which I do not care to spend time too much on as they  are triggering even now 20 years later. The worst was the ‘wet cell’ – supposedly for prisoners at risk of suicide. I never worked out where the name came from as it was never actually ‘wet’. It had a concrete bed, toilet and sink and a camera on you constantly and the light on 24/7. I would be sent here as punishment for various infringements for five days at a time. It is almost impossible to sleep with a light on all the time on a hard bed with insects and spiders walking in under the door and me having nothing with which to ward them off. I used to ask for a book, not only as entertainment but because I could effectively dispatch a spider in one shot with a well-aimed book.

This shadow world was my existence for over three years. Amazingly I do not hold a lot of traumatic memory for this time. I am not angry or bitter. I made poor choices and experienced the consequences. The people in charge of my management probably meant no harm. I think one of the reasons for my lack of rancour over the poor choices I made and their difficult consequences for me was that I had a saviour in that dark world. Shortly after I went to prison I saved up from my $4.50 a day earned putting remembrance day poppies onto cards and bought a tape deck and radio. This was my salvation. In all those many many hours alone I had the absolute gift of music. I taped the songs I liked and soon had a stack of tapes. I numbered each tape and knew every single song on each and the order they came in (I was a criminal Aspie but still an Aspie!!)

I always listened to the rock music station. This was not my favourite station but I didn’t want to be associating my favourite station – the one that played alternative rock – with prison if and when I was released.  The tape deck and radio became the most valuable thing I owned. I had no property, few friends and apparently no future but I had Midnight Oil and The Screaming Jets and Hole and Blink 182 as well as all the different radio shows hosts. The radio gave me something to focus on outside of prison. It was a link to a better world. I treasured it. There is very little which is transcendent in prison. Very little beauty or wonder. There is a lot of death and misery and anger. Music was the one thing I had which gave me transcendence. Without it i doubt I would have survived and I think it played its role in meaning I have never blamed or been angry about my life. back then. The criminal ‘boyfriend’  who led me on that hideous path, the inept and rather sadistic psychiatrist who misdiagnosed and punished me, my own stupid flawed self incapable of making a positive choice to save herself. Instead I look back and see the things which took me from that world – my family with their love and acceptance, the competent mental health workers who helped and supported rather than blaming, the few prison officers who saw my potential.

I am now in a different place. I look at my past and what could have been and wasn’t – my death or the destruction of my mind and soul. I am grateful and I know that creativity is such a vital thing for all of us. So thank you music, thank you Radio MMM in the 1990s, thank you good art and literature and thank you to all the people who cared and loved. And thank you to me for eventually putting that creative brain to work.

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