on prison documentaries, a quarantine relapse, & growth
a photo taken by my best friend on one of our many quarantine walks in our neighborhood's forest preserve
a disclaimer: i promise you that there IS a connection between a prison documentary, buddhist meditation, and being quarantined at home as a college student--it just might take a second before you see it. :)
for one of my classes this past semester, i had to watch a documentary called “The Dhamma Brothers.” this film followed an experiment of sorts where a group of inmates from a maximum security prison in Alabama took part in a 10-day silent vipassana meditation retreat. the prisoners who participated talked about how the retreat profoundly affected them as people, reawakening parts of themselves they’d thought were gone forever.
what made the retreat so powerful was the way it forced each inmate to sit in what they were feeling. there was nothing to distract them from their thoughts, a profound change of pace for many of them who’d spent a lifetime burying emotions or running from themselves. in pushing them to their breaking point, the retreat forced them to confront their issues and finally bring about the process of genuine healing. ultimately, this meant being able to finally, authentically move on with their lives.
the documentary was fascinating all on its own, but what made it even more intriguing to me was watching it given our current (quarantined) circumstances. much like how the silent retreat stripped away the distractions the inmates had used to run from their problems, quarantine has taken away the business of life for many of us. for those of us fortunate enough to not have to be on the front lines of the COVID crisis, we feel we have all the time in the world to ourselves and not all that much to fill it. quarantine is forcing us to sit with our thoughts, to sit with relationships and in situations we’d otherwise “run” from.
as a college student, this is particularly true. we’re used to coming home for a few weeks at a time, able to skate through any discomfort just long enough until we go back to school. interactions with siblings or parents remain surface level for the time being, especially when our time at home is often filled with other activities, like visiting with home friends, going out to eat, or even just running errands.
we’ve now been plucked from our college routine and plopped back into an unprecedented, unexpected stay at home without any of the “busyness" we usually fill our days with. for the first few weeks of quarantine, maybe we were able to rely on our old ways of being at home. but now, over a month in and no real end in sight, we are finally forced to confront the reality of our situation.
personally, this manifested itself in the form of food anxiety. for those first few weeks home, there was enough going on and things were changing so rapidly that, despite being home-bound, i was sufficiently distracted. after about a month, however, the cracks started to show. i began to feel out of control of my moods, snapping at my siblings and increasingly relapsing into my old disordered habits. waves of anxiety would come in the empty pockets of time i found between classes. unable to channel it into anything else, my old ED thoughts quickly filled the void. knowing the amount of calories i’d consumed or that i’d hit X many steps that day quelled the anxiety somewhat. this terrified me. i knew that whatever temporary relief these habits brought, they would ultimately lead me down a path to self-destruction.
so after almost having a panic attack over pasta for dinner one night in april, i told my mom i’d reach out to my therapist from last summer. all of the tools i'd used to combat my ED last year, like being able to focus my energy onto time with friends or extracurriculars, were necessarily out of reach in quarantine. i didn’t know what else to do. i set up an appointment and had an incredibly productive facetime session with my doctor a few days later.
one of the silver linings she pointed out of this whole situation was the way in which this quarantine was forcing me to address the root of the disordered behaviors and find coping mechanisms that worked regardless of my circumstance. i’d figured out how to overcome the disordered eating at school and had beat it in that particular situation. but what would’ve happened if i’d gone abroad, or was living on my own, or was put into any other anxiety-inducing situation that wasn’t living in a dorm at ND? would i have had the tools to deal with a relapse then? by being thrust into a time filled with anxiety and no real end in sight, i was having to sit with my thoughts and work through them all—the good, the bad, and the disordered—for good.
even beyond food-related anxiety, this time in quarantine is making me take a hard look at the relationships in my life. in normal circumstances, i wouldn’t have had this time with my siblings at home, and our relationships might’ve stayed surface-level. rather than allowing these relationships to stay shallow, i've decided to take advantage of this time i was given to try to get to know them as people, not just my younger siblings. after all, i just have to believe we’ve been given this time for a reason.
these past few months have undoubtedly been hard for a multitude of reasons. one of the main ones, i think, is that many of the distractions we might’ve used to cope with anxiety, fears, or unhappy relationships have been taken away. we have to sit in the discomfort, and that hurts. but, if there’s a takeaway from the Dhamma Brothers documentary, it’s that after hitting their breaking point, the inmates found a profoundly different and more peaceful outlook on life on the other side.
i choose to see this time in quarantine that way. it sucked to realize i was relapsing, but i think by the end of this quarantine i will have the tools to combat disordered eating for good. there’s no just “getting through” this for the time being because there’s no end in sight. this time of reflection and lack of stuff to do can be incredibly productive if we use it to take stock of ourselves, to allow it to break us down and put us back together for the better.