It’s hard to describe the slowing down of time when you walk through the front gate of a prison. It’s like Groundhog Day – same thing, day in and day out, same routine, same food, and same processes. You lose all track of date and time. The sun comes up, and the sun goes down. You have no control or say over what you wear, what you eat, or what you do. You become like a robot, just going through the motions waiting for the batteries to either die altogether, or to find that last bit of charge to get through to the finish line.
One day feels like a week, one week feels like a month, and one month feels like a year. When I was released from prison, it felt like I had been transported decades into the future. Prison time is like being sent back to the dark ages. You revert to using pen and paper, phones on the walls, six-minute phone calls charged at $1 per minute, no internet, no technology except for small TVs (not smart TVs) and certainly no smart watches, either.
The moment I walked out of prison, I was greeted by immense sensory overload – something no one had ever warned me about. Car travel made me feel sick, everything was so loud, and traffic moved so fast I had to continue to close my eyes and calm my breathing to be able to sustain the car ride home.
Sensory overload is real. I lost all ability to judge distance, speed and sound. I had no spatial awareness. Driving came with its own challenges. Everything raced by so quickly while I felt like I was standing still. My brain needed time to absorb its new surroundings. Whilst looking through all the new gadgets at a large electronics store, I experienced a massive panic attack and just froze on the spot. Lights, movement, and sounds were all too much for me to process at once. I tried embarking on a relaxing walk through a rainforest, but this too brought unexpected outcomes as the smells of nature were so strong and overpowering, I left with a pounding headache.
Excitement over choosing what to eat again was met with a feeling of sickness and the need to constantly take probiotics. McDonald’s tasted like a mouth full of sugar, and Hungry Jack’s tasted like a mouth full of salt. There is no flavour to the food served in prison, and my stomach had become used to bland, unflavoured foods. To eat such a variety outside was not welcomed by my body.
Being outside at night time, to begin with, was a novelty. Being able to look up at the sky and take in the enormity of our universe was simply amazing, however after being institutionalised and being locked inside at night, this brought with it a feeling of being uncomfortable and unsafe. Driving at night brought about equally – if not more – fear and discomfort, raising my anxiety to heights my body struggled to process.
Sensory overload is real. It is painful, and it can hit you at any time of the day or night. Awareness of this issue when trying to adapt back into society is unspoken and seen as something that will easily go away. But for some, it doesn’t. For some, it stays with them for years, and sometimes it never leaves.