The Buzz of Prison Lights
The prison guard stationed at the entrance of the correctional center was a round man, pink and balding. In one hand, he held a Big Gulp. The other hand was rooting through my bag: a large, clear tote I had been issued specifically for prison visits. He didn’t make eye contact when he said, “Ma’am. You can’t bring this device into the facility.”
For a brief moment, I thought the guard was going to confiscate the little egg timer, but he handed it back with a grunt. “Take it to your car.”
This was the first time I had been busted for anything illicit. Before I started visiting the prison, they had checked my urine for drugs and warned me not to wear anything distressed or camouflaged. Multiple times, they told me I would be turned away without my prison ID, on which was a slightly blurry photograph of me wearing a blazer that I thought made me look older than my twenty-five years. I wasn’t sure whether I was allowed to smile, so I arranged my features into what I thought was a neutral expression but ended up looking more like a grimace.
I was grateful for the walk back out into the chilly spring air. My body was buzzing and the only thing that calmed it was motion. It had been five months since my first manic episode and subsequent diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I knew nothing about mania outside of what I was experiencing: a feeling of invincibility, hyperactivity, seemingly unlimited energy. I had sent seventeen applications to local haunted houses with the farfetched notion that I would be cast as a zombie. I also sent in an application to be a special agent in the FBI: a career I was in no way qualified for but was suddenly convinced was my calling.
The doctor at the outpatient program wanted me to keep a mood log, which would chart my highs and lows on a convenient little spreadsheet. There was space to track any recreational drugs and alcohol, both of which I’d been warned to cease immediately and did, out of fear of making the mania worse. There was no space, however, to mark side effects from the prescribed medication. My hair was coming out in the shower. My cursive lettering, which was ordinarily tight and neat, was sprawling and shaky from a new tremor.
The buzzing, too, was a side effect, though it was hard to distinguish from the feeling of mania. Was I manic? Just a week ago, my psychiatrist assured me I wasn’t.
“Are you sleeping?” the shrink had asked me.
“Are you blowing all your money again?”
“No—but why does it feel like there are cicadas flying around inside me?”
Akathisia: a side effect of the medication. That was his answer. It was a movement disorder, he told me, that made it impossible to stay still. He explained that he was going out of town but that the blood pressure medication would ease my symptoms. And if not, “call me.”
In the following days, I called many times. They all went straight to voicemail.
“This is like the premise of What About Bob,” my fiancé Kelly said. “Maybe we should fake an emergency and track down your psychiatrist on vacation.”
“This is an emergency,” I said.
“That’s exactly what Bob thought, too.”
When I responded that I had never seen the movie, Kelly insisted that we watch it. We’d been together seven years and I had never seen her this helpless. She simply didn’t know what to do. “Is it enough of an emergency to call 9-1-1?” she asked.
“Let’s just try to watch the movie,” I answered.
I only made it ten minutes before the internal vibrations forced me off the couch. I couldn’t rid myself of the feeling that I’d just stepped through a spiderweb. Our dog Lady, who I’d already taken on three walks in the last few hours, lifted her head and then set it back down on her paws. Could she sense something was wrong? Could the prison guard who sent me back to my car sense that I was hiding more than an egg timer?
I placed the timer in the glove compartment next to my phone and the blood pressure medication that was supposed to help with the buzzing. It wasn’t. My whole body was vibrating. It felt like I was in an airplane during a particularly bad stretch of turbulence.
Back in the prison lobby, the guard was sucking on his Big Gulp, eyes closed to the dim florescent lights. I stepped under the metal detector and set my bag onto the conveyer belt. The guard motioned for my badge. He handed me a walkie talkie and a small button on a cord I was to put in my pocket in the event of an emergency. He scrutinized the photo on my prison ID and finally raised his gaze to meet mine. We locked eyes, and I saw my reflection in his glasses. I still wasn’t quite used to my brown hair, which had been purple just a few months ago when I was manic.
I pushed through the prison’s double doors. My body felt like it was about to take flight. Men in oatmeal-colored garb were wandering zombie-like in the courtyard. Feet away was a barbed wire fence, and in the distance were two visible watchtowers. Dark figures moved around inside them. I scanned the grounds for someone I would recognize, but saw only strangers.
Run. The thought popped into my head. Run through the courtyard and up the steps and down the hall. The akathisia had a voice, and my body couldn’t move fast enough to comply. My pace quickened. I felt eyes on me. Running wasn’t allowed in a place like this. What would happen if I broke the rule? I could imagine the guards with binoculars up in the watchtowers identifying me as a threat. The squealing of radios. Voices calling for me to stop. Would I be tackled to the ground, or would the whiteness of my skin, my gender, and my visitor status prevent that from happening?
I quickened my pace enough that my hair blew back in the wind, but I didn’t run. As my heart rate accelerated, the frenzied feeling in my chest quieted. My body in motion was the only thing that calmed it.
The guard who sat in the entrance to my classroom was flipping through a magazine. He was younger and kinder-looking than the guard at the front of the prison.
“How’s it goin?” he asked me.
“Fine,” I lied. What if I couldn’t make it through class? The thought had been running through my mind all day. What would my students think?
I set my bag down on the table beside the guard and briefly considered warning him that I might not make it for three hours. I was used to making small talk with him, but I had never confided anything this personal. Often, my students were late in arriving to class due to circumstances outside of their control: sudden lockdowns or inspections or things they never talked about. The two of us enjoyed each other’s company, though usually we only discussed the dreary Missouri weather or headlines from the news, about which we talked with a kind of detached curiosity.
“What are you teaching today?” the guard asked me.
I dug through my bag and pulled out a folder thick with graded assignments and new poems to pass out.
“Have you heard of William Carlos Williams?” I asked him. The guard shook his head no. “He has this poem called ‘Paterson’ where he says, ‘No ideas but in things.’”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” the guard said.
“Well, Williams wrote about things directly. He was also a physician. Some of his short poems were written on his prescription pads.” Briefly, I thought of the scripts that had been handed to me in the outpatient program. There had been nothing poetic on those, except maybe the word lithium, which looked oddly beautiful in cursive. I began reciting one of his most famous poems to the guard:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
“That’s pretty I guess,” the guard said. He flipped another page of the magazine.
“So much depends,” I repeated. My chest was starting to purr again. I bounced on the balls of my feet. “Do you hear the rhyme with chickens?”
“Not really,” the guard admitted.
No ideas but in things. The egg timer in my glove compartment. My medicine. My blue ballpoint pen. The prison ID badge dangling from my shirt. The goldfish in the opening scene of What About Bob? The cheap ring on Kelly’s finger. Graded poems stuffed into a green folder. They were poems my students had written about difficult, complicated material: trauma and sex and racism and violence.
In graduate school, a famous writer I conferenced with recommended I forgo writing about trauma.
“You’ll realize one day your parents did the best they could,” she told me. “In the meantime, write about something beautiful, like teacups.”
Teacups? When she said it, I felt heat rise to my face in shame and anger. Years later, it still mystified me. Was she uncomfortable with what little I had shared with her about my coming out as gay and the disastrous effect it had on my family? What would she think of me now, standing in a federal correctional facility, bugs buzzing inside me, thinking about a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens? Would she be surprised to know I hadn’t followed her advice? In fact, after our conference, I had started writing about my upbringing more explicitly.
I looked back at the guard, who was reabsorbed in his magazine. He reminded me of my parents, who never understood my engagement with poems. My mother had made it perfectly clear what she thought of poems when I had to choose one to memorize and recite in the fourth grade. “What kind of stupid assignment is this?” she had said. As a teenager, I had tried reading contemporary poetry aloud to my father in the car once; all he said was, “That’s nice.” My sister, too, had no interest in writing. I hadn’t spoken to any of them in over a year.
It was five past the hour and my students were all still absent. I arranged the tables into two clusters and wrote “The Red Wheelbarrow” on the whiteboard. My handwriting resembled my state of mind: somuchdependsuponaredwheelbarrowglazedwithrainwaterbesidethewhitechickens. I wanted to be ready to plow forward, but my students just wanted me to slow down. A week earlier, they had spent an hour chewing on the language in a Walt Whitman poem. “You’re going too fast,” one student commented, when I had interrupted the conversation by saying “Let’s move on.” I couldn’t help it. My chest. The revving motor in my body. Even when I wasn’t akathisic, this was hard for me. I was used to doing things fast. At one time I was a swimmer—a sprinter. I had blown through college in three years. Taken almost no time before graduate school.
“What does your tattoo mean?” another student had asked. He pointed to my arm. The tattoo was a droplet of water falling into a circular pool.
“It represents an illness I have,” I told him. This was not a lie, although the full truth was that I liked the way the droplet looked and so I had it tattooed onto my body during my last manic episode. I didn’t think hard about it. There was nothing sentimental about it. No ideas but in things.
“Where are they?” I asked the guard. He looked up from his magazine and consulted his wristwatch. The clock in the classroom was permanently stuck at 11:11. On our first day of class, I had told my students to “make a wish,” but no one laughed.
“Dunno,” he replied. But then, his walkie talkie chirped, and I heard a muffled voice speaking. Nodding at me, the guard said gruffly, “The inmates are coming.”
Seconds later, they burst through the door: seventeen of them. They ranged from early-twenties to mid-sixties. Everyone was talking and no one seemed to be listening. “Professor!” one man shouted. “You’re going to love the poem I wrote this week.” The screeching of chairs against the linoleum. The high-pitched buzz of the prison lights.
At 11:11 we began, and at 11:11 we ended. Three hours passed in that time. How long, I wondered, had my students been incarcerated? Was their relationship to time anything like what I experienced in this classroom—knowing, intrinsically, that time must be passing, but seeing no evidence, no proof?
As class continued, I moved around the room, bouncing between workshop groups, pacing at the front of the class to lecture. The students seemed less interested in the Williams poem than they were in asking me random questions. “Hey prof,” one said. “When you leave here do you listen to Taylor Swift? I just need to know what you listen to when you leave.” I didn’t answer; the question made me feel even more uncomfortable than the current state of my body. The truth was, I rarely listened to music on the drive home. I preferred sitting in silence and observing the rural Missouri landscape.
A cluster of students followed me from my classroom back out into the courtyard. We talked about their writing—both what they’d already written and what they would write for this week’s assignment: a short poem that was a single scene a la William Carlos Williams. No ideas beyond concrete description.
At the lobby, the men stopped.
“See you next week,” I told them.
I returned my walkie talkie and the emergency button. I scanned my badge and signed out, bundling my coat around my body to ward off the cold wind.
Back in my car, I flipped open the glove compartment. The egg timer was keeping time; I must have accidentally pushed it on when I was carrying it back outside—probably a result of the tremor. Just as I was counting the seconds, so too was the egg timer.
I removed my phone, hoping for a missed call from the psychiatrist. There were only two new messages, and they were both from my sister. It came as somewhat of a shock, and although I didn’t read the full message, the beginning said, What the actual fuck is wrong with you?
I got out of the car. The creatures inside of me had multiplied and they were frantic. I opened my mouth, half thinking something would fly out. I needed to go on a walk before the long drive back home, so I circled the parking lot a few times. My head, a foggy field. My heart, tick tick ticking. I couldn’t escape my body. Were the guards in the watch tower eyeing me, or was I just imagining their binoculars pointing my way? More importantly, where were my students and what things were they seeing? Were they imagining me leaving, windows down, hair blown back in the wind? I couldn’t shake the image of that clock, stuck at 11:11. What did I wish for them? What would I have shared with them had I felt safe enough? I had been too afraid to come out to them—too afraid to be frank. None of them knew about Kelly or my family or my illness. None of them knew anything about me that mattered.
When I returned to my car, my whole body was tingling. Was it mania? Akathisia? Fear? Guilt? I didn’t know. All I knew was that to get home, I would have to sit down for a period of forty-five minutes and be with myself.
As I pulled out of the prison parking lot, I challenged myself to the same assignment I had given my students: Compose a scene based on the things you can see. Bales of hay. Cows grazing in the fields. Big Boy’s Towing and Recovery. First Baptist Church. Hills in the distance. A motorcycle in front of me. A minivan behind me. A washboard road leading home.
Gabe Montesanti is the author of BRACE FOR IMPACT: A MEMOIR. She earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Washington University in St. Louis. Her piece, ‘The Worldwide Roller Derby Convention’ was recognized as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2020. She lives in St. Louis with her wife.