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“Veronika Decides to Die” by Paul Coelho could just as easily have been called “Jessie Decides to Live.” 

In the novel, Veronika finds herself in a position in which she could just as easily live as die. She chooses the latter by overdose. However, she is unsuccessful and wakes up in a mental hospital to find out that she irreparably damaged her heart. The doctors say that necrosis has set in and will grow to kill her in one week’s time. 

Veronika, like many of us, lived a life of repressing her feelings, ignoring parts of herself. It was only in the mental hospital that she felt free to be herself and get in touch with her soul. In society, her fear of the judgment of others oppressed her. 

When she let go of those fears, beautiful things happened — she allowed herself to love. On the brink of death, she became content with her fate and the possibility that the sole purpose for her existence may have been to help another human pursue their passion. 

Veronika and I had much more in common than I anticipated. I committed an act of violence in my youth; I hurt people and it cost me my life. Being told I would die in prison ate at my soul. I had to find reasons to exist and, somehow, rekindle the fire inside to wake up each morning and brave the world. 

The author reminded me of the importance of questions like, “Where is my soul? Am I present in this moment, living in the past, or pining over the future and missed opportunities?” 

I often live in these other times. When I do, I’m not living the best life because I’m not present.

To ground myself, I have to stop, place my feet on the floor, place my hands on my legs, notice the heat and my breath. I ask myself, “What do I smell? Name it. What do I taste? Taste it. What do I hear? Say it.”

Then I just breathe. It brings my soul to the moment. 

Veronika’s repression acted as a cage, but when she finally processed those repressed feelings, she began to grow again. She was able to play the piano better than ever before. She was able to free herself in the asylum because she was no longer bound by the customs of society. This is a lot like being sentenced to die in prison. 

As a kid, I got bullied a lot, so when I finally got up the courage to fight back, I saw it as an accomplishment. However, now as an adult, I see it as an accomplishment when I walk away from a fight. When you remove all worry of what others may think, you are free to find yourself and you may even be surprised at what you find and how happy you can be.

There is a passage in the book that touched me deeply. Mari, a character in the asylum, says, “Where is my soul, that I might play the music of my own life with such enthusiasm?” I think those words should act as a compass for all of our lives. 

Mari also says they are all happy in the asylum because they avoid “all knowledge of what lies beyond the wall of the aquarium.” 

Prison is my aquarium. Here, we all become institutionalized, feeling safe in our deprivation. There are less variables to contend with and fewer decisions to make for ourselves, we become like driverless cars on the path of life. 

While pleading her case for release from asylum, Mari says: “I am 65 and fully aware of the limitations age can bring … I’m going to Bosnia, there are people waiting for me there. Although they don’t yet know me and I don’t know them. But I am sure I can be useful, and the danger of adventure is worth a thousand days of ease and comfort.” 

I don’t qualify for parole. I am in my 40s and I’m set to die here. I am excluded from programs that give young adult offenders and the elderly a chance to earn parole because of the nature of the burglary I committed in my youth. 

But I still hold out hope. If I get parole, I know I will have the same courage as Mari to venture out into the world because there are people waiting for me too. They don’t yet know me, and I don’t know them, but I am sure I can be useful.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Jessie Milo is a writer, artist and poet incarcerated in California. He is a volunteer for and an advocate for mental health.