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An incarcerated woman is trapped inside a transparent pill
Illlustration by sorbetto on iStock

Standing in the medicine line at the Ohio Reformatory for Women is a rough way to start every morning, but over the last eight years I have adjusted.

I can now handle long wait lines and bitchin’. I’m no longer fazed by the chaos of names being called for appointments, people arguing in lines, corrections officers confronting women caught cheeking their meds or even the X-ray guy wheeling his machine through the madness.

One day, the small infirmary was packed with morning breath and myriad personalities — mostly cranky — by the time I got there at 7:30 a.m. I was supposed to be at psychology class across the compound 15 minutes ago. Even still, I managed to stay calm when an inconsiderate diabetic who was 45 minutes late jumped ahead of everyone else to the window and halted the whole line. 

I ignored them, smiled and protected my own peace. I was able to do that because at the end of this line was something that preserves my sanity: Prozac. 

I do catch myself accidentally eavesdropping sometimes. It’s nearly impossible not to when you are in between friends bellowing at each other across the maze of benches.

On this day, the line was moving slower than a turtle through peanut butter. The woman beside me had a country twang and was clearly having a reunion with a girl two benches back.

The girl behind us spoke up and asked Ms. Twang, “When do you get out?”

“In 23 days,” she responded.

“OMG, congrats,” the other one said.

“I don’t wanna go home,” Ms. Twang responded flatly.

“Girl, why?” her friend asked.

I was interested in the conversation by this point. All I wanted was to go home; why wouldn’t she want to?

“I’m scared,” Ms. Twang said, tearing up. “I don’t want to die.”

My heart suddenly ached for her. I know this feeling. I am an addict and I often get scared too. Fentanyl is killing people with no remorse. Unintentional overdoses are the leading cause of injury death in Ohio — more people die from overdoses than car accidents. The majority of those deaths are due to fentanyl. 

I ask myself all the time, am I strong enough to make it? Do I have it? I hear people say things like, “Be careful. That’s when relapse happens, when you think you’ve got it.” Then I question my willpower even more. I don’t have the answer. I can only hope.

The two girls continued to talk and I listened. She said her brother overdosed — mine did too.

She said she is terrified to fail — me too

Ms. Twang is young, and clearly a short timer because she is wearing clunky state shoes and a hair tie made from a ripped sock. I wanted to say something — anything — but I couldn’t find the courage. It seemed to be such an intimate moment, but obviously I heard, the whole bench did. I talked myself out of it, went to the window to get my meds and headed out the door.

Before I realized what I was doing, I turned back to her. My conscience won out. 

“You’re not gonna die,” I said, making eye contact. 

She looked at me doubtfully, like I was about to tell her the key to life. 

“Well, I mean, it is up to you. Make a plan, stick to it. You will be fine. Are you Godly?”

She nodded hesitantly.

“Cling to that,” I told her. “Find your strength, choose life.”

“I’m scared,” she said.

I turned toward the door. “We all are, hunny.” I’ve learned, no matter what, that we all have to get through the madness. I choose my peace daily. I choose my sanity and I choose to not give up.

I’ll never know what she chose, but I like to believe she made it. The same burden is on my shoulders, but like her, it is up to me. As I ran to class that morning, I realized the trajectory of my life from here on is on me.

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.

Heather C. Jarvis is a writer incarcerated in Ohio. A winner of the PEN America annual prison writing contest, her work has appeared in the Iowa Review PWP, The Crime Report and The Journal of Woman and Criminal Justice.