I wrote this essay while I was in prison. I entered it in the 2009 Metroversity Creative Writing Contest. Since I was enrolled in college courses, I qualified to enter the contest. However, I was technically not allowed computer use to do this, because computer use was strictly limited to classroom assignment word processing. After several discussions with me pointing out that the school itself had posted the contest notice, making it school-related, I was allowed to enter.
The Bridge of Sighs won the 2009 Metroversity contest for creative nonfiction essay, but the essay was then lost in my notes. I found it recently and so here is the original version, with a couple of minor changes.
For anyone who does not know me, I do have a drug and alcohol history. I shared this history with the judge in my case, and presented bed dates and proposals for short and long-term treatment, as well as a five-year monitoring plan to follow. He denied it. He also denied drug court.
When I was locked up I wrote. I wrote to keep my sanity.
Bridges are, I think, wonderful metaphors for a lot of things.
The Bridge Of Sighs
In the stockyards of 1920s Chicago, even the business of killing was engineered for maximum efficiency. From Upton Sinclair, we know that animals, mostly pigs, were herded by the millions up wooden ramps, never to return. At the top of the ramp, they were hoisted and killed in a manner such that their own weight would carry them through the butchering process, a process that claimed the lives and souls of animals and immigrant workers alike.
The ramp was called the Bridge of Sighs.
Its namesake is in Europe and is, in fact a bridge that once connected a castle to a prison. For condemned prisoners crossing the bridge, the view was breathtaking and final. So, unlike most real and symbolic bridges that begin journeys and lead to new places, the Bridge of Sighs was both a real and figurative bridge of sorrow.
I walked on such a bridge for a while before I even realized I was on it. As if in a grandiose daydream about fulfilling the immense potential I just knew I had, I awakened one day to realize that I was old. And stuck on this one-way bridge.
My husband was with me, walking beside me, our respective addictions different, mutually maddening, and conveniently symbiotic. He would spend eighteen hours in his; I would spend eighteen hours in mine. Or, alternatively, I would spend eighteen hours looking for what he was looking for. On the internet.
I deemed my addiction to be more mysterious, exciting, and therefore glamorous. Heroin has a rich history, I reasoned, and since its users often included artists and writers, the arrogance of its associated culture is justified. My husband’s internet pornography addiction, on the other hand, is relatively new to the addiction scene, and therefore undeserving of its newfound stature. Plus, I had a solid justification: what woman wouldn’t drink or use when her husband is constantly looking at other women on the internet.
Upon settling into our respective comfort zones on the bridge of doom together, my husband and I began to experience, gradually and almost imperceptibly, what they call in physics an increase in entropy. Our lives were disordered and falling apart in increments that carried significant additive impact.
For example, we never seemed to have a clean pair of matching socks that had been neatly placed in the sock drawer, fresh from the dryer. At some point it was apparent that we would never have clean, matching, folded socks. We settled for this. We bought new socks.
In similar senseless fashion, we tried to compensate for our increasing and irreversible disorganization. We would pay our heat bill but the water would be turned off. We would pay our water and the lights would be turned off. There was never any gas in the car. We were always looking for loose change. Our phone was turned off more than it was on. The trash and dirty clothes piled up. Weeds grew. One entire winter, we had no hot water. We could never completely fix the car. For some reason, everything seemed to cost a thousand dollars that we did not have. Fines. Late fees. Twenty-nine percent interest payday loans. Each time we were on the verge of eviction we would throw a hail Mary pass and hawk something. Together, we moved more and more to society’s outer margins, to survival mode. Both of us were exhausted all the time. Making love took too much energy anymore.
Just when we thought life could not get any worse, it always did.
We continued to dream about all of the massively important things we would do someday. It was lost on us that we were on a bridge. Going nowhere. Without socks.
My parents walked patiently and lovingly beside me on the bridge, because that is what parents do when they love their children.
Brothers and sisters at times assumed an active role in pushing, pulling, shoving or kicking me off the bridge, knowing what was best for me. The solution for them was simple, jump off and swim away, but the more they pushed, the more I pushed back. Inevitibly, a part of me wanted to stay.
I tried a myriad of delay tactics on the bridge. I would use drugs so I would not drink. I would drink so I would not use drugs. I would work more jobs. Exercise more. Cut my hair. Plan a move. I quit using drugs and began drinking heavily. Liquor store hours determined my schedule. I never felt well. I never slept. I felt sick, worthless and ashamed all of the time. I was afraid to answer the phone, the door, the mail.
My debt to everyone was too great ever to make things right with anyone. My mantra was this: Tomorrow will be different. It never was.
My son walked beside me on the bridge. He cried, tugged, and begged me to leave. All he ever wanted was to see his mother happy, so he loved me and walked with me.
That I was on the bridge at one time only became apparent or important when I was no longer on it. In retrospect, the bridge was a journey of dying while living, of beating the odds, and existing. But it was not the fear, or pain, or screaming or struggling that gently lifted me to safety.
Perhaps it was the silence. The silence at the end of the Bridge of Sighs.