An Important Conversation With My Mom

July is Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, and I wanted to take this opportunity to explore a particularly difficult season in my life: the years my mom served time.

As a quick background, my mom has always been as much of a friend as a mother, and before this period we spoke every day. The years she spent incarcerated were intensified by my severe depression and overeating disorder, but we’ve never fully talked about how they impacted one another. I thought now would be the right time to have that conversation:

DeWanda: Let’s start with logistics because my memory is the worst. What were the dates of your incarceration?

Mom: I was sentenced on July 2, 2008 and went straight to first Howard County Detention Center. I was transferred to the MCIW (MD Correctional Institute for Women) on July 20 and was there until April 20, 2010.

D: It felt so much longer in my head. Do you remember your first day? How did you feel?

M: The very first day was when I went to court for the sentencing. I was told that I needed to be prepared that they might not allow me to return home that day. The lawyer was right because I was told I was being given seven years out of a 15-year maximum. At that moment, I was silent, I felt numb, nauseated and like I was going to faint. They took me out of the courtroom in handcuffs after the judge spoke and to a cold room with cement floors, a single steel commode and a sink. There was also a cot. I felt dizzy and like I had just lost a loved one to death so I lied on the cot in the fetal position, pulled a blanket over me and immediately cried myself to sleep.

D: I can’t believe I never asked you that before. I think I must have been somewhere doing the same. I was in-between living situations then, couch-hopping with my friends, but I never felt more alone in my life.What would you say was your main coping mechanism during your time at MCIM? I mentioned mine was food. (Spoiler alert: It did not make me feel better.)

M: My coping mechanism became an obsession with reading lots of books. I would isolate myself during times when I could’ve been out mingling and talking to other people in the recreation area. I instead would hide in my room and read. I read and slept all the time. The other ways to cope was that I volunteered to clean up the entire tier of our living quarters as many nights as I possibly could. I cleaned the hallways, the main area and the shower stalls. I was constantly cleaning my cell (which all my cellmates loved). That went on until one day I finally decided to volunteer to help in the Chaplains office in which I ended up directing the choir, teaching people how to sing properly in a choir and helping to teach the new believers classes.

I basically spent the first month feeling sorry for myself and tried to do nothing but sit there and read. When I got over that phase I substituted it with being constantly busy so I’d be too tired to do anything but sleep when I did lay down. It also made the time go so much faster being busy.

D: So, it seems safe to say that faith played a significant part of how you spent your time. Me too, I was attending Redeemer then, and praying with my Bible study group about everything. I also worked on that play, “In the Continuum” down in North Carolina. My character, Abigail, was a woman of great faith too. It was the first time you had ever missed a performance. What else do you feel like you missed out on during your time?

M: I was worried about you because I didn’t know if you had jobs enough to have sufficient income. I didn’t really feel like I was missing anything because life {outside} had become so hectic and stressful that I just needed to lay down somewhere. It probably helped me to get to the point where I don’t have to go places as much as I used to.

D: You’ve always been the glass-half-full type. Yeah, I was miraculously fine. I remember coming to get you for Great-Grandma’s funeral and making sure they released you. That was a little light in the midst of things. I still feel bad about getting married while you were away, but I guess I thought you wouldn’t want me to stop living.

M: I was in no way offended about you getting married cause look at what a great husband you got. We ain’t want Alano to get away.

D: You’re too funny! This conversation is good. I’m over here crying.

M: Don’t cry! It’s over now and I actually got to help others which also helped me get through it. I saw other people who had to be on depression medication all the time while I was there. I have never been diagnosed as depressed but I supposed OCD is a problem.

D: Statistics regarding incarcerated women and mental health are pretty staggering.

M: Oh, wow!

DOCD is definitely a thing—under-eating makes people feel like they’re in control, even if the food is gross.

M: I never really knew what that was; I just know I have to do something when I’m stressed.

D: Any lasting thoughts you’d like to leave with the NAMI community?

M: Yes. Get up every day and write a list of all the good things and blessings that you have. It helps to create a more positive mood for the rest of the day. The more we focus on the good things and also remember that someone else may have a harder time than we are experiencing, it keeps it all in perspective. Also, don’t be afraid to tell others how you are really feeling the next time someone asks, “How are you?” It makes all the difference in the world if you have someone who you know genuinely cares. Try to be that person for someone else and see what a difference it will make in your life.


DeWanda Wise is an actress whose work includes roles on Fox event series, Shots Fired, and the critically acclaimed series, Underground. She resides in California with her husband and the best cat in the world, Rascal.