"Walking With Demons"
by Craig Ross (Ajani Kamara) – 2005
Twenty three years.
That’s how long I’ve been here (*at the time of writing). Surrounded by the same colors, the same sounds, the same faces, the same smells, the same routine. Twenty-three years on death row and I’ve watched more men commit suicide or lose their minds than I have seen executed. No matter how I do the math I realize statistically, either way I could be screwed. So I made an uneasy alliance with this nocuous environment in order to survive, straddled between life and death, I decided to walk with my demons and not give them control. If I did, I would like many others, be a prime candidate for taking the little pills that make you sleep or stare at the TV all day, or worse, a guard could find my lifeless body at count time dangling from the cell bars. The battle for self-possession is a solitary struggle and inside the isolation of prison the turmoil must be nullified alone.
Without blinking I faced my demons head on. There is no other way to do it. Those afraid of transparency take refuge behind a mask. And what is a mask if not the inward reflection of the face behind it?
Death row is fertile ground for personal demons, they roost in the ugly walls and beneath the scalp causing desperate thoughts to claw at the mind like the elongated fingers of a corpse. The lines of sanity aren’t fluid, the bend and curve like twisted metal, so it is easy to take the wrong turn and end up in a disfigured reality, a reality where emotional deformity is the only narrative. I have sensed the dark and paranoid impulses move inside me, pulsating to a primal instinct. I feel but I don’t act. I hear but I don’t answer. I visited the images that terrorized my waking moments. I went as far as I could to the edge without plunging into a schizophrenic psychosis and becoming lost in the dark matter. The key was, not to identity myself with or cling to what I saw, instead I sought the calm ocean that sits at the epicenter of the psyche. Getting there wasn’t easy. The trip was filled with demons from my past who tried to trap me in the wounds. They are always there, always waiting for a chance to surface. They breathe nihilism and despair. Their incessant voices, like razorblades, make small painful incisions on my mind that scream blood and death. It is a lesson in psychological warfare. A lesson in psychological resolution.
I once wore chaos like a second skin. Everything was disposable. But the navigation of pain and trauma can transcend the rawest of scars, offering the possibility of a new beginning. I took the journey in my own way. I’m far too active for sitting meditation, and the traditional religious avenues don’t speak to me. So everything I did became zen, ritual, prayer, focus. I did not have an epiphany. I arrived at my center by the sheer force of my will. Spiritual reconstruction wasn’t cathartic for me. It wasn’t meant to make me feel better about anything. It was meant to acquire strength needed to descend into the mental darkness to face the madness without being consumed by it. I am still flawed. Still bruised. Except now I know who I am at every level. If I fail at something, I fail. That’s all you can ever ask of yourself.
I have this reoccurring dream: I am in the gas chamber strapped in the chair. My feet are disintegrating, turning into vapor. I could stop if I want to, but I don’t. I draw the vapors of myself deep into my lungs. The feeling is beyond euphoric. My legs dissolve next, then arms, and torso, until finally, I consume myself and exist only as pure consciousness without any memory of ever having been alive. When I awaken I have the distinct sensation of having been somewhere I can’t explain. Somewhere minus the spatial boarders that confines us in corporeal form. I think the dream means that I am my own demon, my own god, and no matter how much I try to purge elements of myself, I am whole only when the essential parts, both good and bad, are forever fused together.
I have watched many men set adrift in chronic depression, imprisoned in a private wasteland. They create the paradox between façade and interior in a futile attempt to escape from themselves. But we cannot hide or separate ourselves from the duality of our nature, we have to bring a vital balance to it. We have to be willing to look at our demons and not flinch. As long as we’re willing to do that, we won’t get lost in the fog.
Craig Ross (Ajani Kamara)
* Craig Ross has been incarcerated on death row San Quentin for 35 years.
Craig Ross (also known as Ajani Addae Kamara) was raised in South Central Los Angeles. A Crip emeritus, he has been incarcerated since 1981. While in the hole—ten years in San Quentin‘s Adjustment Center—he began to study psychology, mythology, African and Asian history, and follow a spiritual path. He is now a recognized writer and mentor. In 1995 he won the Pen Prison Writing Award for best short fiction: “Walker‘s Requiem,” a riveting account of a young man‘s last day before being executed. Presently he is completing his memoirs, The Road to Purgatory. He continues to inspire others with his words.
Poetry, writing & Lessons in Life from San Quentin death row