Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Intended Ethos

This is perhaps the most well recognized image of the indie rock band Modest Mouse, a group with humble beginnings in suburban Washington. What do we notice about this picture? In the background is a dingy, dull yellow wall, and the borders seem to contain some numbers, perhaps to indicate that the image was spliced from a reel of film? We see Isaac Brock, the writer and lead singer, holding up a gramophone horn to his ear as if it were an ear horn. The rest of the band members are gathered around the horn, three peering into it, one shouting at it, and the other looking pleasantly bemused. They are all well dressed yet casual, and Isaac has his sleeves rolled up to reveal his tattoos.

The members of Modest Mouse, judging by this picture, are obviously not high-rollers. They look quite ordinary, and seem to be displaying different personality traits among them. The three peering into the horn are curious, the one shouting is bold, the one looking amused is critical. Most of the focus however, is on Isaac, whose face is aimed toward the camera in an intense expression of thought. Because he is in fact holding a gramophone horn, it symbolizes that he is the core of the group, and that their music comes from him. Perhaps his thoughts and views are exiting his head through the horn, for all the world to hear. And some people might be critical, and some people may not listen, but the majority seems to pay attention.

More obvious than this, Isaac is at the same time using the horn to listen. It is a balance. It shows that he does not let his opinions out without observing the world carefully, and by his expression, pondering it thoroughly. The picture overall reflects the style of the group very well, which is humble simplicity with underlying levels of complexity. The group sings songs about real life issues, sometimes silly, sometimes serious, and often with many metaphors and hidden meanings, so it seems appropriate that they are well recognized in the manner they are depicted here. And Isaac Brock is an ordinary person, who maybe just takes a closer look at things, and works a little harder to make other people see too.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Shedding Light on Pointlessness

Considering the type of society we live in, egocentric and lined with affordable luxuries, we don’t often stop to think about human suffering on the grand scale at which it occurs. We don’t even realize what a large percentage of it is entirely needless. It is a heavy burden to think about such things, and more often then not they are simply ignored. Life is already hard enough without the woes of humanity weighing upon us. But there are still those who fret over the condition of the world beyond their own, and they are trying to speak out. They are trying to open our minds and hearts, and reveal the horrors we pretend not to see. They are trying to alert those of us who are well off, so that we might be inspired to help, or at least to better appreciate the lives we have. And one of the best mediums for sharing this is music.

In 2006, the indie rock group Islands released a song called “Rough Gem,” which illustrates the suffering caused by the diamond mines in Africa. Many people believe they are already aware of the horrors of the diamond industry: the violence and corruption spread by “illicitly” traded blood diamonds. However that is only a small part of the story, and much misrepresented. As described in a 1996 investigation by Jani Roberts, apartheid is alive and well in South Africa, and families are torn apart by an industry that promotes a materialistic marriage ritual.

The song is unique in the manner which it presents such a serious and morbid issue, because the song itself is very happy sounding. It opens with cheerful flutes, synth and strings, and remains energetic throughout. The lyrics are from the perspective of an actual diamond, who seems to pity the miners in a detached sort of way, saying “Dig deep but don’t dig too deep, when it’s late you’ll see the hole is empty, and oh so deadly.” A careful listener is shocked by the contrast of the pain and struggle in the words against the pleasant tone of the melody. And thus by illuminating this subject in such an unusual and ironic light, Islands has created piece of music that is both entertaining and stirring.

The tactics employed in the composition of “Rough Gem” can also be found in the famous 1980s song “99 Red Balloons” by the German group Nena, written during the frightening escalation of the Cold War. This song describes a fictional incident in which a large cluster of balloons released by some children are mistaken for an aircraft by the military, triggering a violent overreaction ending in a devastating war. It is also set to a cheerful, energetic mood, accompanying such depressing lyrics as “It's all over and I'm standin' pretty, in this dust that was a city.”

Both songs depict cases of needless human suffering that could be prevented by a little less greed, or a little more cautiousness. The artists of these pieces took a long, hard look at the harsh side of humanity that we rarely ever see, and presented it to us in a beautiful and powerful way. Isn’t it sad though, that reality sometimes has to be slyly sugarcoated for us to swallow it? Hopefully more musicians use such tactics in the future, because they certainly have an impact, and will be a great tool for opening the eyes of our spoiled society.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Take Your Medicine

“Excuse me, but, could I please have my shoes?”
“Sorry, uhh… We can’t give you those.”
“Why not?”
“Well, we have safety precautions for certain patients.”
“They’re afraid I’m going to kill myself with my shoes?”
“Do they have laces?”
“…Are you serious?”
“It’s happened before.”

Day One

The past twenty-four hours had been pretty ridiculous for me. It started with me getting hurt a whole lot by someone I cared about way too much, and my reaction to it was a whole lot worse than it should have been. I didn’t sleep that night. I made myself physically sick. In the morning I went to see a university counselor because really, I just didn’t know what to do with myself. I thought maybe someone there could help me, though I wasn’t sure how.

The woman that I spoke to seemed compassionate enough. I bawled like a small child while I told her a story she had no reason to care about, other than the fact that it was her job. She asked me some unusual questions that I didn’t think about too much until she said (to paraphrase), “I have determined that you are a potential danger to yourself, and it’s my obligation to keep you safe. You can either check into the hospital voluntarily or involuntarily.” Some choice. I agreed to go voluntarily as I wondered what I could have possibly gotten myself into.

Mind you, I had no intention of actually killing myself. Even if I had wanted to, I wouldn’t be selfish enough to hurt my friends and family like that. But thinking back to that day, telling her “I feel like I want to die” was probably not the best way to illustrate my pain.

The rest of the day was emotionally exhausting. I was escorted to the ER, where I stuck in a bed for about six hours. I napped, I called a friend (Reid), I cried intermittently. I ate a bit of food for the first time in a whole day. A psychiatrist came to speak with me and gather a brief history of my life. I patiently told him that I wasn’t going to hurt myself and that I wanted to go home, but his final verdict was to admit me into the psych ward.

I was not allowed to walk to the ward (or have any dignity apparently), I was forced to sit in a wheelchair. Once there they took all my belongings, including my clothes. A woman sat with me and gave me a strange sort of interview, with such memorable questions as, “In case of an emergency in which we have to sedate you, restrain you, or put you in isolation, is there anyone you’d like us to contact?” I explained my story once more, signed about a dozen forms, and was released to wander about the ward, which reminded me a bit of a nursing home.

Lisa and Caitlin were waiting for me once the “intake” was over. It was a comfort that they had sought me out. We sat in my semi-private room and talked until visiting hours were over, and then I was left alone. I noticed that there were toiletries in my room, and that they left me my clothes. I took a very long shower and tried to make myself feel as clean as possible before getting back into the clothes I’d already been wearing for two days.

I ventured back out into the main area. The left half of the room was composed of chairs and loveseats in a sort of “u” shape around a tv, with enough room for maybe a dozen people to sit. In the corner was a bookshelf of assorted magazines and craft supplies. The right half of the room was filled with small dining tables. The “nurses’ station” had a view of the whole area. I walked up and waited to be acknowledged.

An impatient, irritable old woman who’s name meant “something sweet” (which I found ironic, because she wasn’t sweet at all) told me that no, she didn’t know when I’d be able to leave (though it would be three days at the least), that I could have neither my shoes nor phone, and that I had to have someone else dial for me if I wanted to call someone.

At this point I was sort of numb from the events of the day, and still wasn’t fully absorbing the details of my situation. I observed the few patients watching tv with casual detachment. They had tired, glassy eyes. One old man had an electronic cigarette hanging out of his mouth. It was about 8pm. I’d seen the counselor at 11am. I walked around aimlessly, wondering if I should sleep, or if I should call my parents. I sort of wanted to get through this mess on my own and never ever have them hear of it. I had a snack from their “food window” while I sat around with my thoughts.

In the end I decided to call my father. The conversation went exactly as I feared, with him overreacting. Which is completely understandable. He told me he wanted to come get me and bring me back to Jersey. He told me I should be able to just shut off my emotions and get back to work. I tried to explain through tears and coerce some compassion from him. The irritable old nurse told me that it was 11 o’clock and that she had to disconnect the phones now. I sobbed this into the receiver and my dad seemed to calm down all at once. He gave me a few comforting words and promised he wouldn’t drag me away from school, and I hung up the phone feeling just a little bit better.

I tried to go to sleep after this but spending just minutes alone in my room made me tear up again. I felt remarkably lonely in this place and they had cut off my contact with the person I wanted to talk to most in the whole world just now. I went back to the main area, weeping, and the nurse-in-training assigned to me offered to play chess with me to distract me. She was young and sweet, and was way too pretty for all the eyeliner she was wearing. She stayed twenty minutes past her shift to finish the game (and beat me). After that I sat around by the tv (which they turned off at midnight) and drew pictures of cats. All the lights had been dimmed and this annoyed me slightly. The entire place had a tense atmosphere. I was surprised the furniture wasn’t bolted to the floor, or that they gave me a writing utensil.

Now we meet one of the most notable characters I met during my stay, we’ll call her Nancy. She emerged from her bedroom area clutching herself as if cold. She was small with a dainty, pointy face and in the dim light I could have swore she was maybe sixteen years old. She went to the nurses’ station for a minute and then came and sat down next to me. I amended her hypothetical age to twenty-two years old. She introduced herself to me in a high, quiet voice and we made small talk for awhile. She was having trouble sleeping because she was used to doing so with the tv on.

I’m not sure what it was exactly, but I quickly decided that I liked this woman. And as she told me her story, it seemed like she was an amplification of me. She was there for the same reason I was, “suicidal ideation.” And apparently she had attempted several times. She had lost the love of her life some years back in a car accident, and more recently, was hurt by someone she thought might have been her second love, and thus the reason she was here. While discussing suicide she used the wording “when I do,” and it made me remarkably sad to think of this meek, amiable woman planning to end her life. She then revealed that she was thirty-three, and for a fleeting moment, I had the frightening thought that I might in her situation someday.

A nurse brought Nancy some medication to help her doze. I watched her get progressively sleepier as we talked. At some point she spaced out mid-sentence. I chuckled, finding this somewhat adorable, and told her she ought to sleep. She said that was a good idea and we said our goodnights. I noticed that a male nurse went on rounds every twenty minutes to account for every patient and record what they were doing.

I could soon hear shouts from one of the bedroom areas, a new patient that was not very happy to be there was making a fuss over the nurses taking her phone. Out of this bedroom area came a small, skinny woman in her forties with naturally tan skin and ruddy brown hair. She seemed bright-eyed and youthful despite her wrinkles, though she had an air of nervousness about her. She said the rowdy new patient scared her and woke her up. We’ll call this woman Sandra.

A nurse and I tried to chat with Sandra and calm her down, convince her that the new patient couldn’t cause any harm. As I talked to her I discovered she was here because she was in a car accident, and the brain damage gave her trouble controlling her emotions. That aside, she seemed to be a wonderful woman, who I wouldn’t have minded being like myself someday. She told me about the husband she’d been married to since she was nineteen, and showed me their matching tattoos. She told me about her perfect daughter, who did well in school and sports and a dozen other things.

Then she went on to describe how the people from her hometown were out to get her. How they framed her for drunk driving, and the person in the other car died. She listed all the evidence she found, the cameras in her hair, the wires running to her house, the pictures on her phone, and how her neighbors stole it all back. It didn’t take long to realize why she was actually here. I thought about how it must affect her family and I felt really bad. She swore that after she moved away everything would be fine. I hope she finally got to.

While we were talking, a hefty black man had wandered out and sat in a chair not too far from us. He seemed to know what was going on, but had a serious mumble and it was hard to understand his interjections. He didn’t appear to focus on anything either. He fell asleep in his chair, his torso hanging over perpendicular to the floor, one hand touching the tile, the other twitching and making a scratching noise against his seat. Soon another, even heftier man wandered out and sat in a seat directly opposite the first. He immediately tucked his arms inside his shirt and fell asleep as well, his head rocking forward and back to the rhythm of the other’s scratching. Sandra and I giggled at their antics.

At 4am she said she was going to try and head back to sleep. I didn’t want to be alone in my room, but figured by now I was sufficiently tired to fall asleep quickly, so I went off to bed myself.

Day Two

Someone came in at 6am to take a blood sample. Soon someone else came in to take my blood pressure. Then someone else for an EKG. This was supremely frustrating.

Next about a dozen people filed into my room all at once. I sat up and rubbed my eyes, still dressed in my clothes from the day before. There were two psychiatrists, a nurse, a social worker, and a whole bunch of interns. They seemed more embarrassed than I did, awkwardly avoiding looking at me. I struggled to focus my tired eyes while the resident psych started interviewing me, and I answered some simple and surprisingly personal questions for everyone to hear.

“Have you had any thoughts of hurting yourself or others today?” This was a question that’d be repeated to me for weeks.

“Well, I’ve been conscious for about two whole minutes, but so far so good.” At least my facetiousness amused myself.

I mentioned again that I was fine and wanted to go home, but the doctor had other ideas. He wanted me to try anti-depressants, explaining that a chemical imbalance in the brain doesn’t necessarily make someone depressed all the time. It can instead cause someone to have overly strong emotional reactions to certain things, which is what I did and have done in the past. I told him I didn’t need to take any medicine, he said to think about it. And just like that, the group filed out of the room.

My nurse for the day stayed behind to talk to me, a chubby, motherly looking woman. And for the first time since the incident two nights before, it felt like I had someone who’d really listen to me. She had the most compassionate eyes of any human I’ve ever met, and her voice was the most soothing. I wept to her, and only managed a few sentences, but it felt like she understood all my pain, my entire life, everything. I could have sworn she was an angel. After she subdued me she offered to bring me breakfast. I sniffled and nodded. I ate in solitude, then ventured out of my room.

It was about 10am, and the first thing I did was call my father back. He was much more calm and understanding this time around. My uncle had reminded him of what he went through when his first love broke his heart. His support was all I wanted, and that’s what he gave me.

The day was for the most part remarkably boring. I longed for a book to read, or my ipod, or laptop, or anything at all to keep my mind occupied. I talked to the other patients intermittently, and during meals. One informed me that if I refused to take the medicine they gave me, they’d keep me here longer. At some point they formed a little group at a table and were coloring pictures together. I joined them, drawing pictures instead. Someone asked if I had drawn those cat pictures lying around, and I soon had several requests. I drew a portrait of Nancy, and also drew an angel for the sweet nurse that played chess with me. Only having slept four hours, I also napped.

Later that night Lisa came to visit me, bringing me an adorable card with a whole bunch of messages inside from people showing that they cared. She kept me company for as long as she could, and it cheered me up a bit. I also talked to my dad again, and he gave me a very long and inspiring talk about love and life. I most specifically remember the line, “Men hate having daughters because men know what men are like.” Feeling weak, I admitted that I really did want him to come visit me, and he said he’d see if he could be there that weekend.

I also worked up the courage to call my mother, who seemed quite shocked at my situation. She called me an idiot for ending up where I was, which is understandable. She also had a long chat with me, sharing her knowledge and experiences. Her advice was a little more cynical than my father’s, but it made sense, and I appreciated it.

A nurse came over to me, telling me I was scheduled for medication. It was a sleeping medication. I guess they didn’t like me staying up so late the night before. I took it without complaint, had a chess rematch with the sweet nurse (and won), and went peacefully off to bed.

Day Three

Again with the constant waking.

My psych team filed in again, this time minus the interns. I agreed to try the medicine, citalopram. I took my first dose. It was supposed to start taking effect in a week, and reach full effect in a month.

Another boring day with little to do, save draw, talk, and watch tv. I found a ledger pad lying around and claimed it for my own. I wrote random things on it, including a list of things I wanted to do before I died. A lot of them involved being naked. I got calls from several concerned family members, and another visit from Lisa, who brought me clothes and chocolates with kittens on them. A nurse confiscated the plastic bag. In the evening I got a miserable headache, the first of the many side effects of the medication.

Late that night Nancy and I were talking in the tv area with another girl, Jen, who was there because she liked to cut herself as a way to “let the pain out,” when we were joined by a new patient, who was certainly the most interesting person there. He was a tall, young looking guy, with extremely bloodshot eyes. He wore a baby blue sweatsuit with a matching beanie hat. Nancy asked what he was there for.

With a tired, raspy voice, he calmly told us that he was Jesus.

Nancy, Jen and I all traded looks of amused interest as we crowded around him and began interrogating him, picking at his brain. I grabbed my ledger pad and scrawled on it excitedly. Here is the gist of the interview:

“I am both Jesus and God. I am constantly fighting Lucifer and the holy spirit (she used to be good but now she sits between my legs and bites me). I absorb Lucifer’s poison through my feet, so it doesn’t hurt anyone else, and it comes out the top of my head. People don’t really have sex, it is an illusion. No new people are born, babies are demons Lucifer tries to deceive us with. There is also no death, that’s Lucifer’s deception. My parents are the devil, I fought them and 666 people in my basement. I was an extraterrestrial baby, they took my brain out and replaced it with a human one. I never died on the cross. I was Adam and the prophet Daniel. I am invincible, and I can’t sleep because the devil will do bad things (hasn’t slept in seven days).

I can hear Lucifer. He’s in my room right now. He doesn’t want to be bad, but we have to fight constantly to keep balance. He realizes everything I say is true and it makes him angry. You three are angels, protecting me. We’re in heaven now. Only righteous people are allowed here. You three knew me previously, as spirits. Lucifer tried to use you against me in my basement. All your memories are false, you only became people yesterday, after I saved you. You (Nancy) were Lucifer’s daughter, and we were in love. You (speaking to me) were Lucifer’s wife. He now has a male lover named Tom.”

This man provided us with entertainment late into the night. He seemed to make contact with reality at some points (mentioned he was bi-polar), but these were few and far between. We ended up going to sleep wondering if he was on drugs, or delusional due to lack of sleep, or just plain sick in the head.

Day Four

That morning, after the repeated wakings, my team and a couple interns filed in again. They went through all the usual questions, then asked if I thought I was ready to go.

“I dunno, I kinda want to stay. Last night you got a new patient that thinks he’s Jesus.”

The doctor chuckled, “You should see when we have TWO people that think they’re Jesus.”

They went over some information and told me I could check out whenever I was ready. I exchanged numbers with Nancy, Sandra and Jen, filled out some papers, thanked my nurses, and I was outta there.


My stay in the ward was a nice escape from reality, and an interesting experience. For three days I was coddled and cared for. And whether I needed to be there or not, I think the time spent there helped me. Sharing your pain with strangers over and over again for days sort of numbs you, and I think I healed a little faster because of it.

The first week of medication was rough. I got headaches, I had trouble sleeping. There were two days I didn’t sleep at all, I think I may have been having a manic episode during that time. I stayed on the medication for a whole month, and it leveled off, but it didn’t really help me. Sure I cried less than I used to (and also had a fierce appetite), but I was sleeping about twelve hours a day, and I was angry almost all the time, which was completely new to me. When I started having vivid fantasies about strangling someone, I decided the medicine was a bad idea altogether. I started weaning myself off of it earlier this week, and now I have to suffer through the withdrawals (which are much like the starting symptoms), but I think I’ll be myself again soon. I see a counselor once a week, which is embarrassing, but eh.

All my teachers were super cooperative with helping me get back on track. Thanks to the teachers I had this quarter, you are all fantastic. And thanks to the friends that kept supporting me through this time, you know who you are. I would also like to thank my family, especially my parents, for being so loving and understanding, and my dad for driving all the way out to see me that week.

I’m not sure why I was compelled to write this memoir, nor why you were compelled to read it. I assume you are close to me, though if you genuinely found this interesting, I suppose that’s nice too. While I did write this for me, I am always trying to improve my skills as a writer, so criticisms are welcome. It's not really a sensitive subject anymore.

Monday, January 11, 2010

It's Bloggering time?

I love to write, and I write for myself fairly often. But admittedly, I like the idea of the public happening to enjoy my writings as well. I would love to publish a book someday. On a smaller scale, I thought writing for a magazine or... blog could be fun. Initially I thought of blogging as a way for nobodies to collectively stroke each others' egos, and well, frankly I'm still not convinced otherwise. There are an awful lot of people out there that think they have something interesting or novel to say when they really don't. I'm afraid of becoming one of those people.

I would like to think I have a distinct writing style but I couldn’t point it out to you myself. All I could say is that my high school English teacher thought my writing was "awkward" and hated my tendency toward long sentences and passive voice. I have had some poems published in school magazines and one of them won some contest in Virginia. I got a whole fifteen dollars for it. Embarrassingly enough I also write racy stories for a website, and I only mention this because I’m proud of my small and loyal following.

I kept a blog for awhile but nobody paid attention to it, perhaps because it was a cheesy MySpace blog. At any rate I'm going to try again. But I figure that most people nowadays prefer watching over reading (unfortunately) so I moved over to YouTube and I now “vlog” regularly as well. You should see some of those in the Video Bar, if it's working properly. I post mostly entertaining videos to gain subscribers, and as I gain more of them I venture to post more meaningful videos, because of course everyone wants to be enlightened by a college girl. That’s not condescending at all. Nope.