When I first speak to someone, they will generally automatically assume I am a bitch. And I mean, well… But it’s mostly just my voice. Sometimes I’ll get snappy patients that tell me I need to watch my tone of voice. I tell them that I was born with this tone of voice. It’s a low, soothing tone I like to call RBV, or Resting Bitch Voice. It’s the same voice for everything. This is my bitch voice, my empathetic voice, my bedroom voice… I just like to keep people guessing…
A woman named Ellen Baxter goes to a mental institution to visit her mother. What she sees startles her. Her mother sits in a wheelchair, her speech is incredibly slurred, and she is clearly, heavily over medicated.
This was a moment described in an episode of the podcast Invisibilia, from NPR. This is the stereotypical example everyone thinks of when they hear “mental institution.” People drooling, with their heads tilted awkwardly to the side, eyes glazed over. It is a scary thought. This sort of image is the reason “mental institutions” have such a negative and frightening stigma.
But I work in a psych unit, and it’s not like that. My patients don’t drool, and they don’t have glazed over eyes.
This episode of the podcast is dedicated to the idea of solving problems. It begins with a family of a million girls, and the horrible, but inevitable issue of drain hair. And how they managed to find a solution to vastly easier drain cleaning. It is just a quick example of the innovation and ability to solve even the most obscure problems. But at about the 6 minute 15 second mark of the episode, we get to the meat of the matter. We hear Ellen Baxter’s story.
Ellen actually ran from home, and her mentally ill mother the first chance she got. She went to college and became a psych major. Influenced by her visit to the institution where her mother was, she made it her mission to find a more humane way to treat mental illness. She put herself through the experience most people would be too afraid to do. She fakes a mental illness and gets checked into an institution. While most people are probably suddenly hearing the Eagles song Hotel California, Ellen only stayed for one week. One week was enough time for her to see and understand that there really wasn’t any useful therapy provided to the patients. When asked what the patients did all day then, Ellen answered that they watched TV, they stared out the window, and they waited for the bell to ring. The bell that tells them it’s medication time, that tells them it’s snack time… She said she could “almost see the humanity of the people evaporating.”
And the more I thought about this description, the more I realized it actually sounded uncomfortably close to the day-to-day of the unit I work on.
I graduated college with a bachelors in Psychology also. I think I also had a deep seeded desire to help people. To help find a way to guide them through their most personal struggles. I am not a nurse, so I can’t give my patients medications. So I have to work twice a hard to find ways to help them through their crisis. Whether it is a cup of double bagged chamomile tea to help ease their anxiety, a warm blanket to ease their fear, a shower to burn off some steam, or just someone to talk to. I had decided a long time ago that the most important thing was to see each person as an individual rather than a patient, to remember that they are at possibly the lowest point of their lives, and to remember that, for some of them, this is the first time they will have someone who is there to support, and listen to them. And if I can’t do anything else for them, I can certainly listen to them, and to remind them that they are still worthy of someone’s attention.
Ellen Baxter sat down and did some research to find a place where “dependent and disabled people were not thrown away.” What she finds is a town in Belgium called Geel.
This town has an extraordinary way of dealing with its mentally ill population. They are taken into the homes of the towns folk and cared for. The obvious question that burned on Ellen’s mind, and probably many many others was, isn’t it a burden?
Every single host family she asked said, “no.” Apparently this tradition had gone back all the way to the 1300’s. For the towns folk, this way of life is just normal. The mentally ill of the town are treated as any other member of the town. And while hosting some of these individuals can be difficult at times, they do not see it as being any more difficult than dealing with an outburst by someone who is not deemed mentally ill.
What made these towns folk so different in their treatment of the mentally ill, is simple acceptance. They do not see mental illness as something than needs fixing. The host mother allows her boarder to nervously twist the buttons off his shirt, and each night she would sew them back on. While this seems tedious, she is not burdened by doing it. This is just an aspect of who this man is, and she accepts it. The man who hallucinates lions coming out of the walls, his host mother would simply chase the lions away, and the man feels relief.
While it’s easy to imagine how this method with the mentally ill could fail in so many ways, somehow it is managing to work. Maybe allowing each mentally ill person to remember that they are human has some benefits.
It is certainly something I see less and less on my own unit. I see it less in the community as a whole. Mental health has such a negative stigma, it is treated as almost a death sentence. While individuals gain the label of “mentally ill,” along with it seems to hang the label “doomed,” and society turns its back on them. It breaks my heart to see how little funding there is for mental health resources, how alone people suffering from mental illness feel, and how scared they are to seek help.
I think what makes a town like Geel so successful is that the mentally ill aren’t taken somewhere to be hidden like a stain from society, they aren’t taken somewhere with the expectation of walking out the doors “fixed,” they are taken somewhere to be supported and treated as a human.
These were only my thoughts on the first half of the podcast. There is a whole other half hour continuing Ellen’s mission for the humane treatment of the mentally ill.
Here is a link to the full podcast episode. The Problem with the Solution.
Here is a link from NPR exploring the episode deeper, with links and resources.
Here is a link to an article written by Angus Chen for NPR on the town of Geel and this boarding program, titled For Centuries a Small Town has Embraced Strangers with Mental Illness.
I’ve wanted to watch this since it came out. I’m kind of sad it took me so long. It’s certainly not a pick-me-up film, but after a crummy day, it is what I needed. Not because it was tragic and someones life is worse than mine. But because this was an absolutely beautifully done film.
In a setting we cant even imagine growing up in, a young boy innocently tries to sell a tv set with no screen, for food rations. He is then thrown head long into the bowels of war. A grittier war than we typically imagine. We see his very childhood stripped away from him. He is handed a machete and a gun and told to kill.
It sounds like a simplistic story, and maybe it is. But this story was about the journey this boy takes. And the fear and the loss and the breaking of his spirit, that you feel with him. The moment he finds his mother, and she doesn’t even recognize him. And in that moment, the final loss of purpose within him. Where does one go from there, when civil war has ravaged your country? Where is home then?
With Bacon, Onion, Cream Cheese, and Basil
Goddamn, where was this film a couple months ago while I was on my Civil Rights kick?
This woman was amazing! While an incredibly strong activist for Afro-American rights, she also laughed. She laughed at just how astoundingly ridiculous racism was. She laughed at there being 2 separate water fountains. She stole “colored” signs and sent them home to her mom. She became so incredibly vocal about Afro-American history and awareness, and yet never seemed touched by any of the racial trauma that most activists had felt or experienced at one point in their lives. She grew up in an incredibly diverse neighborhood, and became whole heartedly proud of who she was. Every aspect of who she was. And so unafraid of who she was. An interviewer asked her if she was tired of being labeled a “black woman writer,” and she said no. She was tired of being asked that question. And laughed. Despite scathing and insulting reviews stating that while her talent was abundantly clear, she was limiting herself by only writing about the black experience, she never stopped writing about the black experience. She recieved a letter from a prison stating that they had banned one of her books for fear that it might start a riot. She framed it and hung it on her wall, impressed with herself for having that much power. From the age of 3 she understood the power of words. And maybe that stoked her determination and strength to write what she wrote. She wrote about what she cared the most about. Unapologetically. In the hope that maybe she could help people find a little more humanity within themselves.
While I admit that I have never read any of her books, I am deeply impelled to amend that.
There is a place I go when I need a break from life. A place that sits on the outside of Reality, conveniently hidden just behind my imagination. It is a place where music is played every day. The type of place where you find so many other people just like yourself. A pace where you fit in rather than sit out. This is the pace I go to when I need to escape. The doorway appears very rarely. This trip is what keeps me in childhood. And this trip had to end soon. This was my last. Ever.
Of course, I had to wake up early. It always happens that way. The excitement builds in you until you can not do anything but smile. And yet that smile is more genuine and bright than even the sun itself. Of course, it always happens that way.
Then there is the journey. I suppose the journey out of reality must always be a long one. There should be nothing of reality remaining within your heart. And I suspect each person’s journey is a different length. Mine, 10 hours. 10 lovely hours flying across the surface of the seemingly endless sea. The end of the journey will come into sight only when you wish it to.
And once there, all the faces you know so well, yet never see, will greet you with arms to embrace you. The music will be audible nearly 10 miles before land even comes into view. Some 10 thousand fingers and one thousand lungs shall be the ingredients for the scrumptious sweet of sound to be eaten only by ears alone. Fingers and lungs from the faces of those you know.
While indulging in the delectables of sight and sound a bond forms between the hearts of every one like bone and flesh bond together. And you know that it would be always much easier to stay and keep them than to break the bonds and bleed. You know that it’ll happen though.
And just when everything is good and wonderful and the curiosity towards the empty hole in your mind that was reality is no longer there… you find before your feet the edge of the ramp to the boat. in a world where we face only forwards… you know that the time has come.
You begin your journey back and it seems as though the journey back is always shorter than the one away. In a mere blink of the eye you see land again. The land that is reality. And everything that once made you smile begins to fade from mind like mist in the sunlight. It becomes like the memory of a glorious dream soon vanishing. And as you open your eyes everything is still moving forwards as usual.
This trip had to end soon. This was my last. Ever
I once asked my parents how it was that they happened to meet and fall in love. At the time, it was just getting dark out and we had just finished dinner. I think my mom was just about to do the dishes, but jumped on the opportunity to put it off. My parents exchanged looks and I could almost feel it in the air that we were being taken back in time.
“It started,” my mother began, “with your geeky father.”
This of course was the first time I had ever heard that my calm and cool dad used to be a geek.
“We were both living in a small town and I appeared to be some kind of an accident magnet for your mother,” my dad continued.
“Thankfully we grew out of that stage. We met when your mother ran me over with her car,” they exchanged smiles as if it were a fond memory.
“There was no serious damage done. The serious damage happened the second time.”
The story continued. Apparently after the first accident with the car, they kept meeting my accident. They would meet in the store and my mom would run him over with shopping carts, or cause end cases to fall on him. It was almost like clockwork, the moment he saw her something would go wrong.
It got to the point where my dad never went shopping anymore. He almost never went out. Things were fine for a while. He began getting used to not having an injury when he went to bed at night. And then, just as life was getting back to normal, he realized that he had begun to miss her. The whole time my dad was taking the break from my mom, she thought that maybe he had gone on some chess club trip or something.
So my dad, the dog, decided that he would ask her out.
Again my parents threw that “fond memory” smile at each other. When no one answered as to how it happened, I asked.
It turned out there was another thing my mom always did when she saw my dad. They have the exact same taste and so when my dad went to the store to get something, my mom would grab the last one (and knock something over on him by accident.)
So my dad devised a plan. He went and found an apology card and wrote a message on it. Just as he had suspected, my mom came for the card. When she opened it she found my dad’s message:
I’m flattered you were buying me an apology card, but how about you apologize in person over dinner with me.
–Geeky Guy you keep running over
Of course my mom said “yes.”
The night of their first date, my dad said he was really nervous. He decided to walk to the restaurant. Little did he know what a bad mistake that was. Somehow my mother managed to run him over again. This time, he broke his leg. She felt so bad that she went to the hospital to see him every day til he got better. I think, sometime while my dad was in the hospital things began to change. They began growing out of their accident prone stage, and my mother never caused serious damage to my dad again (except the time she broke his nose, by accident.)
“That was how we fell in love.”
This song. I don’t listen to it very often. Actually, I rarely listen to it at all. Usually just by mistake. I’ll pull out an old CD that I made years ago. Old CDs are the best way to remember things. They really take you back. Force you into a time you’ve already lived before. A free ticket back into the past.
Anyway, I’m sitting in my room and listening to this CD and enjoying it til this song came on and my emotions did a complete flip. This song, once beautiful, now something that almost burns my ears. Tempted to skip over it… my fingers won’t move.
This song is about a boy who nobody likes. The sort of boy who sits in the back of the room unnoticed, and stays home from school dances. At first, I suppose the song mostly appealed to me because of the music. You hear the words and recognize that they are sad, but for the most part they don’t really touch you emotionally, until you meet that kid.
I had never really liked seeing kids sitting by themselves. He was. So I changed that by sitting with him. I must have figured something would change, because when I saw him alone again the next day I was surprised. After that, I made a note of saying “hi” to him and sitting with him each day.
The thing most kids don’t realize is that even the quiet, shy kids are interesting too. He loved to read books, that’s probably why he was so quiet. It was his own personal escape from reality. What he loved most were Star Wars books, and Lord of the Rings books, and any sort of story that was as far from modern as possible. He love Star Wars best though. He often drew his own deep space scenarios involving Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker and all the characters. He was a fantastic artist too. He was in a couple art classes. He always finished the assignments early so he would have time to draw his own pictures with the art supplies provided. He never turned in anything other than what was assigned though. And he only did moderate work on what was assigned. He did it so the teachers wouldn’t recognize him as anything special. I told him it was wrong.
He had a funny walk too. He said it was because he broke his leg when he was young. At first I thought he was walking that way because his feet were wet and he was walking on linoleum floors and didn’t want to fall. But I learned that wasn’t the case.
I never made fun of him like the other kids did. I think after spending so much time with him I must have fallen in love in my own way. On Valentine’s day he drew me a beautiful picture of a young rose. Life got to the point where I could hardly imagine life without him sitting in his corner in the hall. But that is exactly what happened. One day he wasn’t there and I was the one left alone. He wasn’t there the next day, or the one after that, or any day for the rest of the year. After I had taken time to think about it, I know what had happened. I, alone, wasn’t enough to pull him out of the hole he had fallen into. I had really tried though.
And so this song I once loved, now feels like knives to my soul. That is why I rarely to never listen to this song anymore.
8 21, 2084
Our maid found my other notes and threw them away. That’s the problem with them, they just throw everything and anything away. It took me a really long time to find any more paper. I suppose its strange to be doing this though. After all, now a days no one ‘writes’ anymore. Not by hand at least. Now the recipe for a good story is a computer and microphone. That’s how I should really be doing this. Good old fashioned auto-speak diaries. Computers record everything you say and puts it into the vast memory of the computer. That’s how all of the great contemporary classics were produced. I feel as though I have a lot of thoughts to be recorded though. Thoughts I don’t want the Network to monitor.
Anyway. The other day our maid died. She actually died. Just on her own. I came out into the living room to tell her to clean my room next, and there she was, just lying there on the floor. I pushed the emergency panic button and a team of roboticians came in. We’ve only had to call them over one other time. Our last maid was acting really weird. She kept throwing things on the floor. The roboticians rewired her, but it was no use. This time, our robot maid just died.
20 years ago all the robots were updated to look just like humans. To help them fit in better. The only way to tell the difference between robots and humans was to somehow get inside them. When I walked into the living room and saw her, I nearly screamed. I realized in that moment, that for the first time in my life, I’d have to clean my room myself.
9 3, 2084
Our NewsClip of the day was filled with reports of robots acting out. Lately they’ve all been acting weird. It’s so hard to find good work these days. If our robots stop doing the work we make them to do then we, the people are going to have to do it. The roboticians have been working overtime. They’re thinking of scrapping all the old model robots and starting over. As if it’s not stressful enough having our teleporter break, now all the robots are malfunctioning. My grandma once told me that way back in the olden days, people walked everywhere. “Cars” were only used to transport someone long distances. Like between housing units. I can hardly imagine. Now, people just teleport everywhere they want to go. Although we all know it’s because the cars of the olden days ran on a strange kind of fuel that was eating away at our ozone. So now, we don’t use “cars.” Although, it’s not like anyone would want to walk anywhere anyway, teleporting is just easier. Each building is about two miles from the next. My grandma said it was a scheme. The Network says they did it for the people. “It’s all for the best.” My grandma says they’re trying to make us all “lazy.” I still don’t know what that word means.
9 10, 2084
I remember one time I was playing my daily game of virtual chess with some kid in the Game Center. There was something about the kid that made me a bit uncomfortable. I think most of the kids my age felt it. Kids. My grandma told me that the Network controls us through the Youth of the Nation. I think I finally understands what she meant by that.
Our NewsClip today was one story over and over and over. And as if it weren’t strange enough in the first place that the kid was out walking around instead of teleporting, he was being followed by a couple of kids my age. I had overheard them once talking about how they believed he was really a robot. I never thought they’d take action on it. The kids like trying to impress the Network. We all know the only way to discover a robot is by getting inside them. These kids took the kid to the top of an abandoned building and began slicing him up. They must have known there was a camera up there, but that’s how kids are these days. They try hard to show everyone that they are following America’s Standards to their fullest, and that our nation is heading in the right direction.
I’m against the idea of robots thinking for themselves as much as the next person, but what these kids did was wrong in the eyes of everyone. And they played the surveillance video of it over and over on the NewsClip. It was horrible. I’m sorry, I can’t write more about it right now. I think I need to take a walk.
Have you ever discovered someone you knew would be your best friend if you ever were to meet? Or perhaps I would embarass myself by simply being in awe. This woman with these wide, bright eyes, and frizzy hair, and an unfiltered mind. This woman who was Canadian (so of course she’s brilliant), grew up half in school, half in the woods. Learning about plants, and bugs, and developing a love of the real world. Not burdened by the world we all grow into.
This film starts off with an audio overlay of her reading the beginning of The Handmaids Tale. And all through the film, moments of her reading. Her voice is slow and somber, as though it is a burden to read her own words. Or rather, she knew that people were listening, there was no need to rush, or to yell, or to get excited. Every word she read would be heard to the fullest.
And her words are amazing. She writes about big ideas. Her books and her poetry are her canvas to say what the world needs to hear. And yet it is always so perfectly written.
Early in her life, she and other girls were made to watch an old film. A film about a woman who must choose between her career as a dancer, or the man she married. In the end, she kills herself. The message to the girls being, don’t choose a career. And she vowed to never believe in that.
I admit to not having read or seen The Handmaids Tale. Margaret’s agent recalls a moment during writing it, that Margaret tells her how difficult it is, because she felt very frightened. But like Malcolm X told Sam Cooke, the people are listening to you, use your voice to make change, Margaret Atwood is also using her voice to make change. And like Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come became the theme song for the Civil Rights Movement, The Handmaids Tale became a symbol for activists today.
And I could only dream to be as brilliant.
“I never thought I’d be a popular writer,” she said, “I only wanted to be a good one.”