Through a sea of tissues and a hacking cough, I scan Netflix pressing that stubborn button on my Roku remote multiple times. I read the summations of shows for several minutes until I come across a documentary called, the 13th. Finally, I settle in. Resting is not an easy thing to do with that constant sense of urgency I live with.
I don’t know what’s worse these days: dragging through a pre-holiday week on the outpatient psychiatric unit on Dayquil; or listening to the radio talk about impending loss as the new cabinet of Trump supporters get selected.
A cross-town, slog into East Oakland after work on the unit one night last week revealed once again that the streets are ever-burgeoning with homeless, some of whom I know intimately. In each car encampment, I saw a distinctive cultural story that needs to be heard.
Living with “Schizophrenia” is not all that hard of a thing to do when you have a warm bed and a Roku machine. Sure there are memories of your brothers and sisters you left behind in the barracks of State Hospitals. Sure, there are people you work with who are still in such grave poverty. But when you have a happy marriage, gainful employment, and a meaningful pastime, it isn’t really all that difficult. Isn’t difficult, that is, except for the fact that you have to stay silent about a world unobserved by most; except for the guilt you have for having survived atrocity when others still haven’t gotten to the other side yet.
Out walking with my wife, earlier in the day we discussed the value of protest, from the North Dakota Pipeline to Black Lives Matter. It is really uncanny these days how afraid I am to join something that I once felt was part of my democratic rights. It is not so much the teargas or the rubber bullets or the pepper spray in my eyes that hold me back. It is my job, my trauma history, my fear of sending the county that employs me the wrong message.
State surveillance is something that kept able-bodied me remarkably underemployed for several years. For those Americans who think this is not possible in our democracy, I have written a book for you. Perhaps, if I had known that I was wearing an ankle bracelet, it may have helped me accept the fact that I had only one job opportunity in spite of hundreds of resumes and applications. The irony that the job entailed work at an Italian Delicatessen when I believed the mob was following me just didn’t occur to anyone. It wasn’t the fact that with bike commute, I had to work twelve hours a day for nine thousand dollars a year that made it difficult. It was the cutting personal harassment and the fact that everyone thought I was just a schizophrenic and not worth seeing.
And to this day, it is striking what can be accomplished and just get swept under the rug. Since my recovery, my memoir has won awards in three contests. I have written and directed a program that brought specialized group treatment into hospitals, local agencies, and homeless shelters that was very successful. I maintained tenure at my job with my psychotherapy license during this time. All this and the county still does not interface with me as it strives to implement my program. Very few people have endeavored to read my book. I still battle with that same sense of invisibility.
But as the documentary the 13th proceeds in my weakened state, I see aspects of my experience unfold. I know what I went through and continue to fight doesn’t just happen to mad people who get subjected to the medical model. The realities of mass incarceration, which afflicts every person of color and immigrant person as well gives me new angles on accepting the shit that I went through. The fact is that what I went through seemed so unique, when it hits close to home for the broad majority.
Bigoted laws disproportionately target the majority. I have always known this, especially when I was in my altered state; but the documentary helps validate the effects of incarceration. Additionally seeing the visualizations of the numbers afflicted helps me feel glad that I have been targeted too.
Seeing the young African American man in the documentary get targeted for refusing to accept a guilty plea was something that I particularly related to. For a long time I refused to accept that I am “a schizophrenic” in a similar manner. I took me such a long time to accept that I could have three months taken from me and be reduced to the most ridiculous poverty and subsequent homelessness over nothing that would ever be explained to me. But though that refusal to accept injustice that I relate to so intimately, hurt me personally, it did not result in the death of me. The fact that I survived and the young African American man died, it just speaks to my own ongoing white privilege that exists with my bed and my Roku and my snot rags.
Of all the movies that touched me during the two and a half years I lived in an altered state, none did so as strongly as Chris Rock’s routine in the movie, Down to Earth. Watching Chris Rock fret about being caught with the rich, dead man tickled me to no end. There sat the murderous wife cool as a cucumber without a care in the world. It was exactly what it is like working at an Italian Deli when you think the mob (and the Feds) are following you. I laughed inappropriately for hours. It was about mass incarceration.
But what I find so hopeful watching this documentary, the 13th, is that against all the lies of power and stigma, the truth can be represented and told. I am grateful that the mainstream who endeavor to give it a chance might come to understand the effects of mass incarceration and how it too could happen to them.
These days perhaps I am not the only person lying sick in my bed waiting for things to get much worse. If there are others there with me, I would highly recommend watching this documentary. It is oh so good to know that ultimately the truth can prevail in our minds. It makes me proud that I broke my book contract because they wanted to edit away my commentary on racial disparity. It makes me proud that the county does not interface with me about my efforts. It makes me proud that I protested in the WTO protest and that I now can support protests which make 13th possible in a variety of meaningful ways. Simply put, the documentary, the 13th gives me a ray of hope that I am not all alone with “Schizophrenia” and suffering without purpose. It helps me prepare for what is to come for the multitudes in the bay area in the immediate future.
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