Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Fallout of Fake News

The disturbing rise of "fake news" is an inescapable trend that's not going away any time soon. You can post something on social media without a shred of evidence as to its legitimacy. That post gets shared "x" number of times on Facebook, Twitter, etc. and, before you know it, you wind up with "Pizzagate" or some other over-the-top emotional response to a fictional story.

Fake news, however, is not exclusive to social media. It seems that the mainstream media, as well as other media outlets, are sometimes tweaking stories to fit their own agendas and raise their respective profiles. In his final press conference yesterday, President Obama expressed his own concerns with the fake news phenomenon:

If fake news that’s being released by some foreign government is almost identical to reports that are being issued through partisan [U.S.] news venues, then it’s not surprising that foreign propaganda will have a greater effect. It doesn’t seem that far-fetched compared to some other stuff folks are hearing from domestic propagandists.
I do hope that we all just take some time, take a breath... to just reflect a little bit more about how can we get to a place where people are focused on working together based on at least some common set of facts.

My particular focus on fake news has to do with an email I received today from the Daily Kos with an article written by Walter Einenkel. The headline reads: Trump's thanks African Americans for not voting, tells white people that's a good thing." Here is the quote in question that the Daily Kos focuses on:

And the African American community was great to us. They came through, bigly. Bigly. And frankly, if they had any doubt, they didn’t vote and that was almost as good because a lot of people didn’t show up.

Let me translate, if I may. What Trump is obviously saying is that more African Americans voted for Trump than most people anticipated. Whether that's true or not is beside the point. African Americans not voting or anyone else sitting it out, for that matter, wound up benefiting Trump in the end. And as far as Trump passing this information on to white people only, as though he were speaking at a klan rally, is so disingenuous it's almost laughable.

And, yet, my biggest criticism regarding the news, I reserve for Donald Trump himself. When it was reported that China had seized a U.S. underwater drone(which, in this case, turns out to be true), President-elect Trump tweeted out that the drone had been "stolen" by China in an unprecedented act(China returned the drone without incident). This wouldn't be a big deal if Trump was still just a wealthy, outspoken businessman, but he's not. Knee jerk reactions to news stories is nothing new. The Commander in Chief, however, wears many hats, one of those being the hat of diplomacy. Firing off tweets at every news story, fake or otherwise, with no regard as to the consequences can be as dangerous as firing off actual missiles. The only "unprecedented act" occurring right now comes from a man who is doing more damage to the presidency even though he has yet to be sworn in.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

In Defense of a Trump

According to a article, Shannon Coulter, the CEO of a communications agency, has called for a boycott of Ivanka Trump's fashion line, the Ivanka Trump Collection, and she's asking retailers who carry her products to break ties. Why? Because, according to Coulter, Ivanka has steadfastly supported her father's presidential campaign in spite of his misogynistic and predjudicial language throughout this exhausting election.

To Shannon Coulter and any of her followers who plan on entertaining this notion of punishing Ivanka Trump for the sins of her father, I would respectfully advise you to do some research on the clothes you wear. You will be hard pressed to find individuals who don't wear clothes made in sweatshops by the hands of children. Here's a list of some of the U.S. clothing retailers and others who outsource their labor to sweatshops in order to maximize profits:

Before you start pointing fingers at Ivanka Trump, you should, first, take stock of your own culpability in matters of morality. Anything less is hypocrisy.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Wendy Williams and HBCUs

Morning talk show host, Wendy Williams, recently made comments regarding Historically Black Colleges and Universities that didn't set well with many:

...I would be really offended if there was a school that was known as a historically white college. We have historically black colleges.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities(HBCUs) were created in the first place because blacks couldn't attend white universities. Secondly, I attended an HBCU(Southern University) where I graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Political Science. I am white. Just because the overwhelming majority of individuals attending HBCUs are black doesn't mean these institutions discriminate on the basis of color. If they did, I would never have been able to attend and receive the quality education that I did. Let it also be said that Southern University was the only school that accepted me. They did for me what predominately white schools wouldn't. For that, I am eternally grateful. These institutes of higher learning serve a critical purpose and should never be dismantled.

As the result of Williams's comment, however, Chevy pulled out as a major sponsor of her show. We all have learning curves and teachable moments. Unfortunately, we are inching ever so closer toward a nation of robots where everyone will soon be afraid to voice their opinions out of fear of the backlash to come. This will not end discrimination. If anything, it will end further dialogues on topics we desperately need conversations on. If we were as outraged by the epidemic of human trafficking as we were about the opinions of others, we might possibly affect real change. But, then again, that's just my opinion.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Abyss of Affordable Housing

In an article for Slate, Jake Blumgart lays out a plan that he believes will end the homeless problem in America. As I am personally bouncing around right now from transitional housing to homelessness, I felt compelled to comment on a few excerpts from the article.

"America has never really tried to ensure that all its residents have access to decent and affordable housing."

I am bipolar. Let's just get that out of the way. Most everyone here at this transitional housing facility(i.e., halfway house) is either mentally ill, drug addicts, ex-convicts or some combination of all three. As harsh as it may sound, there are many people who aren't equipped to live responsibly in housing of their own. It could be the result of the environment they grew up in or it could be the product of their mental condition. Fixing the mental health issues that plague this country would solve a lot, but that, in itself, is equally and possibly more complex than the housing crisis. Navigating that system is often so frustrating that it leaves you with less hope than when you went in. Either way, the transitional facilities I've been to have rules and a security guard on site. If you don't abide by the rules, you are out on the streets. Some people, for whatever reason, can't abide by even the simplest of rules despite the repercussions. You can't have those people disrupting those who are honestly trying to get their shit straight. And, unfortunately, if you want to find "cheaper" housing, it will often be at the expense of you and/or your family's safety. You cannot give out the housing vouchers that Blumgart speaks of without a code of conduct attached to it that is actually enforced. In an ideal world, nobody would be homeless, but it's just not realistic.

"The consequences have been tragic for many poor families, all the more so because of the invisibility of their suffering. When total costs including utilities are taken into account, a majority of renting families below the poverty line are paying more than half their incomes for housing. “In 2013 between 50 and 70 percent of poor renting families spent half of their income on housing,” writes Matthew Desmond, drawing from the American Housing Survey, in his groundbreaking recent book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, “and between 25 and 50 percent spent at least 70 percent on it."

I couldn't agree more. I live in Austin, Texas, where gentrification(code for "whitening up the neighborhood") has sent living costs through the roof. Even "affordable housing" for those who are considered low income will often take up half your income. This will force me, once I get a check or two, to find someone who is renting a room at a price that is somewhat more affordable. If you are a minority or have kids, this is not exactly an option. Most people, understandably, don't want someone else's kids in their house. The overwhelming majority of people renting these rooms, however, are white and they are going to rent their room to someone who looks like them making the housing issue even more complex for nonwhites. On top of all that, because I have a job, the threshold for being considered "below the poverty level" often excludes those who are working. It's a never ending tale of bureaucracy nightmares.

Boarding homes present a whole other set of problems for low income individuals. Basically, someone rents an apartment or house and charges roughly $500 to $600 for you to live there. They cram as many beds into these spaces as possible. There is no one there to enforce any sort of rules so it's basically a free for all. I thought I was going to get robbed at one of the boarding homes I went to. The place was filthy. Some people I know have told me about crack vials lying around. There have been reports of abuse on residents who are unable to defend themselves. Stealing crucial medications from residents is another problem regarding boarding houses. Why is this allowed to continue? Because the state of Texas does not regulate boarding homes. Many people live off their disability checks which amounts to roughly $600 a month. Being that the cost of living in Austin is growing every day, many low income individuals have nowhere else to turn.

"An accompanying law to prevent landlords from discriminating against Section 8 users could mitigate large concentrations of voucher holders."

There are already laws in place to prevent housing discrimination and, like everything else, landlords know how to get around it. If a particular apartment complex doesn't want you to rent from them, they will likely say that all their units are full whether they are or not. If you have bad credit, like myself, they may ask you for first and last month's rent on top of deposits which could easily discourage someone from living there. On top of all that, if an apartment complex really wants to get rid of "undesirables," they will simply raise the rent and call it capitalism. Good luck stopping that.

"A lot of landlords could get behind a universal voucher program. This would be an intervention with landlords to help families [obtain] the most basic necessity in a way that's efficient and scalable."

The landlord is a mythical figure. When you rent an apartment, you rarely if ever see this person nor do you know their name because they're too busy collecting money while hiring others to do their dirty work. I lived in an apartment complex in Austin that was owned by a company in California. They could care less about what's happening at those apartments, much less vouchers from low income individuals.

"In an essay in Democracy, Peter Dreier recommends an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit to act as a kind of Section 8 voucher through the tax code, which could help renters cover costs without the bureaucracy of a housing authority and without substantial upfront outlays."

This proposal would be useless for many people, including myself, as many individuals have their wages garnished including their tax returns for whatever reason. You can chalk mine up to student loans. Yes, I have a college degree which means nothing in today's economy.

In conclusion, I agree with Mr. Blumgart that the system is broken. This "system" has both helped me and failed me, leaving me anxious as to what the next day will bring because each day is filled with uncertainty. They may put a roof over your head one day and tell you your time is up the next. There are good people who truly want to help you get on your feet and there are others who just dial it in. I can't say that I blame the latter. It's so easy to lose your idealism in this abyss of hopelessness.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Jennifer Lawrence and the Gender Gap

Jennifer Lawrence, the highest paid actress in Hollywood, recently wrote an essay titled, “Why Do I Make Less Than My Male Co-Stars?” The male co-stars in question are Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, and Jeremy Renner of the film American Hustle. In an email hacked by a group known as Guardians of Peace, the President of Business Affairs and Administration for Columbia Pictures Andrew Gumpert writes:

Got a steve warren/gretchen rush call that it’s unfair the male actors get 9% in the pool and jennifer is only at 7 pts. you may recall jennifer was at 5 (amy was and is at 7) and WE anted in 2 extra points for Jennifer to get her up to 7. If anyone needs to top jennifer up it’s meagan. BUT I think amy and Jennifer are tied up so upping JL, ups AA.

We’re not talking about Jennifer Lawrence, the B-movie, second rate actress here. We’re talking about Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar winner and MAIN star in the Hunger Games franchise which topped $2.9 billion worldwide. Anyone who thinks talent and bankability trumped gender in this case is a fool. And it’s mind blowing, to me, that Lawrence was originally at 5 pts. before Gumpert’s feminist leanings nudged him to bump her up to 7 pts. WOW.

Personally, I’m broke and sleeping wherever someone allows me to lay my head. Most people in my situation would scoff at Lawrence’s argument because she’s worth $60 million. Acting, however, is not an affirmative action program and she’s not the daughter of Hollywood studio execs (obviously). Her mother is a children’s camp manager and her father is a construction worker. Acting is a brutal, highly competitive business that swallows most who eke out a meager living while trying to make it big in Tinseltown. And for women in Hollywood especially, the roles offered to you get less and less the older you get.

In Lawrence’s essay she says, “It’s hard for me to speak about my experience as a working woman because I can safely say my problems aren’t relatable. I didn’t want to keep fighting over millions of dollars that, frankly, due to two franchises, I don’t need. (I told you it wasn’t relatable, don’t hate me).” Lawrence shouldn’t feel bad about speaking out. Anyone who is mad about the money she is making should pack their bags for Hollywood and go about the business of getting their foot in the door, otherwise let it go.

I’ve long been in favor of LeBron James making more money than he does. The value of the Cleveland Cavaliers franchise when he’s a member of the team versus the years he was in Miami should be reflected in his salary. He is the face of that franchise. If you think otherwise, go and turn around the fortunes of a struggling franchise with your basketball skills, and, let’s be honest, that’s not going to happen.

Jennifer Lawrence may have been the youngest member of the American Hustle ensemble, but her resume reflects anything but a fresh face on the block who needs to prove herself to justify earning what Bale, Cooper and Renner earn. She won a Golden Globe Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Silver Linings Playbook. She was also the MAIN star in the Hunger Games franchise which grossed $2.9 billion worldwide, not to mention her role in that film as Katniss Everdeen was recognized by Guinness World Records as the highest-grossing action heroine of all-time. And this is where the real disparity comes in to play. How does the highest-grossing action heroine stack up against her male counterparts in other franchises? I’m glad you asked.

Of the $2.9 billion that the Hunger Games franchise took in, Jennifer Lawrence brought home $26 million. Compare that with The Matrix trilogy which grossed $1.6 billion worldwide. The star of that franchise, Keanu Reeves, made $256 million off that gig. The Mission Impossible franchise took in $2.8 billion worldwide, while its star, Tom Cruise, raked in $257 million for his work. Jennifer Lawrence is the face of the Hunger Games franchise and you could make the argument that she should be paid less if the films didn’t generate $2.9 billion worldwide. The fact that she got paid ten times less is not only shameful, but indicative of how Hollywood treats female actors compared to male actors.

And to Chris Rock who said, “You hear Jennifer Lawrence complaining about getting paid less because she’s a woman, if she was black, she’d really have something to complain about." Is being black the only criteria for airing your grievances, even if they’re valid? Let it go, man.*

*This is an older article I wrote for on Jan. 13, 2016. Yes, I post older articles from time to time.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Picking a Vice President 101

Vice President Joe Biden recently stated that if he had run for President of the United States, he would have selected Elizabeth Warren as his running mate. Warren is a United States Senator from Massachusetts - a populist who is not afraid to take on the big banks and Wall Street and, had she run for President, I would have gladly voted for her. I'm a big Elizabeth Warren fan.

In a recent article for Slate, however, Michelle Goldberg said that Hillary Clinton should pick Warren to be her Vice Presidential running mate. As much as I love Warren, this move would be a tactical mistake. When Obama ran for President, he selected Joe Biden to be his Vice President for a number of reasons - the main one being(though Obama will never admit it) is that Biden is a white male. Obama could have never chosen a black running mate or a female or a Hispanic, either. Because Obama is black, he has to offset that with someone who is not. In Hillary's case, she has to pick a male as a running mate because there are people out there who will not vote for her solely because she is a woman. The Vice Presidential nominee is strategically chosen to garner votes that they otherwise might have trouble courting. When John F. Kennedy ran for President, he chose Lyndon B. Johnson because he was from Texas. Kennedy knew he was going to struggle with the Southern vote, so another northerner on the ticket wasn't going to fly. Whether it actually helps or not is debatable, but this is why Julian Castro's name has been thrown around lately as Clinton's possible nominee - he is a Hispanic male which might work, but it could also backfire because of his ethnicity. Either way, I expect Hillary to pick a white male who is well respected, possibly a military guy or someone who, like Warren, has fought Wall Street. But, at this point, all bets are off.

Goldberg goes on to state that Warren "would help to neutralize some of Clinton’s very real flaws; it would be harder to accuse Clinton of doing the bidding of big banks while running with Warren, the scourge of Wall Street. Warren’s presence would give disappointed supporters of Bernie Sanders a reason to rally to the Democratic banner. And by Clinton’s side, she would make it blazingly clear what an epochal moment this is for American women. She’s a choice who could electrify both Clinton’s fiercest progressive critics and her most devoted acolytes."

As much as I admire Elizabeth Warren, a Clinton-Warren ticket is not going to happen unless Clinton truly wants to lose this election and, let's face it, she already has a tough enough fight on her hands as it is. Trump, on the other hand, would benefit greatly by picking a woman as his Vice Presidential running mate for reasons that I really shouldn't have to explain and that won't necessarily guarantee that more women will vote for him based on his choice for a running mate. Nevertheless, this will be a presidential election for the ages. Enjoy.

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Birth of a Nation

At a town hall forum in January of this year, presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, was asked to name her favorite president. Her answer was Abraham Lincoln.
Kirsten West Savali of The Root took aim at the candidate for her choice, saying “it’s worth noting how expendable black lives were to Lincoln then and what that says about Hillary Clinton now and, to a large degree, the Democratic Party.”

It’s not hard to imagine why admiration for our sixteenth president would raise eyebrows among many in the black community. In the legendary Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, Lincoln had this to say about race:

I will say, then, that I am not nor have ever been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the black and white races - that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people, and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which will ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

On the other end of the spectrum is Nat Turner—a slave who many scholars believe played a key role in the Civil War even though he was not alive to witness it. In 1831, Turner led a slave rebellion in Virginia that resulted in the deaths of nearly 60 white men, women, and children. His rebellion also fueled a paranoia among slave owners in the southern states. And, among whites, admiration for Nat Turner raises more than a few eyebrows.

Truth is not always simple, even when the facts are staring you right in the face. The problem only compounds itself when we segregate ourselves into social groups that share the same values and interests. Truth needs conflict, not agreement. In that context, it is easy to see how blacks and whites could view the same subject differently.

I graduated from Southern University—a historically black university—because it was the only school that would take me. Prior to my enrollment at Southern, I knew next to nothing about black history. The public school system didn’t exactly push it. Southern did and it was an eye opening experience. Black history in Lincoln’s time? Forget it. Being against slavery these days is a no-brainer, despite the fact that it still exists in the world today. Opposing slavery in Lincoln’s time was the modern day equivalent of being branded a terrorist sympathizer.

Lincoln, unlike most presidents before him, grew up poor and, therefore, did not own slaves. Owning slaves is something concrete—a criminal act against humanity that is, understandably, unforgivable. Lincoln won the presidential election by carrying 18 states and none of them were southern. Talks of secession began as soon as he was elected on November 6, 1860.

The following month, South Carolina became the first state to secede. If Lincoln wanted to maintain the status quo, not many people were buying it. When it came time to campaign for his reelection in 1864, Lincoln himself believed he would be defeated. The Union troops were nowhere close to beating the Confederate army and Lincoln’s opponents (aside from the Confederacy) were growing in number.

The Atlantic's Mark Bowden wrote that George McClellan— Lincoln’s own general of the Union armies—called the president "a coward, an idiot, and the original gorilla." Northern newspapers openly called on his assassination long before John Wilkes Booth pulled the trigger. Prioritizing emancipation for the slave population was the last thing he needed to do. Lincoln needed alliances and coalitions. Blacks couldn’t vote so he had nothing at all to gain by championing the rights of blacks to a overwhelmingly racist population.

Had Lincoln not colored his words with the brush of white supremacy, he would be a mere footnote in history today. The fact that he navigated the issue of slavery so deftly in such a turbulent era should be commended. While his words, on the surface, are racist, his actions were not. In fact, his success in freeing the slaves was not only a progressive move, it was a radical one as well. Before Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (nearly a century after Lincoln’s death), the majority of whites in the South were still registered as Democrats, not because they were liberal, but because the Republican Party was still seen as the party of Lincoln. He was a hated man, but not nearly as hated as Nat Turner.

In a time when the slave population was overwhelmingly illiterate, Nat Turner possessed a gifted mind, so much so that his master would parade the youngster in front of guests to show off his talents. He knew scripture forwards and backwards. He had a sense of self that didn’t match the reality of the brutal system of slavery he was about to be thrust into. At the age of 10, after the sudden death of his master, Turner was sold off to another master who could’ve cared less about his intellect. By the time he was 12-years-old, Nat was out in the fields working from sun up to sun down. He knew what the future held for him and that was something he could not accept.

As Turner got older, he would watch as the master’s children— children he played with—grew into adults and, eventually, overseers who doled out punishment towards the slaves. Slave masters often used The Bible to condone slavery. But Nat Turner’s interpretation was far different; slavery was a vicious sin condemned by God.

Of the “peculiar institution” that was slavery, families could be bought and sold and ripped apart, women could be raped; and anyone could be killed or tortured for any offense concocted by the master and his overseers. And it was all protected under the law. What many whites can’t seem to wrap their minds around is the fact that Nat Turner killed, not just children but infants as well. How can that be justified?
Many of us hate to wake up in the mornings to work the nine to five we get paid for to do. We can take off when we’re sick. We can take vacations. We can quit and find another job. We often work indoors with air conditioning or the heat on. Slaves, obviously, weren’t afforded the same accommodations we have today. They weren’t even viewed as human beings. You could kill the slave master, but his wife and kids would inherit his “property” which included slaves. In Turner’s world, cutting down the tree was not enough; to end the evils of slavery, you had to also destroy the roots.

The violence of Nat Turner was not a product of Turner himself. It was nurtured, unwittingly, by a system that was too cheap and too lazy to pay for labor or do the work themselves. For a country obsessed with the idea of freedom above all, Turner should be viewed as a freedom fighter rather than a cold-blooded murderer. And for those who are critical of Abraham Lincoln and take his words at face value, I ask you this: how would you have handled the situation differently in which the same outcome was achieved or improved upon?
Much has been written about Abraham Lincoln while the exact opposite holds true for Nat Turner. Most of what I know regarding Turner comes from a 208 page book entitled The Fires of Jubilee by Stephen B. Oates. That’s about to change, however, as Nat Turner’s story is coming to the big screen.

The film version of his life, The Birth of a Nation, was directed by Nate Parker who also plays Turner in the film. Following its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Fox Searchlight bought the rights for $17.5 million—a record amount for a Sundance premiere. It will be released in theaters on October 7. Nearly two centuries have passed since Turner was hung for his rebellion. Hopefully, with this film, he’ll finally be vindicated.

The Happiness Hotel

The first thing I see when I open my eyes is the flickering, flat screen TV mounted high on the wall. My eyelids are heavy and I don’t know if it’s day or night. I crane my head forward and squint, hoping to find the time on the TV screen, but it’s a chore. I lay my head back down on the pillow, wondering why I’m in a hospital as I succumb to sleep.

My body jerks, waking me from a nightmare. I’ve been in the hospital roughly a week, but this is the first time I’m actually aware of my surroundings. I now realize I’m in here because I downed a bunch of sleeping pills in an attempt to end my life. It’s my second failed attempt in a few months and I’m anything but happy that I lived to see another day attached to this screwed up head of mine. In an ideal world, they would open up my skull, find the faulty wires in my brain and replace or reroute them. To get to that hypothetical point, however, we’d have to experiment with the brains of living people and that practice is considered unethical. Instead, we go to therapists and talk about our problems so they can speculate on what is wrong with us. It’s like trying to fix a car without looking at the engine. So, here we stand in the twenty-first century, treating the most important and misunderstood organ in the body as though we were stuck in the Middle Ages. I contacted several neurological researchers prior to my second attempt, offering up my brain for whatever radical procedure they could concoct. I told them I would waive my right to sue. They wanted no part of it. One researcher suggested I call a suicide hotline. If they ever find a cure for what ails me, it certainly won’t be in my lifetime.

A police officer enters my room. I should know by now from my previous attempt that he’s here to transport me to a psych ward, but my head’s still foggy. The task of getting up from my bed to sit in a wheelchair is far more difficult than I thought. The deputy wheels me to his patrol car and helps me get in the backseat before driving away. My nerves, as always, are shot. It doesn’t help that the officer stares at his dashboard-mounted laptop more than the road. He pulls into a facility I’ve never been to before. As he escorts me inside, he tells me he’d be glad to drive me to my upcoming court appearance. I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why I have to go to court. Before I can say a word, he quotes me a price of $160 for his court transportation services. I laugh because he can’t be serious. “That’s the going rate,” he says. He is serious. I assume everyone knows I’m broke.

I sit in a small room next to an administrator. “Do you have any thoughts of harming yourself or others?” she asks. It’s a question I’ll hear repeatedly during my stay at this particular psych ward. I always answer ‘no,’ cautious of the consequences that come with an admission that I do, here and there, have thoughts of harming myself or others. I answer more questions and fill out forms before the administrator gets up to leave. I wait and wait as they process me into the system. I’m tired and growing agitated. Finally, a hospital staffer leads me to a door where he swipes his badge that allows us into a facility that I can’t leave until they say so. I go to my room and fall asleep instantly.

A knock at the door wakes me up the following morning, way too early. It’s my court-appointed attorney. Why do I need an attorney? Is it considered a crime in the state of Texas if you attempt suicide? He leads me to a room and closes the door behind him. He fills in the blanks, but I’m still half-asleep. I think it has something to do with whether or not the court finds me to be sane or insane. Several years ago, I tried to get power of attorney over my mother. I spoke with a lawyer who asked me if she was sound of mind. “No,” I replied, thus ending all hopes I had of making decisions for her, legal or otherwise, despite the fact that I’m her son. The “system” is seriously broken. I’m distressed that I’m heading in the same direction as her, regardless of the steps I take to prevent it. “How long will I be in here?” I ask my attorney.
“Not long,” he says. “We like to call this ‘revolving door therapy’ because once the taxpayers and the insurance companies see how much it costs, they want nothing to do with it.” I wonder how the taxpayers and insurance companies would feel if they knew how much it was going to cost by setting me and my fellow patients loose on the streets? Being that my head’s not right, this place, so far, is a necessary step for me as a transitional phase. The only problem is - what am I transitioning to? My roommates don’t want me back after my latest attempt and I can’t say that I blame them. The last time they saw me, I was crawling around on all fours claiming to be possessed, at least that’s what I was told.

The room I have to myself is short-lived as they move a new patient into the bed next to mine. They have me on fifty milligrams of an antipsychotic medication. My new roommate is on the same medication only he’s taking eight-hundred milligrams. I’m shocked at the amount he’s on. He tells me he may have shot a man while on this medication, but he’s not sure. I’m skeptical. The low dose I’m on puts me to sleep. How can you possibly function, much less shoot a man, while taking that much medication? The answer comes a half hour later as he proceeds to dress himself as though he can come and go as he pleases. He looks under the bed and asks me what I did with the suitcase. He’s convinced that a relative is here to pick him up. I can see the lights are on, but nobody’s home. Through no fault of his own, he can’t be reasoned with and he’s not going to sleep anytime soon. Either way, they have him on way too much medication. Out of all the people here, I will come to like this guy the best. He’s a good guy. He’s just straddled with a brain that no one in their right minds would choose. And, yet, there’s no shortage of individuals in our society who view mental illness as a shortcoming, despite the fact that our knowledge of the brain is limited. I have no idea what’s going on inside his head, but I need some sleep. I ask the staff on duty to put me in another room. They go to my room to check on him. They take one look at him and agree that I should be moved. Once again, I have a room to myself. I fall asleep for a couple of hours before they wake me up and rush me back to the room I was in before, minus the roommate. A new patient is on the way and I have no idea why I have to be moved to make room for this individual. The lack of sleep is making me less sane than I already am.

The fact that it’s Christmas Eve is lost on me, save for the cupcake and cider we get as a gift. My immediate concern is the future because, as of now, it has no clear definition. I could’ve been released today, but I have nowhere to go and nobody wants to take in a 44-year-old with no money who has tried to kill himself twice in the last couple of months. The last time I was in a psych ward, I wanted to leave. Now, I have no other choice but to try and stay here as long as I possibly can. But, as always, I will find a way to sabotage that.

Other than medication, the only way to cure what ails you mentally, according to those who work here, is to attend the many group therapy sessions they put on throughout the day. Treating mental health as a “one size fits all” program is not the right approach. Some people are better left alone. Be it a good day or a bad day, group anything is not for me. A few days removed from trying to kill myself is a definite no-go. Arts and crafts; coloring; yoga; music therapy in which someone breaks out a guitar and sings to us - none of this will help me transition to a future of uncertainty. My arguments against group therapy fall on deaf ears. In fact, the more I refuse to go, the more they try and push it on me. In this place, group therapy is the Jonestown Kool-Aid and I’m not drinking it… that is, until I get hungry. They offer snacks for participating in “group” and when I show up after group is over, the snacks are all gone. So, I begrudgingly sit in on one. The discussion descends into a conversation on race that makes me wish the government would place a moratorium on the subject. The individual running this session is powerless to gain control over the situation so group therapy comes to an abrupt halt. This isn’t a free government-run program, mind you - this is a private institution that I will get billed for.

The following day I speak to a therapist. “Do you have any thoughts of harming yourself or others?” she asks.
I look at her and yawn. “No,” I say. This time, I’m telling the truth. The problem is, the answer to that particular question fluctuates throughout the day. They do have me on medication, but psychiatric meds can sometimes take four to six weeks before they actually work right. Time is not exactly on the side of those with mental problems. I ask her a question regarding my insurance. She confesses to me with a shrug that she doesn’t even have insurance of her own. There’s a dirty little rumor running through psych wards that, if you own really good insurance, they will milk every last dime of it before sending you on your way. If, however, your insurance isn’t so good, your time in the psych ward will be limited, no matter how crazy or dangerous you may be. And why would a for-profit company keep you there if they’re not being paid? I’m all for capitalism, but for those with mental issues, it’s a bad business model.
“How do you feel about the future?” she asks.
“I don’t have anywhere to go when I get out of here, so I don’t have a future as far as I’m concerned.” My answer irritates me and I direct that irritation towards her. “If this place was really professional, it would be more concerned with me not ending up on the streets rather than have me doing arts and crafts or yoga or some other mindless bullshit that’s not going to help me.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Group therapy - it’s fucking stupid.” Coming off a suicide attempt and being holed up in a mental institution leaves you with the feeling of having nothing to lose, thus you tend not to overthink the words coming out of your mouth, even if they are childish.
She jots down something in her notepad and looks up. “What would you like to do?”
I’m stunned. No one has asked for my input, thus far, because only the people who work here, apparently, are qualified to know what’s best for me. “I’d like to write.”
She pauses for a moment and then nods. “Okay.”

My mind is now occupied with a pencil and a small notebook, courtesy of my therapist. Day and night, I write and edit like there’s no tomorrow. This is interrupted, of course, by the drumbeats of group therapy. “You cannot stay in your room all day,” a nurse tells me. “It’s not healthy. You should go to group therapy, it will do you some good.” I voice my displeasure with group therapy and the nurse ignores me. No matter how many times I refuse to attend, they still show up at my door and ask me if I’m going. Hunger, once again, gets the best of me. I want a snack. I enter the group therapy room and head straight for the snack basket. I grab two granola bars and stick one in my pocket. I eat the other one. I pick up a container of juice and swig it, before reaching for another. I grab a pack of cookies and put that in my other pocket. I dare someone to call me out. What are they going to do? Tell me to never come back. I sit down and prepare myself for group. Before the therapist can utter a word, a patient enters the room, yells something unintelligible, and slams the door behind them with the force of a hurricane. My nerves shatter and fall to the floor. I get up, dejected, and leave the room. I ask the nurse to give me something for anxiety.
“Why did you leave group therapy?” she asks, dumbfounded. Now would be a good time to ask if I have thoughts of harming others.

“I’m busy,” I say, when asked if I’m going to attend group therapy. I don’t even bother looking at the individual who asks me that question. The hunger in my belly tells me to grab a few snacks, but I won’t give them the satisfaction. Another knock at the door irritates me as I know what’s coming - a tech peeks his head in the door and asks me if I coming to group. I shake my head.
“Okay,” he says, “but, just so you know, when they see you’re not going to group, they’re going to assume you’re okay and send you on your way.”
I shrug, emphasizing my displeasure. He closes the door. I’m furious. I take his words as a veiled threat. There’s something more behind this group therapy bullshit. Is his bonus dependent on my attending group therapy? Are the health insurance companies pushing it? I get up and pace the hallway, waiting for the moment when group therapy ends. As the session comes to a close, I watch as the participants scurry over to the snack basket and pluck it until it’s empty. I enter the room and ask the tech to take my blood pressure.
“Sure,” he says, “give me one second.” I follow him as he enters another room and fiddles with the blood pressure machine. He asks me to sit down as he places the cuff around my arm. The results speak volumes as my blood pressure is through the roof. Madness and f-bombs spew from my mouth. I want to take the blood pressure machine and break it like an electric guitar, but there are handicapped patients nearby. I storm off to my room.

I take a break from writing and take a shower. As the warm water washes over me, I’m suddenly struck with suicidal thoughts. Hanging myself would be the only possible route to leave here in a body bag, that is, if I don’t botch it again. They already confiscated my shoelaces, as well as the drawstring from my hoodie. I have sheets on my bed, though. I inspect the shower area for a potential site where I could tie off a bedsheet. Once I’m out of the shower, I inspect every corner of the room. I get on top of the heating unit and run my hands over the rail that holds the blinds. A thought enters my head. I get down from the heating unit and write it down before it disappears forever. My suicidal tendencies are pushed aside, for the time being, as my mind is distracted by the need to write.

A knock at the door, once again, wakes me up at the crack of dawn. Do any of these people work in the afternoon or evening? It’s a young lady who introduces herself as my therapist. “You don’t look like my therapist,” I say.
“Yeah, she’s away on vacation for the holidays… anyway, uhm, I see you haven’t been going to group and I don’t think you’re ready to be discharged just yet, so I think it would be best if you were kept here a little longer, okay?”
I nod my head, relieved, though I’m taken aback as her answer completely contradicts what I was told previously.
“Do you have any thoughts of harming yourself or others?”

The nurse hands me the medications I take in the evening. I take the anti-psychotic pill she gives me and place it under my tongue before swallowing some water. I go back to my room and remove the pill from my mouth and place it on the bedside table. I would rather write than fall asleep right now. I stay up way too late before finally taking my pill and dozing off. I’m roused from my slumber by a patient screaming bloody murder down the hall. The staff rushes to her room only to find that she wants a snack. This routine will repeat itself throughout the night as the staff indulges her each time. I’m wide awake the following morning as another unfamiliar face claiming to be my therapist enters the room. She starts to say something before being interrupted by another piercing scream down the hall. She calmly waits for the scream to end before informing me that I am being discharged.
“Wait, what? - They just told me yesterday that I was fine - I mean, I’m not fine. That’s what they said. I’m no good. I need to stay here.” Words are flying out of my mouth way too fast to make any sense. I catch my breath. “You can’t just tell someone they’re not okay to leave one day and then discharge them the next. I have nowhere to go.”
“They told you yesterday you weren’t leaving?”
“Who told you that?”
“My other therapist.” She looks at me with genuine concern.
“Okay, give me a few minutes and I’ll try to figure out what’s going on.”

Hours pass before I see my therapist again. She leads me to a room and closes the door behind her. She confirms my suspicions that insurance is behind all this, that is, they will no longer pay for me to stay there.
“Can you call your roommates and ask them if they will take you back temporarily until you get back on your feet?”
“They’re not going to take me back, trust me.”
“What if I called them?”
“Good luck.”
“Okay,” she says, as she gets up from the chair. “I’ll give them a call and you go call your employer to see if you still have a job.” Before I can say a word, she exits the room. She’s putting the apple cart before the horse. I need stability in the form of a roof over my head before I can even think about going back to work. I need money to pay for my medication because this place isn’t going to supply it. I will be nothing short of a disaster without medication, but that’s of no concern to this place. She returns to tell me what I already know. She apologizes and gives me a voucher that will allow me to stay one night in a homeless shelter downtown. From there, I’m on my own. And I’m not the only one who will get the boot on this particular day. They will discharge patients who have serious medical conditions. They will discharge another who, in his own words, is a danger to society. All of this will be done to bring in new patients who have resources in the form of insurance. How else will this facility make money?

As I exit the hospital, still wearing the blue paper-thin scrubs administered to me, the head honcho reminds me that I still have an outstanding balance that needs to be paid. I question him as to why I was told yesterday that I needed to stay here longer, only to be discharged today.
“We feel like you are well enough to leave,” he says with a big grin on his face, never once mentioning that insurance, not my mental state, is the reason for my sudden departure. I shake my head and exit a facility that seems to be more dysfunctional than its patients. I will call my last lifeline - a friend from work - and ask if I can stay the night. He tells me I can stay until I get a full paycheck, which puts my mind at ease. My future is filled with uncertainties, but it’s nowhere close to what many of my fellow patients will face. It’s a realization that makes me feel both lucky and sad.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Purple Haze

It's been about two weeks since the death of musical icon Prince and, so far, the media wants to blame his death on a dependency to pain pills. I have my doubts. My aunt died of a heart attack many years ago at the age of 49. She was an active member of her church choir and, as far as I know, she never did a drug in her life. Had she been famous and addicted to pain pills, hypothetically speaking, the media would have attributed her death to pain pills, regardless of the fact that she may have died either way. Prince was 57 years old. He wasn't exactly a spring chicken. These things happen. Many deaths can be attributed to a dependency on drugs and it is possible that drugs played a part in his death. Death and drug dependency, however, are not mutually exclusive.