"It could all be so simple / But you’d rather make it hard / Loving you is like a battle
And we both end up with scars..."
Ex-Factor, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
To say that my first night in the hospital psychiatric ward was one of the longest in my existence isn’t an exaggeration. I'd felt so trapped by life, then hurt myself in an effort to become free. The fact that I ended up putting myself in an actual, physical cage, even if it was just for a night, was a vengeful reality that returned again and again anytime I opened my eyes.
I had arrived at the hospital sometime around ten in the morning. I'd waited in emergency for about eight hours, then was taken to a room to be examined by a doctor. Quickly cleared (though not without judgement), I was taken to a tiny room with a small table, two chairs, and a phone. I waited perhaps another hour. I was visited by a nice lady I would not see again who questioned my motives in hurting myself. As she left, she instructed me to call home. I did. After waiting what felt like another hour someone came for me.
It was mid-November so by the time I walked the maze to my home for the next while, it was dark outside. Hospitals at night are not cute. They’re filled with people yet unbelievably lonely. The man leading me through the dim halls didn’t say much, only occasionally looked back to see I hadn’t run off. I suppose most wouldn't know what to say to a teen who tried to off themselves. A joke feels inappropriate and anything serious runs the risk of sounding like an admonishment. Silence seems like the safest option. We came to a sky bridge that connected the main building to the psychiatric ward. Looking out, I saw a parking lot filled with cars. I could almost hear the muffled sound of the atmosphere in its blanket of snow. I remember fear starting to creep in.
We entered the psych ward and I was greeted at the main desk by a big burly bald man (who I would also not see again) with a no-nonsense attitude. My first thought was: he’s that big so he can overpower the patients. The person I journeyed with disappeared into thin air and, after being given a sleeping pill, I was informed that I was being placed under observation. I would be sharing a room with two others and everyone was already asleep, so I needed to be quiet. This wasn't hard. Inside my brain, a terrible cocktail of self-hatred and numbness trapped my words. Even if I had wanted to, I doubt any sentences would've formed. All the lights in the building were dimmed and there was a terrifying heaviness to the air, the kind that made you feel like it would swallow you whole. In those moments it seemed possible I and this big burly bald man were the only ones alive. He took me to some stairs and started heading down. The fear became stronger.
I was led into the basement where we entered a brightly lit hexagonal room. A heavy looking door punctured by a small barred window was on each wall. There was a man in a hospital gown being corralled by two nurses. He was clearly high as a kite and the nurses were trying to get him to return to bed. When he saw me he smiled a smile so sweet. It was one of the first I'd seen all day and I was totally taken aback, not remotely prepared for kindness. When he attempted to hug me I recoiled and the big burly bald man put his body between us, reminding the man not to touch the other patients. He opened the door to my room and pushed me inside. As the door closed behind us, I looked back to see the man in the hospital gown staring at me with kind understanding.
The room was dark and silent save for the breathing of my two roommates. The big burly bald man pushed me toward my bed and asked quietly if I needed anything. I said no and he informed me that we would be checked on every hour. He turned on his flashlight and told me to get comfy. I stiffly sat down. He swung around, checking on the other two who didn’t stir and left. I stared at the light coming from the main room, the way the little squiggly bars cut it up. I listened to the breathing of the two strangers I couldn't see and wondered what they had done to end up here. I started to cry and lay down, tucking myself under the rough hospital sheets. I curled into the concrete wall, wanting desperately to slam my head into it. Looking up, I could see the stars through a small window near the ceiling. I recall being unbelievably pissed at the sky. Like somehow those stars were an affront to my whole existence. I didn't cry for very long. This wasn't that kind of sadness. Instead, I let my hands roam the divots in the concrete, let the cold permeate.
The pill eventually took hold but, as promised, every hour I was pulled back into the night. The sounds and images in my memory are fuzzy, burned into my brain under a layer of hazy narcotics: there was a clanging door to signal the watcher, a beam of light, a silhouette somewhere beyond. They would stay long enough to know you were breathing, then go. Eventually, the tempo of these visits became the lullaby I drifted off to. Off into a dreamless sleep.
The next morning when I was woken up, my roommates were already gone. I was taken upstairs for breakfast. Everything looked different, including the man in the hospital gown. He looked older now, heavier. He didn't acknowledge me. The cold winter light that infiltrated the building showed it was much larger than I'd expected and also much fuller with people, people who seemed friendly, who wanted to start a conversation. I was in no mood, still trapped in that repugnant cocktail, so I found a corner as far from everyone as I could possibly get and stared out the window. That light. Same as the light the day before. But nothing was the same. I wished for music.
It was only a few weeks before that I had purchased The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Prior to this, my tastes lived most in the space of pop or musical theatre. I was obsessed with Britney Spears, The Backstreet Boys, and Christina Aguilera. As you may have previously read in Part 1, I was a musical theatre junkie, a complete sucker for the shallow unchallenging waters of blockbuster warbling. But sitting in the psych ward doesn’t exactly promote shallowness. Instead, it promotes introspection and, hopefully, a deepening of your understanding of self. If you’ve heard Miseducation you know that album does the same in the most beautiful, hopeful way.
When my mother arrived for a visit she brought clothes and the only thing I had really asked for: my Discman and a wallet of CDs. The first one I popped in was Miseducation. I’ll admit, to this day, I think of that album as beginning with “Ex-Factor” the album’s third track. For some reason, I always skip “Lost Ones” unless I’m feeling like I need hype, and the “Intro” is not really necessary unless you're a completist.
I still remember my first listen. Probably one of the most mind-expanding non-drug related experiences I’ve ever had. There’s layer upon layer upon layer on that album and each one spoke to a different part of myself that had gone mostly unexplored until then. Now, to be clear, I am aware this album was not written for me. I'm not here to appropriate a Black woman’s gorgeous ruminations on love and life and make them all about me. But I can’t deny that while listening to Miseducation I was allowed access to a worldview and life experience I had little knowledge of. This, in turn, gave me entrance to a part of myself I couldn’t have entered before. In other words, exactly what good art should do. It opened my eyes to a different way of seeing the world, pulling me out of my solipsism. The distance I gained from my own situation - one that seemed so hopeless and trapped - showed me I had the tools to continue exploring, to continue breaking down the walls.
This is going to sound simplistic but I believe the lack of this knowledge, the knowledge of your own power, can be a huge part of what allows depression to take hold, to really sink in its teeth. It certainly was for me. I was brought up in a world where I was encouraged to only look so far, where my views were expected to stay confined to a tight box. And, like most people, I had deeper layers that needed tending. My inability to explore them left me emotionally handicapped.
A few weeks back, I was discussing with a friend our differing tastes. I made a bad joke about how his tastes tend toward "white people music." In response, he made a point of telling me that I used music to manufacture emotions because I didn’t know how to access them myself. No, this wasn’t the kindest thing in the world to say, but it’s also not totally untrue. So much of my life was spent tamping down my passions, not being encouraged to speak freely about what I was feeling. And music is a totally accessible way to dig into something you might not otherwise have any idea how to dig into. Lauryn Hill’s vulnerability, wisdom, her way with words… if she could dive into herself, if she could speak the truth about her experiences with strength, then I become convinced I can too.
For example, even though “Ex-Factor” was written about a former lover, its lyrics can also speak to one’s relationship with oneself. I know, even now, I still wage an internal battle on all things. These days, when I listen to Miseducation new things become clear, new layers appear that I can apply to my adult self. Whereas before, I was comforted by the lush romance, and fuck you-ness, today the themes of forgiveness and love stand out in a way they hadn’t before. Like during the interlude at the end of “Doo Wop (That Thing)” when one of the students breaks down the difference between loving somebody and being in love with somebody:
“You can love anybody," they say, "but when you in love with somebody you looking at it like this: you taking that person for what he or she is, no matter what he or she look like, no matter what he or she do.”
Of course, they’re talking about love between two people but as Mama RuPaul always says, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?” You’ve got a responsibility to learn to accept yourself even with all the flaws, to learn to forgive yourself even after all the mistakes.
Another student responds, referring to a theoretical partner, “Maybe sometimes they never been loved before, or they never been in love before, or they never - they don’t know what the feeling is to be loved.” This can absolutely apply to one’s approach to oneself. If you didn’t know how to love that inner being, were never taught to love them, how easy will it be to accept love in kind? To give love?
Art of all sorts presents us with these questions. Art leads us to a deeper self. The best piece of advice about writing I’ve ever gotten was to go out and take in more art, more life - it doesn’t always have to be about getting something on the page. Those experiences feed the page. Those experiences feed your forgiveness and understanding of self which in turn feeds your forgiveness and understanding of others, which allows you to live more intimately, to create more expansively. I'll admit, I'm still not great at this, the chains of emotional repression are hard to break in their entirety, but I know it’s possible. It will always be possible when there are amazing, sensitive people out there making beautiful, layered, intelligent art. It will always be possible when you allow yourself the space to experience that art.
I don’t actually remember how long I was in the psych ward. Two weeks seems too long, but one week seems not long enough. I suppose it was somewhere in the middle. In between visits to the psychologist, occasional group therapy, and becoming confinement friends with the man in the hospital gown, I wrote in a diary while listening to Miseducation over and over and over again. I consider it the gateway to all the art that has fed my practice through the years all the way up to today. It led me to seek out music with deeper layers, to find films that challenged what I thought film could be, to read more, to write more. That album helped me get through, no two ways about it.
If you're an artist of any kind, you might be that beacon to someone out there. You could be the person whose work makes someone feel seen, lets them feel comfortable with being seen, to love, to be loved, and pulls them out of the mire and into the light. So keep going, keep creating. We need you.