My music is evidence of my soul’s will to live.
– Charles Mingus
Off of the cafeteria, past the puzzles that smelled like cat pee and the front desk where we got our medication, I would sit with Carlos (not his real name because nah bruh.) We would talk when we didn’t want to be with the main group. Some of them were really intense and I would struggle with my introvertedness around them and want to be alone. Being with Carlos was easy because he would do all the talking. He was Bipolar I, moods cycling so fast that sometimes he’d need to leave the room so he could get himself together. He would feel things with the intensity of solar flares. Love, rage… all of it was a torrent of emotional river water that he couldn’t contain.
I asked him what landed him in there and he told me about his wife/fiancé/girlfriend. “I love her” he would say, punctuating every sentence with it like a period or exclamation point. He told me, while declaring his love over and over, that she broke it off with him and so he went to her house (I love her) and knocked but she didn’t answer. He looked in the window and saw she wasn’t home (I love her) so he cried and cried.
But then he got mad.
He cried as he threw bricks and mud at her front door, screaming her name.
He cried as he broke all her windows, screaming for her.
He cried as he fought the five police officers that showed up to get him.
I asked, at this point concerned about whether we should be talking about this because he was getting upset, if that’s what got him in here. But he kept going.
That stuff landed him in jail. No mental health professionals. No evaluation. Just a few nights in the drunk tank, charges, jail time.
When he got out, he fought any and everybody. He described going to the mall and challenging gang members to a fight by insulting them repeatedly about their gang. When they finally responded, one of them recognized who he was and told his folk to back off. Carlos was known to fight, and likely hurt, anyone. People said he was crazy.
They tried to walk away but he followed them. They laughed it off and got into their vehicles, but he climbed onto the hood of one member’s truck. He stomped and clawed and urinated on the windshield, screaming for them to come out and fight. Frustrated, they sat idle until the police came. Officers looked up Carlos after getting him to come down. They saw that he was known for this behavior. Rather than put him in jail, where he could find more people to fight, they sent him to be with us.
At this point, I was amazed and silent. We sat there together, letting the empty space sit with us. He broke the spell by asking me why I was there. I told him and said the story wasn’t nearly as exciting and he said:
“Nah, never that. Big Black dudes get shot for what I did.”
He told me that he had never been in an institution with a man my size that had a violent incident. He didn’t believe it wasn’t possible but he certainly felt it wasn’t likely.
We just don’t survive.
People ask me sometimes if I learned something about myself in that strange period where I went into a hospital twice for the same illness and got two vastly different treatments. I got a lot out of it and I’ve written about some of it. But I’ve been scared to talk about Carlos and my central lesson:
Don’t you dare be both Black and crazy.
Don’t you dare show up vulnerable and scared because you’ll end up powerless if you wind up in the wrong place.
Don’t you dare show anger or frustration because if you do, you could be suicided or erased from society’s collective memory.
Don’t you dare mourn the loss of your mind because you could end up being labeled permanently sick if you stay in your grief too long.
You could end up like Michelle Lee Shirley.
You could end up like Rodney Hess.
Lucky for me, I was born to love breaking the rules.
My Black and my crazy belong to me. They aren’t something I would ever give away if I wanted to. They don’t sit in a box, waiting for me to take them out when it suits me. I can’t push them out of the way when someone is misunderstanding me. They sit out front, their desire to be seen and heard so much more important than my fear. Crazy, for a long time, wasn’t something I would hang onto but after some time away with the puzzles that smelled like urine I found we could get along just fine with a few rules. Black? That one has been a lot harder. The baggage felt heavier and the price seemed so high that I just didn’t want to pay it. It gets easier and lately, I’ve felt closer to my Blackness than ever as I raise a son who wants to see it in all shades and sizes. So much of life waits for us when we recognize things that feel like burdens as gifts we may not understand how to open.
My Black and my crazy are here to stay. They’re gifts, regardless of who wants to punish me for having them. I’m going to polish them like rubies, ready for sunlight to travel through their complexity.