What does it mean to be “woke?” Are YOU woke? And if you’re NOT aware … are you denying reality? Real stories from real people, about whether the truth hit in an instant or set in slowly.
Guests: Megan Hicks, Kitty Hailey, Carlos Roa, Cheyenne Barboza, Dr. Neil Bardhan, Matthew Thompson, Kendra Rosati
Photo: Johanna Austin
How much to tell
It takes courage to transform a personal experience into a performance story. That's what we like about these three risk-taking story tellers.
Words are alive and go through cycles of meaning. The powerful "woke," political and provocative, has lost some of its punch as it has been adopted and co-opted.
Read the transcript
Song: “I woke up this morning with my mind, set on freedom…”
Jamie J. Brunson: This is a song that represents the civil rights movement of the 1960s for many people. Although it's not exactly the kind of "Woke" we're exploring today, it's closely related to a never-ending struggle for equality. We are thinking of “Woke” as in being aware, attuned, vigilant to your surroundings. I'm Jamie J and this is Commonspace. For this episode we asked three storytellers to weave their stories around the theme of "Woke", and they came up with three completely different takes.
Elisabeth Perez- Luna: Jamie, before we start--
Jamie J. Brunson: Oh, that's WHYY's Elisabeth Perez-Luna.
Elisabeth Perez-Luna: What is your take on Woke?
Jamie J. Brunson: Oh. For me, it's that moment when you realize it, that everything is not the same for everybody. Things are different for different people. It's like something happens and an alarm goes off. A confusing, frustrating, heartbreaking alarm that says, "Pay attention to this. It's really important."
Spike Lee film clip: “WAKE UP!!!!”
Jamie J. Brunson: And once you hear that alarm bell, that bell can't be unrung. And maybe it shouldn't.
Spike Lee film clip: “WAKE UP!!!!”
Jamie J. Brunson: Let's call these...woke moments.
Elisabeth Perez-Luna: That makes sense to me.
Jamie J. Brunson: But you know, I didn't come up with that term. "Woke" and "Stay Woke" is a term that has become very popular. It was resurrected after the Mike Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri by the Black Lives Matter movement. And it meant “stay aware”. Especially stay aware of social injustice and racism. And so today when we talk about these woke moments from these woke storytellers we see how the conversation began with the Black Lives Matter movement and it has now branched out to elevate the consciousness of everybody. So these three storytellers today, you know, may not be directly connected to the Black Lives Matter movement, but had clear authentic stay woke moments. So it's beautiful how it's just pushed out to all of us and elevating our consciousness for everybody.
Elisabeth Perez-Luna: Woke moments, indeed. Well, Our first storyteller is Megan Hicks. Listen up.
Megan Hicks: Alberta and I moved in next door to each other in the spring of 1986. It was an ethnically diverse neighborhood in Oklahoma City. A magnet for refugees. Mostly Vietnamese, Cambodians, Guatemalans. Alberta was a refugee from a blighted neighborhood in Cleveland. She loved her new home. She had a job, a car, affordable rent in a safe neighborhood, and a cousin close-by who could help her with her two-year-old.
I was a refugee from the suburbs – a couple of zip codes away - and a failed marriage. I hated this place. I was underemployed, trying to make ends meet with two small children, a volatile ex-husband, and a boyfriend who was bearing disturbing similarities to all the men I had ever been involved with. This was the only neighborhood I could afford, and I didn’t see any way out.
I enjoyed getting to know Alberta. Our visits across the driveway. Another single mother to commiserate with. Three or four times a week, coming in from work, we’d just stand outside and talk. I thought, we are peas in a pod. We get each other. We are in the same boat.
But then, she started dating this guy, Donald. He seemed nice enough. We never really spoke, but he’d wave if we were both outside at the same time. Good looking man; always well dressed. Two or three nights a week, his car would be parked outside of Alberta's house. It looked like things were going great. But now I hardly ever saw Alberta anymore. Sometimes I wouldn’t see her for several days. And then she’d appear rushing from her front door to her car. “Hi, Alberta!” And all I’d get was a wave over the back of her shoulder. Probably late for work. Just like me.
Sometimes after a long absence, I’d see her dragging herself from the car to her front door. “Hey, Alberta! How ya doin’?” She’d adjust her sunglasses and look the other way. Like she was avoiding me. I understood. Completely. She probably just needed some space. She worked in a beauty shop from seven in the morning 'til five in the afternoon. Maybe she just didn’t feel like talking.
One time I startled her though. Walking home from the store, I cut across her lawn as she opened the door to check the mail. Her eyes were bloodshot and swollen almost shut. Like she’d been crying really hard. Well, I could relate to crying hard. I mean, we were both in a chronic state of exhaustion. Single parenting is the equivalent of three eight-hours shifts every day. On top of work. And a relationship. I got it. We were in the same boat.
At this time, I had about half a dozen part-time jobs. I was also sleeping with one of my bosses – Curtis. The one who was there waiting for me when I ran away from the suburbs and my marriage. The man with whom things would be different this time.
For over a year, we had been talking about leaving Oklahoma City and finding a better life – richer, fuller, culturally stimulating, politically enlightened. Somewhere else. We would get out. Someday. We would. But here it was, a year later.
July 4th weekend, my kids spent the holiday with their father. I spent it in a protracted and bewildering fight with Curtis. I didn’t even know what we were fighting about. I thought, "What I had done to make him so angry?"
And the louder he got, the more I shut down – silent, withdrawn. I went, in my mind, to the top branches of a tree, where I looked down at Curtis screaming, “Answer me! Right now!” But I was scared. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t move. And then Curtis stormed out of the house, slammed the door, and roared away in his car and suddenly, I was out of that tree and back in my cramped little house.
Now I was screaming. I was smashing dishes on the floor. I was having an epiphany. “Nothing’s changed! Nothing’s gonna change! Nothing’s different than the way it’s always been! And that’s the way it’s always gonna be!”
I yelled until I was hoarse, until my throat was raw. Cried until my eyes were swollen and bloodshot. Then I collapsed on my daughter’s bed, near the only window in the house that caught a breeze.
(Dogs barking, car alarms going off)
I was awakened suddenly by the sound of every dog within a three-block radius was going nuts. I looked out all my windows, listened for footsteps, for the scrabbling sounds raccoons and possums make. No intruders. Just the barking, yelping, baying, whining, snarling, growling. Then, as if on cue: silence. The alarm clock read 3:05 AM.
Jamie J. Brunson: We have to take a mini-break here. It almost feels like a cliff-hanger. And I tell you, the live audience at the Fringe Arts Theater in Philadelphia was almost holding it's breath. I have the feeling that, if they could, some members of the audience would shout to Megan, "Be woke, girl! Don't you understand what's happening?" OK. If you're just joining us, thank you for tuning in. Today we’re hearing stories of people who were awakened to the harsh realities around them. We’re calling them “woke” moments. Megan Hicks is about to have her “woke” moment, regarding her friend and neighbor Alberta who lives next door. You see, Megan thought she and Alberta were in the same boat because they lived in the same place and were single moms.
Megan Hicks: I went back to bed and woke up shortly after sunrise. The heat would be bearable for another few hours and I wanted to get to the lumberyard when they first opened, to buy decking for the tree house that Curtis had started in the back yard. I’d lay the floor today. That was my plan to get back into his good graces. I would buy twelve 2x8 ten foot planks, and a big box of 16 penny galvanized nails, have the floor all laid and done, ready to show him the next time he came over. If he ever came over again. Well, I checked the money in my wallet, found my keys. Out the door, and … holy s***!
(Sound of police activity)
What were four police cruisers doing parked in the street in front of my house, blocking my driveway? I hadn’t heard any sirens. What would bring four silent squad cars to my front yard? And then a fifth vehicle pulled up behind them and across the back of it I read “CORONER.”
A cop in my driveway told me to stay inside my house.
“What’s going on?”
“Get back inside.”
“Get inside your house.”
“Well, for God's sake, who’s dead?”
“Lady! Get in side.”
So I stepped inside. Stood there right in my open door, watching them come and go. A couple of women from down the street wandered into my yard and one of the cops went over to talk to them. He took notes. As soon as he turned away, I shot outside. And I said, “Can you please tell me what the hell is going on?” They just looked at me, up and down. Without a word.
“Is Alberta all right?”
“She’s over there in that squad car. She’s fine.”
And there she was. Sitting in the back seat.
“What about the baby? How’s he?”
“He’s with her cousin. He’s fine, too.”
“Well then who’s dead?!”
One of the women said, “My brother. She got him with a kitchen knife while he was sleepin’. About three o’clock this morning. A couple hours ago she called the cops, her own self.”
And without another word, they turned and walked away. An ambulance glided up. No lights. No sirens. Two men in uniforms – white uniforms - pushed a gurney across the yard into Alberta's house. Fifteen minutes later they came out again with a tidy white bundle strapped to that gurney. They slid it into the back of the ambulance, latched the doors, and silently glided away. And then the cops drove off.
The street hovered in stillness for about a minute. The stillness was shattered by the low rumble of a motorcycle. One of the neighborhood kids coming in from an all-nighter. It was as if his arrival had broken the surface tension, and by ones and by twos, all up and down the street, people left their houses and gathered in my driveway.
Here’s what I pieced together from what I heard. Those times when Alberta would dodge past when I tried to greet her? She was avoiding me. She would look my way or stop to visit only on the days when her face wasn’t messed up. She had asked him, told him, demanded that he get out of her life. And he kept coming back. Kept coming back because he couldn’t live without her. Kept coming back and beating her up. She made him go away the only way she knew how.
We all stood there for a few minutes, looking at down at the ground, looking up at the sky, looking anywhere but directly at one another. And then we were finished feeling shocked. No new information was forthcoming. I’d find out more about it in tomorrow’s paper.
It was late morning. I still had time to get to the lumberyard. I brought my planks home and my box of sixteen-penny galvanized nails and one board at a time, I carried them from the bed of my little pickup to the back yard. One board at a time, I nailed them in place.
I swung that hammer with my whole arm and I watched those nail heads shudder between blows. Sank them straight. Pounding. Pounding. Pounding that floor into place. Drenched with sweat and dizzy from the heat.
Fist. In. Face.
Pound! Pound! Pound!
You!! Come!! Down!!
Pound!!! Pound!!! Pound!!!
An!!! Swer!!! Me!!!
Pound!!!! Pound!!!! Pound!!!!
Knife!!!! In!!!! Heart!!!!
Curtis dropped by that afternoon. Our fight was over. He didn’t mention it. Neither did I. His response to the work that I had done on the tree house was a raised eyebrow and a silent nod. I had hoped he’d be happy about the initiative I took on his project. But he didn't have any criticism to offer, which, for Curtis, sometimes that was the highest praise.
Next morning I went out and got a paper. Sunday paper. I mean, big news had happened right next door, and I wanted to read all about it. So I leafed through, cover to cover. No mention of a homicide on Northwest 29th Street. Maybe the story hadn’t been filed in time. It would be in tomorrow's paper.
So I bought a Monday paper. Nothing. Tuesday. Nothing. Wednesday. Thursday. Finally, on Friday I called a friend who was a reporter. I said, “Hey, what’s up with this? My neighbor just killed somebody, and I didn’t hear anything; I didn't read anything about it.”
“Oh, Yeah!” he said. “That stabbing, last Sunday. Yes! I saw it come over the wire.”
I said, “How did I miss the story?”
“There was no story.”
“Well, it was domestic violence. And they were both black, right?”
“Well, at the paper we have a little shorthand name for that kind of stuff, you know, black on black violence…especially domestic violence. At the paper we call it a T.N.D.”
“T. N. D.?”
“Yeah. A Typical. N*****. Deal. Sweetie, it happens all the time. It’s not news.”
The following morning Alberta was back at her house, packing everything she could into her car. She told me that the judge said that since she had taken out a restraining order on him, and since Donald had put her in the hospital, he could call this something like voluntary manslaughter and make it all go away for her. All she had to do was go back to Cleveland and never set foot over the Oklahoma state line again.
That night, I woke at 3:05 a.m. Curtis was sleeping over. I lay there awake for a few minutes, making up my mind. Then I crawled over him and turned over my desk lamp.
“What’s wrong? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I just gotta do something. Go back to sleep.”
I reached to the bottom of my waste paper basket, looking for something I had thrown away the day it came in the mail.
There it was. Underneath the catalogs and all the torn envelopes. To request an application, write or call toll free 8:00 a.m. to 4 p.m. EST 1-800…
“What the hell are you doing? It’s after three o’clock.”
I was locating that toll-free number I would call first thing Monday morning. That number in Princeton, New Jersey, where you apply for the Graduate Record Exam. And another number. A local number. The University of Oklahoma School of Library and Information Science. I put the papers under my dictionary, where they wouldn’t blow away and where Curtis wasn’t likely to find them and start telling me why a woman with two kids and six part-time jobs didn’t have time or money for graduate school.
And I lay back down, unable to sleep, and I realized I had been a sentimental fool to think that I had understood Alberta at all, that we got each other, that as single mothers we were in the same boat. Hell! We weren’t even navigating the same ocean.
On that July 4th, a judge busted Alberta back to square one – back to a blighted neighborhood in Cleveland that she hoped to escape. In contrast, that was the day I began to realize that I had options. Graduate school would prove to be my ticket out of these circumstances, and, with or without that man sleeping next to me, I would leave on my terms. My enrollment in graduate school was the beginning of the end of my relationship with Curtis. He dumped me for another woman in desperate circumstances. Thank heaven! At the time, I didn’t have the clarity or the strength to dump him.
Four years from this July 4th, as a newly minted librarian, I moved my little household to Virginia, where my kids finished growing up and went to high school. I hope Alberta was able to discover and explore her path. I hope she is loved. I hope that little boy of hers got to grow up.
Jamie J. Brunson: Megan Hicks went on from getting that Master's degree to being a public librarian for over a dozen years. She now hosts the Rose Valley Storytelling House concerts. She also teaches origami and storytelling through origami. Elisabeth and I asked Megan Hicks if she knew whatever happened to Alberta and her son and she didn't. So I guess the two really weren't in the same boat.
Jamie J. Brunson: You’re listening to Commonspace. A collaboration between First Person Arts and WHYY, and it’s been supported by the Pew Center For Arts And Heritage. I'm your host, Jamie J, with my good friend Elisabeth Perez-Luna of WHYY.
Jamie J. Brunson: The phrase “stay woke” was resurrected by the Black Lives Matter movement after the protests in Ferguson, Missouri following the shooting of Mike Brown. And using the term “woke” in this context has become so common that it was recently added to the Oxford English Dictionary - defined as being “well-informed, up-to-date, and alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice.”
Our Associate Producer, Jen Cleary, spent some time in the streets of Philadelphia asking people what the expression "Stay woke" meant to them.
“Woke” voices from the street:
“When that phrase comes up it’s usually about police brutality towards the African American community.”
“When I think of “woke” I think about being politically aware and active, so not just sticking your head in the sand but actually doing something about it.”
“In recent usage it’s used a lot on social media to talk about people who are engaged in political activism, especially people who have empathy toward other groups or try understand their point of view or socio-economic situation, and it’s also used to urge other people to “get woke”.
“To me staying woke means being conscious and aware of yourself, of other people, of your privileges, and just, uh, what’s going on in the world. I think that often times we get too caught up in social media, what’s going on TV, what’s happening with celebrities, and all that stuff, and it’s really distracting us from putting priorities first, and by priorities I mean what’s going on in the world around you and with the people that you love.”
Jamie J Brunson: Let's get back to our storytellers. Kitty Hailey is a private investigator and a national authority on ethics in her field. Now this is important because her job takes her to all sorts of places. Today Kitty shares a story of her crossing the threshold into a sad and frightening world to interview a young. witness.
Kitty Hailey: It was 14 degrees out. Snow hadn’t been plowed but I was in a neighborhood that wouldn’t have seen a snow plow anyway. Garbage bags mounded with snow turned trash into meringue. This was a vastly different neighborhood than the one I live in gentrified Philadelphia.
I carefully ascended the steps of the row-home and knocked. There was no doorbell--it was a piece of broken plastic. The door was opened by a young man, about eleven years old. We’ll call him William. He was expecting me. His mother had given me permission to interview him in her presence and his testimony would be used in a very important trial.
I entered the dark, stale smelling living room. It was, um, claustrophobic, nothing but dark shadows. There were no lights and the windows were covered. A feeling of dread descended on me. I do this for a living, I do interviews all the time, but I will never get used to the way some people are forced to live.
A voice, faint and hoarse, beckoned me to come upstairs. I was uncomfortable going upstairs in a strange house but all I could see of William in the darkness were those fawn-colored pupils and the whites of his big beautiful eyes. I needed to escape and so I followed him upstairs. There was a path to the left of the stairway going up, but to the right was a cascade of toys and boxes and clothing and shoes and crumpled bags with trash. It was like a waterfall of junk assaulting my passageway. So I stayed to the left and I put my hand in my pocket clutching my pepper mace. On my right hand I grabbed the railing and I carefully ascended. Thank goodness I did not see the dead mouse on the step until I had stepped over it.
I got to the second landing and it was no better than the first. It was covered in trash. Food encrusted plates sat outside the front bedroom door, on the floor. Yet light streamed in from windows in that room and made it seem somehow weirdly inviting. So we entered.
(Sound of TV)
It smelled like a nursing home when I walked in and in essence, it was. The combination of antiseptic mixed with urine. In front of me against those open windows was a large unmade bed that had been pushed against the main window wall. To my left, Maury Povich was on the television set, chastising a woman who had had a baby after sex with four different men. And to my right was a hospital bed and there was Mom. She was attached by ports and cables that came from a metal pole into her thin, mottled skin. She was inert and obviously in pain. This was going to be very, very difficult for both the child and for me.
She graciously motioned me to the bed for me to sit down and I frantically looked around for a hard surface. Because my brain was going, “bedbug alert.” And so I walked over to the bed, pulled my coat around me and lowered myself precariously with the very edge of my butt with the very edge of the bed, giving myself a really good quad workout, as William hopped up on the bed next to me so that we could begin. So I looked at mom and I said, "Please, could you lower the TV set?" and thankfully she did.
William was bright and observant. He was not afraid to talk about the crime that he had witnessed, which I cannot tell you about. He asked questions. He listened eagerly. Staring at me with those big bright eyes, wanting to know everything I could tell him. I explained the process to him, he was fascinated by it. He was delighted by everything and wanted to know the meaning of words. As much as he was fascinated by the process, I was fascinated by him. This was a child who would have a bright future if he was given the opportunity.
Jamie J. Brunson: You’re listening to Commonspace. A collaboration between First Person Arts and WHYY, and it’s been supported by the Pew Center For Arts And Heritage. I'm your host, Jamie J, with WHYY’s Elisabeth Perez-Luna. Kitty Hailey is in the process of interviewing William about a crime he witnessed. His name has been changed for this story. The interview is taking place inside William’s home in the presence of his bedridden mother. At one moment, William's mom starts to moan in pain and her discomfort becomes louder and more anguished.
Kitty Hailey: I really was sincerely concerned for the woman. She was in distress. I asked William if there was anybody in the house who could do something because I was helpless. He hopped off the bed and ran to the back of the house, returning a few moments later with a pajama-clad woman about twenty years of age who stomped in from the back of the house as if she had been disturbed from something vitally important, carrying a baby. A little girl no more than five months old. And she was muttering. Maybe to herself, maybe to someone I don't know, but it was something about not having given the afternoon meds and, well, she seemed more angry than concerned.
She walked over to me and took this infant and plopped it on my lap and said, “Here, you take care of her while I take care of mom.” The startled child just stared at me for a second and I stared back into eyes that were the exact same as her uncle's but in miniature. Now, I’m a mom and a grand-mom and it was easy, I just started to sway slightly and I readjusted the notepad on my knees and William and I started again. And we continued where we had left off until a sound made us turn at the same time and there was Mom on a bedpan. I was sickened. I was so ill from it, not because I had not seen worse because believe me, I have. But because the child was being subjected to the indignity and the pain of his parent.
And so I apologized to him for putting him through this. And he said, "No. No, this is OK. This is fun! Can we continue? I'm having a good time. And I realized how sad that was. How sad it was that recounting a crime in a room full of sickness and death was fun for this child.
So we continued. We talked for maybe another twenty minutes. The little baby had fallen asleep with her head under my chin and I rocked slowly and we talked just to each other and he recounted his recollections of the crime as I memorialized it, and eventually Mom's moans subsided and she was again able to focus upon our project.
The pajama clad woman was done and so was I. She came over and snatched the baby out of my hands without so much as a thank you. I watched as she took the sleeping child out into the hallway towards her back part of the house and then she let out a scream and with the baby dangling from one arm, she grabbed a broom and started mercilessly beating yet another mouse to death in the hallway. And she turned to her brother and said, "You--you get that thing out of here! You hear me?" He walked in the hallway and looked around, found a trash bag and plopped it unceremoniously on top of the mutilated creature and left it there.
There was nothing I could do. I could not say anything, I could not comment, I could not impose my own values upon this situation. I shook Mom's hand and prepared to leave. I asked her if William could accompany me downstairs. I knew I would never see her again. So I followed him and we stepped over the hallway mouse and, thankfully, I remembered where the stairway mouse was located and I descended into the darkness that had been so horrible before. I felt like I was escaping into the darkness except this time I was escaping but reluctant to leave because I was leaving William there. In a situation that I could not control, I could have no impact upon, I couldn't even comment upon it. So I told him to please lock the door after I left. This, obviously, was not a good neighborhood and I was concerned.
And I turned one last time to my willing witness and I shook his hand. And I thanked him for his memory and I thanked him for his bravery. And I thanked him for his dedication to his mother. My stomach turned and my heart sank. I could do nothing more.
You see, ethics preclude me from doing anything else. I cannot offer an incentive, I cannot offer a reward, I cannot give remuneration because anything like that would be considered bribery in a court of law. And then I would be compromising the situation for my client. And as much as I felt bad about it, there was nothing I could do.
And so, having gotten what I needed, like a thief, a mere intruder, I left.
I trudged across that icy street, opened my car door and turned the heat up to maximum. And I turned on my beloved butt warmers. And I sat there waiting for the numbness to go away and for my body to feel again.
I hadn’t realized that I was crying until a teardrop from my chin onto my bare hand. I felt so bad about not being able to do anything about the circumstances in that house. And for abandoning the inquisitive little boy with the big, beautiful eyes.
Like the reporter in war torn Somalia, I am only recording what I observe. I am not the U.N. Aid worker who does something about it. My job requires that I often go against my more gracious instincts. The job had been done by the child and I had done my job. He was a witness to a moment in time. I was just the investigator. So I released the emergency break and I left. Nothing had changed. I would do the same thing tomorrow on a different case, in a different neighborhood, with a different witness.
Jamie J. Brunson: Kitty Hailey's job is to delve into people's lives and actions. To understand and document crimes, large and small. She asks questions and compiles facts. Her notes and observations will then help attorneys build their cases. But that feeling of helplessness and hopelessness to change the world was so apparent. But what happens when you're looking at your own self and things are not quite what they seem. That's Carlos Roa's story.
We asked him about his Woke moment. He described an experience where after much convincing from friends and family, Carlos realizes that maybe it's he that has changed and not the world. Carlos Roa's woke moment literally transcends reality.
Carlos Roa: This story has an ending, but multiple beginnings. It could’ve began two weeks before 2012, in Miami, New Years Day, where I had the greatest idea in my entire life. It was this multimedia marriage of film and theatre, it was about space colonization, and I would write this all down in my cat notebook, which I would then clutch tightly to my chest as I paced feverishly in my own bedroom for several hours.
It could’ve began a little bit after that where I was looking out the window to look at the peacocks, when all of a sudden I could hear voices from miles away between neighbors in the community who were conspiring to steal all the strays in our neighborhood out of homophobic spite against me and my gay neighbor Steve– because they knew how much we both loved cats. I was certain of it.
It could’ve began a week before any of that happened, where I was coming on to an actor in a play that I was directing. I never would’ve imagined that he would be interested and he seemed very uninterested and heterosexual, so much so that he mentioned his girlfriend seven times. But apparently, no matter how many times he tried to share this information with me, I just wouldn’t retain it.
It could’ve began after all of that, where I was introducing my friends to weed for the first time. I felt very cool, but then I began to fixate on this thought of, “Am I corrupting these people? I am. I’m totally corrupting these people. I am a horrible human being.” And that night, I became so fixated on the thought that I could not sleep.
That night, it was my mother who let me back in the house because I forgot my keys. And I smelled like blunt wraps, and she immediately knew what I had done, so she proceeded to hide in her bedroom and tell my step dad to tell him that I smelled like marijuana and I could tell that on the other line he just didn’t care so I just laid in the bed and pretended to sleep.
I could not sleep though. So then I just paced around the house until morning, where my mother would come out of her bedroom and start shifting furniture, moving objects, rearranging boxes. And I took one look at her and thought, “Oh my god…she's a hoarder. How did I not realize this sooner?”
So I called our family friend Consuelo and told her that my mother was going mad and we needed her help. But then I realized that managing my mother’s insanity was a three-person job, so I called my step dad as well. By the time the four of us were in the same room, they were very confused because they kept looking at me and then at her and they kept trying to explain to me that what was happening was normal. I tried really, really hard to explain why I did what I did but I couldn't come up with anything so I just took the easy way out and told them I was very, very, very high.
So I just laid on the couch while Consuelo told my mom una chonga sucia was the one who sold the drugs. And then I just felt really, really hungry so I just went into the kitchen to boil some water to make some pasta and she said, "No, it's OK. Calm down, you don't need to do that." And then I just laid on the couch again while I explained to my stepdad was pot was.
That night – it seems like it was that night, it may not have been that night– it was New Year's Eve. My mother kept asking me all these questions like, are you okay? Why are you acting so strange? Are you going to kill yourself? And I told her "No, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my entire life!" And that was the truth.
She left to go celebrate, and I stayed home and played this song called Komm, Süsser Tod, which in German means Come, Sweet Death. And in retrospect it actually very odd that I told my mother that I wasn’t suicidal because the image of me dancing in my own bedroom to nihilist piano music was incredibly troubling.
Somewhere in this part of the story, I began to teleport to different parts of the house without realizing it.
"How did I end up in the living room? Why am I in the backyard? Why am I in front of the shrimp at the fridge? What is happening to my cat? Did I just molest my own cat?"
I now know for a fact that I did not molest my own cat but the thought of it was so terrifying that it put me into a state of panic and I actually did consider suicide because I was a dirty cat-loving pervert who deserved to be put down. I was certain of it. I would then write a note to my mother and my stepdad condemning them for their bigotry and I told them that there was a female spirit inside of me that could not be suppressed, no matter how hard they tried. I don’t remember what happened to that note but what I do remember was me throwing myself onto my mattress and writhing around in it for several hours before realizing, “OH! I’m on PCP! That's what’s happening.”
That night, the yellow-jackets in my head were restless and they were having this war with the Restoril Armed Forces. Every gunshot, every napalm blast, every grenade explosion was a suspicious thought fighting against my own logic.
I would then call 911, hang up two seconds into the conversation, and then throw myself onto my mother’s mattress, writhe around in it and beg her to "please, take me to the psych ward!"
Jamie J. Brunson: After a terrible night, Carlos made up his mind to get help, and checks into West Kendall Regional Medical Center in Miami.
Carlos Roa: At West Kendall Regional Medical Center, they asked me to describe what I was experiencing and my answer was something like this:
“So basically I’m here because I need a vacation and I know this isn’t the place for vacation but I thought it would be really interesting for me to be here I like your scrubs. Also I really need something to drink so if someone could bring me--Mom can you bring me something to drink? But it’s okay if you don’t want to go oh--you asked me a question so basically I’m here because I need a break, and I think coming here would really broaden my horizons because you know I’m an artist and it’s the artist’s job to torture themselves are you writing down everything I’m saying?”
She was. I was certain of it. She stopped to look at me, and then continued to type. She looked young, perhaps only a few years older than me. I told her to take good care of me. A man in green scrubs stood in the corner, rolling his eyes at me.
After they evaluated me, they made me pee into a container. My urine was dark brown.
“Um, when was the last time you drank anything?”
“I don’t remember the last time I drank anything but I think I ate some shrimp before I came here please help me I think I’m going to die.”
“Um, excuse me?”
She asked me to slow down five times. I couldn’t stop – the yellow-jackets were restless. They put me in a wheelchair, and took me through several hallways. And in my field of vision, they looked cavernous, almost distorted. I looked up as they wheeled me through. The guy pushing me was really, really hot.
They took me through this long, white fluorescent hallway and just left me there. I looked to my left and there was a glass screen that showed the rec room. A bland white room with chairs and tables strewn about. The hardwood floors were light brown, and could also be seen in the bedrooms. It was really eerie how much empty space there was in the bedrooms – you could easily get lost in the vastness of it all.
“I heard what Nurse Fuentes said. You think this is some kind of game?”
Nurse Fuentes was the man in green scrubs. Apparently, while I was in isolation, Nurse Fuentes had told everyone that a “special visitor” was here to stay, and that this special visitor was an “artist” who was here to “broaden his horizons.” I could picture the air quotes and the vitriol in his speech. Suddenly, a few poorly chosen words made me the object of every nurse’s hatred and the hospital’s straw man.
I spent two weeks at West Kendall Regional Medical Center. It was the worst two weeks of my entire life. All because Dr. Almunia did not know how to medicate me. Perhaps there was never really was any formula for medicating the mentally ill. Perhaps it was all just guesswork. When we talk about “psychotic episodes” - and I feel like I’ve earned the right to use air quotes for that – it’s not really a disorganized mess that happens up here. It’s actually highly organized. It’s a series of beginnings where any of those moments could’ve been the start of it, a very confusing middle where time folds in on itself, and a definite end where one looks at their surroundings and asks, “Why am I in a psych ward right now?”
And that’s what I call “My Psychotic Episode.”
Jamie J Brunson: Carlos Roa is working on a series of performances based on his recent experiences. One will be part of the Fringe Arts Festival. Elisabeth, maybe staying woke can go beyond being aware of injustice and racism.
Elisabeth Perez-Luna: I think so. I think being woke is essential for anything. In relationships in the way you work, in the way you exist in the moment. I think every artist, in a way, knows what it means to be woke. You know it, you're a playwright. You have to be woke to the things that become the material for creativity.
Jamie J. Brunson: Yes, and even being woke to how I myself am navigating through the world. That reminds me. Erykah Badu used the phrase “stay woke” in her song “Master Teachers”. It was from the album New Amerykah Part 1: The 4th World War. In the song, Badu wants to “stay awake in order to find a beautiful world. “Searching me, searching inside of you". A beautiful world. Yeah. I'd like to live in that place.
Elisabeth Perez-Luna: Check out Erykah Badu.
(Erykah Badu song)
Jamie J. Brunson: To find out more about how to transform your life into a story, check out our podcast of conversations with the Woke storytellers.
Elisabeth Perez-Luna: Yeah, I want to transform my life into a podcast!
Jamie J. Brunson: You’ve been listening to Commonspace, a collaboration between First Person Arts and WHYY. It’s been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Commonspace includes a monthly broadcast and podcasts available on iTunes and Stitcher. Please subscribe, and while you’re listening, give us a rating! I’m Jamie Brunson, host and co-writer of Commonspace. Elisabeth Perez-Luna is the Executive Producer of Commonspace, and cowriter.
Our Commonspace team members are Producer Mike Villers, Dan Gasiewski, Jen Cleary and Ali L’Esperance. Our studio engineer is Diana Martinez. Our Archivist is Neil Bardhan. The theme music is by Subglo. Thank you so much for listening to Commonspace.