Paper Boat Hat
GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
OK, so it would not be right for us to proceed with the "All in your Head" episode without bringing to the mic a character who has been in all of our heads here at SNAP since the very first show. He moves in and out of our lives like a specter and then materializes in our studio right in front of the microphone. Just the other day he came through with a story about living life as a very delicate balance. Joshua Walters, the microphone is yours.
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JOSHUA WALTERS: At the end of March I traveled to upstate New York for a gathering of international artists. One of the assignments for the retreat was to bring a special object that reflected something about our craft and was a symbol of ourselves as artists. I brought a paper boat hat. About four inches wide and two inches tall, the paper boat hat was a story in a drawing written on a piece of paper and folded into a hat that looked like a boat. I had been carrying it in my backpack for years and to this day, didn't know what it said inside because the story written on the paper was in French. In the opening ceremony, the artists gathered around and shared their stories connected with their objects. When it was my turn, I shared the story of my object and the room went silent.
A few years passed, I was traveling through Canada on a speaking tour as a mental health educator. I had gigs lined up every week. Professional conferences, universities, high schools, and a few months prior in a decision of reckless abandonment, I had decided to drop the bipolar medication that I had been on for 10 years. My partner at the time was convinced that medication gives you offspring with a higher chance of being disabled. She worked with autistic kids, so she saw it every day and so we were on a mission to get me drug free, which was heavily laced with denial of the fact that I had been living with a mental illness for 10 years. We dropped the pills and I started a manic race to infinitron (ph) where I cut ties with family, friends, her and personal connections to pursue a life on the road. I thought that touring would last forever.
Through the speaking work, I started to improvise my scripted talks going on for hours at a time, keeping students entertained with a bizarre blend of performance and spoken word revolution. After a couple weeks of shows in Canada, I was totally out of the realm of reality and completely out of my mind. I ended up in the mental hospital in Montréal. I felt like I had spent a good deal of my adolescence in institutions. This was my first time back in 10 years and I was manic as ever. The hospital was located in the French section of Montréal, and for about eight days, I was in the emergency room of the psychiatric hospital. As I met the others who I shared a hospital room with - some who reminded me of uncles, some much younger who reminded me of superheroes, I had a series of rituals that got me through being around so many mad ones in a cramped ER where there were about 20 beds, one bathroom, one shower and a couple of nurses making sure nothing went terribly, horribly wrong.
I would get up early and walk the one hallway, then I would dress in a new smock. The hospital clothes had buttons and lace. I would go over to the corner where the windows were. You could see the outside. I covered my head with a towel and held the corners of the stone window ledge and moved my torso back and forth in a rocking motion. I was davening like a Hasidic Jew, prayer time where your body swings back and forth in a sort of nonmusical bob. I would see people outside walking by and I would focus on each one, shut my eyes and try as hard as I could to imagine I was out there free.
There was this boy, he could have been 18, right on the age limit. Dark skin, bald head, he moved like a young Professor Xavier and I could see there was a lot of potential in his mental capacity. There were times when it felt like he could read minds. I approached him at lunch. He was sleeping through most of the days and missing meals. I got him some fruits and we read magazines and we talked in his broken English. He was a regular teenager at heart, pointing out ads of scantily clad girls and hard alcohol. We didn't have a great deal in common, especially when it came to smoking weed and riding dirt bikes, but we were here together and that was enough of a bond to hang out and be like brothers.
The next thing I would do is I would ask for a piece of paper, one small sharpened pencil and I would begin to write. I wrote things that I didn't want anyone else to see, I wrote things that I wanted everyone to see. The boy with the bald head stumbled on some of my writings one day. He found a section about the person who killed Michael Jackson and how that was his own doctor and thus, doctors could not be trusted. The doctor I was assigned to see in the ER was scared of me. Another doctor saw me, I was taking a vow of silence. He asked me if my psychological condition was just acting. What a question to be asked in such a situation.
The boy mentioned my writings, it made him a little more anti-doctor himself. I could see how the line about Michael Jackson stuck in his brain. I was sorry he saw it. The last thing someone needs to do in a mental institution is deny help.
During our time together, he would write and I would write and we would talk and eat oranges and eat bananas and eat yogurt - the closest thing we could get to ice cream. We spent one day writing and he wrote out a couple of lines in a story and scribbled a drawing on the page and then he folded the paper in an origami boat that looked like a hat and gave it to me. On my last day, I packed up my belongings, clothes in storage that I wasn't allowed to wear anyway, I put the paper boat hat on his bed. This is your story, I thought, you keep it. It'll mean something to you someday.
They came for me with a wheelchair and instead of sitting down, I put my stuff on the seat. I'll walk, I said to the nurse. We were headed towards the door when the boy ran after me, you forgot something, he said. He handed me the paper boat hat and then put it on my head. For your trip, he said. I never knew what it said on the inside, I never even unfolded it until years later sitting in a circle of artists in upstate New York. There was time for one last story, so I shared. I unfolded the hat. It had a few lines of French with a scribbled drawing. I was sitting next to a guy who was from France, he helped me translate it to the crowd.
I am not feeling good, it said. For me, life is not easy. My brother tells me to eat garbage as if it was me who sent it. The note didn't make perfect sense, but the fact that we got to translate it was enough for me. At the end of the four-day retreat, we put our special objects in brown paper bags and exchanged them in a kind of secret Santa to see what would we could get anonymously. An Israeli musician who played the violin got the paper boat hat to take home. I unwrapped a different paper bag - I got soap.
WASHINGTON: Joshua Walters is a writer, an actor and a musician. You can learn more about Joshua at theJoshuaWalters.com. He's given a TED Talk on his mental health experience. We'll have a link to that as well at snapjudgment.org. That piece was produced by Mark Ristich with sound design by Leon Morimoto. Now then, when SNAP JUDGMENT the "All in your Head" episode continues, the cerebral part is over, the mind games all finished up. This next piece, you're going to feel this one. Stay right where you are, don't go anywhere - SNAP JUDGMENT.
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