Indie Spotlight: “Infinities” full transcript
ALLISON BEHRINGER: Hey everyone! It’s Allison. This season on the Bodies feed, we’re taking the opportunity to share the work of some independent creators that we admire.
Today, we’re spotlighting a piece by Boen Wang, a writer and audio producer.
It’s about a topic that a lot of you have been asking us to cover: mental health.
Boen’s piece brings you inside his fraying mind as he develops bipolar disorder, experiences a manic episode, and subsequently self-destructs at his workplace. It’s both vulnerable and irreverent. And I love this piece for its creative sound design and immersive style.
We hope you enjoy. And a heads up, this episode contains cursing and includes suicidal ideation.
BOEN WANG: On Saturday, October 6th, 2018, I was in West Virginia for a work retreat. It was a new job. I’d started at the end of August.
The retreat site was a literal swamp along the Potomac, which meant there were mosquitoes everywhere. I forgot to pack bug spray, and when I went out for a walk I came back with red splotches all over my neck and upper back. I sat through endless meetings and team-building exercises trying desperately not to scratch. So that was bad.
There were some good parts, though. During free time, one of my coworkers and I canoed across the Potomac and walked along a trail. The trail had lots of trees and we climbed a mountain and looked at the trees, but now we were higher than the trees, which was different from being lower than the trees, and I think I prefer being higher than the trees than being lower than the trees, although both are good, just good in different ways.
When we canoed back the sun had set. Someone made a campfire and we made s’mores. The guy with prematurely grey hair played songs on his guitar. He was pretty bad at guitar. I went into the one of the cabins and saw some people playing a card game called Egyptian Rat Screw. I’m pretty good at Egyptian Rat Screw.
The way it works is that everyone gets an equal number of cards, but you don’t look at your cards. You hold them face down and you flip them over one at a time. You go in a circle and each person goes flip, flip, flip. You flip them into a pile at the center of the circle. If you ever see a pair, like if someone flips over a ten, and the next person flips over a ten, then you slap the pile and you take all the cards in the pile, and whoever gets all the cards wins.
Like I said, I’m pretty good at this, but on this particular game on this particular night I was especially good, I was hyper-focused and my reflexes were hyper-sharp, it was like I had tunnel vision, I saw the cards and nothing else, and I kept slapping and slapping and slapping and before I knew it I had won, I had all the cards, but my heart at this point was racing and I had trouble breathing so I went outside and walked around in the dark with my arms behind my head trying to take deep breaths, in and out, in and out, and after a while I calmed down enough and tried to go to bed—
Which I think is when it all started: me lying in bed at around 11 pm on Saturday, October 6th, 2018, in a literal swamp along the Potomac.
My diagnosis at the time was major depressive disorder. My diagnosis now is bipolar disorder. Bipolar has two phases: depression and mania. Depression is when you feel really bad all the time. Mania is when you feel really good all the time. On that Saturday evening in West Virginia, I became manic. I suddenly felt really good for no reason. I described it later like I had been wearing sunglasses my whole life but didn’t know it, and I finally took them off and it was like I could see the world in color instead of grey, like I was truly seeing things for the first time.
I woke up the next morning and went to a meeting. We were nominating people to be on a leadership committee. A lot of the employees, including me, felt like our supervisors were treating us like kindergarteners and micromanaging our work-lives. They acted like they were our friends, until we crossed an invisible line and they very suddenly weren’t. They made us attend weekly seminars where we had to take personality tests and listen to lectures about how to “listen, learn, love, and lead” and quote-unquote network with people we had no interest in quote-unquote networking with, and one time during a break they gave us fidget spinners and silly putty to play with ‘cause apparently we needed constant stimulation to stay awake during these boring, pointless fucking seminars.
So we were pissed, in other words, and there was more stuff we were pissed about, but those seminars were emblematic of everything wrong with the organization. We complained enough that they finally let us organize this committee that would give us more power, at least theoretically. We sat in a circle—me and my coworkers and our supervisors—and they handed out packets with different committee positions, such as,
“Event planning, recruitment, programming, social media.”
And I realized very quickly that this wasn’t real—it was just management trying to placate us with fake student government bullshit. They’d give us the “responsibility” of managing their Instagram or whatever, which was just more work that we wouldn’t get paid for. They weren’t gonna give us real power, or a real say in the way things were run, and why would they? So when they finished their spiel, I said something to the effect of,
“How much leverage will we actually have over you?”
And they said something to the effect of,
“As much as you want. There are 42 of you and 6 of us. This is your opportunity to manage upward.”
They talked for a bit longer and left the room to let us discuss, which was when it dawned on me that we could take this bullshit committee and turn it into something useful, something that actually empowered us, ‘cause like they said, there were seven times more of us than there were of them, and if we used that to our advantage we could do whatever the fuck we wanted, so when there was a gap in the conversation I stood up and said something to the effect of:
“I like our supervisors. I like them as people. But they are not our friends. They are our fucking bosses and don’t you ever forget it. They are one half of a hierarchy that pushes downward on us. Our generation needs to be angrier! Four degrees Celsius warming by 2100! We’re fucked! They fucked us from the beginning. How much time did they give us for this meeting, half an hour? They gave us a tiny little scrap of nothing, which we can turn into a feast!”
I had a panic attack in front of everyone. I felt pretty good.
My coworkers told my supervisors about the panic attack. In the coming weeks, they took increasingly severe measures in response to my increasingly severe mental illness. They made me attend mandatory “coaching meetings” that would help me “improve and grow in self-management and emotional-management.” They gave me a card for a local suicide hotline and made me call the number. They mandated that I see a therapist. They gave me a “therapy confirmation sheet” that said, “It is the organization’s desire that Boen Wang takes care of his mental health needs. Seeing a therapist weekly is part of that plan. Boen Wang is asked to have his therapist sign this sheet after the completion of each session. A photo of the sheet should be emailed to his supervisor within 24 hours of the session. A hard copy of the sheet should be given to his supervisor after four sessions.”
During an intake appointment at a mental health center, I showed the form to the physician assistant student who first saw me, who showed it to the PA, who showed it to the therapist, who finally signed it. They all had the same reaction. They were confused, concerned, and a bit disturbed, ‘cause what kind of crazy person would be forced to attend therapy by their employer?
In spite of all this, I got elected to the leadership committee. My position was “accountability,” which was made up, and which I assumed meant keeping our supervisors accountable to us. I had the suspicion that while we were being underpaid, management was keeping the organization’s increasing profits to themselves. So I started pestering them for financial documents, which did not help things, but after a while they gave me a PDF of an IRS filing. I think that was meant to placate me, but instead, I started doing some research.
From 2012 to 2016, the number of employees increased from 12 to 35. Revenue increased from $244,503 to $678,871, which works out to a 178% increase or an average annual growth rate of 44.4%, and in that same timeframe the CEO’s salary increased from $53,707 to $85,092, which is a 58.4% total increase with an average annual growth rate of 14.6%, but meanwhile our salary from 2012 to 2016 stayed virtually flat, with a total increase of just 9%, or an average annual growth rate of 2.3%, which basically means that over the course of four years the organization made more money and the CEO made more money ‘cause he was a member of the board that determined how much money he made so he basically gave himself more money while we did more work but made the same amount of money and ALSO—
The weirdest part was that on every IRS filing, there was a difference between the CEO’s stated income, and his unstated income that you could calculate by adding up different figures. Like in 2012, it seemed like he was making $9,000 more than what his stated income actually said. This happened every year, and over the course of four years, it added up to over $23,000 of unexplained, unaccounted for income.
Our office was next to an accounting firm, and I managed to talk to one of the CPAs there. I showed him the forms and figures and asked him what he made of it, and he didn’t explicitly say the word “embezzlement,” but when I asked if he could sign the form and note the time and date, he said he didn’t feel comfortable doing so.
So I went to another accounting firm and talked the organization’s auditor herself—she was the one who prepared the IRS filings every year—and she told me that the stated income was for the calendar year starting on January 1st, while the unstated income was for the fiscal year starting on August 1st. And I was like great—that solves that. And she was like, great—I’ll just call your supervisor and let them know you were here asking about the CEO’s income.
And I was like great—see you later!
On October 31st, 2018, I had a meeting with the CEO and a board member who happened to be a lawyer.
BOEN: August 31st, 2018, 1:14 pm.
I don’t know why I said August. I was probably still thinking about the fiscal year thing.
CEO: Uh, as has been communicated, there’s been multiple instances that’ve occurred—
That’s the CEO.
LAWYER: Boen, I would just add from my perspective—
That’s the board member who’s also a lawyer. I’m gonna cut out specific names and details and anything I think is sensitive or irrelevant.
CEO: And I think those have been laid out in terms of what those instances are with you. If they haven’t, we can provide, like a written list of all the instances.
BOEN: I would like that, thank you.
CEO: Um, that really kinda undermine, um, undermine the ability to function as a, as a member of the community.
CEO: So . . . um, we wanna like seek a resolution and, you know develop a path forward as a collective unit around this. So, I think, um . . . You know, due to the seriousness of this we wanna really establish lines of communication and build trust. So, one example I guess of trust not being built, is when we send an email, and then you apologetically said you wouldn’t do something or were apologetic in terms of reaching out, and then later on that day or at least sometime on Monday afternoon, went and met with our auditors.
BOEN: Would you like me to respond?
BOEN: I would prefer not to respond.
LAWYER: You would prefer not to explain?
BOEN: Yes, please.
LAWYER: Okay, um, do you understand where we’re coming from with that or do you disagree?
BOEN: I absolutely understand I’m trying to imagine the situation from your perspective—
BOEN: I absolutely understand.
LAWYER: And we’re doing our best, um, to give you the information that you’re asking for But, you know, we can’t have you going off and showing up at our auditors, that’s, particularly in light of the fact that we’re giving you the information you’re requesting.
BOEN: Yeah. I apologize.
LAWYER: And I guess the fundamental question is, is this something we can come to agreement on, or do you think, you know, you need to continue do what you’ve been doing and reaching out to, you know, board members, staff members, third parties, individually? Boen: Yeah.
LAWYER: And, appreciate your qualification earlier that this isn’t coming from a malicious place. We don’t view it that way, and I hope you don’t view where we’re coming from in a malicious way at all. We just wanna get on the same page again.
Is that something you think is possible?
CEO: Okay. So, I mean, I think that there’s, I think there’s due cause for dismissal. We’re not moving forward with dismissal. Uh, we’re moving forward like I said, to come up with a resolution In order to do that we’ve, we think that these are basically, these need to be some agreed upon measures to take in order to continue to function as a viable—as a, as a vibrant member of that community.
BOEN: Would you prefer to use the word “viable” or “vibrant”? Member of the community?
CEO: I think just as a member of the community.
BOEN: So no, no adjective then?
BOEN: Okay. Thank you.
CEO: So, so basically, these are the things, we want you to continue attending weekly seminar and be a part of the program activities—
BOEN: Do you have, um, this is, could you email me a copy of this, as well?
BOEN: I’m gonna take notes on this? Thank you so much.
CEO: Um, to review, understand, and be bound by the discipline policy and procedures, meet weekly with a professional counsellor for a minimum of four weeks. Um, I think that’s already been shared. The next appointment needs to occur before November 9th—
BOEN: It’s tomorrow 3 pm.
CEO: Okay. Um, sign a release of information form allowing your counsellor to communicate the following information: the dates of scheduled appointments, your attendance at those meetings, recommended treatment and level of care, and attempts made by Boen to schedule appointments. So, we need you to basically share with us a document that allows someone to inform us that these things actually have been happening. Um, and then take ownership of your self-management, self-care, professional growth, and mental well-being and maintain a positive attitude during the process. Do you have any questions about the document?
BOEN: I do, but . . . Can I get some water?
BOEN: [Exhales] Today’s the thirtieth . . . okay.
On October 13th, 2018, I scheduled an appointment with their behavioral, their behavioral unit for therapy. This is something I did of my own volition and something I deeply want to do. And this is something that I will continue to do of my own volition. I would actually prefer if . . . I would prefer if information with my therapist . . . I suppose the simplest way to put it is that I would like you to trust me that I want me to get better. And that I would like you to trust me that I know what is best for me in terms of my mental health. I feel like I am qualified to make this, because I have 23 years of experience of being me, and you have known me for . . . two months. So I feel like I should be the one leading my own mental self-care.
CEO: Right, and we agree, that’s why you’re setting up meetings to meet with someone. We’re just asking basically that those, that that information be provided that those meetings are taking place.
BOEN: I feel incredibly uncomfortable with that. When I had my first meeting, I’d to—it was an intake, I’d to speak to three different medical professionals. And, I don’t have it with me now, and pre—actually I do. And present this document. I’d to explain this three times, and I found it embarrassing and demeaning. And that I found that the therapist, or the mental, I only spoke to one therapist, but the three medical professionals who spoke to me, when they immediately saw this, they saw me in a different light. As if though I was quote-unquote “crazy,” as if though I was quote-unquote “unstable.” And I would feel like this actually interferes with the level of care, this level of management. And I would very much like to prefer to keep all of my mental health self-care confidential.
LAWYER: Well Boen, we fully agree with keeping your, your—
BOEN: I would very—I think you know what I mean . . .
LAWYER: Your care confidential, sure. But we’re looking at is accountability on attendance, and compliance with this agreement.
LAWYER: We’re not looking to see your medical records. We have no interest in that. We respect patient privacy.
BOEN: Okay. I understand what you’re saying, but I, I think what we have here is just, two sides that don’t agree. And I don’t think I can sign this contract right now. And what would occur if I do not sign this contract right now?
LAWYER: I think we’re not gonna have any choice but to go our separate ways.
BOEN: Okay. Okay. Have a wonderful life.
My parents took me home the next day.
BOEN: On November 2nd, 2018, starting at 10:12 pm, I sent 81 Facebook messages to my now former coworker (who in retrospect I was in love with). I wrote, “One of my favorite things from Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is the ‘encyclopedia wand.’ Maybe you remember: how do you encode all the information contained in an encyclopedia onto a toothpick? The answer is that you convert every alphanumeric symbol into a two-digit number: A = 00, B = 01, C = 02, etc. So you turn the entire encyclopedia into a very, very, very long number, and at the very beginning of that very long number you put a decimal point, so that now, the number is between 0 and 1. 0 = the bottom of the toothpick. 1 = the top of the toothpick. And you make an infinitely precise, infinitely thin mark at that exact position between 0 and 1. I fucking love—”
COWORKER: What the fuck do you think you’re achieving right now? Why would you think this is in any way appropriate? What is going on where you think it’s a good idea to send me a million messages at 11 pm?
“I dunno. I’m completely at peace with everything. I could die right now. But obviously, I want to live. Because living is fun. Yeah, I’d say life is more fun than death. And nothing can hurt me, I guess. No. No, that’s not true. I’m actually feeling physical sensations right now: sweaty palms, palpitations. I guess, I don’t mind getting hurt. Like I said, I don’t mind dying. You’re the only person I can be completely honest to . . . So anyway, the encyclopedia wand. The point being: infinity goes outward and inward. You zoom in and in and in and you never stop zooming in. Replace ‘in’ with ‘out,’ same thing. That’s why I love Google Earth so much. Although at some point you can’t zoom in or out—”
COWORKER: I’m blocking you. See a therapist for fuck’s sake and stop taking this shit out on people who were just trying to be your friend.
The next day, my now former supervisor and the CEO called my parents on their landline. They said that I had made “passive suicide comments” to a now former coworker, that I was a danger to myself and others, and that I should be evaluated immediately, preferably in a hospital.
My parents didn’t take me to a hospital. Instead, they took me to a psychiatrist, who prescribed me antipsychotics, which finally ended the mania. I felt stable for about two months, and during that time I tried to write a chronological account of the events that led to me being fired. I set a rule for myself that the account would be purely objective—no interpretation, no reflection, just a cold, rational account of the events as they occurred, as if I was an alien anthropologist studying a human specimen. I had a hard drive full of spreadsheets and PDFs and audio and video recordings. I would concretely lay out what happened, and when, and where—but not why. I never ask why.
On Christmas, I developed a condition called akathisia. It’s a side effect of some antipsychotics, and basically, I couldn’t sit still. I would sit for 15 seconds or so and then I physically couldn’t sit for any longer—it didn’t feel psychological, I couldn’t think my way out of it—so I would stand, but I couldn’t stand standing still, so I paced, and I kept pacing, and pacing, and eventually, I resigned myself to the fact that I would just pace for the rest of my life. I couldn’t sleep, obviously, so I took the stairs down to the basement and back up to my room, and I did it again, and again, and again. It felt like I’d never sleep again, but I kept thinking that hopefully, maybe in 48 or 72 hours, I’d finally collapse from exhaustion and stop being conscious of the fact that I exist.
The obvious solution is to not exist. This is annoying, because not existing is difficult when you do, and I’m generally more inclined towards existence. But if existence meant pacing for the rest of my life, then the scales started to tip towards the other direction. But there’s a third way: a psych ward, where the door to my room couldn’t lock, and I couldn’t wear shoes with laces, and the nurses checked on me every fifteen minutes, and there was nothing to do but pace the halls.
If you think about it, a second is a very long time, because the distance between 0 and 1 is infinite. And there are 60 infinities in a minute, and 3,600 infinities in an hour, and 57,600 infinities between 8 pm on New Year’s Eve, when I started making endless laps around the psych ward, and 12 pm on New Year’s Day, when the psychiatrist finally saw me and gave me something that made me forget that I exist.
ALLISON BEHRINGER: This piece was written and produced by Boen Wang. You can find Boen on Twitter, at boen_wang. And his website, boen.cool.