Perfect Prisons

It has been four years since my sister died. The trauma begins to bubble up in mid to late June, throughout which I relive the last few days of her life—the days locked inside a coma having endured irreparable brain damage—and continues to simmer well past the fourth of July. The yearly explosions in the sky have accrued a wholly different meaning; an ominous meaning; and quite often the meaning is a meaninglessness. What symbolizes freedom to others, means the opposite to me.

Prison is almost too perfect a metaphor. My sister was trapped behind the bars of her disease, her dual diagnosis of mental illness—borderline personality disorder—and drug addiction. In the eulogy I wrote and delivered at her funeral, I cited Briana’s favorite painting, Claude Monet’s The Four Trees, as an analogy for her life. I wrote, “Monet painted the poplars from the limited perspective of a boat in the middle of a river. If he had painted them on the land from the opposite bank, the perspective would have been much greater. This has the effect of denying us the view of the tops of the four trees. Furthermore, were it not for his depiction of the riverbank, the tree trunks would be indistinguishable from their reflections in the water.”

There is a new level of meaning that has revealed itself to me. As I thought about Briana, and this annual self-imposed writing assignment, I stared at the painting for a while. A print of it hangs on my wall, and while I look at it often, I contemplated it for longer than usual. Something occurred to me that I had perhaps overlooked: the symmetrical nature of the trees, and the limited perspective above and below them, depicts a perspective that is similar to one’s point of view behind bars. The full spectrum of Briana’s life was trapped inside her mental illness; she could see the beautiful hues of color beyond the trees, yet she was unable to fully interact with their splendor. In this sense, her life was a kind of perfect prison.

No matter how perfect the prison, it is human nature to wish to escape.

I recently completed the filmic adaptation of No Alternative and used the song Perfect Prisons by the band Failure in the soundtrack. It is used as a type of calm before the storm, in a sense, prior to a tragic turn of events for one of the characters. It is the climax of this storyline and the music underscores the complex emotions building up inside of the character. Music throughout the film plays an important role in highlighting each character’s interior world. The distorted, but sparse, palm-muting of the guitar, along with the hits on the low and floor toms, provide a distinct bottom to the sound—we are about to encounter the bottom of the character’s arc. However, the melody of the lyrics provide a poignant counterpoint to the darkness, which I think is necessary when we hear the lyrics:

At the start we jumped far/
and got dizzy/
with the many wonders.
Oh how i want to stay/
stay today.

We’re making prisons/
perfect traps/
no choices.
Perfect prisons/
hold me tight/
I can’t feel it.

On the surface, the lyrics read dark; they read like there is no alternative. But the melody and the increasing vibrancy of the guitar chords (the strumming goes from barely muted, to vigorously free) conveys the feeling of life. This push and pull of wanting to live while also longing to die, given circumstances beyond one’s control, is what I try to convey in the scene.

This dichotomy speaks to the nature of one’s internal struggle and subsequent desire to escape that struggle. It speaks to my sister’s desire to escape her struggle. It speaks to my understanding of it, by way of the traumatic effects my sister’s death have had, and continue to have, on me. The only way to prevent such escape—escape through drug addiction, self-harm or suicide—is to understand the struggle, and the only way we understand the struggle is to normalize it.

We must recognize mental illness and we must normalize it. There is no alternative but to normalize it.

I’m landing now/
and hitting hard.
But the feelings/
they’re still the same.
Oh how I want to stay/
stay today.

#endthestigma

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