By Steven “Walks On The Grass” Maisenbacher
Depression, Music & Brotherhood
There are many things that can bring you sickness and illness. Some of them we never even think about until it’s too late. When I first came to prison I just knew I had to have some tattoos, so I got them – and something far more serious. Evidently the tattoo artist wasn’t as clean or professional as he claimed. I was in Phoenix when they called me into medical to tell me my blood work had tested positive for Hepatitis C. It would take years for me to start feeling tired all the time and sick more often than I had ever been. Then I had to complain to medical repeatedly for several more years before I was finally approved for the treatment.
While in Beaumont, the medical staff determined that my Hepatitis C had reached a level that would allow them to initiate Interferon treatments. After being evaluated by Psychology to see if I could mentally withstand the treatment I was scheduled for a consultation with an oncologist from the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) contracted by the B.O.P. Before my appointment, I was given counseling by the medical staff to kinda sorta prepare me for what was to come, and what to expect. They were nowhere near the mark on how the treatments would affect me.
I’ve had my share of down moods, but the depression that came over me was the worst I’ve ever experienced. I’m normally a moderately happy man but I have got to say, this about whipped me and I nearly tapped out several times during the course of the treatment. I hear now it’s a lot easier and the side effects have been resolved by refining the medications, but when I took it back in 2009 it was brutal. I had to take pills in the morning, pills in the evening, every day, and on Thursday evening I would go to medical at 7pm for a shot of what I believe was Interferon.
On a good day, the food at Beaumont Low is hardly fit to eat anyway, but now my meals became unbearable. Everything I ate had a nasty, metallic taste, like copper pennies in my mouth or a nail. For months my diet consisted largely of the only two things that tasted good – cherry cough drops and butter pecan ice cream.
How can I say that the “what if’s” of the situation devastated me any plainer than to say a TV commercial could make me break down in tears. There were no guarantees, so just the thought that maybe I’d be undergoing all this, like I had the worst kind of flu for 10 months non-stop and then find out my body didn’t respond to the treatment. Was I going to be left to the end that Hep C eventually and always is for those who get it, have it, and don’t get it treated?
I was of course still required to live within the rules of the institution, which meant I had to continue working and keeping the cell clean and all the normal stuff. But when you’re sick, when you are just bone-wrenchingly sore and physically exhausted you don’t want to do anything except lay down and hope for sleep so you are not aware of how cruddy you feel.
During this time, I wrote some really poignant music and lyrics. The ordeal let me tap into a part of my mind that I never knew I could write from. I was amazed at the depth and clarity in which songs could pinpoint my feelings and put them out there in written form. Not only did these lyrics help me understand what I was going thru, but oddly enough others who read and heard the songs could as well. The concerts that my “Old School Band” put on at Beaumont were always packed with guys looking to find some healing and some release through the music.
Guys in prison are the hardest audience in the world to get appreciation from. For the most part they are jaded and skeptical, critical and definite in what they like, and most assuredly in what they don’t like or think is garbage. My songs cover a range as broad as a suicide note (Footnote) or an adventure in the olden days of piracy. But we weren’t just doing my songs, we had a gang of cover songs in there as well, some more meaningful than others, like “Without You” by Harry Nilsson, and Fire Lake by Bob Seger, or Boogie Shoes by K.C. and The Sunshine Band, complete with piano by Mike White.
Mike went on to Petersburg, VA and ended up writing a book. I read it, wasn’t bad but a lot of the prison books are kind of silly in reality because all the crud you think about being typical prison stuff just doesn’t really go on. Sure there are bad behaviors, but that’s everywhere. Prison doesn’t have a monopoly on “bad” and I assure you, I have never seen a prison rape. Do they happen? Evidently they do and its horrible that humans would treat other humans in that way. Some humans are exactly where they belong. They will never redeem themselves nor be of worth to society or the world at large and I’m glad they are right here where they are with me so I can keep an eye on them and they can’t reign down any horrid behaviors on society. Enough of that, back to depression, music and brotherhood.
See, while undergoing the “treatment” I was forbidden to participate in the sweat lodge ceremonies or be in direct sunlight or extreme heat, so the brothers used to do the pipe ceremony before the sweat lodge ceremony and have me sit inside the door to the lodge in order to be out of the sun, but still be able to sing the pipe songs and pray with the pipe. Then there was a corner of the grounds that had a little concrete picnic table. They strung a sheet over it and I would sit under it in the shade working on the drumsticks, or rattles, or making medicine bags or learning new songs while the brothers were inside the lodge for the Inipi Kaga (We live).
All in all, the time I was under treatment being healed I was also in the lodge area and under healing by the compassion of the brothers who always made a way to keep me included and involved in the ceremonies. I ended up going thru a lot of mental and emotional changes during those months. While no prison is a “good” prison, some are better than others and some chaplains are better than others in actually wanting to aid you in your spiritual endeavors, as well as filling the job description. I’m grateful for that.
When I was done with the treatment and being seen for the last time by the oncologist, my diagnosis had changed to “no detectable virus.” The doctor even told me that my blood work results showed I had a lower viral load than he himself did. It has now been more than a decade since that treatment and several years since I performed any of the songs I wrote during that time, but I will never forget the fact that I had those feelings and thoughts, or that I was so sick it took a lodge ground, my Native brothers, and always the music to get me through it.
To the brothers that helped me during and thru this time of hardship, Mike Wheeler, Mike Duran, Ricardo Flores, just to name the main ones, the rest of you know who you are. Definitely the Creator knows your names and saw your hearts reach out to a brother who needed you and your strength.
As for the music, well, she is the one love of my life that has never left me wanting. By that I mean I can take it anywhere, anytime, any style or level of complexity, any volume or instruments, all in my head. Crazy, I’m still to this day not sure how I’m able to just sit down and write a song, knowing the melody that fits to the lyrics, but I can and I believe it’s a gift from the Creator.
I also didn’t know I could do this – write out my experience – but thanks to the urgings of my amazing cousin “Sings Many Songs” and support of my cousin “Ghost Dancer,” here I am doing it with little to no provocation. I’m sure that I’m missing something or that I could have fleshed out something more, but as it is I think you will get the gist of what I went thru, how it felt and how thankful I am to be healed of this silent killer, Hepatitis C. To this day I still have “no detectable virus” and that’s a good thing, even if I would just shake my head in a non-committal way if asked if it was all worth it…
Step into my mind and watch it fade to black,
Just like a bad trip, you might not make it back,
Stare into a looking glass to see what you can find,
I’ll be staring back at you, every single time,
Don’t close your eyes, it’s just an illusion,
Finding your way is the ultimate confusion.
Pitching away, tossing and turning,
Rolling away, smoky eyes burning,
talking thru the minutes as I fade away,
this is the way I feel today.
Out on the edge, that is where I am going,
Anywhere else is just too damn boring,
Just my sort of thought, maybe I’m crazy,
But to not fight the fight seems pretty damn lazy.
Pitching away, tossing and turning,
Rolling away, smoky eyes burning,
Talking thru the minutes it takes to fade away,
Can’t complain, you asked how I feel today.
I won’t look back, or step over the edge,
I won’t get too close to losing my head.
Just realize we’re only finding our power,
Watching it slip away, measured by hours,
Don’t close your eyes in hopes of a solution,
Don’t fill your head with white noise pollution,
Just smile for yourself and carry on,
After all I am only the words of this song…
White Noise © 2009 Steven Maisenbacher (Walks On The Grass)
“The vision will steal the wind from your lungs. All your mistakes, all your tragedies, all your disasters, meltdowns, failures, heartaches, you’ll see that they were an opus.” ~ Sean Dietrich “Your Life”