Lets Celebrate World's Mental Health Day!

One day when I was about 12 I had a panic attack that I might be losing my mind. Before that moment I had perceived my mind as a reliable source of somewhat clear thoughts in accord with what other people like my Mom, Dad and a history teacher I respected thought of reality outside my mind. But suddenly I became aware that the clarity of my thoughts was only a thin veneer covering up the other side of my Mind that was dark, sinister and capable to spin out of control.

- I will go mad if I don't watch out, - I thought. The only way I knew to watch out was to watch my mind. So I started to scrutinize my mind and it's products. Between pretty keen observations (the neighbor's jacket is thorn, he must had a fight with his other neighbor again) and rational learning (the Thirty Years War took place from 1618 to 1648) it managed to mix in some thoughts that were a bit off and needed an additional attention:

- How valid is this thought about running away from home and living in a forest eating moss?

- How about this thought to continue swimming away from the beech until I reach Sweden? 

- Should I follow this thought of jumping from the roof of a building to see if I can fly?

Somehow in the light of my examination the thought of swimming 150 km from Kurzeme to Swedish Island Gotland (150 km) lost it's appeal. Of course, swimming in cold water made me feel invigorated and powerful, and Sweden had always emitted irresistible glow of a forbidden fruit, but the rational part of my mind reminded me that the Baltic Sea was filled with Soviet military boats looking for potential defectors swimming to the West. Any defector would be shot, then fished out, identified, and then whole family plus the dead defector would be shipped to Siberia to be eaten by swarms of mosquitoes and bears. The thought of harming my family sent me back to the sandy beach of Kurzeme.

Turning lights on to my mind has been my strategy of staying sane. Talking to other people about my thoughts and feelings has been very helpful, too, to identify the ones that are perceived as scary and irrational by other people.

I am happy that we are celebrating World's Mental Health Day on October 10th! It helps us all to understand better mental illness and helps to erase stigma attached to it. If we were not afraid to be stigmatized for speaking about our condition we would be more open about it and seek help before it is too late.

Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival is screening my feature film "Rocks In My Pockets" as part of their Mental Health Day program on Monday, October 10th at 2 PM, at AK Bell Library Theatre in Perth.

MK Gallery is also screening "Rocks In My Pockets" on October 10th, at 7 PM in Milton Kaynes, UK, to celebrate the Mental Health Day and to incite a conversation around genetics, stigma and hope in the face of mental illness. 

If you are curious about the film, please take a look at the trailer:

Happy Mental Health Day!


Research II

When they tell you children are like angels - blank pages in books of purity and innocence that Life and Devil start to write on their dark messages in black ink around teen age - please do not believe them. Every fool who has held a newborn baby knows children scream when they want something. They scream for food, love, affection and toys. When they grow up they learn to push aside their competitors - other babies, small dogs and a-month-old kittens - to get to the desired goods.

One important thing about children you should really know -  scientists confirmed recently that besides being cry-babies babies are also racists. If you read that article you'll find out the reason why:

The idea of in-group bias is well established in behavioral science, and it has its roots long ago, in humanity’s tribal era.

From the moment they are born, children learn to distinguish between the people in their group and the outsiders. It only gets worse as children grow (until their Prefrontal Cortex develops and as adults they become aware of their bias and learn to correct it). Which brings me back to my story about school uniforms.

In Russia a school uniform for girls looked like this:

While in Latvia it looked like this, a whole class:


- Ah, - you'd say. - I see no big difference! Its just a uniform!

Well, it's easy for you to say. The eyes of 8-year olds are like those of an eagle, discerning the smallest difference from the furthest distance, anything that would give them clues to start an abuse of The Other. Have you ever tried to enter a classroom, full of 8-year-olds, dressed in the wrong uniform? On September 1st, after my return from Sakhalin to Latvia, I did just that and instantly was tagged as The Other. When the teacher asked me to introduce myself to the class, and I said ... :

- Hi, my name is Signe Baumane. My family recently moved to this town from Sakhalin...

... the 35 of my future classmates detected Russian accent in my Latvian speech which gave them permission to hate me. After 1941 Latvians considered Russians as representatives of occupying powers and harbored quiet but bitter resentments towards the privileges and entitlements the newly arrived Russians enjoyed. Of course, being a second class citizens in his/her own country no Latvian could express openly their hostility towards any Russian. But I was a perfect target - a Latvian speaking with a Russian accent. And so the bottled up resentment was unleashed on me.

Or, perhaps I am giving political overtures to something that was more simple: I was awkward, ugly, quiet, not very bright and my Mom was a teacher at the same school (kids of teachers were also hated - they were perceived as having unfair advantage).

Whatever happened on that first day, I was not able to shake off the tag of The Other for the next 10 years, however I tried. Observing my sufferings stemming from social exclusion my Prefrontal Cortex grew to develop bias against populars. 

But wait, I just watched Blank on Blank interview with Kurt Cobain (animated by Pat Smith) and he said: " i felt so different so crazy" in school. Curt Cobain? You'd think in high school he was an incarnate of the populars, no?

Most of my friends felt different and crazy in school, excluded from the popular circles. But WHERE are those populars? Perhaps the people we perceived as populars also felt miserable and excluded? Have they lived to tell their tale?





Research on Sakhalin I

When I started to work on visual aspects of my new project I had to make sure I get visual details right. For example, what was the standard school uniform in the USSR on September 1st when I went to school for the first time? Of course, I could fake it, after all, my story is of the fantastical sort, and who cares about old school uniforms anyway, but I wanted to see if the old times could inspire me. The matter of school uniforms is not that simple in my case. 

I was born in Latvia (it was part of Soviet Union at that time) and when I was 5 my family went for work to Sakhalin, the Russian island next to Japan. Age 5 is the time when a person finally emerges from the mysterious glob of subconscious flesh that is a baby. My first solid memories are from Sakhalin. Like the first love, this island is unforgettable.

Read about Sakhalin on Wikipedia

Read about Sakhalin on Wikipedia

If you have been to Far East you'd know how amazing the Nature is there: overwhelming with its beauty and overpowering with its forces. The amount of snow alone could kill you.

Check out Sakhalin photos on Flickr

Check out Sakhalin photos on Flickr

But back to school uniforms. Despite the dangers of unsupervised childhood (my parents had to leave me and my sister alone when they went to work, because kindergartens were full and no one's ever heard of babysitters in the good old USSR) I survived and reached the mature age of 7 when by the law of the land I was required to go to school. I put on the uniform and went with my older sister.

Upon my arrival the school immediately pointed out at everything that was odd and irregular about me: I didn't know which hand was right or left, my cotton tights weren't so tight and kept sliding down in folds of an accordion and I didn't have any books nor bag with me. After all, I have spent 2 previous years in wild, like this:

But I believed in education, so I persisted. Every morning I would put the uniform on and would go to the school on a makeshift sidewalk that was supposed to keep the Forces of Nature at bay. The school eventually grew to like me. A couple of fellow classmates thought there was something special about me being a Latvian in their Russian speaking class, although by then I barely spoke any Latvian.

Then the Disaster struck: one day when I was 8 my parents packed to go back to Latvia. 
(to be continued)