Aug 12, 2022

Infinities

In August 2018, Boen Wang was at a work retreat for a new job. Surrounded by mosquitoes and swampland in a tiny campsite in West Virginia, Boen’s mind underwent a sudden, dramatic transformation that would have profound consequences—for his work, his colleagues, and himself.

Special thanks to Grace Gilbert for voice acting and episode art, and to Professors Erin Anderson and Maggie Jones for editorial support. 

Episode credits:

Reported and produced by Boen Wang
Original Music provided by Alex Zhang Hungtai
Fact-checking by Diane Kelly
Edited by Pat Walters

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[RADIOLAB INTRO]

 

LATIF NASSER: Hey, I'm Latif Nasser.

LULU MILLER: I'm Lulu Miller.

LATIF: This is Radiolab. And today, we're gonna feature a young producer on staff. Actually, our most recent intern, Boen Wang, because before he got here, Boen made a bit of radio that

LULU: Doo doo doo ...

LATIF: Blew us outta the water.

BOEN WANG: I'm gonna ...

LULU: Boen, you getting cold feet about this whole thing?

BOEN: No, it's—and now the cat is trying to bite through this.

LATIF: It's called Infinities.

LULU: To start, like, someone, you know, opening this podcast, listening, like, what would you want someone to hear before they hear the piece?

BOEN: I guess maybe just like a quick "Lulu, Latif, Radiolab. And here we have the intern Boen. Hi! What's going on with this story?" Well, it's a story that I made for a school assignment, and somehow it just—it went out into the world and people liked it. And to talk too much about it would kind of spoil it, but it's basically about this crazy time where something happened to me while I was at work, and things happened as a result of it. That would be ...

LULU: Wait, that was, like, perfect.

LATIF: I think that was the—that's the open.

LULU: That's the money take. And what—do we need to do any, I don't know, just kind of any warnings or state of mind stuff?

BOEN: Yeah, totally. There's definitely a depiction of a panic attack, and there's also discussion of suicidal ideation. And yeah, if you're sensitive to that, you don't need to listen.

LULU: Yeah.

LATIF: Okay. So we're gonna play Boen's piece in the original form, and then Boen, we'll come back to you, talk to you a bit about it afterwards. Cool?

BOEN: Yeah.

LULU: Okay.

LATIF: Here we go. Infinities.

BOEN: On Saturday, October 6, 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 meetings and team-building exercises trying desperately not to scratch. So that was bad.

BOEN: 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.

BOEN: When we canoed back, the sun had set. Someone made a campfire, and we made s'mores. The guy with prematurely gray hair played songs on his guitar. He was pretty bad at guitar. I went into one of the cabins, and saw some people playing a card game called Egyptian Rat Screw. I'm pretty good at Egyptian Rat Screw.

BOEN: 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 10, and the next person flips over a 10, then you slap the pile, and you take all the cards in the pile, and whoever gets all the cards wins.

BOEN: 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.

BOEN: Which I think is when it all started: me lying in bed at around 11:00 pm on Saturday, October 6, 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 gray. Like I was truly seeing things for the first time.

BOEN: 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.

BOEN: And one time during a break, they gave us fidget spinners and silly putty to play with because 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.

BOEN: We sat in a circle, me and my coworkers and our supervisors, —and they handed out packets with different committee positions, such as ...

[Text to speech: Event planning, recruitment, programming, social media.]

BOEN: 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 ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Boen Wang: How much leverage will we actually have over you?]

BOEN: And they said something to the effect of ...

[Text to speech: As much as you want. There are 42 of you and six of us. This is your opportunity to manage upward.]

BOEN: 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. Because 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 ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Boen Wang: 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 are 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!]

BOEN: 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 ...

[Text to speech: ... coaching meetings.]

BOEN: That would help me ...

[Text to speech: ... improve and grow in self-management and emotional-management.]

BOEN: 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 ...

[Text to speech: ... therapy confirmation sheet.]

BOEN: ... that said ...

[Text to speech: 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.]

BOEN: 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, because what kind of crazy person would be forced to attend therapy by their employer?

BOEN: In spite of all this, I got elected to the leadership committee. My position was ...

[Text to speech: Accountability.]

BOEN: 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.

BOEN: From 2012 to 2016, the number of workers increased from 12 to 35. Revenue increased from $244,503 to $678,871, which works out to be a 178 percent total increase, or an average annual growth rate of 31.5 percent.

BOEN: And in that same timeframe, the CEO's compensation increased from $53,707 to $85,092, which is a 58.4 percent total increase with an average annual growth rate of 12.1 percent. But meanwhile, what we got paid from 2012 to 2016 stayed virtually flat, with a total increase of just nine percent, or an average annual growth rate of three percent, which basically means that over the course of four years, the organization made more money and the CEO made more money because 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 ...

BOEN: ... the weirdest part was that on every IRS filing, I found a difference between the CEO's stated income and his unstated income, that you could calculate by adding up different figures. Like in 2016, 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.

BOEN: So I went to another accounting firm and talked to the organization's auditor herself. She's 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 1, while the unstated income was for the fiscal year starting on August 1. 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!

BOEN: On October 31, 2018, I had a meeting with the CEO and a board member who happened to be a lawyer.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Boen Wang: August 31, 2018. 1:14 pm.]

BOEN: I don't know why I said "August." I was probably still thinking about the fiscal year thing.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, CEO: As has been communicated, there's been multiple instances that have occurred ...]

BOEN: That's the CEO.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, lawyer: Boen, I would just add from my perspective ...]

BOEN: 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.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, 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.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Boen Wang: I would like that. Thank you.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, CEO: That really kinda undermine—undermine the ability to function as a—as a member of the community.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Boen Wang: Right.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, CEO: So we want to, like, seek a resolution and, you know, develop a path forward as a collective unit around this. So, I think, you know, due to the seriousness of this, we want to 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.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Boen Wang: Would you like me to respond?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, CEO: Sure.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Boen Wang: I would prefer not to respond.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, CEO: Okay.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, lawyer: You would prefer not to explain?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Boen Wang: Yes, please.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, lawyer: Okay. Do you understand where we're coming from with that or do you disagree?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Boen Wang: I absolutely understand. I'm trying to imagine the situation from your perspective.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, lawyer: Sure.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Boen Wang: I absolutely understand.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, lawyer: And we're doing our best to give you the information that you're asking for and be transparent as we've discussed. That's why we're here today. 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.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Boen Wang: Yeah. I apologize.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, 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 to do what you've been doing and reaching out to, you know, board members, staff members, third parties, individually?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Boen Wang: Yeah.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, lawyer: And I 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 want to get on the same page again. Is that something you think is possible?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Boen Wang: Absolutely.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, CEO: So I mean, I think that there's—I think there's due cause for dismissal. We're not moving forward with dismissal. We're moving forward, like I said, to come up with a resolution. In order to do that, 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 vibrant member of that community.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Boen Wang: Would you prefer to use the word "viable" or "vibrant?" member of the community?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, CEO: I think just as a member of the community.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Boen Wang: So no adjective then?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, CEO: No.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Boen Wang: Okay. Thank you.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, CEO: So—so basically, these are the things. We want you to continue attending the weekly seminar and be a part of the program activities.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Boen Wang: Do you have—this is, could you email me a copy of this as well?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, CEO: Yeah.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Boen Wang: I'm gonna take notes on this. Thank you so much.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, CEO: To review, understand, and be bound by the discipline policy and procedures, meet weekly with a professional counselor for a minimum of four weeks. I think that’s already been shared. The next appointment needs to occur before November 9.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Boen Wang: It's tomorrow at 3:00 pm.]

ARCHIVE CLIP, CEO: Okay. Sign a release of information form allowing your counselor 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. 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?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Boen Wang: I do, but can I get some water? Today's the 30th. Okay. On October 13, 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.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, 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.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Boen Wang: I feel incredibly uncomfortable with that. When I had my first meeting, I had to—it was an intake. I had to speak to three different medical professionals. And I don't have it with me now, and—actually, I do. And present this document. I had to explain this three times, and I found it embarrassing and demeaning. And 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.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, lawyer: Well Boen, we fully agree with keeping your—your ...]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Boen Wang: I think you know what I mean.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, lawyer: ... your care confidential, sure. What we're looking at is accountability on attendance and compliance with this agreement.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Boen Wang: Okay.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, lawyer: We're not looking to see your medical records. We have no interest in that. We respect patient privacy.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Boen Wang: 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?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, lawyer: I think we're not gonna have any choice but to go our separate ways.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Boen Wang: Okay. Okay. Have a wonderful life.]

BOEN: My parents took me home the next day. On November 2, 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—"

[ARCHIVE CLIP, 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 11:00 pm?]

BOEN: I don't know. 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 ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, 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.]

BOEN: Okay.

BOEN: 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.

BOEN: My parents didn't take me to a hospital. Instead, they took me to a psychiatrist who prescribed me anti-psychotics, 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.

BOEN: On Christmas, I developed a condition called akathisia. It's a side effect of some anti-psychotics, 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.

BOEN: 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 15 minutes, and there was nothing to do but pace the halls.

BOEN: 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 8:00 pm on New Year's Eve, when I started making endless laps around the psych ward, and 12:00 pm on New Year's Day, when the psychiatrist finally saw me and gave me something that made me forget that I exist.

LATIF: When we return, we talk to Boen about his piece, about how he made it, and about how he's doing today. Stay with us.

 

***

 

LATIF: And we're back. We just played Boen's piece "Infinities," and we figured we had so many questions, we should sit down and talk to him about it.

LULU: Well first of all, the piece is so good!

LATIF: It's really good. Yeah.

LULU: I feel like my first time listening was just like duct tape. I was just stuck to it, and it was just walking this line between so intense and dealing frankly with freaking despair and confusion.

LATIF: It's unsettling.

LULU: Yeah.

LATIF: Genuinely felt like we were in your head. Not an easy thing to do.

LULU: Yeah.

BOEN: Thank you. Appreciate it.

LATIF: So, okay—so this all—I'm just trying to piece the timeline, sorry. You got fired, you got help, then you decided to make the story about it? Or ...?

BOEN: Yeah. So what happened was on October 31 of 2018, Halloween, that's why it's so easy for me to remember, I was fired. From then until the end of December, I was at home and steadily declining, and then I was in the psych ward.

LATIF: Yeah.

BOEN: Early January of 2019, I was discharged. I came out of the hospital. I was very depressed for a long time. I was living at home. I was unemployed, except for a brief stretch of time where my doctor was like, "Oh, why don't you get a job at a hibachi restaurant?" And, like, I was like, "Okay." And then I worked there for three days and it was terrible. But anyway, so ...

LATIF: Oh, my God!

BOEN: And I was horribly depressed. I could not function. I somehow got accepted to the University of Pittsburgh's MFA program in creative writing.

LATIF: Yeah.

BOEN: Took the class about podcasts, where I had to submit stuff. Like, over a year later from that whole experience, I guess, it was finally that I realized, like, oh yeah, I have this audio recording of me being fired that is, like, pretty dramatic and interesting. Like, if I were to just listen to that and I didn't know who I was, I would be like, "Wow!"

LATIF: Right.

BOEN: "This is intense."

LULU: Mm-hmm.

BOEN: And very ...

LATIF: How did that even—how did that even work? Like, were you secretly recording it? Were you openly recording it? Did—like, I just—yeah, that was a question I had.

BOEN: Yeah, I should make this very clear: that recording where I get fired is not secret. Like, I asked them for permission and I put the phone on the table.

LATIF: Mm-hmm.

BOEN: Why I was recording, it was some sort of instinct I had of, like, I want to have as much documentation of this as possible, but then it was like, okay, well I need to contextualize that tape. Like, what exactly led to that?

LATIF: Got it. Got it.

BOEN: And so basically the story was like: this is what happened, here's the tape, and then here's what happened after it. And, like, I told myself, like I said in the piece, I'm going to tell this story absolutely objectively. I'm going to narrate myself as if I were a character. And I submitted it for class, people gave me feedback. I originally ended with a quote from David Foster Wallace and they were like, "Uh, don't do that." I was like, "Okay, you're right."

LATIF: [laughs]

BOEN: Yeah. Eventually, I finished that, and I don't know, submitted it.

LATIF: When you first revisited that tape, what did you think about yourself? Did you cringe? Did you laugh? Did you have to turn it off at any point? Did you—yeah, I almost wanna watch you listening to that for the first time. I don't know what that says about me, but yeah.

BOEN: [laughs] I don't cringe or laugh. I think mostly I just was in, like, a full body tension, and I think I was brought back to that point. What I remember of that moment is that I felt like I had tunnel vision. I was, like, 110 percent concentrated on this interaction that I was having with these two powerful people. And I was—I don't know. Actually, something that does make me laugh is when I ask the CEO, "Do you mean ..."

LULU: "Vibrant or viable?"

BOEN: Yeah, that's ...

LATIF: That was such a—that's— that was such a vivid moment for me too.

LULU: Yeah.

BOEN: I don't know. That was kind of funny to me. I wasn't trying to be funny.

LATIF: Okay. But excavate that—excavate that moment a little bit.

BOEN: I think—because it was all this corporate BS, and they were talking in such like an impersonal corporate voice.

LULU: Mm-hmm.

BOEN: And that seemed like just such a prime example of that. And I wasn't trying to be, like, mean in any way. It was a genuine question for me.

LATIF: But that moment was so vivid to me because there are moments in this piece where, like, I just wanted to give you a hug. Like, you felt like this super fragile person who was trying to do righteous things. Like, you were—you were standing up for the little guy, you were, like—you were like a—like this flawed hero. Like, I was rooting for you. And then there were other moments where I was like, "Boen, dude, just—what are you doing? Like, who cares about this word?" Like you were—it felt like you were ratcheting up tension for no reason, and I was turning on you as a listener. But I felt like that was the real strength of the piece is, like, I got this sort of unvarnished picture of you because you, like, kept a lot of those moments in there. Were there moments where you judged yourself and you were like, "Ah, this makes me look, like, bad, but I'm gonna keep it in anyway?" Or is it that I'm just super—like, I'm judging you from the outside?

BOEN: I mean, yeah, totally. I think the moment when I basically harassed my former co-worker and sent her a bajillion messages.

LULU: Yeah.

BOEN: Really, I think, hurting my former co-worker.

LATIF: Right. Right.

BOEN: Yeah. No, that is—it's funny that you mentioned that, like, moments where you turn on me, because I think some professor at Pitt who listened to the piece, his feedback was like, "Wow, like, he's not afraid to make the narrator unlikable." And I guess whether that was my intention or not, I think my intention, like you said, was just to be unvarnished and truthful, and as a result, that meant me kind of being a jerk for no reason. Because I told my sister about this whole story and she was like, "Yeah, you know, they were kind of in the right to fire you, you know?" And quite frankly, yes, she's right. They were right to fire me. I don't know what else they could have done. You know, I think they really tried to accommodate me.

LATIF: They sounded like they were trying hard not to fire you.

BOEN: Yeah. [laughs]

LULU: I wanna—yeah, like I—well, no, I think it's interesting because, just to zoom in on the viable/vibrant moment, I don't know if I, like, turned there. I think I actually—what happened for me there was just wondering these soft words we use in work settings that can, you know, obscure a harsh decision or a harsh policy, or create a sense of togetherness when there's actually a hierarchy in place. And Boen is calling that out, but also increasingly making questionable choices about how to be in community with people. And I think it just gets at—that moment gets at what I love so much about this whole piece, which is that I am just constantly questioning that line. You know, like, who is—what's the pathology here? Is it Boen's behavior, or is it the expectations?

LATIF: But you do agree that—like, and I think especially with the co-worker moment, like, it's like, whatever the line is, at that moment, Boen clearly crossed the line, right?

LULU: Oh with the co—yeah. With the messages. Yeah.

LATIF: Right, right.

LULU: But with that moment, the vibrant/viable, it was ambiguous for me there.

LATIF: Yeah.

BOEN: No, I think I—[laughs] I think I really was unnecessarily escalating the situation.

LULU: Yeah.

BOEN: And quite frankly, looking back on it over four years from that, four years from when it happened, like, I don't know. They tried the best they could. And ...

LATIF: No, but it's such a hard position to be in with someone. I mean, even more so if it's yourself but, like, with someone who's in the kind of throes of mental illness because it can be so hard to engage even if you know that that's what's happening. Like, it just felt like you somehow in showing those moments of yourself, like, that felt like so much realer of a portrait of your brain at this moment. But that's—like, that's what this—like, I don't know. It's like, it's about the illness. I don't know. Or maybe you have another gloss on that?

BOEN: No, I think you're absolutely right. Like, just—it's very hard to deal with someone who is in the throes of mental illness, or in my case in the throes of a manic episode. And seeing the way my parents were and how they wanted to help me, but they couldn't, I don't know. The only thing you can—in my experience, the only thing that anyone could do for me was for me to call the Delaware County mental health line or whatever, and basically talk to this person about, like, I want to sleep and I can't. And I feel like the only viable option is for me to die. And she was like, "Oh, you should probably go to a hospital." And I was like, "Oh, okay." And at the hospital, they can't really do anything. They can't give you anything. Well, I guess they gave me Ativan, but the only thing they can do in the hospital is monitor you and make sure that you don't die. It's not really about care, I don't think. It's just about, like, putting you in a space where you cannot hurt yourself or others. What they could do for me medically was quite limited. But yeah, I don't know. That was kind of the only thing anyone could have done for me at that point.

LULU: Is there anything that, like, Boen of now you think—is there any thought you could have implanted into Boen of midnight that New Year's Eve before things kind of like dissipated with a drug? Like, is there any thought that could have made feeling trapped inside a head feel any better? Or is that just you were off the charts and you needed help?

BOEN: If there was any—if I could talk to that self, I would be like, "It's gonna be okay. Your life is gonna be unbelievably unimaginably better than it is right now. And also you're gonna make a podcast about this. So it's gonna—you're really getting some good content right now." But I'd just tell that self that, like, listen, it's gonna be okay. But nothing, I think, would've helped me at the time.

LATIF: It almost feels like there should be a disclaimer at the end here and be like, "Boen's a great guy, and this is like—like, I almost want the world to know you now, as we know you. You're like the sweetest, most, like, kind helpful employee, like, eager to learn. Like, it's like it's a totally different portrait of you. And I feel like I don't know how, but I want to, like—I want to staple to the end of this, like, the portrait of Boen that I know and have worked with and, like, is a totally different person than the person they're gonna hear about.

BOEN: Yeah.

LATIF: In the piece.

BOEN: No. Yeah. Thank you, first off. And I guess, I don't know. I guess my first thought is that like, you know, that was me. That was me in the throes of mental illness, and not knowing what the hell was going on, but, you know, that was me. I don't know.

LULU: But also, like, yeah, and that you got you to present tense you. And that you is still in you. And I don't know. Like, I honor that—that you with those questions about infinity and that fear and that paranoia. Like, that you is probably still filtering through, and making you who you are. Yeah, I don't know.

BOEN: I guess maybe something to note is that that Boen in the piece is a character. That Boen in the piece is—this is why in workshop, instead of saying in our feedback, like, "Oh, you did this," we say, like, "Oh, the narrator did this," or "The character did this."

LATIF: That's right. That's true.

BOEN: So there is number one, that level of narrativization. And number two, to your point, Lulu, since I came to Pittsburgh, I've been, you know, seeing a wonderful therapist. And when I described this whole experience to him, he was like, "Well, you know, it seems like there was this part that was repressed for whatever reason, and all of a sudden it exploded and I didn't know what to do with it." And the part that is repressed me is still me. And, you know, I think still to this day, I'm trying to figure out what to do with the me that very suddenly emerged on that stupid day while I was playing Egyptian Rat Screw. That's the closest I can get to a cause: I was playing Egyptian Rat Screw too intensely. I don't know.

LULU: And you were so good at it!

BOEN: I was so good at it.

LATIF: I'm—I gotta tell you, I'm also very good at that game.

BOEN: We gotta play.

LATIF: And I would like to play with you.

BOEN: All right. Come back to Pittsburgh.

LATIF: Although not if—not if it, you know, triggers something.

LULU: Have you played it since? Have you played it since?

BOEN: Yeah. Yeah. And every time I play, I win. [laughs] So, all right Latif, we'll have to ...

LULU: Well, I can't wait to hear the piece you make about our work culture. [laughs]

BOEN: Yeah, it's wonderful. I really enjoy it. Yeah.

LATIF: And you'd be like, "Lulu, your salary ..."

LULU: "Like, that's a lot. Those expenses on science books certainly line up neatly with the manicures."

LATIF: This piece by Boen Wang, "Infinities," won the Best New Artist award at the 2020 Third Coast International Audio Festival. It was broadcast in 2021 on KCRW's Bodies. Special thanks to Grace Gilbert for voice acting and episode art, and to Professors Erin Anderson and Maggie Jones for editorial support. And thanks to Boen for sharing it with us.

[LISTENER: Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Neason, Sarah Qari, Anna Rascouët-Paz, Sarah Sandbach, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Boen Wang. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Krieger and Natalie Middleton.]

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