Beware: Falling Serifs
This is part two of an ongoing series I'm calling I've Been Sad
I left Chicago and headed back home to NoVA 1. My mystery illness needs a psychiatrist after having exhausted other explanations.
I drove to Falls Church one afternoon to meet my new psychiatrist. He was matter-of-fact and quickly got down to business. He spoke with me about my symptoms and how I was feeling, and quickly threw medication at it: Xanax2 as needed for acute episodes of panic, Zoloft3 for general well-being and functional human traits, and Depakote4 for stabilizing my swings. I didn’t even get to lie on a couch and talk about my feelings about my mother. He was a squat man with wild hair and small crazy eyes hidden behind thick glasses. He was clearly touched with a madness of his own that gave me this notion that my illness may be part of my personality. If I am to be my most authentic self, surely some of it shouldn’t change at all!
Even today in 2017 I've just recently accepted that the various parts of me (even the crazy ones) as potentially important facets of my personality but that they should not be completely in charge of me — that the composite of my Self will be my most authentic Self when the various parts of me aren't just rotating through the driver's seat. It's taken me 17 fucking years to understand that concept, and actually believe it. Coming to that conclusion finally was very reassuring to me, because it means I can get better without jeopardizing the parts of my Self that I think deserve a lot of credit for my creative work. I'm looking forward to how that work improves and gets more real once I'm better negotiating my way through this process and get my Self more in control.
Regardless, the pills and their chemistry made my life start to feel real again. At least enough to slow the incessant negative inputs around or within me.
My mind had already fractured enough times to know it could find another path to protect me from the world around me, because I was not doing anything to heal. Those Parts inside of me are really good at protecting me and deflecting challenges. I was taking the medications but not really trying to get better. I was able to tread water and give the appearance of better. This fails eventually because it is not sustainable. It’s exhausting.
At this point in the story, my mind was presented with the opportunity to protect me from the pain of losing a woman I loved by pushing her away from me repeatedly and then closing the path towards reconciliation as quickly as I could. I was utterly horrible and a colossal asshole to her and just about anyone in the vicinity of her the whole way. I needed to be irredeemable and unloved because I was toxic and unlovable. It’s better this way. For everyone. Especially for the parts of my fractured mind, which will not be held accountable for this deception for sixteen years. It also let me pretend that I had no accountability or role in this failed relationship.
I realized later I was always waiting for the rejection and it made me angry and vindicated that I was right. I was right to mistrust and feel unappreciated. This was so obvious and typical; the most cliché of self-fulfilling prophecies. It really makes me want to barf.
Talk About It
I started seeing a therapist in Silver Spring, and I was living in Fairfax County. I was only halfway engaged with therapy because the immediate threat had passed. I had finally reduced any possibility for me to be accountable to anyone and I was isolating myself socially and professionally. I was trying to be careful with my heart because never again could I hurt so badly if I never let it get into that sort of situation again. I made some bad decisions, but I made some good ones, too.
She was a good therapist and I measure others by her. I was a bad client because I didn’t actually want to do any work. It was comforting to be sick and it made me feel good to be in this place as stupid as it may sound. I had the comfort in being sad, finally.
This process was far too short because I lost interest. Fast-forward a few months later and my therapy is back-burnered. I am just so busy! Also?! P.S.? I met someone that I’m going to marry someday, and it is hard enough traveling DC to NYC and back again. As you’ve come to expect from me by now, I am not integrating this period of time with the rest of me very well, but I don’t care because that was in the past. This is arguably one of the most short-sighted moments of my life. There was an opportunity here for healing and I missed it.
In 2003, The Station Nightclub Fire in Providence resulted in the death of some colleagues in Guardent’s Providence, Rhode Island office. I was working in Old Town Alexandria in the Consulting and Professional Services team, and I volunteered to pitch in with the engineering team in Providence. I was comfortable in managed services already and it was work I’d done before, so they took me up on my offer. I stayed with Liz’s parents and siblings for a few days in Ledyard, CT, and commuted in to Providence. While I was there I made friendships with people that will last a lifetime. It wound up being a week-long job interview of sorts. I was offered a position up there, and I accepted it.
When Liz graduated from NYU, she moved in with me in Providence. We lived on the East Side of Providence, and we lived off Hope Street, like the old poster says:
She asked me to get married a few times before I said yes. I wasn’t trying to be difficult or an asshole about it; I did want to be sure that she meant it, and I didn’t want anything but certainty that I wanted it too. When I got sure enough, I said yes. We were married at the Bellagio Hotel in January of 2005, four years after we met.
My therapy picks up again but I can’t bring myself to really try. I don’t know why it was so hard for me; maybe I was worried about upsetting the illusion of everything being fine? I’m apparently okay as long as I throw my life into the path of a wood-chipper now and then. The parts of me that are in control are keeping me alive, but not much beyond that. I have paradoxically lucid moments of being fully present.
Ultimately, by this point, I don’t want to be better. My illness is adopted as my personality now. It is almost completely in charge, all the time. I have relinquished my life to the capricious Parts of me that vie for control and encourage me to do things that virtually guarantee I will never get better. This is where I really start showing my knack for what a therapist will later call trauma bonding, where I need to find people that hurt like me, and it is a source of amazement to me how fast we can find each other in the wilderness. It’s like it has it’s own gravity, this infinte sadness. I meet people, I pick open the scabs on their hearts and brains, and inspect the wounds. I think I have noble intentions but I see it much differently today. I was not helping anyone. I was only trying to make them more resemble me. This is a going to be something I have a lot of guilt about.
I’m out of therapy again. I haven’t been working on myself for quite some time. My med manager is keeping me buoyant but the machinery that keeps me upright is failing left and right underneath me. I’m starting to fall apart inside. The various motivators and pieces of me constantly fighting over the control pad of my mind are getting more violent with each other.
My wife wants to go to graduate school for her PhD, and we have a few options on where to do it. I have nothing else going on so we settle on Iowa because it’s a bit of a known quantity, and it’s close to family, and we’re thinking maybe some children are in our future. A lot happens very quickly now. The metronome of my life hastens and my hands must keep up! Even though I see cracks forming all around me, the remaining fragments of my yet-unassimilated mind is under siege and I am adjusting medication ever-frequently and needing even larger swings to move me back to where I want to be. The thoughts that darken my skies and cloud my vision are arriving in rivers now and I just start swimming to stay in one place without drowning. Sometimes it works. Even more than before I’m growing in a lot of ways but staying the same in others. This is another portion of my life where a lot happens in unexpected ways, and some of it is painful, but a lot of it isn’t.
I know I’m in trouble, though. I go to a therapist that I really have no rapport with. I quit and things get worse, then better, and then worse.
I keep circling the same patch of land in my mind. I’m convinced that there is some hidden truth or meaning that directly relates to my relationship with my wife and everyone else around me over the years. I find a new therapist with some specialized knowledge and skills that I believe are especially relevant to the task at hand.
I am endlessly digging and pushing to uncover something and this entire process was, in fact, a symptom of my own illness. It was therapy busy-work invented by my own mind to confound and confuse me. I know I was telling myself something else, but to this day I don’t truly know what was motivating me at this point other than an impulse to further deepen my understanding of my own pain, and depression, and to make me find yet new ways to self-destruct or further confine myself in something I cannot escape from.
We have a baby. Our daughter is amazing, and I have moments of greatness and moments of not. I’m flailing even harder now and start to realize I’m trapped in a prison I cannot yet fully perceive — I built it myself while I wasn’t looking. I can interact with the world around me most of the time, but it’s always in limited, yet gratifying ways.
There is another story that happens here, but I can't write about it yet. It's hard to write about it because it's still too private in some ways, not fully digested in other ways, and I'm not sure that it's my story to tell, either. To make a long story short, it is a fulcrum. An important place to pivot from.
Comrades in Arms
My friend Sam fights similar battles and we talk when we are feeling especially optimistic or especially not. She is an amazing woman because she understands herself in a way I want to understand myself.
I get a phone call one morning because she’s fucking dead. She’s gone from the world and I’m screaming into the skies the whole way to my therapist’s office. I realize how often I’ve said callous things about people that end their own life. I would say that they were cowards. I realize at that moment that they aren’t cowards, but that they’re just tired of needing to be brave all the time. They don’t have a life that doesn’t require heroism of them every minute of the day. I am often curious about how close I get to that point. I don’t ever spend much time even looking at that place but it seems more real to me now. Part of me is no doubt elated that I’m finally seeing the great waste of time living truly is.
I go another way. I just continue to pull away from the world around me and engage in life by proxy. I do some surface work, but I’m only rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic of my mind. I’m not adverse to working on it but I’m still trying to dive deeper and deeper to fully experience the most painful life I can. It feels like joy is scarce because I view it through a filter of it being an illusion anyway, because my struggle is all-consuming. Everything is about me. What I used to think of as a gift of empathy is giving me a way to co-opt the lives of other people around me and make their achievements something that I am doing too, or having done to me. It becomes very difficult for me to feel joy, or even happiness for another person. I have been defeated by the realization that my work to this point was all for nothing, and I take another break from my therapy. How could I have been so wrong? I was determined to find the answers I needed where there were none to be found. It’s humiliating. I have an utterly manic episode of mapping out and outlining every stray thought and thread related to my emotional state.
Two Years Pass
As expected, I do some hurtful things to people I love, and grow further frustrated when challenged to take a step forward for a change. I am franticly flailing at every aspect of my life. I was hell-bent on a breakthrough that could never come, and now I continue to find another diversion that takes me to a place of ruin, and it will take me two more years to realize what has even happened. This is a time of more frantic cartography of the mind. For years I’ve habitually annotated anything and everything; books I’m reading, articles I’m saving, thoughts I’m thinking, emotions I’m feeling. I’m leaving verbose commented sections in my source code everywhere my mind goes. I am a fully journaled filesystem.
My wife and I have another baby. The birth of our son was nearly catastrophic and it is easily the most difficult thing I’ve navigated in my life. I’m kind of proud of myself for arriving on the other side of it because I wasn’t really inspiring confidence. Going to the hospital when my wife was in labor was itself terrifying for me; I believed that my wife would die this time, and that made everything extra intense. Plus also, our son also almost died. It was an awfully big thing to shoulder on my own for a couple of days.
Seconds after Calvin was born and resuscitated, my wife got to hold our son for entirely too little time. He was whisked to the NICU, while she made her way towards an operating room. I have never in my entire life felt anything even remotely that terrifying. Someone was going to die, I was sure of it. I had to stare down a lot of fears and anxieties in those split-seconds, and then I also faced a 24/7 parade of agonizing science and waiting.
On the upside, I was able to ask my family for help, especially my step-mother, who is uniquely qualified for being a parent of a child in distress. She was my most valuable asset, after my wife, who did survive the birth, but not without help.
The Second Hand Unwinds
Here we are again. I’m at my worst. I am starting to realize how my friend felt a few years ago – that there was hardly any memory of a life that wasn’t in shadows or painful to live through. I have been dutifully pushing the people I love away from me with one possible exception; my children.
I am seeing two therapists and I know I need to start getting traction on something, but I can’t hold onto my emotions long enough to work on them. I’m learning and doing it, but sometimes it’s much harder than others. I start seeing changes though, and I’m sometimes turning back the wheels that roll over me. I keep thinking about my friend that left this all behind. She was tired of being brave all the time. I’m exhausted by the world around me. On several occasions I’ve talked myself out of the guilt about not being consistently present with my wife. After all, we have a lot on our plates, surely this will ease when our son is a little older. I think to myself: things will get back to normal. 5
Over the last few years my wife has seen my condition deteriorating steadily. It gets worse in the winter months, so I don’t notice how truly dangerous the situation is until I start reading a book a friend suggested about cognitive behavioral therapy. I realize that my life is in danger and the slow-boil of my mind concealed it completely. I thought I was starting to feel better, but I was dead wrong. With resolve and purpose I take drastic steps and get admitted to that partial hospitalization program. The first few days are rough, but I know I need structure and consistency. I need to know other people are going to be getting better with me. Some of them may not make it out alive, which is not a subtle reminder that I must not fail.
Over the last two years I was often told that I’m miserable, but I didn’t believe it until I saw it with my own eyes. I can’t wait for things to “get back to normal” anymore, because that isn’t even on the table. “Normal” is not even remotely acceptable. To make this even more terrifying and dangerous, suddenly everything becomes much, much worse.
Part Three is tentatively titled Forever in Thirteen, and it is a doozy.
This is part two of an ongoing series I'm calling I've Been Sad.