27 June 2014

The Longest Two Innings of My Life

My official player photo.
I played just one season of Little League, back in 1990. I had only really gotten into baseball at all in 1988. I wasn't really confident enough to play - athletic things were always outside my comfort zone - but my brother was old enough to play Tee Ball in '90 and so it just sort of seemed obligatory that I should give it a go that season.

In those days, pitchers were restricted by innings, rather than pitches. We had two pitchers, but it happened that one was suspended for a not-relevant-here incident at the same time the other had hit his innings pitched limit for the week. We needed someone to take the ball. And so I did what no one else seemed willing to do: I volunteered.

Mind you, I had no illusions that I was going to be a phenom. That wasn't the point. The point was, someone had to take the mound and throw the ball. I've never had any problem putting myself out there, whether to be helpful or amusing. My ego has enough sense of humor that I don't embarrass easily.

So anyway, I was the starting pitcher in this one game. One of the restrictions in Little League at that time (perhaps still; I don't know) was that no matter how many outs were recorded, a team could only send ten batters to the plate per inning. When you're batting, you hate that rule because it automatically caps your offensive capabilities. When you're on defense, you're less against that rule because it assures your wait to bat again won't be too long. When you're pitching and you're struggling, you know that rule was written to preserve your ability to live with yourself.

I was, frankly, terrible.

I threw for two innings, before being relieved by another teammate. I'm not sure I recorded a single out, and I am sure that if not for that ten-batter limit, I might still be out there struggling. Everyone managed to either get a hit off me, or drew a walk. I hit at least two batters. I felt embarrassed when I hit the first, and furious with myself when I hit the second. I don't really remember much from the second inning, except pure dread.

None of my teammates spoke to me between innings, or even throughout the rest of that game. Not as I recall, anyway. In fairness, I had retreated so far inward by the end of the first inning that my recollection on this point can't be trusted. I can only say that I felt completely alone. I didn't mind so much that I looked bad out there; I had never pitched a game in my life. I knew only a little about grips and less about technique.I was responsible for setting the tone for the game, and I had done a dismal job of it. Worse, I'd put us behind by allowing in however many runs I'd coughed up. They say it's lonely at the top, and let me tell you something: the pitching mound is only a few inches elevated above the rest of the field, but it's the loneliest place on the entire diamond.

Our manager had actually been absent for a week or so at this time, but reappeared some time by the end of that first inning. One of my former teammates insists otherwise, but I know without a doubt that it was during this game that he reappeared because I had never been more relieved or hopeful to see him - or any other human being - in my life. The other coaches had kept things going in his absence, but he was the one responsible for the team. His responsibility was greater than mine, and I was desperate that he would find a solution. He sent me back out to pitch the second, saying he hadn't really had a chance to see much of the first. I took the ball and went back out there. Mercifully, when I returned to the dugout after that inning, he took me out of the game. I sat and sulked in the dugout for all of the third and probably the fourth, as well.

All these years later, two of my friends who were on that team still enjoy busting my chops over how awful a pitcher I was. One of them was the ace pitcher whose spot I had taken because he was suspended. I wasn't in competition with him or anyone else when I volunteered to pitch. I knew I was a sacrificial lamb. I honestly thought I'd do better than I did, of course, but there was no time for anyone to work with me about pitching before the game. It was just one of those things where you had to do something and hoped for the best, knowing that at its worst, it was still better than forfeiting a game outright. You can't stage a comeback in a forfeit, after all. Better to be defeated on the field of play than to not even try.

I learned a lot from just that one season of Little League, and in particular my two innings pitched. Just because I enjoy or want to do something doesn't mean I can, or should. Sometimes I wonder if I haven't internalized that lesson too strongly and allowed it to become a glass ceiling for myself. Maybe I've abandoned things too quickly at times over the years. That's a little life lesson that's sort of been on my mind lately, for various reasons

But another thing I can attribute to that outing was that it's a whole lot easier to watch someone else struggle and sling barbs at them than it is to put yourself out there and take the risk. I have never once regretted that I volunteered to eat up a few innings of pitching when my team needed someone to do it. The only part I have ever regretted was that I was so far in over my head.

24 June 2014

Weathering the Storm of 35

Hello, Dear Reader. It's been awhile. Let's do some reviewing and catching up, shall we?

Remember how awesome 2012 was for me? That year, from start to finish, was terrific. I finished my novel that year. I went out to see a lot of movies, most with various friends. I returned to Chicago for the first time since my honeymoon. I attended my first concert since Bush was in office. I dated someone for a little while, and when she ended the relationship, it didn't crush my entire world. I handled it just fine. I had Depression under control and even Crohn's seemed to be less brutal to me that year. I capped off that year with one of my best birthday celebrations of all-time and a lovely Christmas. 2012 was awesome.

2013 was a serious step down. I returned to Chicago, but my health was terrible that whole weekend. I was miserable pretty much the entire time. The lone bright spot for me, really, was that I finally got to meet a dear friend in person in Atlanta and my health actually was cooperative for that. That visit was wonderful, and it was really the only oasis that entire year. I didn't share all the parts that sucked, because I try to only share the down stuff when there's a clear potential use to you, Dear Reader, and honestly, I could not point to any value to you in knowing the extent to which my 2013 sucked.

The end of 2013 brought me an earth-shattering discovery that upset me so much I drank until sunrise, singing along with Randy Travis's Storms of Life album on vinyl ad infinitum. Now, I've been awake all night before in my time, but that was a first for me. It was about the loneliest I've felt in a long time. It retroactively cast doubt on a whole lot of things; things upon which I had built a strong part of my self-image. All of a sudden, even those few things I used to take solace in believing were good about myself felt like hollow lies.

[I'm not trying to tease what this discovery was, because it's off-limits for this blog.]

We had a nasty winter here. Hell, I think there's still some snow somewhere in the backyard. It was isolating, bringing vintage "winter blues" even to otherwise balanced friends of mine. Plus, it made my hips and back hurt round the clock. Throughout all that, I found myself swept along in a current of self-doubt, self-loathing, fear, and worthlessness. I did return to Chicago with my friends in April, for our third consecutive visit, and that weekend was genuinely great. But the very next day after we returned home, I reverted to where I had been before we left and I quickly devolved even further.

I reached a point where I didn't see a point in writing. Like, anything. No novel, no short stories, no blog posts, no nothin'. I came to feel the world already had too much white noise, and it didn't need me contributing to it. It seemed like people who, in 2012, had discussed with me my posts about depression, instead skipped my content entirely and shared things written by Allie Brosh and Wil Wheaton. I readily concede I had some sour grapes. I know Joe Q. Public reads Brosh and Wheaton and not me, and that's okay, but when my own friends were sharing links with me asking, "Did you see this?" and it turned out to be a sub-topic I had actually written about myself without a single acknowledgment, that stung.

Not that I'm in competition with Brosh or Wheaton, or even that in any way they're competitors. Mental health as a subject is still in such dire need of responsible, positive-looking advocates that even as we canonize leaders, we can't really afford to quash or exclude even the quietest of voices. And, in truth, Brosh and Wheaton are doing me a lot of good, too, even when I don't read what they write, because someone else is reading it.

I did self-publish Reunion at the Bluegrass Inn last year, which was kind of exciting at first, but I've only sold a handful of copies to date. Mind you, I didn't expect to make it onto a best-seller list. But as with my non-competition with Allie Brosh and Wil Wheaton, it wasn't that the world at large didn't pay me any heed that got to me.

Not one member of my own family has bought, or even asked me about buying, a copy. None have even tried to hit me up to give them a copy. I had one close friend tell me outright she just wasn't going to pay so high a price (~$13) for a physical book because she only reads ebooks these days. That I had written the book, and priced it as low as Lulu.com would let me, weren't sufficient to bait her into buying. I gave up on trying to promote the book. I deactivated my Facebook "writer" page. I even took down the book for sale for about a month.

This may read like a whole lot of self-indulgent overreacting on my part, and I readily concede that maybe that's all it is. I do know, however, that people who have not tried to pursue creative endeavors are truly incapable of understanding how fragile the creative person's ego is. It's not like anything else in life, to not just create but to put a key part of yourself into the work, and onto display, only for it to be snubbed and rejected, resonates on a visceral, personal level.

Put another way: I grew up with some people telling me I had the aptitude to be a writer, a whole lot more telling me that being a writer was too lofty and I needed to not even bother trying, and when I finally did try, it was met with a resounding yawn from even some of the people closest to me. What other conclusion could I draw, except that the world did not need me contributing to its white noise?

Other things were on my mind as well, but again, these are things I don't discuss in this blog. I withdrew quite a bit from the world through the end of May. I felt like I had felt back in my Year of Hell: like I was just running down the clock, trying to decide when to concede defeat and wrap things up. I never got bad enough that I was seriously going to try again to commit suicide, but I thought about it quite often. Sometimes, I find it comforting just to remind myself it's still an option at my disposal. You probably don't understand that morose comfort, Dear Reader, and I'm grateful that you don't. But I have, and still do, take some solace in knowing that I don't have to be here any longer than I'm willing to bear it.

The last weekend in May was mixed for me. I felt up and down and up and down and I confess I did a lot of drinking alone that Friday and Saturday. I wasn't necessarily self-destructive, but I definitely didn't give a tinker's damn what it did to me. I was in a lot of emotional pain that weekend. A friend who'd moved away years ago was in town with his wife and their young son. I threw together some breakfast plans, reuniting the four of us guys who'd been the core of our group in high school, along with their wives and kids. I, of course, attended solo and hungover. (And I was the last one there, despite being the closest to where we met.)

It was nice to catch up, but I'd more or less consigned myself to muddling through enough daylight that I could get back to the rum I hadn't quite killed the two previous nights. Two friends insisted I spend the day with them instead, though, and I capitulated because I know when I'm in a phase like I was at that time that when I have the chance to be engaged, I need to make myself take that chance. Even if I phone it in and just go through the motions, it's important that I do that much. (If you know what I'm talking about, I congratulate you on going through enough motions that you're still here.)

Things turned around for me that afternoon. I'll explain more another time, for various reasons, not least of which being that this has already turned into a far longer piece than I had intended. Another key reason is that I really don't yet know what there is to say, except that I've felt a lot more peaceful overall. I'm still prone to fits of anxiety and moodiness, of course; these things don't all just go away overnight. But I'm certainly on an upswing.

Why did I write all this? Because a few people have insisted that I need to resume writing, and I promised that I would try. But also because I know some people who are in a dark place right now. I know better than to say, "See? I'm all better now so you will be, too!" That would be disingenuous and insulting to them (or you, if you happen to be in such a dark place, Dear Reader). I can't even know how long this upswing will last, though I have some hopes and aspirations for it.

But my core philosophy for managing Depression has always been: Weather the storm. This storm ran from the night of 1 December 2013 (my 35th birthday) through the morning of 1 June, a full six months. The storm has finally abated, though, and I had my doubts, especially throughout May, that it would end in any way other than me capitulating to Depression. I don't really know what specific "moral of the story" you're supposed to take from all this, but as always I hope you're able to find something in it somewhere that's helpful to you in some way.

Healthy people don't understand how hard it is to even "just" go through the motions at times, nor do they appreciate how exhausting it is to make yourself put in that kind of effort. They also don't understand why it really is an accomplishment, just meeting the bare minimum demands of the day for days, even months, on end. But I know, and if you're doing it right now, so do you. Keep doing what you're doing. Not because I can promise a pot of gold at the end of your rainbow, but because there will at least be a rainbow at the end of your storm.

That's science.

Addendum

I totally forgot to conclude with this quote I recently came across and, as one of those romantics who believes baseball is the best metaphor for life, I instantly loved it:
"Life will always throw you curves, just keep fouling them off... the right pitch will come, but when it does, be prepared to run the bases." - Rick Maksian
Just keep fouling off those curve balls. The spectators may get bored, and others around you may get frustrated, but that really is the best advice I have ever heard. I learned from watching Paul O'Neill play first with the Reds, then later with the Yankees, that fouling off pitches isn't about screwing up getting a hit. It's about screwing up a pitch and making the pitcher throw you another that might be more to your liking.