13 July 2018

Telling Tales Out of School

Content warning: Childhood suicidal ideation. As always, I try to minimize the heavier portions of the conversation, but even the topics themselves can be overwhelming for some.

In my last post a week ago, "By the Light of a Burning Bridge", I recounted that when I reported The Incident as a child, the investigation was snuffed out because my dad chose to believe my assailant's fabricated counter story rather than even talk with me about the matter. I sent him a link to the 2015 blog post, "About a Thousand Days Ago...", in which I first opened up about The Incident. As of the publication of this post, there has still been no follow-up. (Yes, I'm aware that blocking him on Facebook prevents contacting me that way. There are other ways. This is the 21st Century. At least, parts of it still are.)

One of the themes that I hit on in that discussion was how actively he worked to make sure I knew what I was--and was not; that I was a sissy crybaby and I was not special. I would never become a real man or make it in the real world. Believe me, Dear Reader, I wanted nothing more than to disprove this. As it happened, though, he was corroborated.

So, here's another major life experience of mine that has weighed on my mind as I've tried to process some of the stuff from last week. I'm pretty sure I've talked about it somewhere in this blog, but a quick search for "Centerfield" only turned up "My End of the World Confession", a light little anecdote about a milk chugging contest. (Go ahead and read that before continuing. It's only a few paragraphs.) I do, however, in that post, make passing reference to my experience at that school:
I was in fourth grade, a new student at Centerfield Elementary. Half of my neighborhood had already been going to that school, but for whatever reason, my half was not. They redistricted us so that the whole subdivision went to the one school. The short version is that I was not very well accepted - by students or faculty.
It's important at this point to elaborate on that.

See, I started at an entirely different place--not just a different school, but at a different place in my own life. I didn't really have any friends at my first elementary school, but I also wasn't conscious of that fact, either. I didn't have any bullies there, either, which was certainly nice. I was a teacher's pet. I was even so much of a teacher's pet that one teacher would semi-regularly pop in on one of my classes just to check on me and chat...despite the fact I was not even her student! She just got a kick out of me for whatever reason. I, in turn, got a kick out of the fact she got a kick out of me. Lots of kicks were had all around.

I was a passionate learner. Even subjects that didn't interest me, I tended to with the intent to at least understand thoroughly. I was placed in the advanced class for math. It was an elite group; there were only six of us who made the cut. We brought clipboards to that class and were permitted to do our work sitting in bean bags. So long as we weren't talking about the work we were supposed to be doing, even some idle chatting was generally permitted. It was a wondrous experience.

The coolest of the six of us was a boy whose family was French. He left partway through the year to move there. That was the first time I was ever conscious that if I could somehow go to an entirely other part of the planet, I would actually know someone who lived there. I remember how neat I thought that was whenever I send my little Christmas sketch cards each year, knowing that at the part of the planet where each of those cards is ultimately delivered, I know someone there.

There was no elitist nonsense about us being in this class, either. I don't recall ever once being teased by anyone else for being nerdy enough to be in it, and I have no recollection of ever witnessing any of my fellow classmates try to flaunt it as some kind of badge of superiority over anyone else. When time came for math, the six of us were quietly dismissed from our respective rooms and convened in the room set aside for us. It was routine, so far as our interactions with one another and with our classmates was concerned.

I was very much aware that it was cool to be in that class. I mean, I got to sit on a bean bag and use a clipboard and crack jokes with the others while working on my assignments. That's still cool to me! Had I stopped to think about it, I suppose I might have regarded it as special. Had I had different influences by that point, maybe I would have even seen my being placed in that class as evidence that I was special.

Thank God I was spared that nonsense!

So, we jump ahead to the end of my third grade school year and this other elementary school isn't meeting its quota of poor kids, and I guess they'd run out of ways to put off having to take on more of us riffraff. Half of my neighborhood was already being sent there, so it made sense for them to expand and take all of us.

I encountered bullies for the first time in fourth grade. Some of the bullies' parents were teachers there. Some of the bullies were teachers there, for that matter. I went from being a teacher's pet to persona non grata without changing anything about who I was. My teachers refused to answer my questions, or to call on me to answer theirs--unless they were confident they'd set me up with something they knew damn well I didn't know because they hadn't taught it to me. I watched as other kids from my neighborhood, and others just as poor, were all treated the same way.

At Centerfield Elementary School, the advanced classes weren't restricted to only the students who hit a certain score threshold. It was as many students at the top of the score list as would fit into a classroom. I was certain that, all things being equal, I was a better student than at least half of them. I knew this because I watched how they'd get by without seeming to ever actually retain anything. They might get a B or even an A on homework and tests, but they only understood the material inasmuch as was needed to pick the right looking answer off a multiple choice list. They had no real grasp of the concepts--not like I had sought to master, and had been encouraged and helped to do.

At least, that's how it had been for me at LaGrange Elementary. Centerfield was something else. My mom recalls going to our first Open House, and being shocked at how rudely one teacher spoke to me right in front of her, after four school years of teachers gushing over me to her.

I went from being an honor roll student to barely passing. I would come home from school and try to study and do the homework and teach myself what my teachers had withheld from me in class, and I would be at the kitchen table from the time I got home until it was time to go to bed, breaking only to eat dinner. I couldn't take it. I broke down crying one night as I finally realized that nothing I did mattered.

These people did not want me to succeed.

I would not succeed.

That was all there was to it. I was going to be the failure that my dad predicted, because I wasn't as special as others had lied to me about being. Not my great grandmother, and not the faculty at LaGrange Elementary.

In fifth grade, I was one of two students to qualify for the spelling bee. I got a phone call at home later that day from the other student. Rather than our teacher, Mrs. Pitt, having given both of us a copy of the word list, she'd given both copies to the other student. That student was one of the few kind kids there, and she took it upon herself to see to it that I had the chance to come get the word list rather than go in unprepared. I've always appreciated and respected her for that. (Thanks, Ryan!)

The next day, when the spelling bee was held, I remember watching the clock anxiously. If I could just get in there and spell one word off that list that my teacher had tried to not give me, I'd have called it a win. We were doing some activity in groups. It was noisy. And when I checked the clock, it was too late. The spelling bee had already started. Ryan had been properly notified and sent to perform in it, but our teacher had managed to overlook making sure I knew.

Mrs. Pitt is in the top row on the right (i.e., the adult with black hair). I'm kneeling at the end of the second row, wearing a black and gray cardigan. I swear to God, I did not digitally insert the "FICTION" at the top of this contrivance of smiles.
My favorite story to tell about my time at Centerfield was from fifth grade, when the school was up for a National School of Excellence Award. My stomach churns just thinking of it. On the day that the judges toured the school, my home room teacher--the same Mrs. Pitt--pulled me aside in the morning. She looked me straight in the eye and jabbed at me with a pointed finger:

"You are not to speak, or ask anything, or even raise your hand while those judges are in this room, do you understand me?"

I was surprised by this. To think, she seemed to genuinely fear that little ol' me could cost this school their precious award! An award which, had anyone asked, I would have honestly said I did not believe they merited, regardless of how they'd managed to see to it that all the teachers' kids and their friends aced everything that year.

But to show you how dispirited I was by this point, Dear Reader, it hadn't even occurred to me to be disruptive. At other times in my life, her admonition would absolutely have been warranted. I can be, and have been, a rabble rouser. By the time of the judges' tour, though, I was doing well just to contain the pervasive thoughts of suicide that I'd been contemplating for the better part of two years. Sabotaging their stupid award didn't cross my mind.

A rumor circulated that day that I was never able to corroborate. The story was that the principal had personally taken home one of the poorest students because he had come to school dressed so shabbily. Maybe it didn't happen. I can't prove that it did, but I've always felt the fact that such a thing would even make the rounds among elementary aged children speaks volumes about the environment there.

They won their goddamned award, by the way.

That was their reward for breaking me of my spirit as a student to the point I went from honor student to barely passing. That was their reward for proving to me that my dad was right and that I had been naive to think otherwise. That was their reward for instilling in me such hopelessness and pervasive feelings of worthlessness that I began having suicidal thoughts at age 9. That's what the 1989-1990 National School of Excellence Award winner did.

I've recently connected some of these dots and come to the conclusion that this, in conjunction with what I discussed in my last post, has led me to be less trusting of others than I like to think I am. I'm openly mistrustful in general, but I do allow for people to earn my trust. What I see now is that even within my Inner Circle, my trust only goes as far as trusting someone not to hurt me with knowledge of something private.

I do not, and cannot, trust even those people when they try to offer me praise or encouragement. I know it's a lie. A school won an award for making sure I learned that.

06 July 2018

By the Light of a Burning Bridge

Content warning: Childhood sexual assault, suicidal ideation. As always, I try to minimize the heavier portions of the conversation, but even the topics themselves can be overwhelming for some.

Three years ago, I published a post in this blog, "About a Thousand Days Ago...". I wrote it an entire year previously and shared it in waves with my inner circle and then began to share with some other friends as I became increasingly comfortable doing so. In it, I revealed how it came to be that I shared with my elementary school guidance counselor about what I refer to as The Incident. You may already be familiar with all that, but in the event that you're new to my blog and life, Dear Reader, the short version is that after I reported The Incident, the counselor initiated an investigation that died on the vine because the assailant's fabricated counter story was accepted. The rest of the post described some of the effects that The Incident--and its handling--had on me.

I was ambiguous at the time about some elements. For instance, the guidance counselor is the only person to whom I have ever spoken about the acts that took place. I'm not about to do that now, so don't worry about being bombarded with anything along those lines. There is, however, a part of this that has been on my mind for a few months now.

It's part of my nature to be an archivist/historian. I don't just keep ticket stubs, for instance. I keep score at ball games and I write down set lists at concerts. I recently researched the schedules of every classic movie series that The Louisville Palace has run since it began doing those in 1998, just because it intrigued me. I can tell you that I saw in person three of Ken Griffey, Jr.'s career home runs, and if you'd like, I can tell you which ones.

I don't know when The Incident took place.

I mean, I know it was when I was four years old. I know it was on a weekend. I know there was pro wrestling (rasslin', here in the South) on TV. I've probably got enough information I could work out down to the date when The Incident occurred. The only time I've ever wanted to establish that, though, was when I first reported it. At no time since then have I made any effort to do this. A friend of mine suggested that I've shied away from this as a way to protect myself. She may well be right.

Here's something else that I didn't share in the post I published a few years ago, though I did share privately with some people. It wasn't just that the investigator(s?) chose to believe the assailant over me. That decision was made by my own father. The guidance counselor made sure I knew that, and that she was furious over it but that there was nothing further she had the authority to do about it. That was a hell of a thing to learn, Dear Reader.

I wasn't worth believing or protecting.

I wasn't even worth talking to about it, for that matter. Not then, and at no time since. I didn't even merit being asked, "What happened, now?" My report was thrown out as the product of a crybaby's overactive imagination. That's all I was. A crybaby. A sissy, who would never be a real man or make it in the real world. These things, unlike The Incident or its effects on me, were topics of conversation. Regularly, even. I can vividly recall one car ride, sitting in the back seat with my stepsister, who was berating me for those same things. The two of them were tag teaming me. My stepmother was silent, as always, and my younger brother just thought it was all funny. He laughed. I didn't.

My great-grandmother (my mom's mom's mom) adored me. I can still remember her pulling me in my little red wagon down the driveway and around the street in front of the house, and letting me splash in the small pool of water that would collect between our driveway and the neighbor's after it rained. Here's a picture of her from what turned out to be her final Christmas, in 1982. That little blond haired boy in the background is me. I like to think that she wasn't just sitting next to the Atari, but that she had actually tried to play it. I'm sure she didn't, but it amuses me to picture her trying to figure out Frogger.

During one of the myriad "talks" in which my dad tried to set me right about myself, he brought up my great-grandmother. "I know she told you you were special. You ain't, and you need to know that."

That stung. Not because it burst some bubble that I had about believing I was special, but because it was an attack on her. She had already died by the time of this conversation. I wanted to defend her. I couldn't, though. How could I? The only basis she would have even had for saying such a thing was that I was her great-grandson. That was the only characteristic that could have mattered. Her praise had been unearned.

I began to have suicidal thoughts at the age of nine. I kept quiet about them, though. I wasn't worth believing or protecting. Why should it matter if I was suicidal? The only thing that stopped me from making an attempt as a child was that I knew just enough to know I didn't know enough about how to do it successfully and I was terrified of spending decades on life support without brain activity.

At times over the years, I've dreamed about my funeral. Sometimes, there's no one there. Just my coffin in an empty room. Other times, I'm able to hear people finally admit the truth about me. "Thank God this is finally over." That's the sentiment. Relief that no one has to pretend any more that I am worth believing and protecting. The charade can finally come to an end.

I sometimes get angry that none of my friends will just admit this to me now while I'm alive to hear it. I feel guilty for continuing to stay alive and making them keep up the charade. I could end everyone's misery. I should end their misery. They deserve relief after all the time and energy they've wasted on me; time and energy I never deserved or even earned.

[I should emphasize, lest there be any confusion, that that last paragraph is not intended to be read as a declaration of intent to harm myself. I promise, I am perfectly safe and not at risk of acting on any such thoughts! I was just sharing what some of those thoughts that harangue me from time to time are.]

So, earlier this week, for reasons I can't entirely understand myself, I sent a link to "About a Thousand Days Ago..." to my dad. I wrote, "I don't believe you've seen this, but you know all about it." He saw it later that morning. That was four days ago. No response of any kind. Wednesday, I unfriended and blocked him on Facebook--something that I really ought to have done ages ago anyway, though I'd filtered everything so we seldom saw any of each other's content anyway. But even outside of Facebook, he could get hold of me if he wanted. As of the publication of this post, he's made no such effort.

I wasn't worth believing or protecting. I'm still not.

05 July 2018

Things I Love: Tombow Dual Brush Pens

I've got a lot of heavy stuff on my mind and I thought about trying to process some of it by writing, but then I decided I've given as much attention and energy to those things as I can today. I just don't want to think about them right now. So I decided it was time to revisit the Things I Love sub-series and talk about Tombow Dual Brush Pens.

I've always enjoyed sketching, but was always too timid to think of it as anything to do seriously. I've said over the years that I was just too lazy to dedicate enough time to it to become an actually good artist. There is some truth to that, insofar as I never had the passion that an artist must have in order to take their craft to that level. I've been perfectly content to simply tinker every now and again.

Aside from recognizing I wasn't Real Artist™-level passionate, though, there was also internalized discouragement about the arts in general. They could be hobbies, but nothing else, and it was paramount that I never lose sight of that limitation. So I casually kept up with sketching as a hobby, sometimes dashing off a few pieces in a week and then going months without even thinking about sketching anything at all. Because of how restricted I viewed this little hobby, I never saw fit to spend any real money on supplies (those are for Real Artists™). My No. 2 pencils and my little Mead sketch book were sufficient. One element that was entirely absent from my sketching altogether was color.

Cut to 2017. I was talking about sketching and other creative activities with a friend of mine on Twitter one night. They saw fit to kindly and generously send me a package of Tombow Dual Brush Pens. This particular set was the Bright Palette, seen to the right of this paragraph.

I was touched by my friend's generosity, firstly, and also by their explicit encouragement of my sketching. They were, after all, putting new supplies into my hands with the message, "Go! Use these! Create stuff! Grow as an artist! Have fun! You're allowed to do these things now!"

Naturally, I was intimidated.

Firstly, I worried that my friend had overestimated my worthiness. I was a No. 2 pencil chump, not a brush pen using Real Artist™. When I eventually sat down with them, though, telling myself that it wasn't just okay but required that I use them, I was then intimidated by the pens themselves. I had no idea how to use them!

To date, I have used them only a few times. The first was a piece I dashed off to commemorate a nice time spent with someone dear to me. It incorporated both my sketching pencils and the brush pens. I have a scan of it, but I gave the original to her and I'm uncomfortable circulating it. It still feels personal to me, even though the imagery itself is simply of a landscape.

Playing off that personalized creation process, I decided to incorporate the pens into last year's Christmas cards. I've tried to do a handful of cards, each with its own quickie sketch. I've done various comic book and cartoon characters, and in 2016 I did a set of Star Trek characters. That landscape sketch I made using these pens, however, made those feel inadequate. I needed to do something that was entirely "me" and not just a rote reproduction of a commercialized property. Nothing less would do.

I decided to make a single image and replicate it in all the cards. When I began contemplating what kind of imagery would best represent me to those who knew me well enough that they were getting one of these cards, it seemed obvious that I should go with my little origami dog. [If you need a refresher on their significance, Dear Reader, you'll find it in this post, "Rough and Rocky Travelin': An Important Anniversary".] I wanted to again blend the pencils and the brush pens. The resulting card was this:

Each card had different colored lights and ribbons, but they were otherwise interchangeable. I liked in particular creating the tree with only a single pencil stroke to suggest the trunk, relying on the brush pens to bring the tree itself to life. I enjoyed making the Christmas sketch cards in previous years, but they all felt like practice for the 2017 set. It was the combination of an image specific to me and the use of the brush pens given to me out of friendship that made them feel special to me to create, and I hope they felt a little more special to those who received them than cards from previous years. I was touched when two recipients informed me they'd put theirs on their refrigerators. It's still on one fridge, which I saw as recently as a couple weeks ago. I find that a sweet gesture.

On Memorial Day, I was invited by friends to go out on Taylorsville Lake in a rented pontoon. I've had in mind an image that I'd like to eventually paint, of a message in a bottle at sea. It seemed like a convenient opportunity to do a study sketch, just to get a feel for the elements. Initially, I had rolled up a blank sheet of paper to insert into an empty bottle--this was just going to be a prop, after all, and not even a prop for the actual piece, but merely a study for it. I was called out by one of my friends for slacking, however, and I capitulated to her. So, I dashed off a quick note, which she amended, and then I had everyone present sign it using cool pirate names. Or, at least, pirate names. They weren't all cool, but whatever.

Anyway, the message went into an empty bottle and the bottle was secured to twine and dangled over the side of the boat while I sketched from above. (Don't worry; we didn't let the bottle loose into the lake. When I finished sketching, we reeled it back in and I have it sitting on a shelf at home now.)

The brush pens work well enough dry, but they're really intended to be used wet. I decided to use water from the lake. I'd done that with the aforementioned landscape sketch, and felt it was a nice touch that I wanted to reuse. Shortly after I finished, it began to rain. If you open the full size scan, you'll see some rain drops. One of my friends encouraged me to hold the sketch up to the rain just to get that extra little detail.

Now, the image I have in my mind that I wish to paint is one of desperation and lonesomeness. That is not at all apparent in the study sketch I dashed off that afternoon. Partly, of course, this was because the pen set I have is the Bright Palette. I'm sure bright colors can be used to create a desperate, lonesome image, but it'd have to be done by a Real Artist™ who has far more experience than I have.

But more importantly, as was pointed out by several of my friends, I was enjoying myself that day. It was decided that that's what came through in this sketch. This was just supposed to give me a feel for the arrangement of the bottle and how I wanted to frame it, etc. That it ended up being a representation of the camaraderie so kindly shared with me that day imbues it with a significance for me that I hadn't considered a study piece could have.

[As an aside about the sketch itself: I'm not happy with how the message itself looks, and I've yet to figure out how to create that when the time comes to do the actual piece. I've also decided that it will be best not to show the submerged part of the bottle, which is visible in this study.]

Two days later, I found myself at the World of Little League in Williamsport, Pennsylvania on an impromptu road trip with another friend. He'd got the idea to hit there and the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown and asked if I wanted to go. It was hard to say no, especially when he told me he was going whether I went or not and that I wasn't on the hook for chipping in on gas or accommodations. That put the excursion in my financial reach.

I got the idea while we were there that I wanted to sketch the Howard J. Lamade Stadium, where the Little League World Series is played annually. The place was deserted on this hot afternoon, with only a handful of workers flitting to and fro across the campus. How often does a mere fan without any connections whatsoever get the chance to sketch an entirely vacant ballpark? I didn't think to grab any water, so the brush pens were used dry for this one.

I did this while sitting on the berm overlooking the field. For reference, here's a photo I snapped from that spot:

The color palette simply was not right for this piece, as it calls for a lot of dark green and my only greens are, duh, Bright. The color looks even yellower in the scan than it does on the page, and I'm not sure why that is. It's still a far ways off from what the actual place looks like, though. Still, as with the message in the bottle, I think my enthusiasm made its way onto the page, and that's something.

Tombow makes several other sets of their Dual Brush Pens: Galaxy, Grayscale, Landscape, Muted, Pastel, Portrait, Primary, and Secondary. I think the Landscape set would best suit the ballpark, though honestly I think it could be delightful to go all Andy Warhol and do it in pastels. My budget for such indulgences is pretty small, though, so it may be awhile before I get the chance to find out. (Unless, y'know, someone at Tombow wants to take pity on me.)

Of course, you probably noticed, Dear Reader, that the most significant element I talked about in this post was the personal one, of friendship and of self-expression. I wouldn't even have these pens if not for a friend, nor would I have had the occasion to be out on the lake or in Williamsport. I still don't believe I deserve my friends, and I doubt I ever will, but just the same I hope they know how dear they are to me. I like that these pens have, in their own little way, given me a new way of expressing that.

02 July 2018

On Suicidal Ideation During the Good Times

I've written several times over the years in this blog about suicide. It occurred to me recently that there's an important perspective I have yet to spotlight as appropriately as it deserves, so we're gonna rectify that. Obviously, the topic itself can be unsettling, but I promise this is not going to be a graphic or gruesome post. I don't particularly care to even read such posts, let alone write them. Besides, today's topic is:

Having suicidal thoughts when everything is going well and you're happy.

Sounds like an oxymoron, right? Suicidal thoughts when things suck makes sense, but surely when you get to a good place, those should go away. And for a lot of people, they do. I ain't one of 'em, though.

See, I have those thoughts literally every day of my life and have since I was 9. I'll be 40(!) in a few months, so 75% of my life has consisted of suicidal thoughts. There have been times when they've consumed me and overwhelmed me; I've had to enter inpatient treatment for it twice in the last several years, for instance. I very nearly ended up there again last Christmas.

Most of the time, though, the thoughts are merely routine. I contemplate ending my life as casually as I decide whether I want pizza or a burger for dinner, or whether I'm in the mood for some George Strait or John Williams. Often, the process takes place so subtly that I'm only vaguely aware I've gone through it. I suppose it's a bit like when you leave the house. "Wallet? Check. Keys? Check. Glasses? Contemplate ending my life? Check. Fed the cat? Check."

A few years ago, I was invited by a friend to go on a Johnny Cash road trip. We started by visiting his grave site in Henderson, Tennessee, then on to the Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville. We headed west toward Memphis, stopping by happenstance at the Johnny Cash Rest Area. We toured Sun Studio.

By fortuitous quirk of fate, a Crohnie pal of mine was in Memphis the same day my friend and I were. We arranged to get together for lunch. Her daughter had been struggling with some depression issues around this time, and knowing that I openly shared my own experiences, she picked my brain. I surprised her when I shared that I was having those thoughts while we were eating.

Mind you, this was a fantastic road trip! My physical health was entirely cooperative for a change. I was having a ball. I hadn't been on a sustained upswing like that in quite awhile. It was delightful to meet an online pal in person. And the meal was delicious!

I explained that for me, because those thoughts are always there, they spike as much for me during the really good times as they do during the really bad ones. There's a certain compulsion to "go out on top."

I have no idea how common this phenomenon is. I tried some cursory Googling a little while ago, but quickly gave up because I couldn't think of a useful search parameter to help filter through all the well-meaning sites imploring you to seek immediate help. I don't mean to disparage those sites whatsoever; it's just that finding any articles that address this issue ain't easy.

I have at times had a sneaking suspicion that when people take their lives and everyone around them is certain that they seemed happy, that they may have also experienced what I do. Maybe they really were happy, and that is why they acted when they did. I have no way of knowing, and I'm not trying to speak for anyone else. I'm simply sharing my own experiences, in the hopes that somewhere in there might be something of value to someone else.

20 June 2018

This Is Who We Are

"This is not who we are" has been the go-to statement from the 63% of Americans opposed to the Trump administration's policy of separating immigrant children from their families. A 10 year old girl with Down's syndrome; an infant stolen from its mother while nursing; sobbing siblings prevented from hugging one another for some modicum of comfort; babies and toddlers confined in cages...this is merely a sample of what has been made public.

This is who we are.

This is who we are because during the primary season of the 2016 election, Donald Trump launched his campaign with these remarks:
"When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."
This is who we are because instead of rejecting him then and there, Republican voters flocked to him. He won 37 states' primaries, more than twice all his opponents combined. He may not have openly campaigned on the policy matter of seizing infants from their nursing mothers to throw them in cages, but to say this is a surprise or some kind of betrayal of what his voters expected from him is disingenuous at best.

This is who we are because we have gone along with the claim that immigrants and refugees are killers and rapists, when in truth these are people desperately fleeing from killers and rapists. Conservatives, such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have insisted that the blame for these children being seized lies not with their kidnappers but with their parents for even bringing them here in the first place.

This is who we are because when Trump mocked the physical disability of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, ableists downplayed and dismissed the matter. It was as clear a sign as any of the contempt that he has for the disabled. Revocation of legal protections for people with preexisting conditions is but one concern that the disability community saw that day. They saw also how little regard their society has for them as human beings.

This is who we are because white evangelicals, after decades of lusting after political power, have become so twisted that they didn't even bother rationalizing embracing a candidate who, on paper, is the walking antithesis of the values they have made a pageant of these last few decades. They should have led the charge against him, had their professed values meant anything. Instead, as Jerry Falwell, Jr. declared, they found in him "their dream president". Political Christianity has no relationship to spiritual Christianity by now, the former merely exploiting the latter for a built-in base of cash donors and reliable voters.

This is who we are because in the general election, smug liberals and disinterested centrists embraced the canard that "they're all the same", and if anything, as Jill Stein and Susan Sarandon insisted, Hillary Clinton was an even worse potential president than Trump portended to be. The Bernie Sanders loyalists insisted on casting "protest" votes for third party candidates like Stein, writing in Sanders (which were not even valid votes), or simply staying at home altogether. Better that, they insisted, than to reward "the lesser of two evils".

This is who we are because when Trump publicly called for killing terrorists' families in addition to the terrorists themselves, that wasn't the end of his campaign respectability, either. However, the prospect of committing such an atrocity didn't faze enough voters that this prevented his ascent to office. Contrarily, they relished his dehumanization of people, including children, whose only offense is being in the same family as a terrorist.

This is who we are because we have left in place monuments to Confederates, ostensibly because taking them down would constitute "erasing" history. By that logic, these monuments should have quashed any affinity for the Southern Cause. Instead, they have kept alive a romanticized devotion to the Confederacy and the white supremacy for which it stood and killed. This, despite simultaneously insisting to African-Americans that no one alive today owned slaves and no one living today was owned as a slave, and that the past is over. They've said the same about the Jim Crow era, except for the part about people from that era still being alive.

This is who we are because we had more than enough information on 8 November 2016 to have seen all the warning signs had been made clear. After every person of color; every LGBTQ person; every Muslim; every Latinx person; every disabled person; and every advocate and ally of those groups worth a damn begged and pleaded for their fears to not come to pass, we disregarded those pleas.

This is who we are because this is not who we once were, but never stopped being. Even now, 27% of polled Americans support this unconscionable policy of seizing immigrant children, from infants to adolescents, separating them from their families and throwing them in cages. This can not be pinned solely on the totalitarian administration making this policy.

This is who we are because this policy is a manifestation of the values of more than a quarter of our society. Trump is merely the figurehead. An extremely powerful figurehead, certainly, but a figurehead just the same. There are millions more just like him out there who celebrate what he has done and is doing, and look forward to celebrating what he will do.

This is who we are because instead of being that "beacon of hope" that we've always insisted we are and want to be, we have shut off that light and told the world to stop looking to us for hope.

This is who we are. And I don't know what to do about it.

26 May 2018

That Time I Went to Barbados and Went SCUBA Diving

Gather round, it's story time, y'all.

There we were in Barbados, right? Our prepaid package included an afternoon of snorkeling. A day or two before, though, we were given an offer. A SCUBA diving business owned by a father and son with whom our professor (my mentor, Morgan Broadhead) had developed a relationship extended to us a discounted offer to instead go SCUBA diving for $50. I considered what sounded cooler: "I went to Barbados and went snorkeling" or "I went to Barbados and went SCUBA diving." Of course I handed over my $50.

So the son who runs the business comes to the hotel and brings us into the pool to familiarize us with how the SCUBA equipment feels and works. We take turns practicing it, which primarily consisted of just dunking ourselves with the regulator in place to prove we can breathe properly. Easy peasy, right?

Turns out it's only easy peasy if you're not an uncoordinated twit. It also turns out, Dear Reader, that yours truly is, despite whatever impression you may have formed of me, an uncoordinated twit. Three different times, down I went only to start choking and gagging on water I was somehow taking in instead of the oxygen from the regulator. After the third time, the guy--who was totally chill--said, "You know, I'm a little concerned about you doing this."

"Don't worry, it'll be fine," I assured him. "Right here, it's 'get it right or stand up'. Out there, it'll be 'get it right or die'. Trust me, I'll get it right out there." Where this confidence came from, I have no idea, but I had it and he shrugged off his concerns and seemed to accept that either I'd get it right or I'd die and in either event, he already had my $50, so there was that.

Here's a pic I snapped of the others who undertook this underwater expedition:

I'm almost certain there was one more student not pictured, because my recollection is that there were seven of us and we were split into groups of four and three, but maybe I'm wrong about that. In any event, I was assigned to the first group. I wasn't the first to go over the side of the boat, but I wasn't the last, either. Surprising our instructor/guide, I'm sure, I totally nailed it. Swished water in my goggles, got everything in place, fell over backwards, and swam comfortably down to join the student(s) already holding steady waiting for everyone in our wave to arrive. Toldja I'd get it right!

Eventually, all four(?) of us in our wave were gathered and joined by our instructor/guide. Time to go exploring the Caribbean! We're not swimming more than a few minutes when a giant sea turtle comes our way. I have poor depth perception, especially underwater (remember that; you'll need it later), so I can't say how close it was to me. I just know we swam directly past one another and it was dope. I couldn't say for sure how large it was, but I'm pretty sure its shell was comparable to an ordinary coffee table. This was, I expect you can imagine, pretty exciting for me. Surely none of the lame-o snorkelers were swimming with giant sea turtles!

It occurred to me I was curious to see how the others were reacting to this amphibian passerby, so I turned my head to my right to check.

Nobody there.

Turned my head to my left.

Nobody there, either.



Okay. They're surely around here somewhere. They can't have gotten very far in such short time, right? It was a sea turtle, not a great white shark, so I was reasonably sure they hadn't all been mauled. Visibility was not especially great, though. Except, all of a sudden it seemed it was getting clearer. Aha! Good fortune smiling on me! I would be able to see far enough ahead to spot my estranged group.

Recall, if you will, that thing I mentioned about me having poor depth perception underwater, and if you can remember all the way back to the beginning, that I am an uncoordinated twit. In case you've not seen where this is going, don't feel bad. I didn't put it together while it was happening, either.

Somehow, in the course of merely turning my head to the right and then to the left, I'd redirected my entire body upwards. It was getting brighter under the water because I was getting closer to the surface. Reflexively, as I popped up out of the water, I let go of the regulator and inhaled a lung full of fresh air right off the salty sea. In that instant, it was invigorating.

In the next instant, however, my brain caught up to all of this and I grasped my predicament. I could see our boat, a fair ways off from where I'd managed to get in what I swear felt like only a couple of minutes. I can place the boat, then, but not the group. I can return to "base" or I can get back to what I came to do: SCUBA-ing.

I'm piecing together all of this, all the while bobbing up and down in the Caribbean. I'm feeling a bit self-conscious at being the only uncoordinated twit who could screw up something so simple in such a stupid way, but already I see how there's potential for a story to tell later, and as long as I can find a story to tell, I'm generally okay with most things that go awry in my life.

Somewhere in all this, I noticed that the waves were lapping just a liiiiiittle bit higher up my throat each time. Okay, the tide must be coming in, I'm guessing. In case you caught that little bit of foreshadowing from earlier, I am not a particularly good swimmer. In fact, I can only swim in the most fundamental sense. I don't have a picture of me from that day, so I'll have to refer you to a picture of a fellow student wearing the gear.

Instructor/Guide Dude (L.), Other Student (R.)
Not Pictured: The uncoordinated twit who almost died.
I don't know how obvious it is from this image, but the regulator is secured through a thing on the right shoulder, and it is, of course, connected to the oxygen tank behind the swimmer. There is a handheld control to inflate the jacket, and it is secured through a thing on the left shoulder. It, too, reaches behind the swimmer. Despite how it may look, the shoulders and the armpit holes of those jackets were extremely rigid and severely limited my range of motion. I could bring my arms almost straight up over my head, but not quite.

I could not reach behind me whatsoever.

The problem this posed became increasingly clear to me as I realized that both the regulator and the vest inflation control were both dangling behind me, out of reach. That quashed Plan A (put the regulator back in my mouth and get back underwater) and Plan B (inflate the jacket and make my way back to the boat). Each wave continues to splash a wee bit higher, reminding me that there is a time factor to all this. It is also reminding me that the SCUBA gear is heavy and is now weighing me down.

I briefly considered jettisoning the jacket entirely and taking my chances swimming back to the boat without it, but I surely didn't have enough money remaining at that point to pay to replace it. As stupid as it was, I was going to have to go down with the tank. I would be the only moron to drown in the Caribbean while wearing perfectly functioning SCUBA gear.

You'd think my anxiety would have become a problem somewhere in all this, but surprisingly, I remained calm throughout. I could have just gone snorkeling, saved $50, and not been in this predicament, but that just didn't sound as exciting. And truthfully, even in that moment when I was seriously considering my own imminent demise, I was still sure I'd made the right choice. I mean, this was more exciting!

I thought about some things. I had an uncle, Stuart, who drowned as a teenager a few years before me. (Eerily enough, one of the last things he was working on when he died was a comic book which opens with a man climbing out of the water to learn he's drowned and given a second chance at life.) That cast a long shadow on my family that's still there today. I grew up in that shadow. For me, it was especially personal because even though I never met him, my whole life, I was told how similar I was to him, from interests to creative aptitude to our perspectives on things that others often found unusual. I wondered if someone else would come along in my family who might be likened to me as I was to my Uncle Stuart.

I thought about choices I'd made, mistakes I'd made, things I'd gotten right, all those routine "Hey, I think I might be about to die" things. Despite how self-loathing I am, I was genuinely at peace with myself after reckoning through all that. To borrow a lyric from "I've Always Been Crazy":
I can't say I'm proud of all of the things that I've done
But I can say I've never intentionally hurt anyone
So, being at peace with myself and bemused by the stupidity of my circumstances, I began to laugh. I was also beginning to really sink, with the waves now reaching my chin. I was probably only five or ten minutes at most from the water being up to my nose, at which point breathing would become difficult to continue.

I briefly tried to brainstorm some kind of underwater acrobatics, wherein I would twist around in some convoluted way and get hold of the regulator. I was working out the logistics of that, realizing that it was likelier I'd bonk myself on the noggin with the tank than that I would succeed. It occurred to me, though, that given I was almost certainly going to drown anyway, maybe it'd be just as well if I wasn't awake for it.

Of course, I'm not typing all this eighteen years later as a ghost, so clearly I did survive. Some guys from another boat near ours spotted me and recognized that something was clearly wrong, and they swam over to my rescue. One of them grabbed the vest inflation control, and with that compensating for the weight of the whole thing, I was able to swim back to the boat.

I was demoralized and humiliated. I'd managed to screw up SCUBA diving and drowning, all in the span of about half an hour. No one really said much to me when I got back to the boat, or at least, I was oblivious if they did. I just went to the bow and sat and began to sulk.

A little while later, our instructor/guide returned with the others, who had not screwed up SCUBA diving or drowning. Seeing me aboard, he casually remarked, "I'd wondered where you'd gotten off to," and that was it. I was relieved he didn't dress me down for having strayed or proven him right to have been concerned about whether I could do this. He did even invite me to give it another go with the second group, but by then I'd had entirely too much time to think about it and my heart was no longer in it. I elected to remain on the bow, sulking.

Unexpectedly, I was soon joined by two of the three who were supposed to have made up that second wave. Neither of them could get their ears to properly pressurize, which prevented them from getting even as far as I'd made it. They joined me on the bow, also sulking. We'd all spent $50 apiece for them to only go overboard and for me to almost die because I'm stupid. The more we commiserated, I hit on an idea.

"You know what would make this better? A big, fat burger."

They agreed. I made the decision then and there that I was taking the two of them out for a consolation burger. There was a catered dinner for our group at the hotel that night, so we deferred our burgers to the following night. We went to Bubba's Sports Bar & Restaurant. Each table featured a photo of an athlete. At our table was a picture of Michael Jordan from his brief stint in spring training with the Chicago White Sox.

I made sure to keep the receipt, too. Remember, these prices are in Barbadian dollars, which had a 2:1 exchange rate with the American dollar, so the bill was effectively only half of what's shown.

What's weird to me about this is that the burger with no onions would almost certainly have been mine, but I can't recall having anything called "mushroom fries". I know the Coke was mine, which would align with the sequencing of the orders.

So that's the story of the time that I went to Barbados and went SCUBA diving. It's remained a vivid, poignant, and also amusing story for me these last eighteen years, and I was surprised to discover I hadn't gotten around to sharing it in this blog. Well, here it is and now you know, Dear Reader, that if we're ever in a SCUBA group together that it might be for the best if you keep a close watch on me. I need a good amount of proper supervision. And if things go sideways--or vertical!--there might be a big, fat burger in it for you.

This incident occurred on 26 May 2000, with the consolation dinner the following evening, 27 May 2000.

11 March 2018

"Links of Trust"

I've done very little writing of any variety in quite some time, for myriad reasons. Several months ago, a friend of mine got me to dabble with writing fiction again for the first time since I completed my novel. No sooner had I finished the first draft of that short story than I saw that the Oldham County Public Library announced a Winter Writing Contest.

Writing is often difficult, but it's way harder when you're certain that you should never again write anything at all whatsoever the rest of your days because it has no point or value and neither do you and blah, blah, blah. Thankfully, I wasn't actually in that state of mind at the time the competition was announced, thanks to a friend of mine who'd managed to engage my inner fiction writer in the last several months. It seemed serendipitous enough that I figured I should give it a whirl, if only to make myself go through the motions of writing within specified guidelines and submitting by a deadline.

The criteria from the library consisted of the following:

  • Maximum of 2000 words
  • Wintry theme
  • Must include a ticket of some kind
  • Must use the phrase, "To put it another way..."
That seemed doable! My "process", such as it is, is to try to think of two things. Firstly, what kind of a mood I want to establish at the opening of the story, and secondly, what kind of theme I want to explore from there. I racked my brain for weeks trying to come up with these things! I even wrote 1200+ words for a draft that I just did not feel was working at all and threw out. Eventually, I wound up writing a story about patients in a mental health facility.

Well, Dear Reader, a few days ago, the library announced the winners of the competition. Imagine my surprise when my story, "Links of Trust", actually took first place in the adults category!

You can download a PDF file with all of the top three entries and an honorable mention here, and the winning stories from the youth categories here.

I've made a conscious effort to resist immediately downplaying and discarding this achievement as I ordinarily would. It's been difficult at times, but I can honestly say that I've now known about this for five whole days and I'm still able to take satisfaction from it. The impulse to undermine it is still there, but I've fared better at pushing back against that impulse than I have in the past.

I thought I might offer some insights to the story, in case anyone is interested. If you haven't read the story yet, I would encourage you to stop reading this blog post now and come back to it once you have.


Ultimately, this story is about trauma and triggers. It infuriates me whenever I encounter anyone use the word "trigger" as though its definition is "troll someone until they get upset about something you think is silly so you can make fun of them for overreacting". I find it truly insulting and offensive to hear someone weaponize such an intimate and intense part of mental health, all for the sake of bragging about what a jerk they are. I wanted to demonstrate what triggering actually is. I didn't want to have anyone use the word, though, because I felt that was too on the nose.

Claire has been traumatized, and her triggers include college basketball. Here in Kentucky, that's the official state religion. How the hell can she ever manage to function in a society where such an overpowering trigger is so ubiquitous? I don't ask the question through any of the characters, but my hope was that the reader would think to ask it themselves.

I was deliberately ambiguous about what happened to Claire and to Zack. Partly, this was because I didn't want to write about those things. It makes me squeamish, and I felt it was unnecessary to go any farther than I did. It's obvious enough without a gruesome recounting. More importantly, I wanted to model that it isn't important to anyone except Claire what happened to Claire, and it isn't important to anyone except Zach what happened to Zach. It's enough that the others--and we, the reader--know that these two people have been hurt. How they were hurt is not our business.

We're socialized to withhold our compassion until we've learned a satisfying amount of detail, and I feel this is an area where we need to do a lot of work collectively. Ramona and Zach believe Claire; Ramona and Claire believe Zach. This isn't just my ideal model of how a society should respond to survivors who speak up; it's how I've witnessed people in these settings (inpatient, outpatient, and in peer-led support group meetings) treat one another. It means a lot to be able to share something like that and be taken at your word.

There are no references whatsoever to any hospital staff. This is not intended as a slight; I have great respect and appreciation for what they do day in and day out. I just wanted to emphasize the kind of relationships that develop between patients.

One of the two facilities where I've been treated was laid out as I described the one in this story, with two social rooms; one large with a TV hooked up to cable, and the other small with an upright piano in need of tuning. There was even a Battleship game. I decided to open the story with that because I thought it was amusing, and also because it immediately established where our story is set.

As for the characters, none of them are stand-ins for any real people. I swiped an element from this person here and another person there and synthesized them, but that's as far as it goes. Emotionally, I tethered myself while writing to memories of when I met a fellow patient who has since become one of my dearest friends. I want to emphasize, though, that this is not about us; Zach is not me and Claire is not my friend. It's more accurate to say that Zach reaching out to Claire parallels how I reached out to my friend.

Those are the key insights I have to offer about how the elements in the story originated and why I used them the way I did. If you should take the time to read the story, I'd love to hear any feedback you might have!

24 February 2018

Baseball and Goats in Barbados

I was reminded of this anecdote recently, which prompted me to (finally) find and scan in the appropriate images. I've told the story before, but never with visual aids.

Picture it: Barbados, May of 2000. I'm there for two weeks. While at a grocery store, I see a copy of USA Today. I think, "Aha! I'll keep up with my Redlegs through the box scores while I'm here." This was, after all, Ken Griffey, Jr.'s first season with the Reds. Exciting stuff was sure to follow! I throw the paper in with the rest of my groceries and proceed to check out.

It's at the register that I discover USA Today does not cost the same in Barbados that it costs in the USA, because that paper rang up $10.00. That worked out to $5.00 U.S., which still made me gulp. I wasn't going to be That Guy, though, so I just went along with it and paid for the paper along with the groceries, checked out, and resolved to myself that the Reds would wait until I returned home. I mean, Junior Griffey is a sure Hall of Famer, but it's still just May.

While looking at these box scores that cost me so much more than anticipated, I see an ad for fantasy baseball with a caption that makes me giggle:

So then a day or two later, we're on an excursion to I-don't-remember-where when I see a house with goats staked in the lawn. These goats are systematically moved around the lawn to mow it, presumably because the homeowner is a highly dedicated fantasy baseball enthusiast. I would like to have made their acquaintance, but 'twas not to be. I did, however, manage to snap this shot of their lawn maintenance system:

Oh, in case you're wondering: It turns out the Reds didn't even play the day covered in those box scores because it was Tuesday's paper and just about nobody plays on Mondays.

24 December 2017

The Makings of a Meltdown

I haven't blogged since August's total solar eclipse. To be honest, I forgot I'd even written that entry. I wasn't even sure I'd written anything this entire year. I've had less to say, and less belief that there is any value in anything I have to say. I'm told that there is, though, or at least that I don't get to decide that there isn't, so I thought I'd take a moment to share something from my current experience in case it may be of some use to you, Dear Reader.

In case you're new to my blog, first of all, welcome! Secondly, I want to emphasize that nothing I am about to share is anything I believe to be unique to me. On the contrary, I'm sharing precisely because I know so many others have their own version of my experience. It's that common thread that I wish to address. I hope maybe you'll find something helpful in hearing a different perspective on that shared experience, but if nothing else, maybe you'll take some small comfort just in knowing that someone else shares it with you. And if by chance none of this applies to you, I'm willing to bet it applies to someone you know, and again, I hope you might get something useful out of what I have to share.

Holidays used to be enjoyable for me. Halloween was sort of the prologue, with Thanksgiving the end of Act I, Christmas the end of Act II, and New Year's Eve the finale. My birthday is 1 December, so sometimes it's been lumped in with the Thanksgiving extravaganza and sometimes it's felt like a sort of interlude. There's a certain kind of energy and momentum throughout the months of November and December that I've always felt corresponded to this structure. I used to think it was just something I thought of as a kid because of the school calendar and looking forward to those breaks, but I've found it to be true all the way to the present day.

If anything, that energy and momentum have intensified as I've aged, to the point that I find these entire two months unbearable.

I recently discussed the matter with my therapist, who floated the notion that I may perhaps have Seasonal Affective Disorder ("SAD"). I allowed that maybe that's true, but that it was worth noting that the things about the holidays that weigh on me most have nothing to do with how much sunlight there is. I could live in Australia, where it's bright and warm this time of year, and still be left with the same things that overwhelm me here. The weather does get to me, certainly; after twelve years of steroids, the cold has become brutal for me, and of course all the airborne maladies that circulate that my worthless immune system can't handle are frustrating and isolating.

But none of that is what weighs heavily on my mind this time of year.
What's Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in 'em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?
-Ebeneezer Scrooge, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol Stave One
I've had suicidal thoughts since I was 9, so clearly my mental illnesses predate having developed Crohn's disease. But it is certainly true that the effects of living with Crohn's have exacerbated my mental illnesses. They used to be there, but I at least felt I had a handle on them most of the time. I was moody, certainly; I'm not trying to downplay anything. But at least I felt more or less in command of myself. I was compelled to enter inpatient treatment for suicidal depression in 2011, and again in 2015. I've only narrowly avoided it again this year, though the year isn't yet over and as I write this, it feels all but certain that I will. At this rate, I'll be hospitalized again in 2018, twice in 2019, quarterly in 2020, and by 2022, I'll be a permanent resident.

That isn't much to look forward to, Dear Reader. It's also not going to happen because there is no way Medicare is going to pay for it, and I am sincerely sorry to you the taxpayer for the financial burden of keeping me alive. It's not an investment that has paid any worthwhile dividends. All I ask is that you be mindful that while this is true of me, it is not true of other benefits recipients, and the lust for cutting those programs and hurting those recipients must be curtailed and stopped because they don't deserve to suffer.

I had one New Year's resolution in 2017, the same that I've had for the last several years, which was to finally get divorced. I won't go into why that hadn't happened yet for a marriage that effectively ended in 2011, but the pertinent part is that it finally happened this November. Holding the paperwork in my hand was largely satisfying and relieving, but there was also a part of me that felt the weight of my failure having become complete. I failed as a husband in several areas, but the underlying problem was that I had become not a provider of security, but a burden and a liability. I couldn't fault her for wanting out of a life under these conditions.

She has since moved on and built a life free from these constraints. I'm sure there are difficulties in that relationship, just as there are in all relationships, but whatever they are, they don't include the things that were imposed on her by being stuck with me. I, however, remain fixed in place (if anything, deteriorating). My prospects for happily ever after require willful self-deception at this point.

I was feeling the severest impact of that finality going into Thanksgiving. I declined all of the invitations that had been graciously extended to me by my friends. I should take a moment to emphasize that "friend" is the only f-word I use sparingly. I have strictly delineated tiers of "acquaintances", "pals", and "friends". And in truth, the friends that I refer to throughout this blog post aren't even friends anymore; they've become my family, dearer to me than most people with whom I share DNA. I make no secret about that.

I canceled on plans to get together with them that weekend. I canceled my birthday plans, which would also have included them. I deactivated my Twitter account. I deleted the Facebook page I'd set up for myself as a "writer". I took sleeping pills as soon as I woke up to knock myself right back out. This went on for about a week. I am told, Dear Reader, that this is not healthy and I advise against it.

My friends, of course, know how unstable I've become, and they became concerned--alarmed, even, and justifiably so, I'm afraid. I didn't reach the point where I no longer trusted myself not to act on the thoughts and impulses to harm myself, but I stayed on that borderline for weeks on end. If you've been there yourself, you know how draining that is. If you haven't, I must ask that you take my word on it that it is exhausting in every sense.

The night of my birthday, one friend texted me to ask if I was up for some company. I thought it would be okay and said so. I knew I needed to finally open up to someone about all this, and she has become one of my closest confidantes. It became immediately apparent, though, that she was not alone. There were four friends in all, bearing no less than two boxes of doughnuts, and a gift (in direct violation of my no-gifts policy). I was touched.

I was also entirely incapable of enjoying the visit.

Seeing them all there so unexpectedly provoked the fear that they were there to stage some kind of depression intervention. It set off the defense mechanism I developed ages ago that I call The Entertainer. I have absolutely no idea whatsoever what we talked about for the two hours that they were here. I'm vaguely aware that I did a lot of the talking and that there was a lot of laughing, which is, of course, the entire purpose of The Entertainer. Mentally, though, I wasn't there with them. I wasn't anywhere. I had shut down, and I didn't have conscious thoughts until well after they'd all left. I feel awful that I was so fake with them that night. They certainly deserved better.

There comes a point in every struggle where we reevaluate what we're doing and why we're doing it, and ask whether what we're doing it for is worth what we're having to do for it. I've had to ask myself often whether surviving the latest depressive episode just to return to a status quo existence that I've come to resent is any kind of victory at all. Even on my best days, I am acutely aware that my body may very well turn against me without warning at any moment. I can never feel entirely comfortable or even safe; I live in genuine fear over every bite of food I take, wondering if that will be the one that causes a blockage and sends me into surgery.

Hanging over all of this is the socio-political climate in which Republicans now control both houses of Congress and the executive branch (and effectively, the Supreme Court). One of the central tenets of their entire ideology is the gutting of the very programs that sustain me, and millions like me. To hear Republicans tell it, people like me are living high off the hog at the expense of decent people. There is nothing luxurious about poverty, Dear Reader. Again, you may well know this yourself from your own experiences. How can I believe anyone who tries to disabuse me of my perception of myself as a burden when an entire political party has committed itself to culling our great society of the leeching that I perpetrate on all of you?

So there I am two nights ago at my friends' annual Christmas party. I hadn't given any gifts for Christmas in several years, but I did bring some this time. They were things of my own that I hoped they might like. I struggled with the embarrassment that these were not new gifts. Intellectually, I knew it would not offend anyone, but inwardly I was certain they would all be underwhelmed and disappointed. I grew more self-conscious by the minute, to the point that I sincerely contemplated putting them all back into my backpack since no one had seen me put them under the tree in the first place, so no one knew that I'd even brought most of them. (There were two that did not fit into my backpack; I couldn't do anything to hide or deny those.)

Conversation quickly turned to a string of topics that I knew nothing about. I wasn't going to hijack anyone's discussion because poor little Travis felt left out; that was stupid. I was doing okay for awhile, though, certain that an opening would present itself. It didn't.

Instead, a couple of acquaintances showed up. One of them, I am embarrassed to admit, makes me feel especially inferior and inadequate. It's not his fault; he's never said or done anything to make me feel this way, and I know in the back of my mind that if he knew that I felt this way around him, he would feel terrible about it and want to make me feel better.

He reminds me a lot of what I used to be. He's interesting, he's fun, he's upbeat. I used to be the life of the party, regaling everyone with anecdotes and jokes, trying to direct or redirect the energy of the night, while also making a point to seek out the introverts and make them feel comfortable away from that energy. I'm an amivert, so I can shift between the two extremes of leading the conga line and hiding in a corner. I've done both at the same party.

Having this guy around is like looking at a sort of alternate reality. I still have anecdotes and jokes, but they're ones everyone has heard a thousand times. They don't even need me there to tell them anymore; I'm sure they can hear them all in their heads by rote. When I talk about things, they're things that I used to do. When he talks about things, they're things he's either just done or is about to do. In short, he exposes me for the has-been I've become. (And again, this is not at all his fault!)

I retreated to another room, to try to calm myself with meditation. I can do that in crowded, noisy settings, so it wasn't the fool's errand that it may seem. I couldn't do it this time, though, and instead devolved into a mild meltdown. I tried to text some other friends, hoping that could bring me some focus and help ground myself. Nope. I felt increasingly worse as time passed. According to the time stamps on those messages, I spent more than an hour of the two that I was at the party sitting alone. If anyone took notice of my absence, it didn't prompt them to look for me. And in truth, I don't know that they weren't aware of me and hadn't decided to just give me some space to myself.

I should take a moment to emphasize here for anyone who was present that night that I don't begrudge any of you for enjoying yourselves! I know no one there wanted me to feel the way I did, and I know that this is all on me. I'm the one with the screwed up filter and I'm the one who reacted by hiding instead of making an effort to engage. I haven't shared any of this for the purpose of making anyone feel any kind of guilt.

I have, however, shared all of this for the purpose of illustrating what can go into a meltdown. All of this has swirled around inside me even in the company of people whose devotion to me is beyond reproach. These are people whom I love, and who I know love me; people with whom I feel the safest and most comfortable. And even in their midst, these are the kinds of thoughts and feelings I've had to endure for the last month and a half.

I don't know what you experience in the way of meltdowns, Dear Reader. Maybe you've never had one in your life to this point. Maybe you can scarcely recall a time when you weren't trying to get through one. You're probably somewhere between those two extremes, though. And so, I suspect, are the people around you. People you love, as my friends love me.

This brings us to the Moral of the Story wrap-up. If you identify with what I've shared here, my message to you is to try to be patient with yourself, and to try to trust the relationships that you've built with the people around you. Despite what depression may tell you, they do value you. You're not a holdover from days gone by they've been too polite to ditch.

If, however, you identify less with me and more with my friends, I suppose all I can hope for is that maybe this gives you a little better understanding of what may be going on beneath the surface. They may at times react in ways that look like they don't value your relationship, whether by being superficial or withdrawing entirely. Please try to be patient with them, and trust the relationship that you've built with them. Despite what their outward behavior may tell you, they do value you. You're not trivial to them.

24 August 2017

Total Eclipse of the Hope

I thought I had already written a post that addressed this subject, but it turns out I'd only touched on it in various other pieces. Since it's fresh on my mind (it's still ongoing right this moment), and since I have been encouraged to resume writing, here we are, Dear Reader.

This Monday (21 August 2017) brought a total solar eclipse to Hopkinsville, Kentucky. One of my friends (a brother, truthfully) was so gung ho about it that he booked a cabin months ago for the occasion and invited pretty much everyone he'd ever been in an elevator with to come share the experience. I'll be candid; I had no interest in the eclipse. Those few minutes were kinda neat, but if my guts had conspired against me and kept me from witnessing it, I would not have been fazed or disappointed.

No, I went for the opportunity to spend time in the company of loved ones I've not gotten to see much of in 2017. I fell into a months-long depression after the election in November. I may elaborate on that in a future post, but at the moment it's sufficient merely to establish the continuity of this post. Beginning in April, my physical health joined my mental health in misery. My useless immune system could not fend off some kind of bug. This went on for the better part of three months, during which I was frequently bedridden, living off Pedialyte, Jell-O, and sporadic mashed potatoes. Any spoonie can attest that this physical state will exacerbate any existing depression. That was certainly true for me this go round.

I arrived in Hopkinsville in good spirits. A little queasy, but mentally upbeat. I attended a screening of Eclipses and the Phases of the Moon, at the end of which we were treated to some bonus content, including a laser show set to Pink Floyd's "One of These Days" (which we were told was not included in the full Pink Floyd laser show program, so that was neat). I struggled to stave off dehydration, but lots of Pedialyte helped (thanks again for that suggestion, Dallas!). We played a round of mini-golf at Maggie's Jungle Golf, a whimsical place populated by statues of critters indigenous to the jungle, including African elephants and lions. Mini-golf is one of my all-time favorite activities, and that was 100% an indulgence on the part of my friends, who otherwise would not have even thought to bother looking for a place to play.

I even got to spend some one-on-one time with one particular friend who has an uncanny ability to make me feel good regardless of what state I'm in when we begin. I treasure every minute I get to spend in her company, and I was fortunate to get to spend quite a few such minutes. I was inspired to sketch a tree where she and I holed up for about half an hour, just talking. I used a set of brush pens another friend generously send me awhile ago. I was pleased with how the sketch turned out. It's curious, but for once I feel too protective of a piece I've done to share it publicly. I dunno why that is, but I feel too protective of it right now. Maybe at a later date, I'll upload it here.

Anyway, all of this brings me to the point at hand, which is that many, if not most, people seem to believe that depressive episodes are brought on by unpleasant experiences. That can be true for me, but so too is what I have experienced since I returned home. A great experience can also activate the depression that remains dormant just under the surface for me.

I remember two years ago, when I was on a fantastic Johnny Cash-themed road trip with a friend. By pure happenstance, a Crohnie pal of mine was visiting Memphis at the same time we were rolling into town to tour Sun Records. We rendezvoused for lunch. My pal was picking my brain about suicidal ideation. I told her that good experiences do not nullify those thoughts. In fact, I was having them while we were eating. I suppose it's the showman in me, mindful of the value of "going out on top". I struggle with this whenever I feel good about things just as I struggle with it when things are awful.

The last few days have resurrected the worries that harangued me throughout my Year of Hell (October 2010-October 2011). I withdrew from just about everyone then. I had become convinced that they only still included me in anything at all out of a sense of obligatory politeness. I feel I'm merely riding the coattails of the loyalty established between us long ago when I was still healthy and a meaningful contributor. That hasn't been true of me for a decade now. I can't keep up with my friends. Not financially, and not even physically. I used to be the one who had to slow down to remain in pace while walking with others. Now I'm the holdup.

I have been consumed these last few days with self-loathing. I'm a burden to my friends who are too polite to just tell me so directly. They would have a more enjoyable time without having to accommodate me. They want to avoid even inviting me to outings, and they hope when they do let slip that something is going on that I won't impose myself on them. And, of course, there's the ubiquitous certainty that they'll all be better off without me. I should withdraw from them and spare them the hassle.

Intellectually, I know none of this is as I see it right now. I do not question for a moment that these are people who genuinely love me (a love I hope they know is sincerely reciprocated). I'm not sharing these thoughts to try to bait anyone into trying to convince me how wrong I am to think this way. I am, however, sharing these thoughts so that those of you who are still trying to learn about depression might take away from my experience some new insight. Perhaps you, too, experience this phenomenon. In that event, I hope maybe it helps to know it isn't unique to you, that there are others like you whose brains aren't content with organic upsetting experiences and have to manufacture them out of the good ones, too.

02 August 2017

The Unforgivable Pete Rose

During the summer of 1989, Arby's and WDRB, the Louisville Fox TV affiliate, ran a promotion to win tickets to a Cincinnati Reds game. The visiting team was the Atlanta Braves. I was a Reds fan, my baby brother was (is) a Braves fan. We and our mom all signed up for the raffle. Amazingly, my name was drawn and we all got to go!

[I am not allowed to tell this anecdote without mentioning that the morning of the game, my mother had a horrible migraine and wanted nothing more than to stay home in dark silence and puke her guts up, but endured sheer agony on our behalf.]

We convened with all the other raffle winners at Mall St. Matthews to board two Greyhound buses. I was, to put it mildly, stoked. A guy in charge of the whole operation took notice of my enthusiasm. He came over and started chatting, and then asked me if I would like to go down on the field before the game. I have no idea how I responded, other than to say that it was in the affirmative. When we got to the ballpark, we made a mad dash to the nearest souvenir shop so I could buy a baseball to take with me to get signed. My mom even had the presence of mind to buy a ball holder to keep it safe and clean.

There were two other boys who had been selected for this once in a lifetime experience. It was a bit like getting a golden ticket to tour Willy Wonka's factory. We went into parts of the stadium otherwise off-limits to fans. We took an elevator down to the clubhouse and quickly walked through to the field. The Reds were still taking batting practice. We were introduced to a few players, all of whom indulged us and chatted for a moment or two and signed our baseballs. Dave Collins. Chris Sabo. Even Eric Davis, whose swing was by far my favorite to try to emulate.

Then we were led to the dugout to meet the Reds manager, the Hit King himself: Peter Edward Rose. No one in my lifetime has loomed as large in the world of baseball as him. He could have blown us off. He could have even been polite about it and said something like, "I'd love to chat, but I'm trying to get ready for this game." We would certainly have understood that. Instead, he invited us to come over and took questions. He asked us questions. He signed all our baseballs, shook our hands, made us feel like true VIP's.

Shortly thereafter, Rose was banned from baseball for having violated the game's policy against gambling. Like others of my region and generation, I've always defended Rose. No one has yet presented any evidence that he bet against the Reds. There have been insinuations that maybe he did, but nothing has been demonstrated to affirm it. So far as I've ever been concerned, the integrity of the games in which he had the ability to affect the outcome was not compromised and that's been good enough for me.

Last year, the Reds inducted him into their team's Hall of Fame and retired his #14 jersey number. I went to the final game of that weekend, the day they retired his number. I went with two of my oldest friends. In fact, we were all teammates in 1990, the only season of Little League I ever played. That's how far back we go, and baseball was what brought us together in the first place. It was as much a celebration of our friendships as it was of Rose. My physical health was cooperative for most of that day, though it was unbearably hot and I had to retreat to the cooler indoors part of Great American Ball Park for the final two innings. Still, a glorious day!

I've just finished reading a New York Times article, though, that has truly gutted me. In it, I have learned that during Rose's time as a player, he had a sexual relationship with a girl who at the time was under the age of consent--which was just 16 then. He has readily admitted that he did have this relationship, though he maintains she had turned 16 already.

Suppose for a moment that I believed his version (which I don't). This sexual relationship took place during the 1970's. Let's be as generous as possible and say it was 1970. He's telling us he was 29 years old and thought it appropriate to have sex with a 16 year old girl? No. No, I can't go along with that. The NYT piece goes on to mention that this was not Rose's only such transgression:
Monday's filing also included an excerpt from the 1991 book "Collision at Home Plate: The Lives of Pete Rose and Bart Giamatti," in which James Reston Jr. wrote about Rose having a 14-year-old girlfriend, and allegations from the former USA Today reporter Jill Lieber Steeg in a 2000 SportsCenter documentary that Rose had a sexual relationship with a high schooler.
How the hell I managed to miss both the 1991 book and the SportsCenter doc, I have no idea, but I did. By 1991 I'd lost most of my interest in baseball, so I may well have seen the book for sale, but I would have walked right past it to the Star Trek paperbacks. I was certainly following SportsCenter in 2000, though, so it's genuinely surprising to me that I would have missed that.

I can't explain how I missed it, but I can understand how I managed to not hear about it after it was broadcast. It's true that we collectively do have some kind of fixation on tearing down public figures, but it's also true that we have collectively protected the sexual predators among us. Look no further than Bill Cosby, whose predatory acts had attracted some attention ages ago and then been promptly dismissed out of hand and covered up so thoroughly that many of us had even forgotten we had, in fact, once been warned about what he was doing.

You may recall, Dear Reader, that two years ago, I shared in this blog that I had experienced what I euphemistically refer to as The Incident in my childhood. Rose must surely have benefited from that same protectionism as Cosby, because there is no conceivable way I would ever have heard such a thing and ever forgotten it. Hearing about it today is upsetting enough; hearing about it before I'd finally begun to address and work through my trauma in the last few years would have been overwhelming for me.

It gets worse, though. The NYT piece continues:
Years later, during a 2015 radio interview, [John] Dowd [the special prosecutor whose investigation exposed Rose's gambling in 1989] said that a memorabilia dealer, Michael Bertolini, had stated that Rose had girls as young as 12 brought to him during spring training. Bertolini denied telling Dowd this, and last year Rose sued for defamation.
I haven't had TV service in a few years, so I've not kept active with the Reds or anything else to do with baseball. But this was recent enough that again, I'm at a loss to explain how this failed to come to my attention. There was no social media to be sure that the SportsCenter revelation was passed around, but in 2015 this radio interview aired and nothing ever came across my Facebook or Twitter feeds?

Had I been aware of any of this, there is no way I would have ever agreed to have gone to his jersey retirement ceremony last year. And yes, it does sour me on the experience that I had in my youth that I shared at the opening of this post. This is where it would be fashionable for me to claim that Pete Rose has now ruined my childhood. Except, he didn't ruin mine. He ruined the childhood and teenhood of his victims.

There will surely be defenders who will want to argue that I don't know definitively what happened; that without a conviction, it's just hearsay; that even if he was convicted, that it would still be separate from what he accomplished as a player. I wrote a few years ago another piece, Rape Is More Than Legalese. I would encourage you to take a look at that in its entirety, Dear Reader, but I will leave you here with the final thought from it:
We can accept at face value those who come forward and say that something happened to them. We can offer compassion to them. We can try to help them to feel safe. We can listen. We can trust. We can do all of these things independent of whatever may (or may not) take place in a court room - and we must, because living with the experience and aftermath of rape exists outside of a court room.
I hope that the woman who has come forward recently, any of the survivors implied in the other things reported by the New York Times piece, and anyone we don't know about, are all able to find some peace and to heal. They're the ones who matter in this; not the preservation of hero worship from those of us who grew up admiring the guy who set the all-time Major League Baseball record with 4192 career hits, and certainly not Rose. He didn't deserve to be our hero, and the survivors damn sure did not deserve for him to be their villain.