PhotoMarinSardy4In the aftermath of Robin Williams’ suicide, a plethora of articles and blogs have been published on the topic of mental illness and depression. As a writer whose work often directly or indirectly addresses mental illness, do you think this sort of mass response is helpful?

In some ways, yes, absolutely, the mass response is very helpful. The cultural silence around mental illness, without a doubt, made my experience as a child of someone with schizophrenia far worse than it needed to be. I had no one to talk to about it and no vocabulary for it even, and so that silence stunted my ability to even do my own thinking about it. In a culture without open conversation around mental illness, I was cut off from social support that could have helped enormously. So I’m pretty much glad across the board whenever anyone is openly discussing it. But with this I’ve also been glad that most of it seems to be aimed at educating people and fighting stigma.

stossel

Scampering through Cape Cod, searching for an outhouse, looking out for Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Secret Service…

So I’m staying at the Kennedy Compound because I’m writing a biography on Sargent Shriver, the guy who started the Peace Corps. Bill Clinton is there, sailing with Ted Kennedy. Arnold is there. I’m out walking around town when suddenly the anxiety hits. Anxiety leads to a certain gastric distress so I’m rushing back to the house, sweating, looking out for celebrities and the secret service, wondering if I can make it back. I get there—and the toilet breaks. Sewage rises around me, ruining my pants. I mop it up with towels just as the dinner bell rings for some sort of fabulous Kennedy soiree. I sneak out and race up the stairs, half-naked, wrapped in a towel and run straight into JFK Jr. “Oh hi, Scott,” he says. He was totally unfazed. We had met the day before.

Split-Feather

By Mag Gabbert

Essay

holdfast2

When I was fourteen, my father got a split-feather tattoo. He came home one Saturday and rolled up the leg of his jeans, wincing and cursing as it chafed his skin, and revealed his calf with a red and brown and black split-feather spanning its entire length. I touched it, running my index finger over the varied terrain of its healing. Tiny red and yellow scabs flaked off from the rough parts amid other smoothness; they looked like fruity pebbles in my hand.

“What does it mean?” I almost whispered.

lizro234

The first time I had a full-blown episode of depression I was seven years old. I knew that this was odd, but I was used to oddity. My sister had taught me to read when I was two, so I had become a parlor trick prodigy, marched in and out of rooms at my elementary school and made to read aloud to the “big boys and girls.”  I had the vague uncomfortable sense that I was being used to shame these kids, so I tried to underplay my performance. In return I was petted, praised, invited to eat my lunch with the huge sixth graders and generally protected.

Most people would rather convince themselves of being in love than of being happy, just as most people would rather believe they are talking to others when talking to themselves.”  –Sarah Manguso

 

Marfa 2012This story will end with two women naked in a bathtub. Let’s say that, for now, it begins with a drive to Marfa, Texas. I was with one of my best and longest-time friends, Kaitlyn, on our way to spend an annual weekend getaway there. As Dallas faded into a haze in the rearview mirror, we half-joked that this time we were going to Marfa to find ourselves, our “center.” What we meant was that we were looking for some kind of fulfillment or self-sufficiency—maybe happiness is the word—but the joke was that, in reality, we would have preferred to bring our boyfriends with us…except that we didn’t have any. “Finding ourselves,” whatever that meant, would just have to serve as a consolation prize.

When I first read The New York Times write-up “Fiona Apple Faces Outwards”, I am struck by how deeply her transformation over the past seven years from big-eyed girl-woman to gaunt and isolated artist has affected me. Apple was always talented, but this write-up of The Idler Wheel encapsulates how Apple has transcended the fleeting pop stardom that is often offered to young, attractive female artists and has instead become a full-fledged musical auteur.

I. Posting a Flyer

If anyone wants to talk about anything, call me (347) 469-3173.

—Jeff, one lonely guy

570-231-XXXX

So how did everyone get your number in the first place?

 

516-859-XXXX

Wow, I just saw your sign on a pole a couple days ago.

 

478-213-XXXX

Flyer guy?

 

347-441-XXXX

Jeff, can I call you?

Listen. Happiness? It just looks different on people like me.

                                            —Lidia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water

 

 

In Ithaca, New York, Tibetan prayer flags hang from the eaves of rambling Victorian houses, and quaint little carriage houses, and dilapidated A-frame houses with Pabst beer cans lining porch railings. Their lilting red, blue, orange, white, and yellow squares make no sound in the breeze, so thin and soft is the translucent fabric. On Aurora Street, in Ithaca’s Fall Creek neighborhood, the Namgyal Monastery Institute of Buddhist Studies sits nestled in a nondescript turn-of-the century house painted a deep burgundy with gold trim. The prayer flags alight the house like year-round Christmas decorations. Down the narrow alleyway running just behind the monastery, Cascadilla creek burbles over shalestone, plastic bottles, discarded road signs, and outposts of tall, thick grass that curve like spider plants.

You’ve begun to feel like some neurasthenic Joan Didion character.  Only without the shiny coating of beauty and glamour.

Increasingly, you have nothing to say.  You are, distressingly, empty.  Empty and blank and tired and done.  Just…done.  

All you’ve ever wanted is to make everyone happy.  Now, you make no one happy.  You are nothing.

You listen to Azure Ray and cry, hating yourself and slicing up your arms with razor blades.

In The Bell Jar, you think, Esther got that plum internship.  Where’s your fucking prize?

You exist.  Just barely.

Scott Timberg, writing for Salon, with a compelling essay on the financial struggles of America’s creative class:

Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen write anthems about the travails of the working man; we line up for the revival of “Death of a Salesman.” John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson hold festivals and fundraisers when farmers suffer. Taxpayers bail out the auto industry and Wall Street and the banks. There’s a sense that manufacturing, or the agrarian economy, is what this country is really about. But culture was, for a while, what America did best: We produce and export creativity around the world. So why aren’t we lamenting the plight of its practitioners? Bureau of Labor Statistics confirm that creative industries have been some of the hardest hit during the Bush years and the Great Recession. But  when someone employed in the world of culture loses a job, he or she feels easier to sneer at than a steel worker or auto worker.

The night before I checked myself into the hospital, I told my brother that I only had two episodes of the third season of House left to watch, and that once they were over, I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself. He can’t be blamed for thinking I was exaggerating.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about pain, death, misery and failure. I tend to think about these things in January, and I doubt I’m alone. This year, as with last year, I find myself underemployed, with a Jack Torrance-grade case of cabin fever. It’s a cyclical phenomenon, as I am sure other freelancers – and anyone in retail – can confirm. Also (fun fact!) corporations tend to fire people at the tail end of the old or start of the new year, so I imagine that right now there are many other lonely, bored, depressed shut-ins among us. Obviously we’ll never meet since we never leave our increasingly smelly apartments, but I have a pretty good feeling you’re probably trawling the internet right now looking for an antidote to your misery or Googling the phrase “painless ways to die.” I dedicate this post to you.

Now that we’ve gotten the awkwardness of the first suicide joke out of the way (one of many more, I hope!) I’d like to offer you some comfort. I will partly do this simply by being me, which tends to make other people feel better about themselves. For example, right now I’m suffering from a unique confluence of agonies, as I’m both looking for a day job and submitting my freshly completed novel to literary agencies, thus putting myself on the receiving end of a two-front assault of disappointment and rejection. I should have probably staggered the attempts. Oh well.

Another thing I can do to help you: offer you amusement. Here’s a fun game you can play to help pass the time. Close your eyes, relax, and take a moment to scroll through your memories. Good. Now: try to pinpoint the exact moment in your life when you went so irreparably wrong and screwed everything up forever. It could be a job or a lover you turned down out of arrogance and to your everlasting regret. It could be an offhand remark you made that alienated the last of your friends. Maybe you regret mooning the German finance minister that summer in Dusseldorf. It doesn’t matter. Without ever having met you, I can’t tell you exactly where you went terribly wrong.

I have my own contenders. I’ve narrowed it down to about five non-consecutive occasions that I’m not about to go into here. (I’m a job-seeker for god’s sake. I admit no weakness. Future employers who may be reading this: I am a paragon of robotic perfection. I’ve never done anything wrong, and I did not just accidentally burst a hot-water bottle on top of several important licensing agreements.) Anyway, let’s just say that self-recrimination can be a fun and free way to pass an afternoon.

Another fun thing you can do is ponder the shocking, visceral spectacle of the First World War. You can do this through the prism of Downton Abbey if you’d like, since it’s always good to remain current and feel like you’re a part of cultural phenomena. (It’s also fun to marvel at the different ways the show’s writers arrange for Cousin Matthew to be on leave in every single episode.) There are few things more comforting to me than the tragic, troubling sweep of human history. I mean, the Great War was so calamitous, so poorly managed and so disastrously run that my own small mistakes become much easier to stomach by comparison. Take, for example, the ill-conceived attack by Britain’s 1st Rifle Brigade and 1st Somerset Light Infantry on December 19th, 1915. This daring daylight charge was to have two prongs: first, an artillery barrage was supposed to destroy the German barbed-wire entanglements; second, an overland rush by the foot soldiers, who theoretically would be able to walk right over the downed wire and into enemy camps. Just in case the artillery barrage failed, though, the soldiers were supplied with straw mattresses, which they were to lay over any remaining wire. Inevitably, the barrage failed completely and the soldiers, staggering under their 60-pound gear kits and ridiculous straw mattresses, caused open-mouth Germans to stare in disbelief when they saw them approach. Well, stopped them for about five seconds. Then the Germans shook it off and commenced total slaughter.

Whatever stupid things I’ve done, I have not yet caused the death of a million men. See? Perspective.

Sometimes, though, on particularly bad days, I have to reach even farther back. In my very darkest moments, nothing from the 20th century will do. I have to go all the way back to the 14th, a hundred-year period of unremitting famine, misery, disease, plague, war, and death. That century opened with two or three frigid winters in a row, and unseasonable cold marked its first decade or so. (The cold didn’t let up until 1700; historians call it “The Little Ice Age.”) Naturally, this led to a shorter growing season, which in turn meant certain starvation for a populace already too big to support itself. In 1315, it rained incessantly, crops failed again, and full-on famine resulted, leading to malnourishment and thus disease. People were reported to have murdered their own children for food, and a famine-ravaged village in Poland even resorted to taking down and eating corpses in gibbets. Famine would occur again in 1316 and 1317. What else you got? Papal schisms? Check. Violence? Yes. Social unrest? Ooh! Peasant revolts? Keep talking. A hundred-year war?! The Black Death!? Yes, please!

But in my world, the true urtext for this longest, darkest season of the soul is (naturally) Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter. Sometimes I don’t even have to read the book all the way through to achieve catharsis; sometimes all I need are the dark, foreboding scenes before winter even strikes, when Pa sees the unusually thick walls of the muskrat nests and muses, “I’ve never seen them that thick.” I can just imagine the cold, dark horror that awaits them in the long months to come, and it’s enough.

In The Wilder Life, Wendy McClure writes evocatively of Rose Wilder Lane, Laura’s less-then-beloved daughter. Apparently, she was kind of a little shit and nobody really liked her. She grew up angry, bitter and discontented – she hated her parents’ poverty – and lived a frustrated life as an artist who never really achieved fame. She won some awards for her short stories but it was her mother’s legacy, not hers, that lived on. Modern fans visiting the Laura houses-turned-museums bypass the glass display case of Rose memorabilia with barely a murmur of interest: “Most of us had no use for someone like Rose, whose Bitter and Complicated life was at least as imperfect as our own,” McClure writes. People would rather hear about a family beset by blizzards and locusts than a girl whose mild and trivial problems mirror their own. The trouble is, it’s always the trivial problems that get you down. Grand-scope misery is a relief compared to that. Why anyone would prefer tales of survival, resilience, and redemption over narratives of folly, misery, and failure, I don’t know. Secretly, I don’t think they do. If you read about the real-life Ingalls family in any depth, you’ll quickly learn they were massive fuck-ups just like the rest of us. At one point they were all reduced to working as servants in a hotel, and when they couldn’t pay their rent, the whole family had to flee in the night. Also: the reason they left their homestead in Indian Territory in Little House on the Prairie (I refer here to book two in the series)? They fucked up. Pa took a gamble squatting on Indian land and was busted by the government in the end. I think that’s the real reason people love the Ingalls family, they just won’t admit it.

I’ve decided the only sensible thing to do is go to Belgium.

Not just for war tourism, but out of a general curiosity. Much has been written about the legendary ugliness of the Belgian people, and I’m curious to see how this bears out in real life. “To this day,” writes W.G. Sebald, “one sees in Belgium a distinctive ugliness dating from the time when the Congo colony was exploited without restraint and manifested in the macabre atmosphere of certain salons and the strikingly stunted growth of the population, such as one rarely comes across elsewhere… I well recall that on my first visit to Brussels in December 1964 I encountered more hunchbacks and lunatics than normally in a whole year.”

This may be the place for me.

Just to clarify, I’m not moving there. I’m staying in New York for the time being (at least until poverty forces me to move in with my in-laws in Buffalo, or move back home to Canada where people live like kings). No, I’m just going for a weeklong sojourn. Who knows, maybe I’ll like it so much I’ll make regular visits; maybe I’ll find so much comfort in its war memorials that I’ll just keep going back, shuttling from NYC to Brussels until the money runs out, between my real life and my imagined life, forever rowing from one dark shore to another.

 

(DISCLAIMER: The thoughts, opinions, and comments contained in this narrative in no way represent the views of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.)

 

Bagpipes

The sun is going down as Sergeant Valdez pulls up in the F150 and drops the gate. We offload the ammo and pack it in the back of the MRAP. Fifteen thousand rounds of 7.62mm ammunition for the Iraqis. I try to stack the boxes so they will have the least chance of toppling when the truck is in motion. Tomorrow we will drop off the ammo at the IA compound while out on patrol. I raise the back ramp, lock up the truck, and walk back to the CHU.

“Is everything okay?” Raneo asks as I drop my rifle in the corner.

“No, it isn’t.”

“What happened?”

“What happened? There is no purpose to life, and the Universe is an empty, meaningless wasteland. That’s what happened.”

I’m halfway through reading Cat’s Cradle for about the fourth or fifth time. This is more than likely the source of inspiration for my feigned tantrum, as opposed to any particular or immediate existential dilemma, along with my chronic compulsion to answer every question with a smart-assed remark or to befuddle people with my nonsensical grandiloquence.

“Where?” says Mies. They’re smiling now.

“Everywhere.”

* * *

The interior of Club Rodeo is a mixture of industrial warehouse and country barn. Sawdust on concrete slab, wood beams, murky lighting. A large dance floor takes up the majority of the room. In one corner, there is a small western-wear shop where one can purchase cowboy hats and boots, jeans, flannel shirts, and enormous belt buckles. This exact combination of attire, incidentally, is the uniform for roughly seventy-five percent of the clientele. Catherman hands me a Budweiser, and the two of us sit at the perimeter of the dance floor, behind a wood railing, and survey the crowd. I’m feeling distinctly out of place and underdressed in Oxford, cargo shorts, and flip-flops. The music alternates from country to pop country to vanilla hip-hop. I finish my beer altogether too quickly and step back to the bar.

The bartendress is clad in Daisy Dukes and a plaid shirt knotted above the belly button. She has never heard of Jameson. I order two more Budweisers and two shots of Jack Daniels. I drink both shots myself and return to Catherman with the beers. In my absence, four more people have materialized at our table. Gardner is evidently another member of our company; I am still too new to recognize every soldier in the unit. The others are Gardner’s girlfriend and two of her tagalong pals.

Catherman is easy at conversation. He has no trouble moderating small talk around the table, despite the oppressive twangy din. I rely on him to entertain while I thoughtfully measure the precise interval between sips that is necessary to appear pleasant and carefree. Every ten to fifteen minutes I rotate to the bar or restroom. Catherman disappears somewhere, and I start to panic a little. I try to engage one of the girls in conversation.

“So do you live in Killeen?” I yell in her ear.

“No. I’m from Temple,” she looks at me for some sign of recognition.

“I have no idea where that is.”

She suddenly becomes very interested in her drink and turns away. I pretend to be fascinated by the spectacle on the dance floor. About two-dozen people have begun to dance in unison, some convulsive mutation of a square dance and a Broadway musical that is completely foreign to me.

Eventually, Catherman reappears with the third girl, wearing an ear-to-ear grin. He leans in.

“I just got a handjob in the bathroom,” he says.

“Seriously?”

He nods, glancing at girl number three.

Four or five beers later, I drive us back to the barracks and pass out.

It’s taking a considerable amount of effort to fight my natural anti-social impulses and go out drinking every week with the younger guys. My body does not recover as quickly as it did when I was in college. Hangovers are a two-day affair. I suspect I am not as much fun to be around. I feel boring, like I am sucking the cheer out of the room, radiating bad vibes. And any desire to chase women has abandoned me.

The next Saturday, I wake up hung over around thirteen hundred. This time, thankfully, I had the wherewithal to take a cab home. I throw on some clothes and shuffle down to Specialist Lindsey’s room. He comes to the door groggy and disheveled.

“Dude, I left my car at Ernie’s last night. Can you take me to go get it?”

“Yeah. Hang on a minute.” He can’t really turn me down, as I did him the same favor last week.

We’re in the car ten minutes later, on our way to Harker Heights. Lindsey is a chatterbox, so I let him talk and I stare out the window and try to suppress my migraine.

“You want to go to Houston tonight?” he says.

“I’m not sure I would survive. I’m still getting over last night.”

“Aw, come on. I’ll drive.”

“What’s in Houston?”

“These two girls.”

“Okay.”

“I’m trying to fuck one of them, and I need somebody to keep the other one busy.”

“Naturally.”

“They’re kind of big,” Lindsey says. “I’m not saying they’re fat, just curvy, you know?” He fumbles in his pocket and produces his phone, then, completely ignoring the road, scrolls through his photos.

“Here,” he says, handing me the phone. “That’s the one I’m trying to hook up with.”

A husky blonde is gazing up at me from Lindsey’s phone, smiling coyly. It’s a self-taken picture, probably captured for the sole purpose of luring Lindsey to Houston. I suppose she is pretty.

“Okay.”

Lindsey reaches over and taps a button on the phone. Another girl appears, this one with dark brown hair. Her pose, while not identical to the last, is definitely in the same vein. She is thick as well, though not unattractive.

“That’s her friend,” he says.

“I see.”

“She’ll definitely fuck you.”

“Okay.”

“She’s pretty cool, but you might have to put up with some drama.”

“How so?”

“I don’t know, man. She’s just drama sometimes. But she’s a lot of fun, when she’s not talking about her ex or whatever.”

“Okay.”

“So the plan is to get a hotel room and party. Maybe go out to some bars. You in?”

“I don’t know, dude.”

“Come on. I guarantee you get laid.”

“I’m just not feeling Houston tonight. I feel like shit.”

I can’t think of a good reason not to go. I’m racking my brain for a solid excuse, some previous commitment or obligation or something. But I’ve got nothing. I should say yes, but I’m filled with the urge to retreat to my room and order Chinese food.

“You sure?”

“Yeah. Sorry.”

“Suit yourself.”

“Raincheck, though.”

“It’s cool. You think Catherman would want to roll?”

“Probably.”

Lindsey drops me off at Ernie’s Bar, and I drive back to the barracks with a guilty, nagging sensation that I’ve forgotten something important. I dial Hunan Palace and fall asleep.

In August, my platoon sergeant informs me that I’ve been reassigned to headquarters. After seeing my test scores, the CO and First Sergeant have decided that I am needed in Supply. My protests are ignored. The XO assures me that it is a temporary situation, that I will only be there for a few months, and that I will continue to participate in training exercises. I do not believe him. I abandoned my home in California and my mind-numbing corporate existence to experience something out of the ordinary. I joined to become an elite paratrooper, and now I am a supply clerk in the armpit of Central Texas. If there is some mystical power at work in the cosmos, then it is surely having it’s way with me for cheap thrills.

I report to Sergeant Harris and try to make the best of things. There is a good deal of driving around post, from one warehouse or agency to another, picking up new equipment here, dropping off old equipment there. We fill out an infinite array of forms and collect signatures from various bigshots at battalion, brigade, and division headquarters. The upside to working in Supply is that there is a lot less pointless screaming and running around. The downside is that my soul is rapidly eroding into a festering ruin of dust and desiccation.

If I believed in a soul, that is.

It might be more accurate to say that all the pleasant chemicals at play in my nervous system are going sour, transforming into bile, while the unpleasant chemicals are experiencing a population boom.

Months go by. I continue to dismiss invitations to go out, to socialize, to interact with humanity, until eventually they stop coming. I withdraw. I spend my free time shut up in my room, making periodic food runs to Walmart, where I glare hate bullets at fat Texans and their gallon jugs of maple syrup.

This is me reacting poorly to adverse circumstances.

October arrives. My cousin is getting married in Avalon, New Jersey. Both parents have separately sent emails insisting I wear my Class A uniform to the ceremony. Reluctantly, I pack my uniform into a cheap garment bag and fly to Philadelphia. From there we drive to the shore. The morning of the wedding, I am standing in front of a hotel mirror, trying with difficulty to squeeze into my greens. I suck in the gut I’ve acquired over the last three months of neglect and manage to get the buttons fastened. I have to sit very straight in the pew to avoid discomfort, and I am all too conscious of the looks from other guests. Overt attention makes me uneasy. I am a fraud. I have done little to earn this uniform.

After the wedding, I change into my suit, which is unadorned and much looser in the waist. The reception is festive. I don’t dance. I linger on the patio, smoking, drinking, politely brushing off the mechanical admiration of family acquaintances. I haven’t done anything, I tell them. They express concern for my impending deployment. I tell them there is no danger, unless I am crushed by a pile of cardboard boxes. I drink more.

A small contingent of friends and family proceeds from the reception to a lounge bar down the shore. My father has pizza delivered to the bar, a feat of unmatched brilliance. I endure further awkward gratitude and continue to drown my fraudulence in Jameson. The crowd dwindles. I am swaying as I stand at the bar and sign my tab. The bartender is a weathered woman in her mid to late forties, a divorcee, I surmise, slender, dirty-blonde hair showing streaks of grey. In an embarrassing fit of delusion, I persuade myself that she is attempting to seduce me by intentionally withholding my credit card. I play along, waiting patiently at the bar and smiling moronically every time she looks my way, until we are the only two left in the bar.

“Something I can do for you, hon?” she finally asks.

“I believe you still have my card,” I say stupidly.

“No, I gave it back to you already.”

I reach in my front pocket and feel the slim sheet of plastic.

“Ah,” I say.

I stagger outside and across the street, berating myself unmercifully, a vile and abusive monologue exploding in my head, stumbling up the steps, and expire face down on the floral-patterned sofa in my father’s hotel room.

Back at Hood, I return to my comfortable rut. I drink whiskey alone in a half-assed attempt at self-indulgent martyrdom. But I fail to make a habit of it. I can’t even summon the discipline required to be an alcoholic. I begin to wonder if I might be experiencing depression—not bummed-out, sorry-for-myself depression, but actual medically legitimate, Prozac depression. The Internet tells me the symptoms include fatigue, sleep and appetite problems, loss of joy or interest in social or entertainment activities, and so on. I conclude that I am suffering from Dysthymia, an idea that persists for about an hour or two, until I throw it aside. This is not genuine. This is a sideshow concocted by my chemicals to distract me.

This is merely self pity.

* * *

Funerals have always made me uncomfortable. It is not the whispers or somber tone. Nor is it the tangible proximity of death. It may be the religion. All the talk of faith and transcendence sets me on edge. I am an atheist. I believe that consciousness, what some might perceive as the soul, is nothing more than a complex pattern of electrical signals exchanged between synapses in our brain. When our meat machinery ceases to function, those signals stop firing, and the lights go out. I wish I could believe in a higher form of existence, but there has never been anything to convince me of this. I suppose that is the essence of faith, to trust in something without the need for validation, but it is a quality I lack.

Apart from two grandparents and my father’s eldest sister, I have never lost any family members or close friends, though I’ve seen my share of funerals. There is something disingenuous about the whole procession. Though maybe this is simply my own cynical filter at work. Are we there for the departed? They are gone. They have no further concerns or suffering. Or are we there to quiet the fear in ourselves? To say, look at this: when you are gone, you will be remembered. People will say nice things about you and drop roses on the ground. When I die, I want no talk of God, or for friends or family to sanctify my behavior with idle praise. I hope they will say I tried my best and leave it at that. Have a drink, tell a story, and toss my ashes in the sea.

The memorial service for Sergeant Altamirano is held on September Twentieth at the COB Speicher MWR. Members of Delta Company and Green Platoon speak fondly of their fallen brother, and the chaplain gives a benediction. We stand at attention as the final roll is called. The honor guard fires three volleys, and a solitary trumpet sounds Taps. It is an appropriate and dignified ceremony.

In twos and threes we march forward silently, the entire battalion, to the constant strains of Amazing Grace, and salute the altar where they have placed his rifle and boots and helmet.

There is one thing I do like about funerals, and that is bagpipes. The world needs more bagpipes. Few other sounds carry such bittersweet resonance.

It is twenty hundred, and I am reclining on my bunk, trapped in a curious limbo between agitation and inertia. I should go to the gym to work off all this annoying useless energy. At the same time, I don’t want to do a damn thing. I compromise and step outside the CHU for a smoke. Mies is burning assorted papers in an ammo can, staring at the fire with his arms crossed.

“Want to sing Kumbaya?” he says.

“No.”

“You never want to do anything fun.”

“That doesn’t sound like fun,” I say, leaning up against the Hesco. “And I don’t know the words.”

We watch the flames for a few minutes. Then I drop my butt in the ammo can and go back inside.

 

I am not innately funny. I am, in fact, a very solemn, somber, pensive man trapped in a funny man’s body. In much the same fashion, I am not a fat guy: I’m a little heavy because I am way out of shape, but in reality I am a skinny guy in a plumpish guy’s body. I have the pictures to prove it.

Buried deep in the heart of every comedian lies the barely faded memory of a bygone dead puppy. With the preeminent geniuses of comedy, the likes of Bruce and Pryor and Carlin and Hicks and so on, that puppy didn’t just die, it was tossed into a pot to be boiled up like the pet rabbit in Fatal Attraction, while the young child version of that future funny man was forced to watch. With any given story, comedy is indeed tragedy plus time; a comedic sensibility is born of accumulated incredulousness. One becomes a comedian the day he ceases to wonder why a thing just happened, and instead observes, “Wow, that was fucked up.”

A little over a year ago, I wrote a pretty awful suicide note that, for a variety of reasons, it turned out I couldn’t use. A few days later I wrote a much more eloquent reflection on that note and on the night it was written. I considered how shamefully glib I had been in addressing my closest friends. I recognized that, as I was attempting to put the final touches on what I thought were my soon to be infamous last words, the sun had risen, meaning I had run out of time: I claimed an unwillingness to kill myself during daylight hours, suggesting that two or three in the morning would be the ideal time to do the deed because anyone who might possibly have prevented it would be deep in sleep. I went on to admit that I’ve never been comfortable even hearing about knife wounds, let alone inflicting one on myself, but a knife was all I had. “In the end, I just couldn’t run a sharp blade along my wrist,” I wrote. “I can’t tie a noose, can’t afford drugs, don’t own a gun. And I don’t cook with gas.” Those were my utterly appalling reasons for not killing myself. That night.

A few weeks later, on a Sunday afternoon in November, I spent most of the little money I had on beer and cigarettes, a bag of Munchos and a pound of M&Ms, and I settled in for what turned out to be a thirty-hour drinking-sobbing-loud-music-smashing-shit binge that culminated in me sending an email I don’t remember to one of my best friends, asking him to take care of something for me when I was gone. Sometime later, two best friends arrived, took away the knife, and loaded me into the truck.

I spent the night in the emergency room, primarily because I was still far too drunk to be let loose in a psych ward, but also because it took some time to find an empty bed – as seems to so often be the case, those wards were overflowing. My friends stayed with me the first few hours. They each took a turn in a room down the hall with the crisis worker, telling her all the pertinent stories. They offered me reassuring thoughts, promised this was the right thing for me to do, told me I was going to be okay. They could just as well have been telling me I’d been voted Homecoming Queen: by then I’d taken up semi-permanent residence in the rabbit hole and at that sad hour I was busy contemplating the drapes. I was too desperately sad and too ashamed to absorb anything save the fact that I was in a bad place and it was about to get much worse before there was any hope of it getting even marginally better. They recognized that, my buddies Peaches and Hank. They understand me in a fundamental way, the true me, not the distorted version of me they found in my apartment that night, the version they had watched drag his ass around for months, a version which, looking back, is entirely unrecognizable to me now. Regardless of how hard I had made it for them to be my friends those miserable months, they get me, which is why, when I left the hospital room once to use the bathroom, Hank climbed into my vacated bed and struck a pose, Peaches snapped a picture with his phone, and sometime later Peaches posted the photo to Facebook with the caption, “I don’t think he’s going to make it.” It would be one of the first things I’d see when I flipped open my laptop after I got sprung from the psych ward, and even in my ongoing black fugue I laughed so hard I almost cried. I also noted the one comment accompanying the picture, from my friend Edge: “Uh-oh. Where’s Gary?”

Indeed, where was Gary?

Generally speaking, I was lost. The final straw for me was a girl – and I almost literally mean a girl, she’s seventeen years my junior (don’t worry, I’m easily old enough to be your cool uncle) – but it’s neither fair nor reasonable to say it was because of the girl. She’s not to blame for me ending up in the hospital. Saying any of that was her fault would be the same as if I wrecked my car and blamed it on the telephone pole around which it was wrapped: I was the one in motion, sir, not the pole. She was young and careless, I was old and foolish, but more than that, I had spent the previous two years dropping the ingredients of my life into a stew pot, seasoning the mix with self-pity and a burgeoning sense of worthlessness, and leaving it over a low heat to simmer. This is never a good idea, but in my case, I don’t really even cook – I’m generally hapless in the kitchen unless you need a pickle jar opened or want to have mildly adventuresome sex – so there was no way this could possibly end well.

More specifically, by the time Edge’s question appeared on Facebook, I was strapped to a gurney in the back of an ambulance that carried me an hour southwest to the nearest hospital with an available bed. My shoes and belt, cigarettes, lighter, a fistful of cash and my down jacket were stuffed in a plastic bag, which one of the ambulance attendants passed to the admitting tech when they deposited me on the business side of a set of doors that locked automatically behind them the instant they departed. I was interviewed and probed and prodded and wrist-banded and, eventually, shown to my room. And then I was watched. I don’t know if it could be called my official status in the first twenty-four hours after I arrived on Ward A3, but it comprised the admitting tech’s parting words to me before she relinquished me to my unadorned room: I was on CVO, “constant visual observation.” It makes a certain kind of sense, considering I’d arrived there on the heels of trying to kill myself, but at the same time, unless I decided to either drown myself in the toilet or brain myself (to death, which I’m not sure is possible) by smacking my head repeatedly against the floor, there was absolutely nothing within reach that matched my imagination’s capacity to do myself the ultimate harm. But I’d brought this on myself, which meant that if they told me I’d have company every time I took a pee, I had no standing to get either bashful or indignant.

We’ve all read this book or seen the movie: it is, to varying degrees, the Cuckoo’s Nest. The nurses and techs were efficient and appropriately solicitous, if at times a bit overbearing as they saw fit. The doctors had slightly less personality than a watermelon rind. There was a smirking, edgy twenty-year old kid with pure psychotic eyes; a woman in her sixties who sobbed nonstop for two days, then proceeded to do laps around the ward in a Thorazine shuffle; a painfully beautiful young woman whose johnny kept sliding off her shoulder, revealing a long, thin neck that would have been lovely without the burn scars; and a very old man, my roommate the first night on the ward, who croaked a chant half the night: “I pray, I pray, I shall return.” The feel and sight and smell of the place can only be described as that of errant but earnest futility, a cluster of adhesive bandages cross-hatched on the scalp in the general vicinity of a brain hemorrhage. If all those aching skulls could simply be cracked and an atlas of maps could be drawn, designating the streets and boulevards and avenues and cul-de-sacs of fear and ecstasy and shame and joy and forgetting and faith and remorse . . . in which case, there would be no need for Ward A3. Instead, there is a tremendous need, and yet they are little more than the sanitary corridors of a place we go to be reminded of the many ways language can and will fail us when we desperately need it to access the very essence of what it is to be human and therefore at least a tiny bit fragile.

The failure of language that intrigued me most was the recurring question that fell from the lips of every staff person there so consistently it was as though they had just stepped out of a pep-rally type meeting in which they were reminded to keep asking: “Do you feel safe?” The first time the question was put to me, I cocked an eyebrow and hesitated for a few extra long beats because, honestly, it puzzled me. I realize it’s intended to be a purely simple, straightforward question, but the potential nuance felt inescapable. I wanted the question rephrased. Do I feel safe? No fucking way. Do I feel like I’m out of options? You bet your ass I do.

I behaved myself from the moment I arrived on the ward, but for the wrong reasons: I didn’t toe the line so I’d get better, I did it because I wanted to get the hell out of there as fast as possible, and I understood immediately that good boys get to go home and bad boys should have their mail forwarded. As miserable as I’d made my life, as soon as I gave it away I wanted it back, or parts of it, anyway. I wanted cigarettes. I wanted my laptop and my iPod and my idiot-phone, in spite of the fact that it had by then taken to giving me nothing but bad news. I kind of wanted a drink, but that was less a driving impulse than a habitual inclination. I desperately wanted my shoes and my belt. If you’ve never spent any time shuffling around a psych ward in no-slip socks with your pants falling down, I can tell you right now, you’re not missing anything splendid. They did offer me a pair of hospital-issue pajamas, but I’d already made up my mind where I wanted the indignity to taper off, and that point fell just shy of those jammies.

One thing you should know about me is that I’m really bad at getting a haircut. When a hairstylist asks me, “So what are we doing today?” I invariably start to babble, and then I tell her to surprise me. A little crazy, I guess, but if you’ve seen my picture, you’d be right to guess my vanity doesn’t reside in my looks. I am, as it turns out, equally incompetent when dealing with doctors. There’s something about the forced intimacy of strangers for hire that knocks me off balance in an unexpected way – unexpected because I’m not generally shy. I’m not a good patient under any circumstances, but if I have to see a doctor for something below the skin, something that isn’t as glaringly obvious as a broken bone or a steadily bleeding flesh wound, I always feel like I have to talk him into it. Pretty soon I’m talking way too much and even I’m growing less convinced. It turns out actually saying, “I tried to kill myself,” sounds as unconvincing, out of context, as saying, “I love you.” No matter the truth of how you feel, it just sounds lame. So eventually I tried a different tack: I told him I’d given up. That did the trick because there were concrete, meaningful things I’d given up: I’d stopped paying my mortgage, stopped looking for a job, stopped writing, stopped doing pretty much everything except drinking, smoking, listening to loud music and punching holes in my own walls. “Okay,” the doctor said, “let’s get you better.”

Except that wasn’t exactly my plan. My plan was simply to get out of there. While getting better sounded terrific, doing so in that place was incomprehensible to me. It just wasn’t going to happen, and so instead of accepting what those fine professional healers offered, I launched my version of a psych ward charm offensive: in a remarkably short time I became the best behaved, least suicidal person any of them had ever seen inside those four walls. It was shameful and unwise, but what can I say, I’m a great interview.

I wasn’t purely a model citizen. But for one group session, I avoided all gatherings other than meal times. The one group session I did attend began with one of the techs passing out stubby pencils and slips of paper on which there was a line for our names and two more lines for us to write our “Goal for Today.” I’ve attended a lot of corporate team-building programs over the years, and this holdover from first grade has always struck me as the worst sort of condescending bullshit imaginable. In other words, I hate it a lot. But there I was, determined to be a good boy, which meant I had to play the game as it was being presented to me. So I scribbled my “Goal for Today,” and at the end of the session when the tech said, “One more person – Gary, we haven’t heard from you,” I cleared my throat, lowered my eyes and read, “My Goal for Today . . . is to be more goal oriented.” Even as the murmurs spread around me – “Wow. Yeah. That’s good. Good job.” – I felt my scrunched up little heart sing for the first time in what seemed like four days past forever. And I wanted out of there all the more because I’d just rolled out my A-material and, of course, nobody laughed.

And so I conned the doctors, conned the nurses, conned every staff person with whom I came into contact: I conned my way out of the hospital, knowing full well I still wanted to die, and with a faint inkling that what I’d imagined was the hard part – giving in and letting someone take me to the hospital – would in truth prove to be no more difficult than tying my shoes when compared to trying to get my shit together out in the real world.

One supremely good thing did come out of the experience of being there, though. In the hallway outside my room sat the phone on which patients could take calls that were put through from the nurses’ station. I must have listened to the near side of forty or fifty phone calls while I was on Ward A3. With slight variations, every single call went like this: a conventional greeting, followed by predictable responses to what appeared to be small-talk on the other end, and culminating in words separated by sobs before the person gently replaced the receiver and continued to sit there in the hallway, plainly visible from every angle (including where I lay on my bed just twelve feet away), silent tears streaming down his or her cheeks. Honestly, I didn’t want to see or hear any of that, ever. And yet I lay there transfixed. The day you know you’re going to go on living is the day you realize your pain is not only not unique – it is, in fact, the most obvious kind of ordinary – but it is also not the worst thing that ever happened to anyone.

I was up very early my last morning on the ward. The nurse who got my meds from the dispensary asked if I wanted a nicotine patch or if I’d be smoking as soon I left the hospital. “Actually,” I replied, “I’d like a nicotine patch, and I’ll be smoking the second I get out of here.” When she suggested I consider giving them up, I smiled at her and said, “Don’t worry, I’m pretty sure smoking isn’t what’s going to kill me.” Yeah, I said that. My GAF (“Global Assessment of Functioning,” in case you were wondering) at discharge was a 50, meaning I was, as far as they could tell, no more than average super-depressed: I’d managed to share deep thoughts in coherent sentences, which indicated I was as close to high-functioning as I needed to be to walk out of there. Sometime late morning Peaches rolled in, the tech handed me my bag of goodies, and I left without saying goodbye.

There are loads of suicide related statistics available for consumption, but they are mere statistics and we all know those are the most insidious of lies. For instance, what does it tell you that women attempt suicide three times more often than men, but for every suicide attempt men are four times more likely to pull it off than women? Statistics: they sketch the outlines of a picture, but they don’t tell a story. Depending on your perspective, they either confirm or defy what you already thought you knew. The concept and study of statistics evolved, I imagine, from the same impulse that created man’s gods: as a comfort in a too often disconcerting world. I’d call that awfully cold comfort to the friends and loved ones left behind.

In the epigram to his book Gargantua, Rabelais said, “I’d rather write about laughing than crying,/For laughter makes men human, and courageous.” I’m not writing this because I want to share my life story – I’m writing it precisely because it is not my life story, although had things turned out differently it very well may have been, in which case somebody else would be telling it, and that would be very disappointing to me because, under the circumstances, that person might have forgotten to find something to laugh about. That would have been a genuine shame.

I spent a very long time kicking myself for all of it, but especially for what I did to the people who care most about me. I put my two best friends in the position of having to sit in a small room with a relative stranger and tell her in excruciating detail every dark, dangerous, humiliating thing they’d watched me do over the previous few months. To their credit, they stole a moment that terrible night and created an ounce of levity, and for that in particular they’ll always have my unqualified respect. What I put them through is a shitty thing to do to people who love you. But do you know what’s worse than doing that to your friends? Not giving them the option.

 

Since psychiatry has proven itself to be anything but a science, the entire concept of mental anguish must be reexamined. Might the elements of “mental illness” more properly be called personality traits as well as reflections of the societies in which those traits occur? Might those elements even be called talents of a sort?

Psychiatry’s masterwork of pseudo-science, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV), once included homosexuality amongst its “scientific” diagnoses. Psychiatry thus reflects the “values” of the United States far more than concerning itself with patients, much less looking past and through society’s existing prejudices.

Even those behind psychiatry’s Shroud of Turin question its validity. Of late, there has been talk of attributing DSM diagnoses by degrees rather than mere labels. Thus, a person would “have” a “mental illness” on a scale, not just “have” it. In such a case, the flatliners who dominate the population would once again establish the “typical American’s” plot-pointed life as “sanity.”

Yet no one who suffers emotional distress would applaud the benefits of that distress. To do so would be to refute its existence and betray oneself as an imposter. Far more likely is it that many flatliners never mention their irregular heartbeats. Could it be a Second Renaissance lies beneath the ever-recycling digital ruins and its constant skies of acid rain?

Consider anxiety. Those with anxious traits are often highly-attuned. To call them “sensitive” is, in this society, an insult. “Sensitive” implies weakness, an inability to “man up.” Instead, the anxious should be viewed as a tuning fork against which society reveals itself — rather than the “patient” — as out of tune. That no one else recognizes society’s discordant sounds only proves the anxious to be society’s musicians. Countless permutations of that metaphor support themselves.

The same may be said about every other “diagnosis.” Schizophrenia might be viewed as a William S. Burroughs’ cutup of “reality” as presented, emphasis on “presented” because, of course, most of our environment has nothing natural about it and is, in fact, a presentation in every sense.

Some conditions do respond to medication. Usually, the reasons remain unknown. In turn, the medication may solve one “problem” while creating many more. Those who take most antidepressants may no longer feel depressed about nothing, but they feel depressed about their diminished sexuality, especially males whenever they try to… express their end of sexuality’s conclusion.

Returning to anxiety, medication does relieve its incapacitating aspect, but the medications that accomplish the effect also accomplish something else, that being the worst addiction known to humankind. This class of drugs, benzodiazepines, includes Xanax, Valium, Ativan, etc., the whole lot of tranquilizers, excepting the rarely-prescribed barbiturates. In some cases, antidepressants may relieve anxiety. However, they do so for reasons as unknown as the reasons antidepressants diminish depression. Likewise, they alleviate anxiety but create symptoms that mirror anxiety, such as trembling hands, odd emotional states, etc.

Rather than diagnoses, all of these traits show themselves to be products of society, products of the product society uses to diagnose those personality traits, and the products society sells to treat the products of the product society uses to diagnose those personality traits. That’s to say, they’re products of an environment completely divorced from nature.

All of this enshrouds some rather simplistic facts about a complicated subject. To martyr those suffering in the way biographers now “diagnose” every author, musician and artist “of the ages” as “bipolar” reduces suffering by labeling it, making suffering a product of their products, that being books and, eventually, films based on those books. Those who write memoirs about their “mental illnesses” bend over backwards for sainthood and reveal themselves willing to do endure any humiliation in exchange for profit.

On the other hand, failing to notice the strange talents hidden within the emotionally inflamed creates an even greater injustice. These strange talents do not prove the existence of artistic talent, as many would like to believe, but they do reveal an artistic temperament. No one can suffer emotionally but for recognition of something and, more likely, many things, and their recognitions go unnoticed by the general public. Why does no one listen to them? Who do “doctors” listen only to themselves when they recognize nothing beyond the power of their prescription pads? Is it because they realize their absolute lack of talent, strange or otherwise?

Most of those suffering in the ways described cycle through life in various stages of function and dysfunction, and most have periods of absolute dysfunction. To calls these periods “nervous breakdowns” would be far more accurate than to split the hairs of the suffering with psychiatry’s blunt axe. They must be tended to as they once were, in humane sanitariums surrounded by the true environment. Such sanitariums could — with no joke intended — be established on useless golf courses around the nation.

With that, some proposals:

1) Psychiatry should be abolished. It simply lacks the will, or even desire to have the will, to fulfill its dream of being medicine. Psychiatrists should be stripped of their meaningless licenses and sent on their way to more suitable careers, like accounting.

2) The “mentally ill” should be educated to understand their conditions as also encompassing strange talents, until they begin to believe the fact that their recognitions are true even when masked by the wildest hallucinations.

3) Medications should be dispensed by doctors who have achieved certification in dispensing those medications. They should know, and prove that knowledge by required yearly testing, that they understand prescribing medications and the facts of addictions that may occur to any such medication they dispense.As it stands, psychiatrists receive eight hours of addiction “education.”

4) Medications known to cause addiction should be removed from any policing or government surveillance whatsoever. Those subject to mental anguish should not be criminalized for trying to relieve that anguish, including and even especially when relieving the added anguish of addiction to a prescribed medication.

5) All those suffering from the acute perceptions so well described in Rumblefish should ultimately determine their own treatment, including beginning or continuing use of addictive prescribed substances, even when addiction has established itself, for the suffering caused by eliminating that addiction will likely lead to more dangerous and illegal addiction.

Flatliners already receive society’s benefits. Those who benefit society without society knowing it — those with strange talents — deserve just as many benefits.