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.

Major Depressive Disorder (Source: NIMH)

  • Major Depressive Disorder is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for ages 15-44.
  • Major Depressive Disorder affects approximately 14.8 million American adults, or about 6.7 percent of the U.S. population age 18 and older in a given year.
  • While Major Depressive Disorder can develop at any age, the median age at onset is 32.
  • Major Depressive Disorder is more prevalent in women than in men.

*

I had to look those numbers up, because too often I feel alone in my diagnosis.

You see, contrary to most people’s impression of me, I am depressive. Clinically. Sometimes, debilitatingly. But only my two closest friends and my psychiatrist (no, not even my family) know how grim I can get.

*

Here’s how it usually goes when I mention it to the uninformed:

“I’m sad.”

“But your life is so awesome. You are so awesome. Cheer up!”

*

I don’t know how to write about it. It’s embarrassing. And I don’t understand it.

But I do know what pisses me off about it.

Articles like this one, recently published in The New York Times:

Talk Doesn’t Pay, So Psychiatry Turns Instead to Drug Therapy

The article examines the switch from psychiatric talk therapy to becoming mere pill factories and how disgruntled older psychiatrists are (or aren’t) about it and how patients are suffering nonetheless.

*

I was going through a crippling wave of depression about seven years ago. I was finally convinced to see my friend’s psychiatrist. I was terrified. This would be my first trip to a real, live, “New York Shrink”.

I had been to one social worker/therapist in Chicago six years before that, but with awful results. After two visits and a recommendation for a bottle of St. John’s Wort and a couple bars of dark chocolate, I was sent home with a treacle-dripping “Feel better!” and a wave.

And that was during the truly borderline years.

So while I told myself that a ‘professional’ would be better than that particular weirdo therapist, I knew I didn’t want drugs to solve my problems. I knew I was a smart person and that I could figure things out if someone would just listen to me and understand me and give me some tools to help me fix the sadness.

*

I got a prescription for Zoloft at the end of my first visit.

“After you’re chemically balanced, we’ll be able to figure out what’s really going on.”

After I was chemically balanced, I had nothing to talk about.

*

Sure, I was no longer on the emotional roller coaster, but neither did I have the capacity to talk about what was making me so miserable, because suddenly nothing was making me miserable.

I spent two years rehashing broken relationships, parental annoyances, professional disappointments, but they seemed so inconsequential. I was putting on a performance for her, because that was what I felt I was supposed to be doing, and I didn’t want to waste a penny of my $200 45-minute hour.

Also, I got fat.

Zoloft stopped what little metabolism my diabetically-inclined body has, and because I was an emotionless blob, I started eating and staring at the television all the time.

More than usual, anyway.

Add ‘overweight slob’ to my weekly schpiel.

*

Eventually, thankfully, my rational senses took over and I weaned myself off of the drugs and the shrink’s staid head-nodding, non-responsive “um-hmm” attempts at fixing me.

And for a while, I was better. I was. My brain came back. I met a guy. The thrill of meeting him was exhilarating, the orgasms were mind-blowing and the break-up was devastating.

As it should be.

*

Life resumed its normalcy.

*

Slowly, ever so slowly, the depression came back. I don’t know where it came from. It’s genetic, I had learned that, so certainly it was in my DNA. A chemical imbalance? Maybe. A learned coping mechanism? Sure. I could see that.

But whatever it was, things were getting bad again.

Really bad.

And I didn’t know how to deal, other than I knew I needed to talk and I didn’t want to keep bothering my two friends. I know friends say that’s what they’re there for, but nobody is there for long when things get like my things get.

So I looked for another psychiatrist.

But no drugs this time. I was adamant.

Plus, it took me two long years to lose those additional 40 lbs.

And I was lookin’ good.

*

I found one. One who was in the business for all the right reasons. He didn’t think I needed drugs. He even gave me a massive discount because I was broker than broke.

I talked.

He talked back.

And it helped.

A lot.

*

I’ve been away from him and our bi-monthly sessions for nine months and I can feel the all-too-familiar twinge creeping back.

But I recognize it now. And I know what to do before it gets too ugly.

I have to go talk to someone.

*

No drugs.

*

Talk.

*

My appointment’s next Tuesday.

One morning in early September I developed a small pain in my left foot while walking in to work. It felt like nothing more than one of the brief aches a habitual ambulator like myself occasionally experiences, and I figured it would subside after I’d sat at my desk for a bit. I was wrong. By mid-afternoon the pain was so intense I couldn’t keep a shoe on without wanting to scream. Aside from some very slight swelling above the arch there was nothing visibly wrong, but what felt alarmingly like a protrusion of bone had formed just under the skin. The slightest touch on the area sent fresh lancets of pain up my leg.

A friend drove me to an urgent care clinic after work, where the doctor on duty gently poked and prodded at my foot while I flinched and yelped. After x-rays and a blood test he concluded that the bones were fine, and diagnosed my ailment as a sprain of the joint between the metatarsals, exacerbated by a slight excess in body fat. He gave me a prescription for anti-inflammatories and some information on joint pain and sent me hobbling on my way.

Though I was relieved not be to suffering from something more severe, the treatment was hardly the cure I was hoping for. The medication (2400 milligrams of high-grade ibuprofen daily) did little for my immediate pain and, as an initial side effect, gave me indigestion and some deeply strange dreams. The only shoes I could wear with any degree of comfort were my Converse Chuck Taylors, but walking anywhere, for any length of time, continued to hurt. Despite this I started hitting the gym with regularity, as losing weight was an imperative part of my recovery; with some disciplined exercise and calorie-cutting I dropped about eighteen pounds between my initial diagnosis and the end of October. Until I became acclimated to the pain, that first week on the elliptical was a study in agony.

It worked, to a degree. The swelling subsided some, as did the pain. But not enough, and after seven weeks I went to my primary care physician for a follow-up exam. She concurred with the urgent care doc’s diagnosis, though she had me leave another blood sample with the lab for comparative analysis.

She contacted me less than a day later with the test results and a new diagnosis. My foot pain hadn’t been due to an injury, but rather was a symptom of a larger issue: hyperuricemia, elevated levels of uric acid in my bloodstream due to my kidney’s failure to excrete it out properly. These elevated levels can – and in my case, did – cause an attack of gout.

Uric acid is a waste product created by the digestion of purine; uric acid levels in the body are raised by the consumption of high-purine foods: meat, certain types of seafood, fructose, and alcohol. No problem for a normal renal system, which then filters it out, but with an under-performing one like mine, the leftover uric acid crystallizes in the joints and tendons. In the majority of cases hyperuricemia is genetic, so while the symptoms are preventable, there is no cure.

This diagnosis meant that I had to make some lifestyle changes, and quickly. Unless I want to suffer another one of these attacks, I have to switch to low-purine diet, meaning that I am now, for all intents and purposes, a vegetarian, and quite possibly a sober one at that.

This, to use the vernacular of our times, really fucking sucks the big one.

It’s been about a month now since I received this diagnosis, and my emotional response has alternately been one of depression and one of resentment, both due to my body having made such a determination without my input. At the risk of sounding petulant, the entire matter struck me as simply unfair; I was already exercising regularly, had been cutting back my meat consumption, and have never been a particularly heavy drinker. For fuck’s sake, I didn’t even start drinking until a few weeks shy of my twenty-first birthday.

I was in too much of a funk to even write for a while, and turned my attention instead to researching my affliction. There’s a maddening amount of conflicting information on gout nutrition out there, and parsing through it just increased my depression even more; the websites of major medical institutions like Kaiser-Permanente, Johns-Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic all contradict each other. Plus, there’s no way to determine what specifically triggered my attack, as unlike an allergy, there’s no clinical test for susceptibility. Tolerances vary from person to person, so avoiding an attack is pretty much an all-or-nothing deal.

It could be worse, I know; as annoying as it is, hyperuricemia isn’t fatal, and once my foot heals won’t impair my day-to-day activities. And technically speaking, I do have a choice in the matter: I can keep eating what I want, as long as I’m willing to live with the pain. But that doesn’t really amount to much of a choice, does it?

Understand that I have nothing against the vegetarian lifestyle, save for a small measure of scorn reserved for those who embrace it solely because it’s currently trendy to do so (this is exponentially increased in the case of trendy vegans). Several near and dear friends – not to mention a couple of past girlfriends – are vegetarian, and out of respect I’ve generally abided by their diet when around them. But I’ve never wanted to be one, cheerfully preferring the options available to me as a dedicated omnivore. Hell, I’ll admit it: I really, really enjoy eating meat. I can’t look at a pig without craving bacon.

Ultimately though, I’m too much of a Darwinist at heart; adapt, or die.

It’s been an uphill battle so far, mostly because the learning curve is pretty steep, and I’m proving to be a genuinely terrible vegetarian. I’ve never really cared much for vegetables, and know almost nothing about creating a balanced meal out of them. I make salads so dull even rabbits find them uninteresting, and a couple of weekends ago I managed to create an inedible mess out of a very straightforward recipe for butternut squash soup. My digestive system, long accustomed to extracting nutrition from bits of dead animal, is only begrudgingly adjusting to the increased amounts of plant matter I’m now consuming.

I’d be in even more dire straits if I weren’t graced with some very cool, very generous vegetarian friends both locally and abroad, all of whom went above and beyond in response to my clarion call for aid, providing me with advice, recipes, cookbooks, and some much-needed moral support. Thanks to them I now have a small (but expanding) repertoire of dishes that I enjoy eating, and have so far managed to avoid malnutrition.

I do have some flexibility in my diet: eggs are fine, and low-fat dairy is encouraged, as lactose helps neutralize the presence of uric acid. It also looks as if white fish such as mahi mahi and cod might be safe, though the ever-present threat of mercury poisoning that comes with eating too much seafood still remains. Recent research suggests that white meat poultry might be all right, if servings are kept small and infrequent – say, five ounces or less twice a week, though again this varies from person to person.

I’m not going to chance it, however, as I hope that by going the full vegetarian route I can continue to enjoy the occasional drink. I genuinely enjoy the taste of beer, and I live in a city that has seen a massive rise in excellent microbreweries in the last decade; to cut myself off from enjoying their wares just seems masochistically cruel.

And, more importantly, I’m not going to push the threshold of my diet because I’m still in pain. Three months have passed and my foot is not healing correctly. The initial teeth-clenching hurt has diminished but never completely dissipated, and the mysterious bony protrusion remains. The recent seasonal drop in temperature has caused the joint to ache in a myriad of new and unpredictable ways, and on the worst days, I limp. My doctor has effectively shrugged her shoulders and referred me to a specialist, who is not available to see me until two days before Christmas.

I’ve become acclimated to this ever-present pain, but I’m weary of it, and I’m beyond ready to wear shoes other than my Converse. If giving up meat – and if necessary, even alcohol – is what it takes, then so be it. I’ll take my place among the herbivorous, begrudgingly though it may be.

I really am going to miss bacon.


1) Working as a caddy in a country club does not entitle one to liberalities of sexual congress with fellow caddies or with the beautiful daughters of influential club members. Also, you are worthless, and no one will ever love you.

2) Well-to-do businessmen do not wear plaid polyester golf pants with yellow golf shirts and still hope to maintain their spheres of influence. That you don’t know this already may stem from the fact that your own sphere of influence is negligible.

3) Bill Murray does not have a funny speech impediment. Speech impediments are not funny. What is the point of your even existing? This is not a rhetorical question. There is no point.

4) Rodney Dangerfield does not insert himself into awkward social situations with his trademark boorish remarks and make light of country club members’ stuffy, patrician lifestyles. Rodney Dangerfield is dead, and you still haven’t learned the importance of fiscal responsibility.

5) Chevy Chase is not a rakish playboy dropping one-liners for the entertainment of all. However, he does have nice teeth, nicer teeth than you, in fact. How hard is it to get to the dentist every once in a while? Everyone thinks you’re a dimwit who can’t go to the trouble to use proper oral hygiene.

6) Caddy scholarships do not exist. But if they did, you would never get one, because that would involve carrying a golf bag for an extended period of time. This is much too hard a task for you and your feeble body.

7) Leering at the legs of young women is not considered charming, but, in fact, makes you a sexist and therefore someone who doesn’t understand what it is to live in a civilized society. Do that society a favor and isolate yourself.

8) When a teenaged boy is found out by his Irish girlfriend to be cheating, she does not roll her eyes and make sarcastic remarks. She cries and says that she hates him over and over. Likewise, when this girl relates to her boyfriend that she is pregnant by another man, the boyfriend does not propose marriage but sinks into a deep depression, all of which would be perfectly fitting for someone like you, since you don’t deserve happiness.

9) Baby Ruth candy bars are not mistaken for feces, nor are country club swimming pools drained and sterilized, even when contaminated by real feces. But as a side note, suicide is a perfectly reasonable answer to the absurd conundrum that is your existence.

10) Let’s say that large amounts of money are being wagered on the outcome of a game of golf. When during said game, the field of play is destroyed by a lunatic setting of explosive charges, the tournament is postponed of canceled. By no means does such interference benefit the person who had been losing the game before the explosions happened. Such wanton flouting of rules and basic safety is not funny. Society benefits nothing by the depiction of this kind of reckless behavior and pretending otherwise only reinforces the banal absurdity of everything you think or say.

11) Kenny Loggins does not write music that anyone wants to hear. Why can’t you read a book or something?

12) Stuffed animals do not dance, and your life has no meaning.



Bed

By Lauren Hoffman

Essay

I.

I talked before I walked. My mother says I did this in order to boss around anyone willing to listen. No one was, really, except my older brother. We shared a bedroom then, and I’d sit in my crib, asking, “Bring me? Bring me?” He’d drop in a book, or my blanket, or a handful of Duplo blocks, or all of the nickels from his toy cash register.

Cycle

By M.J. Fievre

Memoir

I.

I’m looking at the teacher’s carefully manicured hands as she clutches the Expo marker to write on the board. I’m aware of her shiny, high-heeled shoes, of her sculpted hairdo. She’s wearing a green suit—she told the seventh grade students that green is her favorite color. Green and brown.  Only she says maroon instead of brown. The teacher doesn’t smile; she doesn’t frown either. Sometimes she uses the smiley stamp on a satisfying assignment. Her student Michael tries to get something out of her. First, he cracks a joke. The teacher only says, ha. Then he pulls out a dirty joke. The teacher raises her eyebrows. She says, “Michael.” Her voice is flat, matter-of-fact. Michael cowers.

I met Jen in rehab in 1995. She was trying to kick a methadone habit and I was in an ugly battle with the bottle. She’d been in treatment a few weeks before I arrived. And when I did arrive I was running on a two-week binge that had me buckled over and racked with blurred vision. I could hardly move except for my hands that wouldn’t stop rattling. I showed up at their door with a duffle bag full of clothes and a couple of books. One of them being Camus’ Exile and the Kingdom.

They immediately put me in detox. In the bed next to me was this young dude who was hooked on speed. On the other side of me was a middle-aged man whose drug of choice (DOC) was morphine.

“I got addicted after a car accident,” he told me, his eyes pale and gone. He lost two fingers in the accident. “That was the first time I tried morphine. In a hospital of all places.”

When I was in the clear they put me through an assessment and found that I was highly depressed, was loaded with anxiety, suffered from sleeping disorders, and had a problem with alcohol.

I was a walking time bomb.

I was lethal.

I already knew this.

One of the first things they tell you when you enter rehab is that it’s not a place to find romance. Don’t look for a boyfriend or a girlfriend in rehab. That’s not what you’re there for. You’re there to rewire your brain. You’re there to get clean. You’re there to fix yourself. You’re not there to get fucked. You’re already fucked. That’s why you’re in rehab.

But when I met Jen there was an instant attraction between us. She was pretty, had beautiful green eyes, fair skin, and short brown hair. Over the next week I’d see her around the facility. We’d stop and chat, talk about our treatment and whatnot. Small talk. But there was something else going on. One night after a group session I was walking out to my car and she stopped me.

“So, what are you doing tonight, Reno?”

“Try not to walk into a bar and get shellacked,” I said, laughing.

“Sounds like a good plan. How about some coffee? Want to join me?”

That night over coffee and her burning cigarettes we told each other’s story. She came from a wealthy family, was born and raised in Miami. Two brothers, one sister. Mom was a materialistic pill-popping bitch and dad was a functioning drunk who owned a Budweiser distribution center that allowed him to fill up his houses with kitschy shit and wrap his neck and fingers in diamonds and gold. Her brothers were alcoholics and her sister, who owned a successful talent agency, was addicted to everything. Coke, booze, opiates. She was a professional addict who never missed a day of work, never lost control, never went to rehab.

“She has her addictions under control,” Jen said. “If there’s even such a thing.”

Jen worked as a graphic designer and was heavy in the Miami art scene. That’s where she was introduced to methadone. Like many addicts, she experimented with all kinds of drugs including alcohol. But it was methadone that did her in. Her story was the typical drug tale: at first her using was recreational, a weekend thing. And then quietly and suddenly she was in the throes of full-blown addiction: methadone was running her life, waking her up, putting her to bed, and calling all the shots in between.

She avoided friends and family. Her work started to suffer and then disappeared all together. She lost self-respect, her dignity. And then she didn’t care. Didn’t care what happened to her. She packed up and drove across the states to Vegas not remembering much of the drive. I knew the story all too well. I lost my fiancé over alcohol. I disconnected from friends, family, and eventually myself. I told her that when my addiction was at its worse I knew damn well I was killing myself but didn’t care. The pleading voices over the phone didn’t mean a fucking thing. The concerned faces of those who loved me were featureless, blank, nothing.

The bottle won and was eating me alive.

We started to see each other a lot. We’d go to the movies, have dinner. We’d jog the Vegas Strip, hike Mount Charleston. We flew to California and sipped lemonade on the Santa Monica Pier. We watched the sunset and held each other. We couldn’t change the past. What the future held in store for us was a mystery. There were no guarantees—our promises just fragile utterances that could be snapped by the deceitful, cunning, and destructive voice of the addictive mind. But we were sober today. That was our mantra.

Today.

Today.

Today.

On the night that it happened we were walking in Sunset Park and I reached for her hand. We walked for quite a while without saying a word. But there really wasn’t much to say. Our hands weaved together said all there was to say.

“Want to go to my place?” she asked.

We sat at her kitchen table listening to Derek and the Dominos and talked long into the night. We wondered and worried if we were ever going to kick our habits. We knew we were in trouble, that our addictions had a stranglehold on us. We knew that if we continued to use then the end result would be the grave. There was no doubt about it. Two months before I lost a dear friend to heroin. A year before that another friend lost his fight with alcohol. One dead at forty-one, the other at twenty-seven. Good men. Funny, intelligent, gentle. But sick and damaged beyond repair. I was right behind them. So was Jen.

We knew we were in control of this.

We knew we were out of control.

“Reno, I know you don’t love me,” Jen said, looking through me. “But will you make love to me?”

My ex-girlfriend’s face flashed in front of me. Her telling me to wait, to not sleep with anyone, love anyone, that it will only complicate matters, not yet, get clean, please, I’ll wait. I shut off my picture-making machine, pushed away her words, and followed Jen to her bedroom as the opening lead to “Layla” slurred behind us.

Let’s make the best of the situation/Before I finally go insane/Please don’t say we’ll never find a way/And tell me all my love’s in vain

I woke up to Jen sitting on the bed Indian-style reading a book of poems I bought her. She looked beautiful, peaceful, her green eyes bright and clear.

“Hey,” she said, in a soft voice.

“Good morning.”

We stared at each other, examining each other’s face looking for something. I finally sat up, held her face in my hands, and kissed her. Tears rushed down her face. And then I started crying. We crossed over. We broke the rules of rehab. We cared for each other now. We wanted each other to get well, to be happy. We wanted the best for one another. We wanted each other to be clean and sober. We held each other thinking the same thing: please don’t use, don’t drink.

* * *

After three months we completed the program. Jen finished before me, but continued her treatment at another facility. We continued to see each other, but as time passed we saw less and less of each other. We were in love, but knew that because of our addictions a serious long-term relationship would be a precarious situation. We were dangerous for each other and didn’t want to bring the other down if our addictions surfaced again. The statistics said there was a high probability they would. This terrified us and eventually broke us up. We cared for each other too much to take the chance.

I remember our last phone call which would be the last time I’d hear her voice. We thanked each other, wished each other good luck, said that we’ll always love one another, but that it just couldn’t be. It was devastating. I hung up the phone empty, crying, lost, but sober. To this day I can still hear her voice coming over the wire.

“We’ll be all right, Reno. We’ll be O.K.”

Author’s Note: The American Camp Association created a video in which actors and musicians share how their lives were changed for the better “because of camp.” After watching their video, I realized that I’d had a very different summer camp experience…


Because of camp I developed my first severe case of poison oak.


Because of camp I discovered that rock climbing didn’t build confidence, just bruises.


Because of camp my very first French kiss was with a circus arts girl whose tongue moved around in my mouth like a rabid skunk on roller skates.


Because of camp I thought that all girls French kissed that way, so I began kissing the same way too.


Because of camp hardly any girl ever wanted to kiss me. Only the crazy circus arts girl.


Because of camp I developed my first severe case of pink eye.


Because of camp I learned that I could lip-synch the hell outta “Stairway to Heaven.”


Because of camp I discovered that I enjoyed lanyard making far more than instructional swimming and horseback riding combined.


Because of camp I learned that the foxy girls rarely went for the lanyard-making guys—especially the ones with pink eye, poison oak, and couldn’t kiss for shit—no matter how good they were at lip-synching “Stairway to Heaven.”


Because of camp I discovered the true beauty of bouncing breasts during a volleyball game.


Because of camp I realized that I totally hated at volleyball, but kept playing because of the breasts.


Because of camp I discovered that the girls in the dance program were far hotter, and far better kissers than the girls in the circus arts program, but that on first hook-up the circus arts girls would easily go to third base, while the dance girls would only go to first.


Because of camp I discovered that most kids, without any hesitation or sense of remorse, would gladly torture and kill any insect or woodland creature they could get their hands on.


Because of camp I learned that I sucked ass in both carpentry and martial arts.


Because of camp I never got a chance to score with any girls I found remotely interesting because they were either getting scammed on by the male counselors or the guys that excelled in carpentry and martial arts.


Because of camp I learned to see backwards and forwards at once because no one could be trusted; especially the animal killers, the male counselors, and the guys that excelled in carpentry and martial arts.


Because of camp I took numerous enrichment classes—drama, SAT prep, photography—and realized that I only excelled in one: crime science forensics.


Because of camp I learned that, yes, I could still be severely depressed, even in the great outdoors.


Because of camp I discovered that there was actually a class for learning how to make your bed, and I sucked at it.


Because of camp I discovered that when you flip over in a canoe, once you hit that cold, dick-shrinking water and your balls go up into your throat, even your closest of friends suddenly adopt the mentality: Every man for himself.


Because of camp I learned to truly despise tie-dyeing. And balloon animals. And yo-yo tricks.


Because of camp I learned that I was prone to sleepwalking and snoring, but could make one hell of a Smores.


Because of camp I discovered that both golf and ceramics were a hell of a lot more tolerable after smoking a joint.


Because of camp I learned that the whole camp experience had very little to do with my parents wanting me to have an enjoyable summer, and more to do with them just wanting to get me the hell out of their lives for a month.


Because of camp I learned in religious studies class that if my parents didn’t accept Jesus Christ as their savior they’d go to hell, but that I wouldn’t.


Because of camp I learned that that maybe wasn’t such a bad idea: having my parents in hell while I kicked back in heaven.


Because of camp I discovered that the apocalypse didn’t necessarily have to be all war, famine, and death. It could simply be having to attend golf or ceramics class without a sufficient buzz.


Because of camp I learned that the girl with Bells Palsy—which made half of her face go numb and uncontrollable—would actually turn out to be the prettiest girl there after a week’s worth of antibiotics.


Because of camp I discovered beer pong. And consequently learned that what I lacked in ping-pong skills, I sufficiently made up for in drinking and barfing abilities.


Because of camp I learned that the kids on crutches always got the most attention. So during the night, when no one was around, I’d jump off the Smokey the Bear statue, trying to break my legs by landing on my knees. But it never worked.


I always landed on my feet.

________________________________________________________________

 

Final Note: A special thanks to the following people for sharing with me their inspirational (and traumatic) camp experiences: Jessica, Marlene, Desiree, Tony, Tammy, Meghan, Khadija, Jean, Tracy, and MJ.

And now, dear readers, if you’d like to share your own comments and/or summer camp stories, I’d love to hear them…


That lucky old sun has been acting like a real pretentious son-of-a-bitch lately.

Always hiding behind the clouds, poking out every once in a while and giving the snow a few minutes of hell. But he doesn’t want to seem so obvious so he returns to his hiding place, waxing all mysterious and aloof-like, and there I am, standing on some stranger’s muddy front yard, feet soaked and pruned, hips and back throbbing with pain, digging in the pockets of my work pants for a map (which I’ve apparently dropped a mile back) and then my flashlight (which, damn it, I’ve also misplaced) and all I can do is glare at the sky, into that perfect white disk of light shining through the eerie flow of gray, and challenge him to come out and stay out.

And when begging for mercy obviously changes nothing I have only to belittle him. I say to him, “Straight to hell with you if you’re too good for earth!” After all, that lucky old sun, as the song goes, has nothing to do. Why not come on out and defrost my working conditions, my work pants, my goddamn soul, huh?

What I need—what we all need—to alleviate these winter blues is not light therapy, but direct action. You and I, we need to work on beating a good hard path out of our current slumps.

Some of my blues are of a regional variety, eloquently addressed by some guy named Greg Olear. Last June my wife and I uprooted from Illinois and moved to Kentucky. I’ve lived in Illinois for 28 years and now—all of a sudden—I am a Kentuckian. I’ve got the license plates; I drink the bourbon; I bask in the brilliance of John Wall.

But it’s still a little unsettling. I don’t talk like them (though I do love the way they talk); I don’t follow college basketball; and I’m intimidated by horses and Ashley Judd movies.

Even more unsettling is I don’t know how long I’ll be here in Kentucky. Could be another year. Could be another twenty-eight.

All the same, I recently turned 29 years old, which is the real reason I’m bitching. 29 has thus far been a kind of transition period for me. The year in which I should probably figure out some way to grow up just a little more.

The recent moping, the bitching, the self-hatred—these are the natural side effects of what I’ll call youth decay.

As I write this I am imagining more than a few readers (over 30, to be exact) rolling their eyes, cracking their arthritic knuckles, and saying something like, “You’re just a kid” or “Wait till you’re forty”. Well, I understand that perspective, and I willfully acknowledge how precocious and shortsighted complaining about 29 seems. But I don’t care; getting older sucks. I’ll put it plainly: I don’t want to grow up. Not ever, dude.

And what does that mean anyway, to “grow up”? Do the males of the species ever actually grow up?

Can we switch gears, talk some baseball? Major League baseball players statistically (well, sabermetrically) have a window of time wherein they perform at their peak level. This period of time is roughly four years, ranging from 29 to 34. After that, a player’s stock drops considerably. Unless he is preternaturally talented or completely juiced on steroids.

All the great ones defy sabermetrics. At 29 years old, Babe Ruth completed his fifth season with the New York Yankees, wrapping up the year with 200 hits, 46 home runs, and 121 RBIs. He batted a none-too-shabby .378. Ruth’s last year of formidable production occurred in 1932, at the age of 37, when he swatted 41 homers, drove in 137 runs, and batted .341. In the Babe’s subsequent three years—the final years of his career—Ruth’s numbers dropped considerably. The Babe just ran out of juice.

It gets me thinking: have I peaked? (Yes.) Is it all downhill from here? (Maybe.) Will I really be wearing Chuck Taylors and backwards trucker hats at 30, 35? (Of course you will, dumbass.)

Truth is, I really don’t know. And perhaps comparing my intellectual/emotional “career” to that of a professional baseball player’s statistical career is slightly unreasonable. But only slightly. Baseball is all about rules and repetition. Such is life.

29. That’s how old former Chicago Cub Sammy Sosa was when his juicy production blossomed. Sosa’s home run total in 1997, at 28 years old, was a paltry 36. The following year a 29-year-old Sosa belted 66 home runs. 29 was Sammy Sosa’s peak year, arguably the greatest year of his playing career, clean or not.

Allow me to revise my mantra: I need to take direct action toward happiness and I need to consider cheating as a short cut.

Cheating is really the only way to persuade friends and family that my youth decay is not as bad as it seems. How cool would it be if all it took was a simple drop of the drawers and a quick jab at the buttock with a needle? One shot to grant me the power to get away with wearing ironic T-shirts and unkempt hair well into my late thirties! Juice me up!

Are anti-depressants to the game of life what performance-enhancing drugs are to the game of baseball? Unfortunately, self-medication has never worked for me. Which is not to say I’m anti-drug, but I can’t help it; I love to suffer.

“Hi. My name is Justin Benton and I’m addicted to feeling bad.”

There’s no point in masking my bellicose malcontent. The moping, the bitching, the self-hatred, all of it works for me. Whereas getting loaded on fifth of Jack and creeper weed doesn’t really do the trick.

When I think about 29 I am always reminded of Prince Hamlet. Some undersexed academics with nothing better to do have suggested that Prince Hamlet may have been a teenage boy. But I prefer to think of him as a mercurial and whiny 29-year-old Manchild. The kind of guy who is supposed to act his age and step up to the plate, but is not entirely sure if he’s up for it. And, of course, Ham asked the greatest question of them all: what the hell’s the point?

Every hard-thinking, self-hating twenty-something has wondered if to-not-be is better than to-be. I’ve been there, pondered disappearing, suicide, whatever. Wondered—why me? But at some point you’ve just got to grow up and accept that you are here, you exist. So, now, what are you going to do about it?

Me, I’m going to stop pondering not-being and start thinking about what to be.



Happy is the new skinny. Being happy is cool. Being sad, unsatisfied, depressed, lonely, moody or anxious is totally unattractive. Being bubbly, funny, enthusiastic, imaginative and wild is hot. Everyone wants to be happy, and everyone believes they deserve to be happy. We read books, listen to podcasts and subscribe to blogs all about how to be happy. I’ve listened and re-listened to Gala Darling’s podcast on happiness, and I find it inspiring. I’m even following some of her advice, and I’m starting to believe that it may actually be as simple as choosing to be happy. But it strikes me as odd that as a culture, we Americans claim to believe happiness is a natural right. We even wrote it into the Declaration of Independence. We are pretty dedicated to happiness, and yet, we have an awful time finding it.

Of course, there are the naysayers. There are people who believe we have become happiness addicts. There are people who believe that our obsession with being happy is naive, childish, and a waste of time. I wonder if they are happy.

They have a point, though. Our obsession with being happy can make us unhappy. Perhaps you’ve had a period of depression in which the realization that you are depressed actually makes it worse. It goes from depression to despair. “Oh God,” you find yourself sobbing into your pillow. “I’m a lost cause! I’m a mess. I’m going to end up killing myself one day!” The really nuts thing about it is that you never had any real intention of killing yourself, but the despair over your mental state, and the thought that you might be capable of committing suicide, actually drives you toward it. You start to think things like, “How will I know if I’m really suicidal?” And that thought doesn’t even make any sense. If you actually did want to die, you’d probably know it, Yet, you’ve seen those commercials with people sitting on the couch looking sad as the voice over says, “If you experience sleeplessness, loss of appetite, lack of interest in things you once enjoyed or thoughts of suicide … “

You begin to evaluate yourself as you watch the commercial. You tick off the list: You are, in fact, sitting on the couch looking sad about a sad looking person sitting on a couch. You sometimes have trouble sleeping. You once loved baking, finger painting, paper dolls and anything involving Elmer’s glue, all of which you have lost interest in. Are thoughts of suicide next? And then you realize you’re thinking of suicide right now.

“In fact, I think of suicide all the time: when I’m watching commercials for anti-depressants, when I’m stuck in traffic on a rainy night and no one will let me merge, when I don’t want to pay a bill or when I think about losing all my teeth in old age. Also, sometimes when driving on an empty road late at night, I wonder what would happen if I ran my car off the road. I don’t particularly want to die at that moment, but I’m sort of OK with the fact that it’s possible; so I probe the possibility with my imagination, but I have not yet intentionally swerved off the road. Not even just out of curiosity. So I guess I have no real death drive at the moment. But I could. And for that, I might need Wellbutrin or Lexapro or Zoloft or Prozac. Maybe I should ask my doctor, just in case.”

No one wants to be unhappy. If you’ve ever experienced true unhappiness, you know it’s not only miserable but sometimes terrifying. You feel alienated from yourself and everything that matters to you. Something always seems to be missing. You become insecure. It is not fun times. But the kind of happiness pushed on the public in the form of products, services and medications is not the kind of happiness that treats these wounds. Well, ok, for some, the medications help. But not for everyone. Drug companies know that deep down all of us have a bit of unhappiness, and that’s exactly why they invest in TV commercials. We see the sad person getting happy on TV thanks to some miracle drug, and we identify with that and think “Maybe they can make me happy, too.”

Just like the drug commercials that promise to change you from a sad little blob to a happy little blob (both mostly mindless but one clearly preferable), beauty product manufacturers promise to enrich your life by bringing out your natural beauty. I laugh when they end with faux fierceness: “You’re worth it!” Right. Worth what? An hour and a half of bleaching your scalp, poking yourself in the eye with a stick, and razor burn? Oh, those tricksy advertisers, trying to tell me I am worth the trouble of going out and buying their products and maiming myself with them. Oh yes, that is how I express my value.

We have our suffering and our insecurities, and we keep them quiet so that when advertisers at them, we’re ready to buy whatever they’re selling to medicate or mask our secret shame. No one talks about their weaknesses; that would leave them exposed to scrutiny. You don’t tell your boss, “I don’t feel good about my work, and I’m deeply concerned about the direction of my career.” That doesn’t usually lead to a promotion, and a promotion is what we want, right?

A promotion would make us happy … maybe. It’s the kind of happiness toward which we clamor when we come up short on ways to soothe that deep soul ache. If not a promotion, then at least a good bikini body, and if we can’t have that, then at least we can milk all the pleasure there is to be had from a cupcake. But is there a happiness that lasts longer than a cupcake? Something that can stick with us when we no longer want to be ogled on the beach? Is there anything in the world that, unlike that promotion, will ask nothing in return? I want the kind of happiness that doesn’t cost money, doesn’t go away when I age, and doesn’t require me to be on call to answer to come corporate jerk who cares not a whit for my personal time. And I want the kind of happiness that doesn’t cost sixty bucks a month because the drug is so new that there’s no generic alternative. Where can I find that kind of happiness?

What do I even mean when I say I want to be happy? I want to be healthy. I want to be skinny and pretty and smile a lot. I want to make enough money. I already make enough money, but I would really like to make a little more money. Or a lot more money. Enough money to buy a bigger house and not have to DIY all the renovations. That would be enough. Oh, and enough money for a new car because mine is getting old, and a pair of diamond earrings because every girl needs a pair of those, and one pair of really good expensive shoes. And a job that’s closer to my house so I don’t have to drive so far, but it should still pay me well and involve doing cool stuff with cool people. I want to spend more time with my family and friends, but not too much because most people annoy me after a while. And I want another drink, but I don’t want a hangover, and I don’t want to cross that line into being an alcoholic, although I’m not sure where that line is, and I’m not sure anyone else is either.

We seem to think we can’t live without happiness, but we’re not even sure what it is, so how would we know? Was Mother Theresa happy? What about Michael Jackson? George Washington? Your grandmother? My grandmother was extremely poor. She dropped out of school after the seventh grade, married young, had six children, and raised them all in a house the size of my first apartment with one bathroom. Her husband died 20 years before her, and she never dated again. She didn’t have a dishwasher or an air conditioner. Was she happy? Did anyone ever ask? I think it’s a safe bet that “happiness” was not the priority for her that it is for me, and for this, I feel rather foolish and selfish. Her life is anathema to me — tiny house, no money, no education, a boatload of kids — but perhaps in avoiding what I view as her pitfalls, I am denying myself a certain organic kind of happiness. After all, her kids grew up to be good people, each successful in their own way. All of them married and had children. She became matriarch to an ever-growing family who loved her. But I don’t know what that meant to her or if she was happy.

In a recent interview with Oprah, Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hahn said, “It is possible to live happily in the here and the now. So many conditions of happiness are available—more than enough for you to be happy right now. You don’t have to run into the future in order to get more.” That thought is profound and genius, but a bit over my head. I instinctively reach back to the experience of my day and think, “Is he trying to say I can be happy even with a full time job? Even without my new running shoes? Even stuck in traffic?”

When Oprah asked him to define happiness, he said “Happiness is the cessation of suffering. Well-being. For instance, when I practice this exercise of breathing in, I’m aware of my eyes; breathing out, I smile to my eyes and realize that they are still in good condition. There is a paradise of form and colors in the world. And because you have eyes still in good condition, you can get in touch with the paradise. So when I become aware of my eyes, I touch one of the conditions of happiness. And when I touch it, happiness comes.”

Reading his words stops me in my tracks. It makes me forget what I thought I knew. It pours the thoughts right out of my head and leaves me sitting in my skull like a lightening bug in an empty jar. I’m just blinking around in the emptiness.

And then I remember this: I was searching for happiness, and I was motivated by fear. The fear of unhappiness. The fear of unhappiness causes unhappiness and sends me on a wild search for that which is not my fear, but because I don’t know what it is, I can’t see it even when it surrounds me. The search is dizzying and distracting, fun and frustrating, and thoroughly intoxicating. The search is elating because it sometimes leads us to art and orgasm. Other times, the search is a bad trip and leads to sobbing into pillows, terrified at the thought of what we might do to ourselves if we had the courage (and we are quite glad we don’t have the courage).

Photo Credit: Pink Sherbet on Flickr

The coyote is lying on the side of the road. Lazily, softly, as if it is sleeping. But dead—this is obvious. A dead coyote, the color of maple, with thick, lustrous fur that makes it seem pettable and friendly. My tires whiz by its body with one final indignity: the spraying of filthy sleet.

The air outside is frigid. It is early morning, January, and from the gunmetal sky fat snowflakes fall quickly to the earth. I notice how long the coyote’s ear is, splayed backward and open, now quietly filling with snow.

A little further up the road is another coyote, in similar posture. Then 50 yards later, one more. A trio of coyotes, struck down, I imagine, in quick succession. Perhaps they were a family. Perhaps each was running to the aid of its fallen mother or brother. At the thought of this, I almost start to cry.

The snow starts falling even faster now, in a diagonally blowing wing that howls faintly and whips around my car. I slow my old Saab, make sure the lights are on, but the other traffic, I notice, is moving at its usual highway pace of about 90 miles an hour.

I have a baby in the car with me, just two months old. She rides, well-anchored, facing toward the back. I peer at her car seat in my rearview mirror, and my heart stutters. My baby, Muirgen, sees no dead coyotes; she only hears the music on the radio or the soft cadences of my voice. I take her to the art museum where I work. She lies quietly underneath a baby gym or in my arms as I make phone calls. I nurse her and type with one hand.

But I hate to drive anywhere with my baby. I hate to leave the house. Catastrophe and death, I fear, await us, as if we too were coyotes, scrounging for food in the wasteland of winter fields, dodging speeding semis and Jeeps in our quest for a small puddle of water from which to drink.

I can picture clearly the accident that will kill us. It plays in my mind like a film. I feel the steering wheel spin through my helpless hands as the car flies off the road, flips in the air. There is a pause, during which time we hang upside down, wondering, suspended, What is happening? Is this real?

I can almost hear the delicate whisperings of angels as they hover by our impending wreck. But this is not reassuring—instead, it is terrifying—and then angel whispers are drowned out by a crash, massive and final. Glass and metal crush and smash. I scream and reach out for my baby, but we are both strapped in too tightly, unable to escape.

This is the scene that I picture when I drive or even think about getting into the car. There are more scenes, equally horrible.

I picture my child burning alive, myself overcome with smoke, unable to rescue her. I see her in a tiny coffin, being lowered into the ground. I cannot bear to even imagine this horror.

This pervasive sense of doom and dread, the heart palpitations, nausea, the crushing pains in my chest—it is anxiety, I learn. Just one little word for this terror that haunts me. I am simply anxious.

Am I also depressed? I tell the psychiatrist that I don’t think so. Oh, but anxiety goes hand-in-hand with depression, especially post-partum, I am told. I must have PPD—post-partum depressive disorder.

I bristle at this diagnosis. I have read horror stories about PPD-suffering new mothers who lost their minds and smothered their babies. I love my child; I am certainly not sad that she exists, or that I am her mother. I am not crazy. I would never hurt her. In fact, all I can think about is how to keep her safe.

It is, I learn, hormones that are most likely the cause of the problem. I am seriously depleted, running on empty as far as estrogen goes. Stop nursing, I am told. Take Zoloft. Take Paxil. Go on a vacation and leave your baby behind.

This PPD that I am told I have renders me consumed with worry, even during quiet, happy times. I hold my daughter and rock her, read to her, sing. She gives me a radiant, gurgly smile and looking into her chubby face, I feel joy. A nanosecond later, I am sure that we will be savagely murdered by the repairman who is coming to fix our washer—so sure of it that I can imagine exactly how he will corner us in the kitchen with an enormous knife. I will try to flee, but he will catch us and pull us back, stabbing brutally, relentlessly, before we can wriggle out the window.

I picture all of this while sitting on the couch frozen in terror, clutching my baby. Then I have an idea. I steel myself to get up, lock all the doors and post a note saying we had to run out. I huddle on the couch with the baby, hiding, keeping still, until the repairman gets the note and drives away.

Only then can I breathe normally.

I tell my husband about my horrible daydreams, but briefly, and always with a touch of humor. (“I just thought Satan was speaking to me through our child. Ha ha. I think I’ll go lie down on the couch.”)

I don’t want to scare him, but I just want him to understand that I need help and hugs and comfort. This he offers, but because I am not completely honest, he never understands either the depth of my fear or how close I might be to a breakdown.

**

The word “anxiety” is interesting to me. It slides off the tongue and sounds almost elegant, but is derived from the Latin angere, which means “to choke.” Anxiety is a disorder that is sadly commonplace, and, by definition, frustratingly vague.

Anxiety can be either low-level, or “generalized,” or it can manifest itself into full-blown panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, or obsessive-compulsiveness. According to psychiatric literature, anxiety is often not attributable to a real or appropriate threat and can be a symptom of other problems, physical or psychological.

The sort of anxiety I have feels like full-blown panic sometimes, but apparently it is only generalized. There are people much worse off than I am, those who actually pass out from fear, those who cannot ever leave their houses.

After consulting a pharmaceuticals textbook, my university-clinic doctor prescribes low doses of Valium because, she says, “That’s the most cost-effective way to treat this.”

I don’t take the Valium because I am still nursing, and because I need to drive. Instead, I make up excuses not to come in to my part-time job in Cedar Rapids. “My car tire blew out,” I say. “I can’t find my keys.” Oops—couldn’t call in sick (had to e-mail; the coward’s way out) because I misplaced my phones.

I buy life insurance—much more than my father says I need. I want to be sure that my child is cared for, in case the worst should happen. I hope she will remember how much I love her, but I know that if I die before she reaches a certain age, she’ll probably retain no memories of me at all. That doesn’t matter, I tell myself. It is now that matters. Do the best you can for her now. Keep her healthy and safe.

While Muirgen naps, I go online and visit the PPD survival group chat rooms. I see a posting from a woman who, it seems, is just like me. She got pregnant on her honeymoon and now is struggling with both PPD and trying to maintain a good relationship with her husband, who claims he hardly knows her anymore.

I write to her. I say, “It’s so hard to be hit with all of these changes at once—getting married, being pregnant, possibly moving house, having a baby.”

Her husband, like mine, probably had about two weeks to look around and say, “Wow, we’re married…” before being faced with a nauseated, exhausted woman, a woman whose pretty face got puffy, whose nice clothes no longer fit. A fat, tired stranger—and then, suddenly, two strangers, one of whom cries a lot and has stinky diapers.

“Of course it isn’t easy for us; we’re the ones actually experiencing all these things,” I write, “But it’s got to be almost equally weird for these men.”

She writes back that we are kindred spirits, in the same boat, exactly. She tells me that her son is named Vegas. I assume, rather stupidly, that she is Hispanic, but then she explains that her baby is named after Las Vegas, where she honeymooned.

“Good God,” I think, “She named her kid Vegas.” I can’t bring myself to send her another note.

I drop out of the chat rooms. I resist the psychiatrist’s reluctant offer of psychotropic drugs. I decide to handle things on my own, to let my body adjust naturally.

There are some women in this online PPD group who are seriously ill. Their children have been taken from them. They cannot get out of bed. They are hallucinating and could be dangerous.

Some are glad that their mothers or in-laws are taking care of their babies. Some desperately long to get their children back. They all have to wait, though, for the drugs to kick in, for their hormone levels to stabilize. This could take weeks or months.

Meanwhile, their babies are growing fast, sadly apart from their mothers, swaddled and alone with relatives who may be forcing outdated, even harmful baby-care practices on them—feeding the newborns “pablum,” insisting that they only get a bottle every five hours on a strict schedule, that they not be picked up when they cry so as not to “spoil” them.

Some women vent about this. I read their postings but keep silent, feeling grateful, despite my own problems, that I am not in their shoes.

The biological point of anxiety, its reason for existing, is to help us run from danger. But if the danger is all in our minds, well what’s the point of feeling “fight, fright, or flight” in response to that?

I understand that PPD is essentially the result of a chemical imbalance, but it seems like a disorder we should have evolved not to have. Post-partum is a crucial time, a time when we need to be fully present and strong for our babies. As a species, how can we afford to have up to a quarter of all new mothers paralyzed by fear, wracked by tears and hallucinations, hearing demonic voices? What could possibly be the benefit of all this?

Does PPD keep us safer by, in a seemingly sexist, eerily fundamentalist way, keeping us at home? Does the very presence of this disorder spur husbands and relatives to help more with the baby? Or, is PPD just a sick example of natural selection—weeding out the neurotics, the especially paranoid?

**

I am driving home from work, south on the Avenue of Saints from Cedar Rapids to Iowa City. I remember the coyote I saw the previous summer, when I was heavily pregnant but could not yet even imagine how much my life was going to change. That coyote stood in a field that had just been mown, hay tied in neat bales that dotted the landscape. Her ears were back, and she looked scared, as if thinking, “What happened to everything I knew? Where is the long grass that used to hide me?”

Everyone says that coyotes are smart, that they are brave, adaptable hunters who will eat flesh or fruit, whatever they can. But many farmers see coyotes as nuisance animals, predators that will steal and kill their sheep or chickens. Coyotes are, therefore, unpopular guest on the land that they hunt—and the rest of the land is being taken from them and used for new roads, new subdivisions.

The world is changing for coyotes. I realize that the world is changing for me. Still, the coyote adapts, using its innate cleverness to negotiate the changing landscape. Of course, I will need to do the same.

The image of the anxious-looking late summer coyote is imprinted on my brain.

When I see, months later, the dead coyotes, I wonder if she was with them, if her life is over now, if her presence has been savagely erased.

I don’t believe that my life, with all its blessings, is really anything like a coyote’s. But it is the coyote that reminds me how quickly things can change.

 

 

Matthew Simmons wrote an hilarious post over at HTMLGIANT about the “Five Stages of Publishing“: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. I’m not sure it’s a linear path, but I can definitely attest to the grim reality of each stage. Right now I’m hovering somewhere between Depression and Denial, though some of my actions certainly amount to Acceptance, and I’m no stranger to bursts of uncontrollable Anger.

When does this damn game get easier?

The windows around the front door look like aliens. I seem to be the only one who recognizes it, but it’s so obvious. They are tall, skinny aliens with arms that reach down to their knees. Their bug-eyed heads are elongated just like the aliens on TV, except that the top comes to a little point like a dollop of whipped cream. As a kid, I ran up the stairs feeling their noodle arms reaching out to grab me and pull me out of my world and into theirs. I always felt them just an inch behind me.

Standing in the laundry room, if I tapped unexpectedly on the metal surface of the washer or dryer, the noise might be startling, and suddenly I was thinking, “What if that’s the signal?” The signal for ghosts or aliens or whatever might be waiting in the ether for its moment, its chance to come abduct me or just to show itself, thereby ruining the reality on which I had an already tenuous grasp. I would do it again to disrupt the signal — rap on the washer once quickly, try to make the exact same noise — was it once for yes and two for no? I don’t remember. Do it again just in case. What if I have said something I don’t even understand in their alien language? Tap out a complicated rhythm to indicate a scratching out of what has inadvertently been written on the paper of time-space continuum. If all else fails, run out of the room and all is forgotten.

I experienced life in fast forward and slow motion at the same time, a contortion that threatened to tear the flimsy tape of continuity. It starts with the combination of silence and the ever-present humming in my ears. No one is speaking, no power is running, yet there is a subtle ringing in the upper reaches of my inner ear. Careful about tuning in to that. It’s not an imagined noise. It’s the sound of the ear existing. Catching air or whatever.

Listen too hard, and things get twisty. Internally, things are faster. Externally, I am surprised by the slow sound of my own voice. It comes out syrupy. I try to talk faster to catch up. I try and think slower. Things are out of sync.

I had dizzy spells for no reason. When I was still very young, they were fun. I would lay on the soft carpeted floor of my bedroom and let the experience envelop me. I didn’t have a word for it, yet. It had not occurred to me to ask if this is normal. The room shook. My heart raced. I just lay there and enjoy the natural high of overactive nerves.In high school, it would become a problem when I had to grip the sides of my desk to keep from falling out.

I have trouble wearing nail polish. I can’t keep it on. The minute there is a crack, I have to peel it all back. I chip it off, bite and scrape, leaving little flakes on my desk, clinging to my skirt, and stuck with sweat to my palms. I’m bent on deconstruction. When the nail polish is gone, I start on my cuticles. You would think I could outgrow this. You would think I’d eventually figure out there is nothing but blood under there, but I don’t. I keep digging. If not cuticles, then scabs or zits or dry skin — have you ever soaked your feet in a warm bath until you could just run your fingernails along your heel and come up with an inch long strip of skin? It’s not really skin anymore.

I learned my triggers, and then I felt funny about using this word, “triggers.” It’s got to be some kind of AA jargon, but I’ve never been in AA, so I must have picked it up from one of my friends who went to AA or NA, and I feel like a phony for using their lingo. I mean, they’re the ones with the real problems, right? Who am I? What right do I have to sit here and feel sorry for myself? But anyway, phony or not, I know my triggers: Alcohol, laziness, Sunday evenings, those things make it harder. Coffee, sex and exercise make it better.

I like to read about philosophies and religions that point us toward making peace with ourselves. I like Buddhism, but I don’t like to sit still for meditation. I don’t like to go to church or listen to preachers. I want a teacher, but I wouldn’t listen. I’m all I’ve got, then. But I do like the idea of oneness. I appreciate the fantasy of melting into a larger identity, not just for the delight of finally getting out of my skin but for the escape from being a person who must get dressed every day, and go to work, and pay bills, and be nice to people. Briefly, I can imagine that if I melt into the larger whole, I would be something much larger, much more magnificent than my little self with my little job and my chipped nail polish.

Sometimes I practice so-called magic, making creative use of salt water and a handful of herbs, knowing intellectually that it does nothing, and yet the ritual gives me comfort. I direct my unruly energy toward a cup of salt water on my desk and feel better about things without knowing why, exactly. The logic of the anxious is a bit more flexible. Solutions don’t need to make sense if the problems don’t make sense. I was sitting at my desk thinking the world was going to end, and a cup of saltwater made me feel better.

If I write down everything that makes me anxious, somehow, this makes it better, too. I apply words like a salve to this mysterious wound. I practice these home remedies until it stops hurting, and then I live like a normal person until it starts hurting again.

It has been a long winter, and the season isn’t even half-over. I see in the news today that Snuggie has sold over four million units. How many times have I seen the Snuggie commercial? Too many. So many times, in fact, that I actually know what a Snuggie is, not to mention how stupid it looks, or the three lame, universally unflattering colors it comes in.

My kids are each clamoring for a Snuggie. No way in hell, I think to myself. “But it comes with a booklight. Two booklights. The whole situation is two-for-one,” my pragmatic nine-year-old daughter says. I picture the family swathed in Snuggies—teal green, red, royal blue (with one color repeating). All of us looking like mental patients, camped out on the couch, vegetating in front of the television or reading separately with our blue, clip-on book lights.

“Those lights are a $15 value!” my youngest exclaims. I think to myself how many book lights I’ve personally gone through. Fifteen dollar value, ha. I am sure those things are made in China, as is the Snuggie itself, probably. I bet the hem is unfinished. I bet it pills up the first time you wash it.

“You can save money on your heating bill if you have a Snuggie!” a child shouts, trying to seal the deal as I stumble from the room, away from these kids who have been sadly brainwashed into wanting Snuggies.

The problem isn’t the Snuggie itself, of course. The problem is television, and too much of it. The problem is also the weather, which has been awful, cold, rainy, gray. The problem is that I have so much work to do when I’m at home, and tapping away on my laptop while the kids play computer games or watch “Sabrina, the Teen-Age Witch” is just convenient.

I also recently broke my ankle, so skating is out. Dog-walking in on hold for who-knows-how-long. I want to take the kids indoor rock climbing at GoVertical, but I’m not sure I can do it right now. My ankle is packed with metal hardware, and it’s not very flexible. I’m not good for much, lately.

As this miserable season slowly passes, I daydream about living somewhere warm, some state where the cold won’t seep into and stiffen all the screws and plates that are holding my ankle together. Giving in and buying a Snuggie, wrapping myself in palpable polyester defeat and lying on the couch until springtime seems tempting, but also akin to writing a suicide note.

So play on, Snuggie commercial. I have cut up my credit cards. I am wearing a sweater. My house is highly insulated. I am immune to your siren song. I won’t be lulled into buying that cowl-necked, fluffy hospital gown. It would feel too much like impending death.