War all the Time

I don’t dream. Well, I suppose that’s a bit of a misnomer. I don’t remember dreaming, and I haven’t for a long time. I don’t know if it’s a product of the amount of cannabis I consume, or a product of my neurology, or a combination of both, or what. It’s been a welcome relief. The times when I have completely ceased my cannabis use have seen an uptick in dreams: most of them leaving me very restive and uncomfortable when I awake (the last time I dreamt regularly was five years ago).

Not dreaming is a blessing for me. Darkness is all I want when I sleep, a complete shutdown of all processing. However, over the past two weeks I’ve struggled a great deal at night. I’ve had several nightmares, which have woken me up in the middle of the night and leave me unable to fall back asleep. Sometimes I wake up and I’m close to a meltdown because I’m experiencing sensory-type interactions inside my dreams. I wake up sweaty, with hitched breath, and usually a scream alerting my wife.

The dreams over the past few weeks have all revolved around themes of war. Sometimes it’s ultra-futuristic, like the night after I re-watched Aliens. Sometimes it’s common, modern war scenes I’ve cobbled together from visions of movies and tv shows. There are times when I am a soldier and I’m fighting. More often, I am an innocent bystander observing it all go down and being affected by it. There is always a feeling of fear and confusion, exhaustion and hunger. It’s unsettling and the dreams end quite abruptly (as they often do), leaving me awake and uncomfortable, tossing and turning and moaning.

As a former psychotherapist with a penchant for Jung, I’m always going to analyze any dream I hear about or experience. It’s taken me a while to pin down what’s going on in my subconscious, but I think I’ve hit the nail on the head: I’m at war all the time.

I’m at war with depression and anxiety, my autism, the world around me. I’m at war with the idea that I’m stupid or unable to do anything of worth. I’m at war with meaning. Sometimes I’m fighting, teeth clenched, bearing down on my enemy with all the salt left in me. Sometimes I’m hiding, hoping the enemy doesn’t discovery and eviscerate me. Sometimes I’m just watching it all go down in a traumatic, almost dissociated haze. Sometimes it feels like I’m looking down from above and watching these things in my mind pummel me.

Let me give a harsh example of my truth. Sometimes, like yesterday, I can have an amazing day. Yesterday we had a close friend from college visit from Portland. We had a great time, lots of laughs and memories and creating new ones. We went for a walk, got a pint, and generally just had a lot of fun. We came back to the house with take out in tow, still smiling, and as we began to eat I thought, for no reason, “You’re a dumb asshole. You should kill yourself. The best way would be to get a hold of a gun, or just swallow all your pills.”

This situation happens on a daily basis for me. Not a day goes by where I don’t have a seriously suicidal thought, including how I would do it and what it would look like. I don’t have to be depressed for this to happen, my mind just goes there. It’s one of the most frustrating things in my life and I don’t know how to get it to stop. So, I don’t.

I can’t stop it, so I don’t try to. Usually I start asking questions: why did this thought pop up? What is happening in my immediate situation? Do I feel unsafe? What thoughts were going through my head? How does my body feel right now? What can I remove from my immediate experience that may alleviate whatever stress brought this about? Often times I can find an answer, and cessation of the thought doesn’t necessarily follow. Just as often, I can’t find any reasons for the thought, and in reflection it seems when I can’t find the answer I’m able to let it go quicker and with less effort.

I am very cerebral. I live in my head, most autists do. I have a whole world going on up there that has nothing to do with what is happening in reality. Not finding a reason for the way I’m thinking is actually quite a relief. I’m able to stop the string of thoughts right there. When I find an answer, it generally leads to more and more questions. Thoughts lead to more thoughts. Answers lead to more questions. I need peace in moments when I randomly contemplate suicide. I need a respite from the war when this happens.

I generally don’t get rest. When I do it’s in short, cold, bursts: A 20-minute episode of Ducktales or The Simpsons. An amazing chicken sandwich. My morning quiet time, watching the birds arrive in the backyard. When these moments pass, it’s back to the front, and back to war all the time.

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Tell Me Again Why You Can’t Work?

I find it hard to make friends at this point in my life. Not only are most of my peers are parents and occupied with the ubiquitous task of raising children, but I also don’t know who is safe to be around. When I meet someone I literally have to ask myself, “Is this person going to be a positive or a negative? Will they hold ableist views? Do they have the patience and understanding to be friends with an autistic person?

Most of the time, new people I meet bend towards the ableist side of things: they have no patience or understanding of what it means to be disabled and how difficult life is for people like me. This happened this morning. A person I’ve met since coming to Oregon posted a meme of a man who was a double amputee, his legs, and was working a construction job. The meme said, “Tell me again why you can’t work.”

Well, let me tell you. Again.

I got my first job at age 16 as a dishwasher for Friendly’s Restaurants. I quite a month later because the noise was too intense, and the pace was too fast for me to keep up. I worked pretty consistently for the next 20 years. I paid my way through college by always having a job and I worked full-time for my final two years. I got fired or “let go” of three jobs during this period, either because I made a series of social blunders, which weren’t tolerated, or I burned out (I was taking a full load of classes and was involved in student government, etc. on top of the unknown autism).

When I graduated college, I began working with kids who had “behavioral health issues”. Mostly oppositional defiance type stuff, but also autism all over the spectrum as well as attachment disorders. I worked this job for two years before getting another full-time job on top of it. Then I moved to New Mexico, where I continued working full-time at various positions I would eventually leave because I was burnt out by my autism and PTSD. I was a social worker, a landscaper, a gardener, a farmer, and finally, a therapist.

Here’s the pattern I would go through with a job over the past 25 years: I hit the ground running and immediately make myself as indispensable as possible. I work incredibly hard, take on a lot of projects and responsibility, and I shine as an employee for about a year, sometimes maybe less. Eventually I would burnout and become suicidal. I often ended up in the hospital for suicidality and would be forced to quit whatever job I was working. I took the initiative and got my master’s degree, and even finished a year and change of a PhD (which I left partly because I wanted to and partly because I was burned out). I tried to better my working situation but by the time I was 36 it was obvious my mental health was a long-term disability, which we of course now know is autism. It was always autism. Even part time work was untenable.

What causes burnout in autism? Social interaction, constant following of neurotypical societal norms that don’t fit with autism, making eye contact, trying not to fuck up social graces in the work place, masking anxiety and autistic behavior, constant overstimulation of sense with no time to recover, but most importantly: Having to be on stage every second of the work day so no one knows how hard things really are for you. If you don’t have autism, you’ll never suicidality and if I hadn’t been pulled from the work force I’m fairly certain dying by suicide would be a swift end to my suffering.

Adults with autism have incredibly high suicide rates because they are forced to work in environments the complete opposite of ideal, and they suffer in silence. Most autistic adults try and mask their autism, and this causes a great deal of stress and shame. When you are putting all your energy into not losing it at the work place you are inevitably going to lose it when you get home. Every task becomes much more difficult, like you’re moving underwater. Dishes don’t get done, rooms get messy, laundry piles up, hygiene becomes neglected. Forget about any wellness practices getting completed. I was just too exhausted to do any of this stuff.

Constant burnout with no recovery time does not work for autists. Our autism will decompensate (worsen) and it snowballs leading to complete lack of functioning in all areas of life. This is why I can’t work a real job. This is why I stopped trying. I didn’t stop working because I am lazy. Far from it, as anyone who knows me would say. I didn’t get on disability to fund my music. I did it because I had no other choice.

Let’s talk about what disability looks like. I get an $800 deposit each month that is supposed to cover my medication, food, utilities, and rent. Considering I paid into disability for 20 years, this is a meager amount. I am privileged because my wife has an amazing job and we’re able to afford our food and rent and all the other stuff, but it’s still hard and we are constantly on guard about money. As far as my music goes, I make very little. Some months are better than others, but for the past year plus I haven’t been able to make it on stage on a regular basis BECAUSE I’M DISABLED. See, even playing music requires so much effort that I often can’t do it and need to take months off from playing.

Anyone who thinks people on disability are doing it for a free ride is a dumb shit. If something happens to my wife I am completely fucked financially. I look at people living on the streets and think, “I’m one tragedy away from that life.” It’s a constant thought in the back of my head. It has been ever since I started being a social worker back in 2006. I was always afraid I’d become a client, and now I have.

Mocking people with disability shows an incredible lack of maturity, understanding, and empathy. I won’t stand for people like that in my life. It’s no use arguing with them, these days when you argue with someone you may as well be arguing against yourself. Also, arguing isn’t a strength of autism. It makes me uncomfortable. Instead, I’ll just write this passive-aggressive blog.

I don’t like being disabled. There are a lot of things I wish my brain was able to do that yours can, and one of them is handle working a job. But I accept my disability and its implications for my life. There’s an amazing amount of value in my autism and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
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A Newer Leaf

Earlier this afternoon I returned home from one of my big road trips. I’ve taken quite a few this year, mostly the same route as I have been back and forth preparing for this past summer’s move to Oregon. This one was no different: trace the Oregon coast southbound towards Santa Cruz, see some friends. Do some birding on the way to LA, have a bit of a freak out getting into town. Went to Joshua Tree, spur of the moment. Great times with one of my oldest and best friends. Freaking out in the car in LA again, driving north on 395 towards Yosemite. Actually, getting a site there, fishing, hiking, birding, freaking out, and then it was time to come home. I stopped in Lake Tahoe and Klamath Falls, so I could get some rest. Saw some more birds, lived on the edge of my autism for the past 4 days.

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I’ve been taking these trips since I let my PhD program in 2014. The first one was to Grand Canyon and Joshua Tree. Since, I’ve crisscrossed the country more times than I can count so I could chase the dragon of playing music for a living. Last fall I started traveling for the sake of my mental health. No music, rarely even bringing a guitar. This trip was no different than when I went to King’s Canyon and Sequoia National Parks around this same time last year. I did it to bring clarity to some difficult and nagging questions about my life, this time a few weeks away from turning forty.

My life hasn’t worked out the way I would have wanted it and I still feel privileged to be where I am right now. Here’s a picture of Russell James at age 40: steadily graying beard and curls, still no wrinkles around the eyes, disabled, a pesky spare tire that just won’t go away, pre-diabetic, autistic, chronically depressed, fairly unknown musician fighting for his life in the obscure fringes of the music industry like so many other dreamers out there. I’m joyously married, and I live in one of the greatest towns in this country. I have two amazing dogs who are currently sleeping at my feet.

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Me at 40

And I’m confused, discouraged, tired of the life I’m living.

Earlier this year I had a eureka moment, which rooted the questions I sought to answer on this trip firmly in my mind. Mainly, what do I want out of life? What do I want out of my music? What is reasonable? What is possible? Where do I want to go? These sound like traditional musings of someone turning the corner into middle-age, but for someone like me, someone who didn’t have the opportunity to figure out what they wanted for themselves for all this time, these questions are everything. I’m not just humoring over-the-hill fantasies, this is a serious quest. One most of you took when you were in your late teens and twenties. I’ll write a blog about that sometime soon, but for now you’ll just have to trust me.

Here is a confession: I haven’t enjoyed playing live music in at least a year, probably more. This has been reflected in the number of shows I’ve played and the number I’ve cancelled. Live performance has become a root of a lot of anxiety and meltdown. It’s exhausting for me. I sort of enjoyed making my latest album, but not a whole lot. I certainly didn’t have many moments where I was excited about it. As it released last month there was a disparaging, anti-climactic feeling along with it. I was more relieved to get it off my plate than I was excited for people to hear it, and that’s sad. To be honest, I don’t even know if I like this record, and that’s where all the questions started.

To summarize, Pay Attention, is full of electronic bips and bops, synthesizers, heavily effected electric guitars, and brutal, autobiographic honesty. It sounds great, people like it, but it’s not me. I felt this as I was finishing everything up for its release. It feels inauthentic to who I am, and it has nothing to do with why I started writing music in the first place. It was a creative effort, of that I am certain, and I am proud I finished this; but I can’t help but think I finished it only because I said I would (admirable, if not efficient).

I write music compulsively. It’s an obsession. Five years ago, I talked to a songwriter from Albuquerque who has been pretty successful and is well-known in many circles. His advice to me was to write every day. I took that advice and ran with it. Now I can write 3-4 songs a day; most of them are throw-aways (not everything Tom Petty ever wrote made it on an album). I’m now burned out. Songwriting has taken over my brain. I awake with ten new ideas, and they multiply throughout the day, sending my mind spinning in too many different directions. The only way to vent the steam created by this fusion is to write, so I write to keep the voices at bay. I’m not excited about it, I just do it.

When Pay Attention came out, I decided I was putting the brakes on my songwriting. The obsession was too painful, it has to stop. Since stopping, creativity has continued to spill out. I write lyrics with no music, poetry, I’ve seriously engaged photography. I still have a slate of live shows scheduled and I’m going to play them, if anything to keep me limber. But until this last trip, I really didn’t know what to about my lukewarm feelings towards the thing that has sustained me for my whole life. The one thing I could always run back to.

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What I do when this happens is to take a trip, one with a lot of silence and long drives. This trip was as effective as any other I’ve taken in an effort to sort somethings out.

I’m no longer excited by music because for five years I’ve been motivated by the idea of success, both in recognition and financial ways. This is no way to live. Walking through life making decisions based on what others think is pretty damn common for autists like me, and it is also antithetical to being a true artist. Pay Attention is the apex of this crowd-pleasing motivation: pop songs with brutal emotions sewed into them. The sound was completely shaped by what I thought people may want to hear from me. That’s not to say I didn’t want to make the album, I did and in a lot of ways I’m still glad I did it; but I know when I look back at this writing cycle I’m always going to come up disappointed.

What I realized on this trip was when I got excited about writing songs, this would have been when I was seventeen, it was simplicity engaging me. A voice, powerful words, and a guitar. That’s all Elliott Smith needed. It’s all Damien Jurado needs. All of my favorite artists can communicate with only a guitar and a voice. So, this solves one problem: I need to get back to the basics of what excited me about music when I was younger. A voice, powerful words, simple guitar. This is the easy part.

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Elliott Smith, an early hero

However, something else entered my life over the past five years, which puts a damper on everything I do. I’m of course talking about my late-in-life diagnosis of autism. As I’ve travelled around the country, my autism was given room to grow and space to show itself. Stimming started after touring, meltdowns became severe, suicidal situations 2000 miles away were commonplace. What I’ve learned is I can’t survive the way a typical musician survives. My brain just won’t ever let me do it. Autism is always there, putting up some road block or another.

See, with autism, literally EVERYTHING I do is harder than it would be for you. Sometimes ten times harder, sometimes a thousand. I can’t be the musician I want to be, I just can’t. I can’t tour extensively, it can be dangerous for me to be alone far from home. I can’t handle the noise, the traffic, the stress, the social situations, and the late nights. I need consistency, I need to experience routine. As this has become more and more apparent, my obsession with understanding autism has grown.

Right now, I’m rethinking what the point of my life is. I’m realizing that the point of someone’s life isn’t static; it changes when experience puts up a road block. I used to think the point of my life was to share my music. Now I’m not so sure it’s the end all-be all I thought it was. In fact, I know it isn’t. It’s part of my point, but only a part.

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The other part is educating you, and the rest of the world, about what autism really is, how it effects people’s lives, how it can be hell and heaven at the same time. I have decided that over the next few months you’re going to see me changing a few things. My social media will no longer be focused on my music and my landscape photography. I will still engage these things I love, but my big focus is going to be on autism. I have a lot of questions I want answered, and I want to share them with you.

The music industry, like everything else in this world, is built in a way that works against people like me. In the music industry, like everywhere else in the world, people like me are forgotten and pushed to the margins. I’m ok with that; the music industry is bullshit and anyone who things they’re going to “make it” is crazy. If you’re doing it for that reason you’ll never be satisfied with your work, you’ll always be frustrated, and you’ll end up quitting. This is especially true for someone like me. I’m finally moving on.

Music has been good for my autism because it has taken me places I never thought I’d go. I feel privileged for this. On the other side, these travels, these places, all these people, it’s damaged me. It’s burned me out. Music is important to my life, but it’s not the most important thing. It’s time for autism to become my central focus, my locus of control, my faith, if you truly understand the definition of that word. It’s time to let it stretch its arms into every area of my life, and you will see the change. It will appear obsessive to some, but it’s more important for me to understand how to live my life as easily as possible, and to have folks understand me, than it is for everyone to like me. I don’t need that like I thought I did.

Autism, nature, music. In that order. I hope you’ll continue walking with me on this journey. I’m only just starting to figure out the map.

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New Music Manifesto

IMG_1530I’ve been driving around the country for the better part of three years, playing music, sleeping in my car, seeing amazing places, and meeting new people. All these things are really brilliant and I’m quite privileged to do them. I have had a lot of people comment on their jealousy over my life and it has humbled me.

Here’s the other side of what I’ve been doing for the past three years: constant autism meltdowns on the road, sore back and neck from sleeping in a Honda Element towards the end of my 30s, spending more money than I have, stressing out over whether or not I can afford publicity, getting stuck in a city/state more than a day’s drive from my home and support system, crying, screaming, punching, unable to breathe, stress headaches, and broken equipment I can’t possibly afford to replace. For all my trouble and effort, I have never made a dime, but I have lost an infinite number of them.

I want to break down what it takes to “make it” in the music industry (e.g. people all around the country know and love your music). First off, you have to have a lot of energy and a thick skin to pull you through countless, thankless shows in towns you have never heard of: For every San Francisco there’s a dozen Springfields. You have to have no financial responsibility towards anyone but yourself: You’re going to be very poor and every cent you make is going to go towards your budding musical career (and a lot of cents you don’t make, too). You have to spend money constantly: touring consistently means constant gas, food, and lodging; $2-3k every time you want to record and press an album (which no one will pay for); $3-10k for publicity every time you want to release; paying band members who will not and should not work for free; constant submission fees to blogs and songwriting contests and festival entries. You have to be mentally sound to a certain point: you must have room for some of your mental health to collapse and still be functional. You stay up late every night, constantly talking to people, promoting yourself and trying to get them to listen to your new single on the drive home on Spotify, which you will not get paid for. Spend more money on radio campaigns, get duped half a dozen times by scams in the process. Feel flattered when someone offers to be your manager, pay them a fee to give you some lame advice about what to do with your band that they learned off some industry blog post you could have read yourself with one Google search. (Not me, however. I’ve had one manager and she was fantastic.)

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Performing at Big Bend National Park, TX. November, 2016

And no one will listen to your songs. You’ll check your streaming stats and it’ll show less than a hundred people listened in the last thirty days and no one is paying you for it. Or you do have a lot of streams and you realize you’re not getting a dime for them. People who do listen to your album don’t talk to others about it, so you don’t grow your audience. You pay for ads on social media to no avail. You book shows constantly, play until your hair starts falling out, work at a coffeeshop saving money to pay for the next tour, and when you get home you have nowhere to live. You are preyed upon, given countless false promises, and the feeling of getting smoke blown up your ass becomes commonplace.

One out of every thousand bands following the industry formula is signed to a real booking contract, or a real management deal, or the coveted record deal (which doesn’t mean shit today, other than you’re about to go into major debt). Out of every fifty bands getting this kind of break maybe one will stick around long enough to release three to five singles, get on a bunch of playlists and break through to the mainstream. Still, most of them will be gone in less than five years, anyway. They’ll emerge from their flirtation with rock-stardom chest deep in debt and with no real-world skills to pay it off. Basement living at its finest.

And you probably make great music people should hear, but it doesn’t matter. You’re nobody to most of the country, and it hurts and breaks you down. It beats your brow into submission until you join the ranks of the “normal” American: holding down a nine to five, denying your artistic inclinations, and buying a house you’ll complain about for twenty-five years. If you’re lucky you’ll continue to be a weekend warrior, playing local bars and clubs to get your fix.

If you’re lucky.

I’m done with all of it. At some point in my 20s and 30s I got this idea that if I worked hard, toured hard, and released plenty of material, someone would recognize the worth of my music and I’d be on my way. I toured all four corners of this country and everywhere in between. I payed big bucks for a major public relations firm only for them to effectively ignore me during the campaign. I’ve had mental breakdowns countless times across the country and I’m just not going to do it anymore.

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In the studio, paying to make an album no one will pay for. June, 2017

I’ve shifted my thinking about music and success. I’ve shifted my thinking about what I’m willing to do to make a living with my guitar and voice. After three years of a lot of pain I’m putting it behind me and looking towards a more realistic and relevant future. As most readers will know, I am moving to Corvallis, OR in two weeks. I am leaving the relative security of the music scene I started in for non-musical reasons, but the move allows me to make some new musical moves and has opened my thinking about what I do.

A musician living in New Mexico, whether it be Albuquerque, Santa Fe, or one of the millions of rural acres in the state, will always have a difficult time on the national scene for one simple reason: Geography. You must travel six hours to get to any major market (Denver or Phoenix), and one of them is crap for music (Phoenix… sorry but it’s true). Furthermore, to get to any other market, major or minor, you have to drive another six hours. Musicians in New Mexico and other markets like it (I’m thinking some midwestern states and some of the mountain west) are isolated and are therefore stuck playing their local scenes and bars in small towns throughout their state. You can’t make a living doing this; there simply aren’t enough gigs to go around. It’s really shitty, because there are some great bands and songwriters from New Mexico (and Montana, and Kansas, and South Dakota) and they will never really get a chance to even do what I did, because it takes too much time and money to be feasible. Throw the social clock in the mix and people end up giving up without anyone other than their local fans ever hearing their songs.

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Having an epiphany in Anacortes, WA. May, 2019 Photo by John Ellison

I had an epiphany while talking to a friend of mine on a recent visit to the Puget Sound: searching for national success, whether it be from an isolated location like the Southwest or a populated location like the East Coast, is bound to be disappointing. So how does one “break out of the town they came from” as Aesop Rock once so eloquently put it? By becoming a regional artist. It’s a mistake I made when I quit the real world and joined this circus called the music industry. I was blinded by pipe dreams, driven by unrealistic goals and hope, and fueled by a constant barrage of encouraging comments from my friends and other people in the music industry. I spent thousands running around the country, playing in places I would not be able to play again for another year (in order to establish an audience in a city, you have to hit it up at least three times year, more likely four), wasting my time. I could have been focusing on everywhere in between Phoenix and Denver and I’d probably have lost a lot less money.

But being isolated in the southwest made me think there was nothing to be made on the rocky mountain circuit; no money, no audience. I wanted my songs to be famous; oh, the hubris of youth. Moving to an area where I have access to not one but four markets, two of them major, made me realize I should be focusing on the Northwest region for the majority of my time. Build a name in the scenes closest to me, start making money. Stop worrying about selling the recorded work and focus on playing real, authentic shows where people can connect with me and my music.

I played a show in Portland, OR in the spring of 2018 at a place called Artichoke Music. The room was “packed” meaning there wasn’t a table or seat open, but there were still less than 50 people in attendance. I played a 30-minute set to a rapt room and it was one of the best experiences I ever had. A week later I repeated the feat to a smaller room in Union, WA. These shows didn’t expose my music to a large crowd, but the crowd that heard it bought music, followed me on social media, and continues to engage my world. This is more important to me than gaining a national audience.

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At Artichoke Music, Portland, OR. April, 2018

I don’t want to be famous. Jesus, could you imagine what a disaster it would be? It would kill me. I want people to hear my songs, and I will continue to create and record on a constant basis, releasing music as soon as possible after I write it. I have a goal of playing one hundred shows in 2020: with 95% of them being in the Oregon or Washington areas. I’m not giving up on my music career, but I am shifting how I think of it. I don’t need the adoration to know my music has value. Adoration is as fleeting as becoming Instafamous (pretty short shelf life on that…). My focus is to become the absolute best writer and performer I can be, all else is side-business. No more wasting thousands on faulty publicity campaigns resulting in nothing but disappointment. No more wasted meltdowns on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere Idaho. No more canceling tours I spent months booking.

Keeping it regional will allow me to cast aside these traditional moorings of the music industry. I just wish I would have thought this way years ago. There’s nothing wrong with only local or regional people knowing and loving my music. It means something to them, and that should mean something to me.

So fire your manager, if you have one. Don’t get sucked into the many, many industry scams preying upon young, hopeful musicians. Focus on your region, make a name there. They’ll care more, you’ll be more fulfilled, and you may just end up with some money in your pocket.

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The Burden of a Good Day

This post was originally written in fall of 2018.

Russell James 10 may 2019Something I’ve thought about for years but haven’t ever mentioned to friends is how one of my “good” days is almost always followed by a “bad” day. “Good” meaning I was able to walk through the day, completing tasks and recreating and socializing with a strong level of coping with my braincloud. “Bad” days meaning the exact opposite: depression, meltdowns, really nasty self-talk, and extreme impairment in executive functioning and spatial reasoning (I walk into shit all the time). I know putting judgements like “good” and “bad” on my days is probably not helpful, but it’s something I can’t help doing at this point in time (but I’m thinking about working on it).

I had a great day yesterday. I woke up with an energy I hadn’t felt in months, “My brain feels like it clicked or something,” I revealed to my wife during our routine morning tea and coffee session. I had a plan to head to town, hang out with one of my friends, look at records, and look for some cool birds down by the Rio Grande. It was a good plan, and I pulled it off. I had fun with my buddy, playing video games and running a few errands (I even drove!), then I headed down to the river and hit a trail.

Albuquerque’s bosque area (officially the Middle Rio Grande Valley State Park) runs north to south like an artery through the city along the banks of the Rio Grande. It is a forest of cottonwood, oakbrush, tall grasses and reeds, with a series of trails running like capillaries on either side of the river. It, along with the myriad of open spaces in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains, are the best ideas Albuquerque has ever had. There are a lot of things distinguishing Albuquerque from any other metropolitan area in the country: the abundance of green and red chile resulting in a culinary culture unlike any other, the fact that Breaking Bad was set and filmed here, and The Bosque.

I used to live mere blocks from it before we moved to the mountains east of the city. I enjoyed my morning walks along the western bank, where I was often lead by two coyotes 30-50 feet in front of me, finishing their morning hunt (every morning, if I awoke early enough). I would get home and pull the goatheads out of my shoes before going into the house. (“Goatheads” a horrific byproduct of Puncturevine are basically tiny rocks with three to four poisonous spikes sticking out of them and they are the bane of every New Mexican’s bare feet and bike tires. Sometimes there was a mist coming off the river and I would hike up Dog Biscuit Hill and watch the sun rise over the mountains and slowly burn off the fog. What I’m trying to say here is it’s a really special place to me and most other people in the city.

Yesterday, I was specifically down there to find some birds with the new bins my wife got me for the holiday. Mostly mountain chickadees and one hairy woodpecker were all I saw as I walked through the hibernating forest, wearing its best winter brown. The river was quite low, but with the previous weeks copious snow fall, I thought it would be up to level as soon as Valentine’s Day. I walked through the reeds to reach the bank and I thought, “This has been a very good day.” The immediate follow up to this thought was, “Tomorrow is going to suck.”
For me, having a good day is a burden because of the amount of energy it takes for the good day to happen. For neurotypical folks, good days are just there. They happen without much work. A good day could be every Saturday, because you don’t have to work, you’re hiking or doing something else you love, you go see your friends, all on autopilot. People who are neurotypical don’t often have to think about making these things happen. Those of us who are neurodiverse must be both prepared and intentional about everything I just mentioned.

Generally speaking, it just takes a lot of energy to hang out with friends because I tend to wear “the mask”, and I have to follow along with social norms that might not make sense to me. I have to take great effort not to turn the conversation into a monologue about why I love whales so much. I have to make just enough eye contact to not look weird, when eye contact makes me incredibly anxious and uncomfortable. When I go to a public place I’m accosted by noise, awful smells, bright lights and sun, and of course, other people. Everything I just mentioned gives me a physical feeling of pain, nausea, and extremely uncomfortable jitters (like I need to jump out of my skin, a claustrophobic feeling).

It was smart for me to go down to the bosque after a day of this type of assault; connecting with nature always heals. Even though I took a nice long hike along the river, by the time I got home I was completely worn out. My whole body ached, and it felt like a storm was gathering in my brain. I did not sleep last night.

This morning I had a meltdown. I’m still in it, kinda. Writing this particular post has been a way to pull me out a little. It wasn’t unexpected. It happened because I was having fatalistic thoughts about my future and the storm just swept in like a tornado. Thanks for reading this time, folks. It was important I write this.

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GHOSTS

The first single off of my new album drops today (link below), but this rests only in the margins of this post. The song is about first, my wife and how she pulls me through life, often kicking, screaming, and punching walls. It’s about receiving care. The second verse is broader, about how we as a society have devalued interdependence to our peril. The shining light of this song comes from the facts that we are not alone. We are surrounded by others like us, and most people I know are prone to help when things get rough.

Yet here we are, resting comfortably in a society which looks down on people who are dependent on others for their care. We are seen as a drain, wasted potentials, something to be forgotten and left to die. One of my biggest struggles over the past 2-3 years is the growing dependence I have on my wife and certain special friends to be my caregivers. Because I, too was ingrained with the same cultural values as everyone else. “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps, everything is your responsibility, you can’t count on anyone in this world.” For a long, long time I did this. I learned to act like people who were well liked. I realized at a young age, I was very different from other kids and there was not going to be anyone there to protect me. I was raised with fairly absent parents (perhaps they were there physically, sometimes, but they were never there emotionally). I got hit a lot, I was told I was stupid, I was told I was a bad kid and wouldn’t amount to anything. I was told I couldn’t take responsibility.

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This is me, reflecting on how much responsibility I can’t handle. Just kidding, I was trying to look cool for the video shoot.

It’s taken me a long time to realize none of this is true. These uniquely isolationist ideas are implanted into our brains from birth. We grow up with them hammering in through grade school and on into our lives. It results in two very dangerous ideas: people who are sick, chronically or not, receive no respect or reprieve for an illness which isn’t their fault. Second, it creates a mentality where we should not ask for help, asking for help is a negative trait.

Do you see how full of shit this mentality is? I suffered silently for years with my neurological impairments before I felt confident enough to talk about them. The same thing goes for my PTSD. Some of you may look down on me because I can’t work a “normal” job because the only work I can do is writing songs (and my various ailments often inhibit this job, too). And because that work doesn’t make money (yet, fingers crossed), I have very little value to the world. “Why would anyone choose to help me?” I’ve often asked.

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My love, my life. The Helper rests after a hike when I was living down in Big Bend. She’s not trying to look cool at all. She’s cool without trying.

Having this question at the ready defeats me before I start. It’s already difficult to ask for help, but now my brain tells me I don’t deserve it. This isn’t some natural function of my impaired brain. It’s the product of our society’s elevated importance of self-reliance. And then I’m inevitably turned down when I do ask for help, which is why I have only a few friends (and my wife) I feel comfortable calling on when care is needed. I’ve been turned down by so many of my friends that I don’t feel I can trust them with my well-being anymore. Isn’t that fucked up? It’s really unfair and really hurts.

I’m chronically ill. I’m not getting better. Like others, I must accept this, and I continue to have a hard time. I still believe it will magically disappear someday. It hasn’t for 30+ years, there’s no reason for me to hold on to this hope anymore. Another bullshit idea wired into us is giving up hope is bad. I think this is true for some stuff like if you have cancer you should do what you can to fight (or don’t, it’s really your choice). But with chronic illness, hope is the glue that sticks you in place.

I don’t think I can truly move forward until I voluntarily give up the hope that my mental health disabilities will go away. The difference is it has to be my decision to give up the hope, this is what makes it different from losing hope. Giving up the hope my life will ever be “normal” allows me to put hope in another thing: The future, a new kind of life; different, but perhaps more meaningful.

Also, check out Ghosts. I’m sure you’ll like it. It’s out now on iTunes/AppleMusic, Spotify, Tidal, Google Play, Amazon, etc. Visit my site for more details.

Ghosts on Soundcloud

Time for Change

I have been Russell James Pyle all my life. Russ, RJ, Russell, Russell Sprouts, Roos. I’ve gone by a lot of names. My first two solo recordings were under the moniker Russell James Pyle, for what reason I don’t know. I guess I thought it sounded cool. RJP has been an anchor in my life, as all names are, but it’s time to pull the anchor up and move forward.

A lot of people have noticed I’ve changed my professional name and it will become much more pronounced with the release of my latest album in April. In the spirit of authenticity, something I prize a great deal more than any other trait, I’d like to offer a type of explanation. While not exactly candid, it provides some insight into my choice.

Russell James Pyle was abused. Russell James has stood up to the abuse and is proactive about healing the trauma left in its wake. Russell James Pyle had no awareness of Self. Russell James is aware of the true nature of the Self and uses this knowledge to grow. Russell James Pyle was lonely, especially in groups, and even amongst friends. Russell James is confident his true nature relies upon solitude and recognizes the immense beauty found in being alone.

This has been a year of change for me. The changes have come from a deeper understanding of my troubled mental health and I believe they will lead to a more enriching and engaged life. In order to move forward I needed to leave some things behind me. All the shame and rage and all the toxicity associated with my past has to be purged. It’s a life-long project for me. The first step was changing my professional name to reflect the person who has emerged over the past twelve months.

The name change was flying around the back of my head as I was recording my album, and there’s no coincidence in the parallel between a change in musical direction and the change in the moniker. As I was putting the finishing touches on the album in September, I had a deeply personal experience and it pushed me to make the decision. Although I won’t detail the experience (it’s personal), suffice it to say it was a watershed moment in my life. My core beliefs have been based on my past and these beliefs are the foundation for everything else about me. One does not go about this much schematic change willy-nilly. It has been difficult, more so than I could have imagined.

Letting go of a narrative informing the way I have felt and behaved for decades is some serious business, and I’ve had to go to work. It’s painful, but I’ll continue the work in 2018 because it’s worth being done. Changing my name was the first step in another long hike. I can’t wait to see the view at the end.

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