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 picturing 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 more quickly 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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Mental Health Awareness Year: Redux

2017 is coming to a close and we all say thank you. It was a year of turbulent politics leading to further divide amongst our global population. Weather crises, tragic deaths, the West Coast is burning; once again my dear readers, we sit on the brink.

I’m staring down the wake of this year through the lens of where I was at Christmastime 2016. I was trapped in my brain and caught in a cycle of ferocious suicidality the likes of which I’d never experienced. Stuck on tour in freezing cold weather with anxiety-inducing sheets of ice coating the road. Entombed by the East Coast’s blaring horns and glaring lights. It almost happened twice: once when I had every intention of jumping off the Griest Building in downtown Lancaster, once when I had every intention of walking onto I-40 somewhere in the middle of the country. Each time I was physically stopped by my wife, and I am grateful.

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My amazing wife in Colorado this summer 

 

When I got home from last year’s disastrous and incomplete winter tour, and when I went back on the medication holding my fragile sanity in place, I wrote this blog post. I made a commitment to disclosing more about my mental health with the intention of bringing a brighter sense of awareness all to my friends, followers, readers, and listeners. I asked people if I could lean on them and offered my shoulder. I held up this commitment, for better or worse, all year long. It led me to reveal some of darkest corners of my history, but also led my loved-ones to a better sense of who I am, why I am the way I am, and what they should do. IMG_2984

I discovered a great deal this year. One of the most important of these findings: with mental health, it’s never just one thing. Unlike our physical bodies, which are much easier to pinpoint problems (“My ear hurts really bad inside, I must have an ear infection.”), our mental health is much more dynamic. It isn’t just PTSD hitting me like a ton of bricks, it’s serious family of origin issues, it’s my sensory processing disorder. All of these things work together to make me who I am and to cause a lot of problems with the way the world works.

The two most significant findings by my team this year were the severity of my sensory processing disorder and the impact my upbringing has on my mental make-up. I talked about my hyperacusis in this blog here. I didn’t talk much about how it roots me on the autism spectrum or the social behaviors I have long cultivated to compensate for my lack of social skills, and perhaps I should write that blog, but my team and I have come to understand my “meltdowns” are more a result of my sensory integration concerns and the autism spectrum than of PTSD (but they are working in tandem to make me miserable). I also did not disclose a great deal about my family of origin concerns, because they are sensitive to my family. I feel I disclosed enough, and I don’t plan on sharing any further about that particular issue. I shared quite a bit about quite a bit, yeah?

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It wasn’t all bad: Good times on the beach…

 

Divulging the circumstances leading to the development of PTSD was an incredible experience I will cherish for the rest of my life. The response I got was overwhelmingly positive and I felt really great for a couple days. My friends and family came through, especially when some asshole trolled me. They weren’t going to let something like that happen to me when I was so exposed and I felt protected and safe. The exact opposite feeling from what I grew up with. It was what we call in psychotherapy a “corrective emotional experience” and I want to thank all the friends and strangers who lifted me up after my posting.

Another reveal I retain as special was discussing my disability. While on my summer tour I was graced by a conversation with an expert on disability who helped me understand who I am in light of this designation. I am on disability, something I’m no longer ashamed to admit. I think I was ashamed of it because I wasn’t sure if I deserved it (although we got our decision back in a matter of weeks due to the decades-long documentation of said disability). My sister further shamed me by insinuating I was on disability so I could work on my music career, and planted this awful and untrue thought in my head. The fact is, my disability check barely covers my medical bills. The fact is, my music career is not immune to my disability. I canceled probably 30% of my shows this year due to it, and a booking agent told me they were afraid to work with me because of it. Although these last two situations make me incredibly sad when I reflect on them, they also have a backhanded effect of lifting me up because they validate my illness and neurology. And again, opening up a conversation about my disability offered an opportunity for a lot of my friends and loved-ones to understand my situation better.

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I recorded the most ambitious and complicated music of my career in spite of my disabling mental illness. That is something worth sharing. 

 

My readership went up dramatically this year, and I can only surmise this is because you people like to read about my pain. I mean this as a joke, but there is truth to it. The blog posts getting the most attention were the ones disclosing the most painful things. I think this is because more people go through awful shit than care to admit, and reading about other people’s awful shit is validating. Reading about other people surviving their awful shit inspires us to survive ourselves. Writing about my awful shit obviously has helped me through this year; I’d say I was depressed a good 90% of the time and sometimes writing these blog posts was the only meaning I got.

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It’s a climb. Always. But the view is worth it.

 

But it’s also exhausting. 2018 won’t be a mental health awareness year, not officially anyway. You’ll likely see more reflective nature writing and spiritually-based work from me. I have a new album coming out, I’m sure you’ll read a lot about it. I hope to retain my readers from this past year, but I won’t be dropping any bombs like 2017. I want to express gratitude and love to everyone who has supported me, this blog, my music, and my family this year.

Thank you, beyond the earth and the sky.

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Grateful

Grateful

I met my wife, Deborah when I was a junior in high school, somewhere around 16-17-years-old. She had long blonde hair, down to the middle of her back, she looked pretty sporty with her constant hoodie, and she hung with a crowd I wasn’t quite familiar with. Deborah worked on the set of a school musical where I had a supporting part. I don’t remember much interaction with her, as she was the quiet type and I was more interested in fitting in. Fitting in, to me, was about being as attention-grabbing as possible, so I was loud, ready to do anything for a laugh, and seemingly always on stage.

The following year I went on a water-skiing trip to which Deborah was also invited. We actually talked on the boat: Deborah was smart. I was intimidated because I️ was dumb (at least this is what I was told throughout my life). Deborah was in all the smart classes, had a position on the yearbook staff (not nerdy at our high school, more elitist jerks than anything else), was a star soccer player, and had an impressive collection of hooded sweatshirts. I only had one, it was black, covered in punk patches, and it smelled pretty bad. IMG_0009 We sang in touring choir together (I can’t remember why I joined in the first place, I was a constant troublemaker and foil to our director’s attempts at order). We got to know each other on a weeklong school trip to a monastery in Massachusetts. There may have even been a graduation day picture taken of us; who knows, it was 20 years ago.

In college, we became best friends, and quickly, via this new technology called “E-Mail”. I was going to school in the middle of nowhere Kansas and she was in the mountains of Virginia. Almost every day saw me drudging across the small but cold campus to the computer lab and hoping to get another intriguing response to whatever thread we had started. The conversations opened my mind to new ideas as well as a Deborah I never thought I’d know. One time I expressed shock over her use of the word “fuck” in an email. That was my word! Not hers! This email friendship came to a head when I️ decided to transfer to Eastern Mennonite University before the start of my junior year of undergrad.

Deborah and I had a standing lunch on Thursday afternoons during the fall of 2000. She continued to teach me things in such a calm and loving way. We would talk about my burgeoning mental illness, theological debates over issues such as the LGBTQ community (I was a theology major), philosophical debates over whether a soul exists or not (I was also a philosophy major), and we would talk about the state of social justice in the world (we were both also social justice majors). Our time in college watered the seeds of our friendship, and although we ran in quite different circles most of the time, I considered Deborah one of my best friends, and certainly the only one who was truly reliable.IMG_0008 We graduated college and Deborah moved to Philadelphia, whereas I settled in Lancaster, PA, a smallish burg about an hour west of the urban sprawl of Philly. Lots of friends moved to Philly, so needless to say I was there pretty much every weekend, trying to extend the college experience. Surprisingly, I saw Deborah very little during these visits since I was still caught up in a party lifestyle where my Philly priorities were about seeing Phillies games and getting as drunk as possible on Neighborhood Specials (if you know what it is, you know what it does). This practice changed with the death of my uncle.

When he died Deborah stood right beside me. Every friend I️ had in Philadelphia at the time was there for me, but Deborah stands out. She sat on her stoop with me for hours as I cried, she rubbed my back softly to let me know she was there and was a comfort. Deborah eased those days until they passed. Then her tragedy struck, and I felt unable to reciprocate the comfort due to my own mental illness finally showing its full strength.

Deborah’s father died in 2005 from cancer. Deborah had been living with her parents, acting as a caretaker until he passed in July. Not much for crowds, I️ stuck to the back of the hall where his memorial was going on and sent my love and care to the front row where my best friend sat. I️ wish my personality allowed for me to have been right in the thick of it, but no. And by July of the following year, I️ would be 2000 miles away.

Deborah was the first friend to visit Albuquerque after I moved here in 2007. She came to see me because I’d had my first major mental health episode a month or so prior to the visit, and she wanted to come out and be there for me. I️t was the first time someone had sacrificed their own desires, money, and time to help me through what was shaping up to be a storm that would engulf my life in the years to come. A storm Deborah would weather with me. IMG_0034 Deborah came to visit a couple more times on happier occasions. During those times I️ was engaged to a woman and the relationship was anything but healthy. After this woman and I️ split, Deborah and I️ spent at least an hour a day on the phone with each other in the summer of 2010. She made plans to come visit me for Thanksgiving, and we made plans to meet each other in San Francisco when I️ was going up there to explore graduate study in transpersonal psychology. This particular trip was colored by a very specific email exchange a few weeks prior to.

See, Deborah and I️ have always had a lot in common, but our pasts have shown major differences as well. I️ was the party guy. I️ thought this was my authentic self: gregarious, outgoing, extroverted, loves to drink and yell and cause a scene. Loves to be the center of attention. In actuality, I️ became those things because I️ thought it was what everyone else wanted me to be. This fake personality was driven deeper as people expected me to act this way. Who was I️ to step out of their pigeonholes For someone with neurological concerns effecting my social skills, I️ was being rewarded for the behavior and it cemented itself within my locus of control for quite some time. Deborah, who was never a teetotaler, was much more subdued (this is not to say Deborah didn’t enjoy going to parties). This main difference caused a bit of a schism in our friendship, seeming to confine it to more sanguine times.

During the summer of 2010, I️ feel I️ grew into myself. I️ grew up, I️ became what I️ was meant to be. Deborah was on the phone with me every night, listening in as this process took hold. For someone who is not neuro-typical, it takes a longer time to find one’s self. I️t certainly was the case with me. But as I found myself, I also found someone else. Slowly, my attraction to Deborah, both physically and as someone who would be a life partner, grew.

Deborah began coyly approaching the subject of pursuing a romantic relationship early in 2011 during a trip I️ took back east to see friends. Me, being mostly oblivious to people tones of voice, expressions, and passive expressions, had no clue she was putting out a feeler. She sent me a not-so-coy email not long after, explicitly talking about exploring a relationship with me. I️ sure panicked. Here was my best friend, the only one I’ve ever felt I️ could rely on, asking me if I’d be interested in a romantic relationship after all these years. I️t scared me: I’d never been in a healthy relationship. I️ had no idea what it would look like or how I️ was supposed to act. I️ responded in kind with a full-blown rejection email, refusing to discuss this issue, because I thought a romantic relationship would elimnitate a friendship I so greatly needed.IMG_1732 Now we’re in San Francisco, spring 2011, a few weeks following the email exchange. Deborah was visibly upset and I couldn’t understand why. Now, 6 years later and armed with a greater understanding of my neurology and the effect it has on my social skills, I know why it was so confusing. We actually had a good time on the trip, but looking back, it should’ve and could’ve been so much better. I remember flying home confused, because I did love Deborah, and I did see a future for us.

Fast forward a month or so, I completely fall into one of the top five meltdowns I’ve ever experienced. I ended up in the hospital due to coming very close to dying by suicide, and my father came to “assist” me with reintegration. Needless to say, this was a bad move. My disparate relationship with my father meant he had no idea what was going on and how to treat it. When he left I was still actively suicidal, afraid I was going back to the hospital. Deborah called. “Do you need me out there now that your dad is gone?” I’ve never answered something with more surety: “Yes.”

When I picked her up at the airport not long after, I saw her, we embraced, I cried, and I immediately knew I was in love with her, and the dark cloud enshrouding my brain immediately lifted. Once we got to my meager South Valley house and started drinking a little scotch and looking at old pictures… well… nature took its course. From the moment her lips touched mine I knew we would be together forever, and I knew this woman would stand by me and lift me up when I couldn’t walk on my own. As we lay there, our first night as a “couple”, something was said between us, and while I can’t think of the exact words the sentiment is clear as day: “So I guess this is it, this is our lives. I love you.” After almost a year of long-distance dating, she moved to Albuquerque and we were married. This is where the real story starts.

My mental health and the composition of my neurology makes life difficult for both of us. Deborah has to watch me suffer in ways my friends, fans, and readers have no clue about. She was watched me destroy as well as create. She’s seen me going to a treatment center and made the weekly visits, including having Thanksgiving there in 2014. She’s flown across the country, taken buses to rescue me when tours have fallen apart and I’m stuck having a nervous breakdown in some state across the country. She holds me when I’ve completely lost all sense of reality. She works from home when I’m actively suicidal to watch over me so I don’t do something we’ll all regret. She is a balm to my ever-deepening wounds.IMG_0010 I’m grateful for my wife, my lover, my best friend, my defender, my rescuer, my balm: Deborah.

And you should be, too. Your friend Russ would be dead if not for her.

Me, Too: Afterward

TW: Sexual abuse and assault.

It’s been a month since I published my post detailing my story of sexual abuse, assault, and the misguided efforts to corral my emotional disturbance. The response was overwhelming: literally, thousands of people read the post, most of whom I don’t know. Hundreds of people commented on Facebook, again a good many of whom I do not know. The remarks were securely supportive. Before the end of the first day, I realized I needed to write a follow-up post about the experience of disclosure.

I did not wake up the morning I wrote and published the post thinking it would take over my week. I finished writing it, read it aloud to my wife, and commented, “You know, I think a hundred people might read this.” I shared it on Facebook and within thirty minutes my prediction came true. As I watched the views of the post tick upwards, and a number of comments and shares it was getting on Facebook followed, I became a bit uncomfortable. It was happening very quickly. By noon the number had jumped to 500. By evening it was over 1,000. The comments posted on Facebook were drawing tears from my eyes the whole day. By the time I went to bed the uncomfortable feeling had changed.

An old friend who had her own experience with a high-profile disclosure of sexual assault sent this comment to me: “That weight. It’s a story we carry day to day but don’t realize how much heavier it got until we released it. Then the words from strangers come in and lift you so much higher you feel like you’re floating. Enjoy this…” I awoke with this thought the following day and held it very close, observing the feeling of lightness, the feeling of a dark burden lifting. The comments and views kept ramping up steadily, and the feeling of weightlessness continued into the night and I slept dreamlessly and without interruption. It was a new feeling, a difficult one to understand.

By disclosing our trauma and shining a light on the darkest corners in the closet of our minds we take the power away from the shadows. That which is of the night cannot live in the light of day. The floating feeling is what happens when the power returns. Think of it like this: if you hold a 50-lb. dumbbell for 25 minutes straight, then put it down and pick up a glass of water it will feel like you are holding air. This is my experience of disclosure. This is the impetus for growth.

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Let some light in.

 

Posttraumatic growth is the term used to describe the emotional resilience of an individual when he or she survives a traumatic event. Generally speaking, those of us who have experienced trauma come out better off on the other side. It’s a very difficult idea to grasp: these awful experiences make me a better person. It’s hard because all I want is to be “normal” or “neuro-typical”. All I want in this world is to have lived a life where I’m not tormented by this terror. To reframe the trauma as a stimulus for emotional growth, as something positive, has been outside of my skillset. The dark pain takes over, throws scales on your eyes, and puts out any light beginning to shine.

I studied posttraumatic growth formally while in graduate school. I applied these techniques in my own practice as a psychotherapist. All the while a constant question rings in my head: What about me? Where’s my growth? Why is this not happening to me? I was doing everything right: meditation, going to counseling myself, doing EMDR (look it up), keeping up my psychiatry appointments. I was following the instructions but it wasn’t turning my way. In fact, things seemed to be getting worse. My depression would linger for months on end, not giving an inch or a minute of relief. For years this has been my story, for decades this has been my path. No respite, no growth, just regression, and decompensation.

For me, the stalwart walls my trauma had erected fell before the might of revelation. Posttraumatic growth is no longer an impossibility; it now feels inevitable. Strength and power, long since forgotten and abandoned, came roaring back in torrents. All of this by the end of the second day following my post. When I awoke on the third day I checked the views and comments: they were still coming in and piling up. Throughout the day I noticed I was checking obsessively.

As a person who has been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (caveat: don’t trust mental health diagnoses) I know I run the risk of turning anything I do into a compulsion, and this is exactly what happened on the third day. I was addicted to the comfort my community was providing. There was a large void in my life and the supportive comments, texts, and messages from both complete strangers and old friends were rapidly filling it. It makes sense a compulsion would develop. By the end of the third day, I was quite aware and disturbed by it. So, I did what we all should do every once in a while: I unplugged.

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Long walks, gathering wood with my wife and our best buddies. Jemez Mts, New Mexico.

 

I spent the weekend camping with my wife, our dogs, and one of our closest friends. No reception, only brisk mornings, long walks with the dogs and the love of my life, and campfire’s crackle to shepherd me into sleep. It broke the compulsion. By the time I returned home some of the furor had died down (although it wouldn’t come to a complete standstill for another couple weeks). I was overcome by a desperate feeling: OK, what next?

The depression returned the week following the post and I believe it had a lot to do with coming down from the mountain. I saw from a new perspective, I was given something long denied me, I was comforted, and I was victorious, but now I was on the descent. The comments had slowed to a trickle and I was having some serious withdrawal.

I’m still dealing with the depression right now. While it hasn’t magically disappeared, it feels different. It feels finite. My psychiatrist remarked, “I think you’re on the back end of this thing,” during a visit a couple weeks ago. This is a man who has been seeing me for 12 years, treating my depression and strategizing time and time again how to cope with it. To hear him say those words meant the world to me because he wasn’t lying. I feel it. It’s incredible to have a ray of light shine through the darkness. In time, more light will break through. It’s all happening.

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A much different picture than a month ago. (PC: Sara Lazio)

 

Now we’re a month out from the post. I’ve been putting this one off for some reasons, but I’m glad it’s finished. Another beam of light will come from it. I know I won’t lead a typical life, and I know my PTSD and its cousins, depression, and anxiety, are here to stay. But I know I can make a life in spite of them. I can live with them. In time, I may finally actualize what I’ve been thinking for a decade now: I’m a better person because of them. This is a big mountain, but I’m definitely in training for it.

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Oh, Big Mountain. I’m gonna climb.

 

Me, Too.

Trigger warning: Sexual assault, rape, child abuse, physical abuse, suicidality

Disclaimer: the #MeToo movement was conceptualized by a woman of color, TARANA BURKE, in 2007 to raise awareness for women of color in low-income/low-priority neighborhoods where rape crisis centers are nonexistent and there is little to no awareness of the extent sexual assault and rape is perpetrated within these communities. Furthermore, women across the world are now using the hashtag to raise awareness for the level of sexual harassment, assault, and rape occurring every day at the hands of MEN.

 I recognize that the #MeToo campaign is by women, for women, and a clear message to us men. By no means is this an attempt to co-opt or appropriate the campaign for men. I was inspired by the courage of the millions of women posting on social media to finally tell my story.  


A blank screen. It’s how all this shit starts, every time, for every writer. A solid, clean, white sheet taking up all or part of our computer display. Sometimes the pure, blank screen looks mildly irritating; sometimes it looks as open and fresh as a spring day, waiting to be filled with lots of possibilities. Today my screen looks like a black hole, sucking the life out of me. There has been a black hole in me for 33 years, extracting my life force with a ferocious indifference like the immense forces of gravity allowing no light to escape their grasp, deep within the freezing confines of space.

I’ve written about this black hole in vague, uncertain terms before. I typically label it “my trauma” or “my PTSD”. People often assume my PTSD comes from combat service, an awful misnomer overlooking the essential nature of PTSD. I always say, “No, something else,” and leave it at that. Those closest to me know the nature of my trauma, and my audience of loving readers knows the extent to which it disables me. In the wake of so much attention finally being brought down on the predatory nature of men, and the brutal, tear-jerking anecdotes my female friends have been posting, I have found the inspiration to tell you what’s up. The real deal. The whole shebang.

I was molested repeatedly when I was 4-6 years old. It was a male babysitter. His name was Joe. I am currently 38, and I continue to be plagued with flashbacks and fear from when I was a small child. These repeated incidents, when discovered by my parents, was not met with sufficient indignation or action. No therapists for little Russ in 1983-84. No prosecution for Joe, who could go around sexually assaulting all the little boys he wanted. This isn’t to say my parents weren’t upset; I’m saying they weren’t upset enough and misread the severity of the entire situation. My mother later said, “You just didn’t seem to be all that affected by it,” (My paraphrase). I have a book she gave me with all of my mental health work since I was a little boy. There is one passing sentence about the sexual abuse followed by a misdiagnosis of ADHD, the diagnosis du jour in 1991. I think this is because my parents felt blamed for leaving me with the babysitter and this resulted in shame keeping them from properly handling it. Not an excuse, they did not do their jobs. In fact, they made it worse.

 

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Tiny Russ, circa 1983-84

 

As a result of this repeated abuse, the first emotions I remember are fear, shame, confusion, and sadness. I had my first thought of killing myself by jumping off the tallest building in the city when I was six or seven. They’ve continued since. My behavior was severely affected, as it always is when a child undergoes repeated trauma. I acted out, was defiant, had fits and tantrums. This is exactly how a little brain reacts when it is attacked. If fully developed brains of adults have difficulty processing traumatic events, imagine what it is like for a 4-year-old. My behavior should have been met with unconditional comfort and love by my family of origin but was instead met with an open-handed slap, or being hit with a wooden kitchen spoon until it broke, or a belt, or the strong grip of someone three times my size and ten times my age.I got in trouble in school, I constantly got into trouble at home. My sister outright hated me. By the time I was in eighth grade I was full-blown depressed, acting out on a regular basis, and totally down to start trying drugs. An onset of mania (due to improper prescribing of Ritalin, remember everyone thought I was ADHD) was met in my ridiculously evangelical Christian household with a call to the pastor of our church because they thought I was possessed by a demon. No demons here but the demons of sexual abuse by a babysitter, and physical/emotional abuse by the rest of my family. I came to the conclusion that my whole family hated me by the time I was fourteen, I felt absolute lack of love from them. I was a problem to be dealt with aggressively.

As a result, I started seeking out what relief I could find, and what positive attention could be had from this awful world. Through happenstance, I met a 26-year-old man named Warren Green in Midlothian, Virginia (read: This is me putting this guy on blast for the first time ever in my life, so it’s a huge moment). He lived in the Deer Run neighborhood a lot of my friends lived in. He groomed me the entire summer between 8th and 9th grade, providing me with alcohol, weed, picking me up at midnight after I would sneak out of the house. Then, in August of 1994, he raped me. I was about to turn 15-years-old.

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Circa 1996, post-rape. The smile is deceptive, the hair is not.

The day after it happened, he called me and said he’d asked Jesus to forgive him. Less than a year later I would make my first attempt at dying by suicide. It would come after I went to my mother and told her I was thinking of killing myself, I was using “drugs” to help me cope, and I needed help. She first told me my father hated me, then she turned her back on me. Within six months I would be living in a boarding school in Pennsylvania, immaturely trying to reclaim my life from those who had stolen it from me. Feeble, short-lived attempts at religion were squashed under the tremendous weight of my trauma, and due to my family of origin’s insane attachment to a destructive, punitive religion, my understanding of what was going on in my head and body was drastically undeveloped and unaware.

During my college years, my awareness increased and my depression/suicidality flourished in such a stress-filled, socially turbulent environment. I tried to fit in: I partied, I made a few weak attempts at attracting women because I thought it was what I was supposed to do, but it didn’t feel right. I didn’t feel like the other guys: I wasn’t interested in sex. I think I talked a good game, but my heart was never in it. I never made moves on women because it made me feel wrong (and if I’m being honest, I just didn’t feel like any women were attracted to me, anyway). If a woman made moves on me and we acted on those hormones, I would feel awful for days, like I did something wrong. Am I a mean person for hooking up? Am I a rapist? Am I a monster? Sex had been completely distorted for me. Something meant to be enjoyable, loving, passionate, and fun had become stressful: a constant worry. A constant understanding, I am not like other men (not much later in life I would be grateful for this difference). Questioning whether any woman would have me, love me, or if I could ever have a real relationship with a woman.

I’m quite lucky to have figured out I was wrong about this last part. My wife and I are walking through the reeds together, gluing the pieces back in place. She and her family show me the love and comfort I was denied so often. My community holds space for me whenever I need it. I feel supported, and while I don’t feel understood I know the desire to understand is there. That’s why you’re reading this, isn’t it?

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The effects of sexual abuse and rape continue to plague me on a regular basis. The flashbacks happen all the time. I think about it each time I use the bathroom, each time my wife and I become intimate, even if she runs her fingers through my hair at the wrong time. I smell whiskey on someone’s breath and it immediately takes me to the house in Deer Run and I hear the rapist Warren Green’s voice in my ear.

Then I practice mindfulness: I am here, in Albuquerque, in the arms of the one who truly loves me for everything I am. I’m far away from that evil coast and I’ve made an authentic life in spite of my family of origin, and in spite of the trauma I have lived through. It’s an incredibly long walk, but I will walk on.

 


Again, I’d like to thank Tarana Burke for starting this movement, and to all my courageous and amazing female friends who empowered me to write this wholly difficult piece. It may be the most important thing I ever write and I am grateful to you all.

A Summer Spent Inside

I haven’t written since June 15th. I wrote then about my disability and the effect it has on my life. I didn’t write about how that tour ended in mental health disaster, but it did. Five weeks on the road proved too much: I collapsed in the gorgeous Black Hills of South Dakota and had to return home, again through the assistance of my wife. I didn’t write about how a short vacation with friends in Colorado was ended because of a series of meltdowns. I haven’t written about the tumultuous 2.5-day train ride where I had to disembark two hours in and was stuck, suicidal, in a hotel in West Virginia for two days. I haven’t written about the disaster of a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park with my father, where I cut the trip short due to flashbacks of the abuse I suffered at the hands of my family when I was younger, to which my father made feeble and misguided attempt at an apology.

I haven’t written about any of these things because I have been exhausted by my inability to enjoy life this past summer. I haven’t been able to hear the click-clack of typing because it feels like nails in my eardrum. I haven’t had the energy to do anything but sit inside. Even watching TV or reading has been quite sporadic, as the sensory input from these things has derailed all comfort they have given me in the past. I’ve stared at walls, out windows, taken long spells laying down in my bed, and doing an awful lot of reflection about my dark companion, my disability.

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My view, most of the summer. Good news is there’s a great album coming…

I must say, 25 years of journaling, a decade of mindfulness training and years of graduate work, research, and practice of psychotherapy have trained me to reflect quite well. It’s a skill I advise anyone to develop as it leads to some important insight that can improve your life. In fact, it’s been 3 years since I was in the Ph.D. program and 2 years since I left the field of behavioral health altogether. I’ve learned more in the ensuing time than the many years I was working and researching the field.

The psychology-related fields enjoy surrounding mental health with boundaries, which they call diagnosis. It wasn’t long into my training when I came to the conclusion that diagnosis in mental health was complete and utter bullshit due to the subjectivity of the person making the diagnosis. In other words, mental health is not like physical health: In the physical realm, a doctor would look in a patient’s ear, see a red, inflamed eardrum and say, “Well, you have an ear infection. Here are some antibiotics, take them properly and it will go away.” And lo and behold it does. Mental health is different. “Well, you are depressed, take this Prozac and it will go away.” Then it doesn’t. “Hmmm… well, you are still depressed. Take this Zoloft and it will go away.” You have diarrhea for two weeks, the depression is still there. “Oh, hmmm… take this Lexapro in addition to the Prozac, and here’s some Xanax to take that edge off…” and on and on and on it goes.

The reasons psychiatrists keep cycling is because the mental health fields want to say the concerns their patients come in with are “this or that”. Oh, you’re depressed. Oh, you have PTSD. Oh, you have some neurological disorders. A “this or that” view naturally limits treatment. If someone is being treated for depression and they have a neurological disorder affecting their social dimension being left untreated then the person is never going to heal from the depression.

Mental health defies boundaries every step along the way. So many diagnoses have similar signs to others, so many are intermingled with other concerns like addictions, trauma, and neurological differences. It is never “this or that”, it is always a combination of things. Some of these things are very complex and reach deep into the subconscious. If the whole person is not being treated they will never heal.

The profession is not moving away from the medical model anytime soon. In fact, with the publication of the DSM V (the book that tells you how to diagnose people in psychology), it would seem the field is doubling down. As a person who struggles with mental health, it is up to me to recognize the problem and do what is necessary to obtain the holistic treatment my mind and body needs. I’m privileged: I have years of schooling and practice to recognize the things I need to advocate for. Most people in my psychiatrist’s waiting room do not have the tools I have, and therefore they are being left behind (and don’t even get me started on how unethical the VA is in this regard). Even though this knowledge isn’t easy to obtain sometimes, it is important for me to add simply changing one’s mindset from looking at mental health as one singular concern to looking at as a web, with each strong and sticky strand comprising one element of what’s causing the anguish. Depression, trauma, neurological stuff, anxiety, adverse early child memories, physical pain, all of these things are strands in the web. We can’t just go after one strand, we must address them all.

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I took this on a 5-mile walk home after I had a meltdown in the car on the way to a gig. Good news is, I got this picture and actually got outside.

This summer, I watched countless sunrises and sunsets from the windows of my house. I viewed countless pictures of peoples’ outdoor adventures from the confines of my phone. I stared at walls, floors, and ceilings. During all the staring, all the seemingly mindless moments where I was focused on my pain, I was actually working. I was being productive and reflexive, and as a result I feel a spark of hope for the next few months. While I haven’t been hiking (and my body feels the results of this inactivity), I have been working harder than ever inside my head. And yeah, it’s exhausting. My hope is the result of this work will be hanging out with my friends again, enjoying my tours, going on road trips without crippling anxiety, and being able to enjoy all the amazing cities I visit and play in.

Thanks to my friends for sticking with me through this journey. I know I’m largely incommunicado, and I appreciate the patience over the past several years. Here’s to hoping the sun sets on my depression, even for a little, and I can enjoy the cool fall nights of relief.

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I’m driving north out of Cincinnati towards the Indiana state line. The Midwestern sky is polluted with clouds that look like pot-bellied stoves long in use, charred and bowling around, hanging low and threatening. The temperature outside reads 93 degrees and the humidity percentage must be close to matching that number. Inside The Gray Haven, my mind is steadily unraveling: deteriorating into a salad of nonsensical, horrifying thoughts that play on repeat. My brain starts to resemble those black-bellied clouds overhead. No rain will fall to relieve me of the darkness.

“I wish I was dead.” “I should drive my car into oncoming traffic.” “I’m a drain and I’m better off dead.” “All I do is cost money and cause problems.” “I should just die.” These are the statements that run through my head once the pain of depression and the stab of anxiety take over my day, and they are too often accompanied by horrific images of self-harm. There’s a huge difference between having these thoughts and images in my head and actually moving forward with death by suicide, but imagine what it’s like have these ideas and statements cycle through your thinking hour after hour and day after day. It’s the worst kind of exhaustion.

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Performing in NYC, depressed AF.

Driving and fighting these thoughts for hours on end pulls all the energy out of me and I end up with nothing left to give. Just like when I was working as a psychotherapist, I end up calling in sick because I can’t muster what it takes to get the job done. Except that “calling in sick” now means that I have to cancel a gig, which takes a lot more courage than leaving a voicemail on my boss’s phone. There’s a good reason for this: I’ve never felt like I have more to give than when I’m singing and playing guitar. The thought of being unable to give what I have is almost unbearable. I’ve written before about how music is the only job I can hold down, but it is obvious music isn’t immune to the thorns of my disability.

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Something to give: Playing music for an old friend recovering from a heart transplant while traveling through PA last week. I’m grateful for these opportunities.

And there you go: I put it out there with one short sentence. I’m disabled. That’s the official classification and it’s a much more bitter pill to swallow than any of the pills populating the expansive case in my toiletry bag. I’ve been thinking a lot about my disability on this tour, probably because I feel it’s affect resting heavily on my shoulders. The weight is shame, and it compounds on itself with every passing moment. I am ashamed of myself for my disability.

I held an important conversation with a close friend at the beginning of this tour. This friend is an expert disability scholar and helped me understand the shame I feel towards myself, and the root of the disturbing self-talk that plagues me. I began to understand that I feel a self-loathing because I am not “normal”. Something she and my wife have been able to train my mind on is that “normal” is a misnomer, and my shame is a byproduct of society, not my disability.

Our society has an astonishingly limited view of functionality and worth. Worth is often measured in financial success or notoriety in one’s field. We have been trained to think that if we don’t have one or the other of these two things we are insignificant to the rest of the world. As a result of this training, our world has been constructed in a utilitarian fashion to benefit and serve those who fit the status quo. If you are outside of the ring of normalcy you tend to get left behind. Society turns on those who do not fit in, and as a result, I have turned on myself.

I hate who I am not because I hate the experience of depression and anxiety; I hate who I am because I feel I am less than those of you who are not shut out of life due to a disability. This is wholly incorrect, yet it lay at the root of my entire way of being. It’s been cemented deep within my core beliefs over years and years of mortar applications from society, media, friends, and family. No one means to entomb me with my dark cask of amontillado, but it’s happening just the same. Even the term “disabled” itself has connotations that I’m not whole, that I’m unable to be whole.

“Disability” is unfair, and I think the key lies in dissecting that word. It means that I’m unable to do something, which is true. But the effects of the word are further reaching than that: the societal meaning is closer to “I can’t do anything for myself” than the latter. This is untrue. I’m incredibly able to write, think, and feel. I’m able to play guitar, sing songs, and perform them in front of people. There are times when I’m not able to do that, like last night, but that doesn’t mean I’m unable to do them altogether. Hardly the truth. I’m able to do these things when I’m able to, and that has to be ok.

The world doesn’t work for me and folks like me, so I have to navigate it in a different way. There are times when people don’t understand this and it will repair any of the cement that I’m able to slowly chip away. I don’t think it’ my lot to be free from this, so this is a lifetime work. I just hope that someday I can see myself with the compassion, understanding, and love that others see me with.

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Summer 2017: Walking On. And On.

I’ve been hiking a lot this year. I’m on hike 25 with the goal of hitting 52 by the end of the year. I’ve walked a lot of different terrains: The Mojave and Colorado deserts, the Sandia Mountains, the rocky beaches of the Olympic Peninsula, and now the deeply forested hills of the Appalachia. I’m swallowed by green, here now in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, one of the states I’ve called home.

Westerners often scoff at the rolling, rounded, old mountains that make up the Appalachians. We’re used to younger mountains, whose prominence has not been worn away by time. We look at them, jutting crags, exploding upward out of the golden prairie of the Midwest. We hike them, bike them, climb them, and our sweat hits their dusty ground. The steep fourteeners imbue a hubris in us westerners that could be a downfall in these green hills. The trails are deceptively steep, and the muggy flora creates an environment that is something to contend with.

I hiked these hills the other day, sweating more profusely than I ever do in New Mexico, feeling calve muscles pull and stretch with each steep step (I often remark that using a pedometer is a misnomer because it only counts a number of steps you take, not the quality of step). The air is thick and I feel like I can chew on it as I walk. I stroll past bluffs overlooking a grand, green-brown river; another landform we are not often graced with in the west. Our Rio Grande would often look like a creek to eastern folks. I can see kayaks and canoes below, fishing rods arching through the clear sky.

On the short, three-mile hike through Penn’s Woods, I found I worked harder than many of the high desert hikes I walk in the southwest. Each step I take is different, some bring joy others bring pain. Most of these are bringing pain as I strain to make it to the top of the next rise. The elevation is only 1500 feet, but the mugginess turns each breath into a deep burn. This isn’t fun right now. This is healthy, this is what I’m supposed to be doing, but this isn’t fun. This hurts. I’m discouraged and I want the hike to end. The problem is that I’m only halfway there.


I’ve been playing music full-time for two years as I type this. June 2015 saw me leave my education and career behind and I threw out plan B. Music was the only plan, and that’s how I continue to think today. For the first time in two years, I have begun to feel discouraged about this path. I’m in a state 2500 miles away from home and I’m wondering what the hell I’m doing here. What the whole point is. Living authentically just isn’t cutting it right now.

People often tell me, “You have the coolest/greatest life.” I hate this statement. The reason my life feels so miserable is that I know that it’s supposed to feel amazing, but it doesn’t. My depression and anxiety take that away from me, and there really isn’t anything I can do about it. That’s the true sadness of my life.

I left the house under a cloud of depression almost two weeks ago. The thought that ran through my mind as I made my way across Oklahoma was “Just get through the next five weeks, then you can go home and watch cartoons.” It’s the same thought I had every day when I was depressed in the traditional working world. “Just get to the end of the day, then you can go home and go to sleep.” At least my respite came at the end of 8-10 hours. Now I have no real recourse but to keep going, to plow through this discouraging time.

My wife and a couple other friends have been singing the same tune to me lately, although they don’t know the others are doing it. The lyrics to that song go, “The world wasn’t made for you.” I’m not normal, I know that. I’m not status quo. I have a disability and a career path that is nontraditional, and these two things put me at odds with the way our world is set up. Society is set up for the 9-5. For people who have the skill set of being normal. It’s not set up for someone with severe and disabling depression, or PTSD, or if they’re blind, or if they have Lyme’s Disease. Our society is set up for the normal because that’s what most people are. It’s a utilitarian necessity and I guess I understand that to a point. I just wish the system would have some degree of plasticity.

But it doesn’t. That’s not the way the world works and those of us who are unlucky enough to fall outside of society’s designated circle have to walk on in spite of having the deck stacked against us. The house always wins.


I made it back to my car and drank water. It felt soft on my throat and my panting began to cease. I made myself a small snack and sat on the tailgate of The Gray Haven. I felt good in that moment, with a burning sense of accomplishment tightening in my quads. I was smelly, that was good, too. It means I worked hard (also there were showers at the campground). These things all felt good to me. Hours later they would be gone, lost again in the haze of my never ending walk with my darkness. That darkness will give way to a new dawn, and I just have to keep walking long enough to get there.

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Hiking in Virginia.

 

 

The Road Part II: Meaning

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Even when it looks like there’s a storm up ahead, the road is the right place for me to be.

My mental health disables me from doing many things. I’ve left a dozen or so jobs due to the ongoing struggle. There are times when it prevents me from taking care of myself: I have a hard time exercising and eating right, I can have a tendency to neglect my hygiene and the state of my house. It can prevent me from doing chores and other work that needs to be done for my music business. It can hold me in a cage, causing me to cancel plans at the last minute, and even cancel gigs in a similar fashion (this isn’t a rare occurrence). Travel has been hard for the past 5 years, and international travel has been completely out of the question. There is so much life that my mental health gets in the way of, so when I’m looking at coping skills I am searching for things that open the doors PTSD and depression have closed on me.

While I’m planning an entire post on the coping skills I have developed, one coping skill, in particular, has developed into a lifestyle over the past 24 years. Music. While I played one musical instrument or another since I was a young child, I didn’t fall in love with it until I started playing guitar. I never felt that playing guitar was a tangible coping skill: It didn’t alleviate my deep-seated feelings of sadness or anger, and I don’t feel that it does as an adult, either.

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All smiles at a show in Lancaster, PA, May 2016.

For me, music doesn’t work like a typical coping skill. There are a lot of layers to this, and I’ll try and explain. For me, music has always been a constant positive presence in a life that has been plagued with negativity. I’m talking about the trauma I’ve been through as well as the trauma of life-long depression. It acts as an anchor, through the most turbulent storms. It has been constant and consistent, unlike most other things in my life. I can depend on it to be there, no matter what. I realize that this could all change in a moment: I could lose my sense of hearing; I could lose the ability to play music somehow. But I am confident that I will always have music in my head, even if I can’t express it.  It’s always there, and I love it so much. I wake up in the morning with songs in my head and I go to bed struggling to filter them out. My love for my wife is the only thing that trumps my love for the feel of a guitar beneath my fingers. It’s this love that has the most profound effect on my life and forced my hand.

Two years ago I left my job as a psychotherapist amidst immense, depressive turmoil. It was hard, I’d left so many jobs for the same reason. I’d begin these jobs by working my ass off and being good at what I do. Six months to a year later and I’m a depressed wreck: burnt out, suicidal and calling in on a regular basis because I feel like I can’t move. This has been a pattern my whole life and it has nothing to do with laziness: I know this because I work hard and (I hope) all my former co-workers and supervisors would attest to this. I stop working hard when my mental health begins to decompensate. Then I stop working altogether, and I mean this in an encompassing manner. My whole life stops working: I can’t do anything around the house, any coping skills go out the window because I’m stuck to the couch, or my bed, or that chair I always sit in at the kitchen table. Hiking and music are gone, and at times I just stare at the wall for hours on end. My brain stops working correctly. Distorted thoughts perpetuate the depression, while my depleted cortisol levels leave me open to severe anxiety, which also digs the episode’s heels in deeper. After this happened yet again with my final job as a therapist, my wife and I decided it wasn’t important for me to make as much money as it was for me to make meaning. I’ve played music for what seems my entire life, part-time professionally for the past decade. It was time to use those talents and skills to try and start a career doing the only thing that had ever really made sense to me.


I’m driving a straight line across the southern California desert, where the Colorado meets the Mojave in Joshua Tree. It’s dusk, I’m listening to Tycho churn out mellow electronic beats alongside ambient, dreamy, analog synthesizers and guitars. A slight crescent of moon has already risen behind me, and ahead the horizon is a stratum of colors: The Dr. Seuss landscape is divided from the sky by a fading band of pink and orange, changing the colors of the rocks from a deep pumpkin to dark violet. The colors continue above the fading sun: a fading sky blue turns navy as it reaches into space. My windows are open and the cool air licks my face. The smell of night in the desert is special: the dry, dusty cough of the day seems to allotrope into relief. The chill in the air makes it feel damp and the smell of the creosote bushes is a natural aromatherapy, lulling me to wind down. I drink this in greedily as I pull into my campsite and begin preparing for sleep.

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Barker Dam, Joshua Tree National Park, April 2017.

This is a scene from the beginning of a month-long tour I recently completed, but it’s one that I could write from several different, exotic locales. Over the past year-and-a-half, I have completed six tours ranging from five days to a month. I’ll be leaving in three weeks for a month-and-a-half. I live out of my Honda Element most nights, staying in national parks and forests, BLM lands, and even a Safeway parking lot or two. I spend my days hiking and fishing, and most nights are filled with gigs in exotic cities and some of the most amazing small towns this country has to offer. I’ve hiked the rocky outcrops of the Pacific Ocean, fished the rivers and streams of the Rocky Mountains, and I’ve walked the New York City streets in the dead of winter. I lived in one of the most remote national parks in the country for a month, writing music and gazing at a night sky the likes of which I’d never seen. I’ve met countless amazing people and been able to reconnect with old friends. None of these things would have been possible without music.

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On stage at Big Bend National Park, Texas, November 2016.

Soon after leaving the traditional career path I began realizing new and deeper love for writing and performing music. I realized that I loved the feel of a guitar in my hands just as much as I did when I was 13. It was invigorating; I couldn’t stop playing and writing. I began booking solo shows in earnest (I was still playing with a band at the time) to bring in some money, and I began looking at booking my first tour: Tucson to Silver City, NM, not six months after leaving my job. This first tour was a disaster. I left the house depressed and it grew as I went down the road. I ended up having to come home early, and my wife and a friend had to meet me in Truth or Consequences, NM to help me finish the journey as I was unable to drive. As I rode in the passenger seat for two hours back to Albuquerque I figured my time as a touring musician was over as soon as it started. It was just too scary to be on the road by myself.

Hitting the road alone can be dangerous for someone with such severe mental health concerns, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it. Quite the opposite, in fact. In my time in academia, I did a lot of studying on trauma. Not only was it close to my heart, but I found the concept of trauma to be absolutely fascinating, and I began seeing childhood trauma as a pervasive social problem. In my studies, I came across the concept of posttraumatic growth. It’s a term to describe the tendency for people who have gone through trauma and healed themselves to exhibit a perception of personal growth as a result of the process. This growth gives meaning to the trauma, creating space for further healing to take root. For this reason, posttraumatic growth has become a focus in my life: to further understand the optimal situations that produce it, and then apply them to my own life. One of the first things I realized about growing beyond my trauma was that I had to allow for situations where I needed to rescue myself, over and over again, to allow new emotional memories to become tied to my anxiety and depression. Memories where I triumphed.

In Peter Levine’s book Waking the Tiger, he discusses an incident where a group of school students was kidnapped and buried underground in their school bus. They escaped, some with more injurious trauma than others. A study was done on the children and the varying affects the traumatic experience had on them in the years following the event. Loosely explained, the study showed that the children who actively worked towards ensuring survival (in this case tunneling their way out of the bus and to the surface) showed graduated returns in growth and healing beyond the experience of being kidnapped. Older children who conceived of the plan and encouraged younger ones to help dig were shown to be the best off in the years following the event and the younger children who began to dig and help were doing well. The story lies in the children who were frozen by their fear and relied on others to rescue them. They were affected in a debilitating way by the traumatic event, even years after it occurred. What was the difference? In short: those who experienced the most posttraumatic growth kept moving. They refused to give up and they fought for survival.

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Fight or keep moving.

There are a lot of childhood traumas where fighting is not possible, as was the case with mine. Just because I couldn’t effect the situation at the time doesn’t mean I’ve lost my chance at posttraumatic growth, but it does mean I have to work harder at it. Going on tour and putting myself through anxious situations and coming out on top aids posttraumatic growth. Each time I drive through major city traffic without panic I’m one step closer to it never happening again. Each time I don’t throw in the towel when I’m driving in some faraway state while depressed and on the verge of tears I pound another nail into my trauma’s coffin. If I didn’t have music I wouldn’t be able to do any of this


I’ve been playing music since I was very young, and I’ve been writing it since I was 15. I feel in resonance when I’m creating music. Chasing this resonance has pushed me out of my comfort zone and that is something I have sorely needed. Chasing the resonance has brought a level of meaning to my life that I could never have imagined. It has been the true impetus of healing in my life, and when the going is hard that is how I choose to understand what I’m doing. I don’t have any delusions that I would become some famous singer-songwriter, I know that I’m just another white guy with a guitar. I also know that meaning is rarely found in something outside of ourselves, like money or notoriety. Meaning comes from within. Cultivating this meaning is one of the most important tasks we must accomplish in our lives. Music gives me the road. The road gives me meaning.

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Feeling good on the southern California Coast, April 2017.

 

The Road Pt. 1: Meltdowns

The glamorous part of my life is obviously the road. As it should be: I go all over the country to the most beautiful natural wonders and all the exciting cities. It’s what I do, it’s how I make a (meager) living. It’s incredibly exciting and inspiring, but it can also be a grind, full of the unknown, and stressful. This can be a real problem for someone with serious anxiety issues, like me. While I have a great time on the road, it is also the setting for some of my most intense meltdowns.

Life on the road presents a unique set of circumstances that can lead to some monumental weather happening in the brain. Sitting in a car all day, lacking any real routine, camping in sometimes severe weather, poor eating choices, and wondering about money are just a few of the stressors that I deal with on a daily basis. If there is any sort of routine, it is one of worry. I’ve learned a lot on how to eliminate this weight: having a detailed itinerary before leaving is a must, and slowing down my morning is extremely important (although I don’t always succeed in doing this, I typically rush to get moving in the morning). My eating habits constitute an entirely different blog, but my tours go better when I eat healthier. I don’t always eat healthier because I have this thing where I want to eat all the things that are bad for me when I’m out of town, and I have almost zero say on the issue. Doing what I can to prevent anxiety is vital. There are so many X-factors when I’m on the road and I must have a low baseline of stress when they happen or they will overwhelm me (aka meltdowns).


I’ve spoken about meltdowns in a somewhat abstract sense for a year now, and I feel it’s important to paint a clearer picture of what they are in the interest of educating folks on PTSD and anxiety, and so that people can see what touring is really like for me, beyond social media.

There are definitive signs before a meltdown occurs. Physically, I notice that I flutter my fingers rapidly against my thumbs, usually it’s the left hand. I begin hitching my breath, often holding it for 3-4 seconds at a time. If I can recognize these two signs I can take some additional preventative steps to stave off a complete attack, but I often miss the moment. As the meltdown progresses my mental state becomes hazy. I become confused: I begin misunderstanding what is going on around me, interpreting it in a distorted, negative way. Often, one thought will begin circling my head such as “I need to go, I need to go, Ineedtogo, ineedtogoineedtogoineedtogo…” The thought doesn’t have to be connected to the situation I am in, it can be wildly random at times, but it always cycles obsessively. My face begins to contort: my eyes crumple in and darken, my jaw clenches tightly. My speech decompensates from enunciating through gritted teeth to mumbles, and further on to almost complete incoherency.

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If the meltdown continues beyond this point it enters a place of psychosis. Often misunderstood, psychosis basically means that a person is experiencing such severely distorted and impaired thoughts and emotions that they lose attachment to reality. There have been times where I have experienced auditory hallucinations, but these events have been very few and far between. More often lose control of my thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. It’s difficult for me to delve into because there is trauma that clings to these episodes once they reach the zenith. My heart hurts to think of the places that I’ve been within this darkness. Once I reach this depth, there isn’t much that brings me out. Usually, I’ll end up having to sleep, and I’ll be out of it for a few days. There have been hopeful times where I’ve bounced back from a meltdown, even within the same day.

Preventing and bouncing back are what I need when I’m on tour, but sometimes it doesn’t work that way. As I documented in this previous post, my winter 2016 tour was a mental health disaster due to combining factors of tour stress, poor medication management, and lack of coping mechanisms. I ended up canceling the second half of the tour, my wife had to drive me back across the country while I drifted in and out of meltdown states for 2,500 miles. It was scary as hell and it changed a lot of how I deal with my mental health.

This is the other side of my life on the road, the side where I have to fight. Those pictures on Instagram are hard-fought and come at a very high price. The smiles in the videos are likewise obtained as a result of hard work. I won’t take any smile for granted.


There is a monumental difference between my Winter 2016 and Spring 2017 tours. Both my wife and I agree that this past month was successful, both for my music and writing, but more importantly for my mental health. It was a much needed “win” for our camp. While the final few days were a bit tough, the lessons they taught are being applied to the next tour. In spite of the dark mood I’m experiencing now (something that is likely natural to me when I come in from a long stint on the road), I know I’m stronger than I’ve ever been. That’s the key to growth, you see: Each time you overcome something, you gain the strength you need to tackle the next something.

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The road provides a degree of meaning for me that goes beyond playing music in front of a few people in other towns. Its meaning is deeper than even the most amazing hikes I have gone on. In my next post, I’ll talk about how living on the road is meaning. How it gives me life and purpose.

The Cape

I’m sitting in a dingy hotel room in Clallam Bay, across the strait from Canada. I can see the southern coast of Vancouver Island beyond the docks where men anchor boats after a long day in search of Halibut and other big commercial fish. My day started unassuming enough, with a drive up 101 (an amazing road worthy of its own post) towards the northwestern coast of the Olympic Peninsula. I was planning on taking the day off, as it was pouring and I was in serious need of a shower and a warm, dry bed. After securing my room in Sekiu, I decided that seeing the tribal lands of the Makah would be important, and perhaps I could see the coast from the west as well.

I started at the Makah Tribal museum, and I read about the plight of the Makah, which read like the narrative of every North American tribe: White people came, natives died, white people took land, natives died, often horribly. White people forced treaty, tried their best to wipe out culture by forced assimilation of native peoples, who kind of went along, but eventually gave them a well-deserved middle finger. I saw the bones of whale and saw how the people of this land were similar to the people of my land: different fish, different water, same people. Warriors, fighters, survivors.

The woman at the counter and I began talking and she told me that the small tribal community that resides on Neah Bay had lost one of it’s youngest and brightest stars. A kid, only 19, who died while diving for shellfish for food, just a week ago. The community was already reeling from the suicide of a tourist a few weeks back, and then this happens. This community, which consists of a gas station, a minuscule marina, the museum, and a handful of sea-battered houses. So much pain on the shoulders of such a small population.

The boy was a leader at the age of 19. “He had such a voice,” she said, and she played me his singing at a recent tribal dance. She was right, he emitted a power in his voice that seemed to come from the might of the sea itself. He was deeply rooted in his culture and spoke at other tribal councils about the need to preserve hunting and fishing traditions. He was attending university and studying biology, and was known to walk into his classes still smelling of whatever dead, beached sea creature he had just been dissecting. “The professors told him he had to stop doing that,” she smiled.

She said he died out at Cape Flattery, at Hole in the Wall, a dangerous cove at the westernmost point of the contiguous United States. A wave came in and swept him out to sea. There was a trail that led there, she told me, and it was important that I go there. “It’s a spiritual place, you will feel it, I know you will feel it.”

IMG_1757She directed me out of the village, which now looked tired with grief, soaked to the bone, and looking for simple rest. It was raining steadily as I took the sharp curve that put me on the Cape road. I first climbed, then descended the winding two-lane that follows the Sekiu River. Great, white trees tunneled the road, and jade-green clubmoss clung to bare, skeletal branches that still awaited a Spring awakening. Further back I saw the ever-present Douglas Fir trees towering in the temperate, rain-drenched hills. The road began to climb again towards the trailhead, the rain continued to fall.

At the trailhead, I saw few cars, which wasn’t a surprise on a Monday like this at the end of the country. This really was the end of the road, I thought to myself, as I struggled to pull my rain pants on while sitting in the driver’s seat. Snug in my rain gear I began the descent, which was steep, wet, and shimmering a glorious green. I could feel something stirring in this place. The trail was muddy, and soon my shoes were covered and I was thankful for choosing the waterproof sneakers for this trip. The rain beat staccato against my raincoat and I walked with the syncopation. Every ten hits or so I would get bombed by a fat drop falling from one of the trees rather than the sky. It was fun to anticipate them when I walked under the canopy.

FullSizeRender-14After about half a mile, the trail leveled off and a boardwalk came into view. As I approached I saw that it sat about three to four feet above the ground cover, which was a litter of giant ferns, tangled roots, and various flotsam that has collected over years of heavy storms. As I walked on these boardwalks, I saw huge, yellow lilies bursting from the forest floor. Everything was covered in clubmoss and the earth smelled rich with life. Mixed in was the oily aroma of the railroad ties that constructed the board walk. Eventually, I heard the roar of waves crashing against the rocky Washington coast mingling with the tap-tap-tap of rain on my hood. I approached a clearing in the rocks, the haze parted and I saw it. Cape Flattery.

“I didn’t know,” I whispered to the sky, the rain, the trees, anything around me. I didn’t know something could look this beautiful. This powerful, yet fragile. I walked to the clearing and the carved coast came closer into view.FullSizeRender-13The turbulent northern Pacific waters raged on to the west, smashing against two green islands about 1/8 mile off the coast. The water flowed into a deep gouge in the coastline, the Hole in the Wall. The blue-green waves moved in and out of the cove, like deep breaths, in-out, in-out. The water towards the center of the inlet was a deep navy, sighing up and down like the belly of the Earth softly sleeping. It could wake up in a rage with no notice, filling the hole and carving further into the rocks. This is where it happened, where the sea took him, I thought. I listened.

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Hole in the Wall: A dangerous place even for those who have grown up diving rthese waters their entire lives. 

I walked further toward land’s end. My steps felt light on the spongy earth, it gave the vague sensation that I was hovering rather than walking. I saw the trail lead first down, then up towards the final lookout. The trees towered above me, the rain continued to pour down, and the wind pounding the Strait of Juan de Fuca began picking up. My heart felt like it was floating on those last steps. I felt the spirit of the cape flowing from the ocean, the rocks, the ground, the trees. The echo of its voice reverberated in the sea caves that littered the northern side of the cape. I went to the very end, Tatoosh Island floated about a mile off into the sea, a green stalwart against the pounding surf, with a small, white lighthouse adorning the highest point. I looked again towards the Hole. I thought of the young man whose spirit departed him when the wave took him while he was diving there. It was a violent looking place, only a very brave person would be able to navigate those waters, and he and his people have been doing it for millennia. They fought back the Spanish who raped tribal women and tried to steal their lands. They fought for the right to hunt and fish as they have done for centuries when the US forced them to sign treaties. They retained their culture even when Americanization did it’s best to take it from them. Their spirit lingers here in this place.  I sat in the rain and let it pass through me. I let the water clean my heart and mind. I could smell the salt in the air, mixed with the deep, rich loam.

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The end of the country. Tatoosh Island off in the distance.

I spent the previous weekend camping with my friend at Kalaloch Beaches to the south. We had a perfect spot: trees shading us from the bleating sun, the roar of the waves to the west, and a grand view of the ocean just beyond the bluff that dropped off to the beach. We spent Sunday morning hiking Ruby Beach and intellectualizing about this and that. We went to college together, studied religion, and both came out on the other end more than jaded with the faith of our upbringing. My friend was now trying to reconcile his core ethics, which remained the same as they were when he espoused his former faith. He wanted to know what made him tick, and why. It was an illuminating conversation for me, to hear someone going through a crisis of faith in such an intellectual way.

As I hiked around the Cape, going down this dangerously slick path to the next one, mere feet from falling to my death (and happy to be doing so), I applied my friend’s question to my own life. What made me tick? Why do I do what I do? What matters most to me? The answer came easily: I don’t want people to suffer. Almost everything I do runs through this filter and has since I was young. I’m not perfect, and I cause suffering, too, but trust me when I say the resulting shame has been crippling. Why don’t I want people to suffer? Because I know how much life can hurt, how that hurt can change a person, can damage a person. I know and I don’t want other people to feel that. It’s why I studied religion and philosophy, it’s why I became a therapist, and it’s a driving force behind why I play music. It also directs a central passion, or locus of control of mine: environmental awareness.

Trying to think like my friend, I questioned why in the world I care about the environment. I mean, I don’t think the most drastic and cataclysmic damage will be seen on Earth until after I’m dead when It won’t really bother me ( because I’ll be dead). I don’t have children, I don’t plan on having children, and even if I did, again, I’d be dead and wouldn’t really care either way. So what’s the point? I’m going to get to enjoy this planet, then I’m going to die and anything else is pretty much immaterial to me.

It comes back to what makes me tick: I don’t want people to suffer. I have suffered a great deal in my life and I don’t want anyone else to feel that way. I have also found there are things that help me get through this painful life. Connecting with this Earth is one of the main ones. I want to show people that they can heal themselves with this connection. We can become better because of this connection: better physically, emotionally, and yes, spiritually. There is so much respite and life to be found in the natural world; I want to save it because I know that it can help people get through the suffering. Its song is so sweet, and I firmly believe that everyone who truly hears it will be changed. This is why I want conservation. This is why I do everything I do. I feel it deep within my soul. My heart explodes with its truth.

After a long time perching myself on various dangerous ledges, I began making my way back up through the forest on the steep trail. My body felt hot under my rubbery rain gear, and the trail climbed ever steep. My feet slipped on the muddy slopes, slick as ice. While each step took effort, I still retained that euphoric feeling, like I was gliding up the hill. My heart felt peace, even as it beat ever harder within my chest. When I finally reached my car I stripped down to my tank in the pouring rain and let it wash the sweat off. I breathed in the spirit of that place, something so old yet so fresh. I got in my car and drove towards the village. The Strait of Juan de Fuca, a memorial to the Spanish that tried and failed to take this land from the Makah, loomed gray on the horizon.

IMG_1788As I navigated the streets I saw that the faces of those I passed wore the badge of grief that the woman at the museum did. May you feel peace, I chanted as I made my way past the totem poles that marked the entrance to Neah Bay. This place gave me something more valuable that I could have imagined. It gave me more than just an amazing picture, even more than an amazing feeling. It gave me reason, meaning, and purpose. I am grateful for the story of the young man that compelled me to see his sacred place. And I am forever grateful for this, the most important hike of my life.

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ABQ. Phoenix. Joshua Tree I

IMG_0518 2I departed Albuquerque around 9 a.m., heading south towards Socorro on interstate 25. The sun was shining and creating a haze at the foot of first the Sandia Mountains, followed by the Manzanos further south. By the time I reached Socorro the haze had dissipated and opened up a relatively cloudless sky. The drive was pleasant, little traffic met me on the interstate, and I was excited to turn off onto Rt. 60, cutting across West-Central New Mexico, an area I had not explored before.

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The Box. 

As I drove I saw gray velvet clouds off in the distance, swallowing the Magdalena range. I stopped at a magnificent canyon called the Box I’d heard of from rock climbing friends. The silent site filled me with excitement around the wild and silent areas I would encounter throughout the tour. I passed by the Very Large Array, a system of radio telescopes I have always wanted to see. Not long after this I, too, was swallowed by the cloud cover. I watched the thermometer on my rearview mirror quickly tick down from 60 to 50, and finally resting between 34 and 40 degrees. The wind picked up to a gale and my little Eleanor was tossed around the road and I had to favor the right on my steering wheel as a result. Not long after snow began to blow from the sky, and continued to fall for the next couple of hours as I began to wind my way through the purple and gray mountains. Crossing the state line into Arizona, I was greeted by fields of white-gold buffalo grass as far as I could see. It offered a magnificent and stark contrast to the dark skies above.

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White-gold fields against a snowy, cold backdrop.

One of my favorite things about driving to Phoenix is how dramatically the temperature changes if you are approaching from the north. It can be 40 degrees in Flagstaff as you take the ramp onto I-17. You drop down from the 8-10k elevation of the north to the desert of the south. The iconic Saguaro cactus begins littering the hillsides and you know that it’s time to roll the windows down. After all, it’s 75 out there.

My approach from the central part of the state was a little different, although no less a dramatic landscape on my way into the Phoenix basin. It was the snowy, wet weather that hindered my coveted temperature rise. By the time I reached the outskirts of Mesa, just north of Phoenix, the sky had broken open once again, and the sun began to dry up any remaining clouds in typical Arizona fashion. I have never seen Phoenix so vibrantly green. The mesquite, creosote, and palo verde had feasted greedily on the above average rainfall of this past winter, and they were bursting with chloroform to show for it. The green was punctuated by the bright, goldenrod Chamisa that sprouted from the rocky hillsides, defying the need for adequate soil as desert plants often do.

I turned off towards the Tonto National Forest and within minutes I was rambling away from the bustle of one of our country’s most populated metropolises and transplanted into a wild corner of the state that I had never seen before, and I was reminded of why Arizona remains one of my favorite wild places. There are so many places one can get lost in Arizona, and there is a great variety of the landscapes you can access. I was headed towards Horseshoe Lake, following a deeply rutted and nerve-wracking road towards the Horseshoe dam, and the river below it. My car dipped and banked, slamming too hard, too fast, too many times into the canyons that were created in the unmaintained access lane. After what seemed like an eternity on that washboard, I came upon the campground I was to meet a friend at, and I found a site. When I emerged from my car, I saw that my rear, the drivers-side tire had popped, and my car sat sadly on the rim, digging into the soft earth. Poor planning on my part resulted in my tire jack residing in a compartment underneath Eleanor’s sleeping platform. Even poorer planning resulted in forgetting my knife, or any cutting utensil whatsoever, and that meant I couldn’t cut the industrial strength zip-ties securing my bed in place. Here I was, in the middle of the Arizona wilderness, with a flat tire and no foreseeable way to get what I need to fix it. There were no other campers nearby, and I could only hope my friend would come through and meet me as planned.

I sighed. I laughed. I said, “God dammit.” But that was it. No meltdown, no screaming, no frustration whatsoever. Just bland acceptance of the situation. I pulled my chair out and sat there, taking in the sights of the marshy banks of the creek that ran behind our sites, and I spied on several different types of raptor birds hunting their evening meal. The day turned twilight, and night followed. I began thinking that my friend wasn’t coming. Oh, well. I was just preparing myself for an intense walk the following day when headlights approached in the distance. Sure enough, it was my friend. We laughed at the situation and resolved to fix it in the morning. Too late for that kind of hassle.

We awoke the next day and fixed the tire quickly. I spent some time meditating on the banks of the creek. Birds sand all around me, the water roared, and my life felt right. To spite my flat, I went and purchase four brand new tires and headed to the gig.

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This morning I awoke and made the three-hour trek to my special place. And the shine has not worn off. As I pulled off of I-10 and approached Cottonwood, an immense sense of relief and gratitude rose within my chest, escaping my mouth in a long and breathy sigh. I was back in my heaven, my rose. It turned out that the flora of Phoenix was not the only place to take full advantage of a precipitous Winter. The hillsides were erupting the same yellow gold. It was a blanket to the desert. I pulled over and looked closer: there were spots of orange, purple, green, and blue in addition. Red Claret-Cups emerged from their namesake cactus. It was astonishing to behold as I made my way through the park towards Indian Cove.

I parked at my site for the next few days and took a breath in, smelling the dusty creosote that surrounds my site. It will be in full petrichor at morning’s first light, as the dew settles and the day begins.

Recovered. Uncovered.

My two months of respite and recovery have come to an end. For two months I’ve sat in fairly constant reflection, even while busying myself and putzing around the house. I’ve worked my program, as they say in 12-Steps. I’ve followed my doctor’s orders, and I’ve followed the natural orders of my body and mind that I was able to tap into. Where am I at right now? I have the steady, low hum of depression that has been a constant in my life for 30 years, but I feel pretty great.

“But Russ, that makes absolutely no sense,” you’re thinking. Oh, dear readers, it most certainly does.

In all the reflection that has occurred, one most-important thought has stood out: I’m not going to get better, and that’s ok. I can’t control whether or not the depression and anxiety are going to attack me. In fact, I can’t control a damn thing. It may sound elementary, but when you’re able to actualize the realization that control is illusory you are relieved from a great deal of pressure. We exchange one burden for another, however, because we can control our behavior, or how we act. Throughout the deep, depressive episodes and the anxiety meltdowns, I fall into a pattern of behavior. I have come to the understanding that this behavior is the key to coping with the depression.

It is common for a person with severe depression and anxiety to act out when they become completely depleted. The depressed brain doesn’t work like a normal brain, and this needs to be lesson number one. To avoid any technical language, it may help you to understand the depressed brain as processing all information through varying layers of fog. Sometimes that fog is thicker than others, but it never fails to distort the information being received. As depression continues to ravage the brain and body, a person can “act out” instead of rationally coping with a situation. It can take a lot of different forms, but for me it’s anger and impulsive self-harm behavior. What I have learned is that I need to spot the warning signs of acting out, and then make a decision to pre-emptively begin behaving in a different way. By behaving in a different way I can effectively cut off a chain of triggers that usually ends in a meltdown that is very difficult to escape.

I realized that I need to control the way I act or I am going to die. I’m not being dramatic here, it is a serious concern. I’m not just talking about dying by suicide, either, although that is the primary fear. I’m talking about cardiac arrest, a stroke, shit like that. This kind of lifelong pain takes a hard toll on a body, and I feel it already at the age of thirty-seven. I have some serious health problems and it’s all related. But I can take control of my actions and I can reverse the course of these detrimental effects.

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I spoke earlier about coping with depression. Notice I said “coping”, not “eliminating”. Eliminating depression has become a ridiculous concept to me. It’s like trying to stand against the waves: sure, you’ll do it for a few hours, but then you’ll get tired and drown. Coping is the key. Coping ensures that I can continue living my life in spite of the depression. Right now I’m feeling it, but it’s not controlling me. I’ve had times over the past few months when it has gotten on top of me, but it’s encouraging to think about how much less this has been occurring. I’ve had days in a row where I’ve been happy, laughing with my wife, playing with the dogs, and experiencing a quality life for the first time in years. While there are struggles (I’ve gone through a low point for the past couple days), I know that they aren’t there to last. I know my triggers and I know that if I catch things in time I can ward off any dangerous behavior. I know that I can go on tour next month and enjoy it. Sometimes knowing your limitations is the first step to handling anything that comes your way. That hum of depression? It just doesn’t seem so important, anymore.

2017: Mental Health Awareness Year

In May of 2016, I took my first real steps in disclosing my life-long struggle with PTSD and it’s kissing cousins: depression and anxiety. I wrote a lot of posts on social media that opened my life up to those who may not have known it about me. In fact, as my notoriety has increased due to my near constant touring for my music career, these statements and posts about my life began to hold greater weight inside my head. Who am I sharing this part of my life with? How will they react? Can I trust my fan base beyond those whom I call my friends? My answer to this question is I don’t really care. Trust has never been a friend of mine, and even those friends who think I have the deepest level of trust in them are usually wrong. I can count the people I truly trust on two hands with fingers to spare. I’ve been burned by trust far too many times for me to rely on it a great deal. But again, I don’t care. I have been living a life where trust has not been adequately present for 30 years; I’m used to it. If people want to use the words I type to vilify me, that’s fine. I never trusted people, to begin with.

Sharing your struggles is not a task taken lightly. The right people have to be involved and you have to know they are going to respond in a way that is empathic, compassionate, and understanding. When you don’t trust most people, this concern goes right out the window. So as my readership and fan base has grown, the question of whether or not I should continue revealing some of the most vulnerable parts of me is moot.

May is the designated Mental Health Awareness Month, and like most other months dedicated to honoring someone, a group of people, or a cause (et al), it’s a pretty cheap 28-31 days. I’m not satisfied with one month where we all talk about our depression, anxiety, bipolar, chronic illnesses, etc. I live with my depression, anxiety, and flashbacks on a daily basis. They don’t magically disappear on June 1st when I stop my daily posts about mental health. In fact, symptoms are likely to worsen.

2016 has been a magnificent year for me: I’ve successfully launched a music career, gained notoriety, and seen more of the country than I ever thought I would. I got to live at a national park for an entire month. I am a lucky person because my career and my lifestyle are finally in resonance. I understand how lucky I am that I don’t have to wake up and amble through the mundane existence of a 9-5 job, which has proven impossible for me in the past. Unfortunately, the decision to live in resonance does not mean that my mental health has improved; its been quite the opposite.

Without getting into details, I’ve made a lot of changes this year in hopes of treating or coping with my mental health, which only seems to get worse with every passing year. I’m sure there’s research that shows that the more depressive episodes you go through the more likely you are to go through them, but I don’t have the energy to do a Google Scholar search to cite them (I assume a more ambitious reader may do so). While some of the things worked (nature-based healing, EMDR, and cannabis being the top); a lot didn’t seem to make a difference.

“On the inside, there is a constant war going on and it’s anything but peaceful.” 

Living with chronic depression is hard to explain. On the outside I often look predominately fine: you may notice slight dark circles under my eyes and a bit of a slower speech pattern, but if you didn’t know me you wouldn’t recognize these things. On the inside, there is a constant war going on and it’s anything but peaceful. The images supplied to me are as horrific as any horror movie (picturing yourself in the midst of dying by suicide over and over and over again, all day, every day). This has been my life for at least 25 years. Voices in my head continue to tell me how worthless I am, how everyone is a liar and they are just telling me that I’m a good person so they can feel better; so they can feel like they did something if I ever were to pull the trigger. These thoughts are quite effectively reinforced by the fact that when I isolate myself (see: most of 2016) people don’t really notice that much. Some do, and I appreciate that, but my depressed brain even questions their motives. No one wants to feel like they could have done more when the dirt hits the coffin.

It was different during Mental Health Awareness Month; people paid attention. Then, they forget. They stop sending messages. I get it, I really do. It’s not in front of people so they don’t think about it. We live in a society with a very short attention span and if I’m not snapping my fingers in front of the faces of my readers every day they forget about what was once important to them. I’m not saying that mental health awareness loses its heart once June hits, but it fades from consciousness. This tells me that those who value mental health must needs make it more important. It needs to permeate the lives of those who do not suffer under its banner. It needs to be thought of on a constant basis and cannot be discarded like some rind once the fruit has been used.

This is a call to action. 2017 needs to be a mental health awareness year. Here is my commitment to you: I will step up my disclosures and share my walk with you. I will share ideas and tips for becoming more aware of how mental health affects our daily lives (even those of you are lucky enough to experience stability). I will write about how people without mental health conflict can assist those they love in a way that is not intrusive, and in a way that is authentic, genuine, and full of compassion. Those are the things most of us need, anyway. Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Depressed and isolated friend? Don’t make plans with them. There’s a good chance they’ll get broken and your friend will just feel worse because he or she has “ruined your night”. Go to their house. Bring a cup of tea (chamomile, no caffeine). Don’t plan on staying long, just say hi and give a hug. WHY? Because it shows them that even if they’re isolating they’re still thought of and loved.
  • Offer to watch a movie with them. I’m partial to Harry Potter when I’m depressed, but super-heroes work as well. This is not “hang out” time. You shouldn’t say much. Just sit there, make them some popcorn (they may not eat it) and watch the movie. When its over, give them a hug and some love and go on your way.
  • Texts: Do this on a daily basis. Make them funny, full of love, or just normal stuff. A good way to send something special is using an app like Canva or Adobe Sparkpost. Throw some color into a drab day.
  • Bring over a healthy dinner. Make sure it’s something they’ll eat (don’t bring broccoli casserole if they hate broccoli). Then leave. Drop it off and leave.

A little known, but a well-researched fact is that you don’t need to say anything! In fact, 80% of whatever you say is going to get completely distorted in your depressed friend’s head and the outcome of something that seems so innocuous and loving ends up in a panic attack or furthering suicidal thoughts. Depression and mental health are exceptionally complex disorders in the brain and if you’re ever caught in a “What the fuck just happened?” moment you need to learn to roll with the punches, keep your gob shut, and nod your head with equal amounts empathy and sympathy.

 

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In the interest of authenticity and full-disclosure, I’ve been actively suicidal for the past few weeks. I am having to cancel the second leg of my winter tour as well as a 3-week long recording session. As of right now, I will be taking a full 2-month sabbatical from playing live music in order to straighten some things out. I plan on taking a lot of long walks, just me and my dog John Henry. I plan on reading and writing. I plan on once again reclaiming my spirit, whatever the hell that means. I do not plan on pulling the trigger.

Will you lean on me if I lean on you?

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-RJP