In Praise of the Public Library

THERE is something noble and true about reading and writing in a library. The stacks, some of them smelling of paper thick with a century of study, offer comfort for me. Wandering alone amongst the aisles to, scrap of paper in my hand with three letters and a series of numbers, trying to find my needle in this quiet haystack. 

In the bowels of a library, I am shielded from noise, people, and flashing lights. I can think, I can focus, I can write. It provides me with a screen I can’t find at home, where a large tv and video games and dogs and snacks and records to haunt me away from my work. When I get to my table in some far corner, I’m zeroed in, unfazed. My headphones go on and Brian Eno takes everything else away. By the time I’m at 1000 words, I don’t even know where I am. 

Libraries are more than just books. Of course, there’s music and movies, but there’s also classes, story times for children, resources for city services. Someone there will help you figure out which car to buy. The library provides a quiet place for the unhoused to get out of the rain and cold for a few hours (and if you don’t think this is an appropriate function of a library then you’ve never lived in a city, and you may have some stuff to work on). There are movie nights, they often deliver books to those who can’t make it to the brick and mortar, and these same folks will pick the books up when they’re due. They do all this as a public service. 

Libraries are home to me, and people like me. We find a nest in the confines of books and words and letters, the smell of history rubbing under our noses, the feel of a brittle, yellowed pages between our careful fingertips. The hidden obsessions waiting to be discovered. Many of us around the world are raised on libraries, they are with us throughout our entire lives, providing us with our newest sources of meaning every step of the way. 

My first library was the Lancaster City Library in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was located downtown and a trip there was always special because it was just my mom and me, and it usually included a soft pretzel and lemonade from the Downtown Growers Market. We parked in the back, on Cherry Street, rather than in the big garage. The macadam of the small, back alley parking lot always glistened and shined like rain had just stopped. Swirling rainbows danced on the surface, a result of the drops of gasoline, oil, and antifreeze. Walking through the doors into the main landing room was sacred and required silence and contemplation. Silence because my mother would go upside my head if I ever disturbed anyone, and contemplation of the books I would take home with me in a couple hours. 

Mom gave my sister and I free reign of the library; we were able to mosey, wander, and discover whatever mysteries it held. Inevitably, though, we went straight to the children and young adult section, on the third floor, climbing sets of wide, marble steps before entering the more colorful and cushioned room for kids. There were two massive aquariums outside the saloon style doors into the children’s area. They each contained bulbous-eyed goldfish bigger than my tiny head. I was entranced for a couple of minutes each time I got to the top of the stairs. 

I began reading at a remarkably young age and it didn’t take me long to graduate from the picture books of early childhood to the chapter books my sister was reading (she, too, had made this similar academic jump at a young age). Because she regularly tested our reading comprehension, my mother trusted us to pick whatever we wanted. By the time I was in 5th grade, ready to move to Virginia, she was telling me what books I shouldn’t read because they were far too young for me, a kid who was testing at college levels in reading at age 11 (I’m looking at you, Pee Wee Scouts). 

My middle school and early high school years found me floundering in school. I couldn’t make grades, I was constantly getting into trouble, some of it major. I was sad and I was angry. School didn’t make sense to me; I couldn’t keep up. I was placed in remedial classrooms and classrooms for the emotionally disturbed students, which were horrifying at that time. I began going to the library to check out forbidden tomes: books detailing sedition, and rebellion, books on cults and serial killers, and books that challenged my parents view of the world: books on world religion, Krishna texts, and light philosophy found a place on my shelves. 

When I was 16, I matriculated back to Lancaster, Pennsylvania for my final 2 years of high school and lived in a dormitory on campus. I was mere steps away from the school library and was able to read in a quiet corner until 5pm each day, before trudging back to my dorm, chaotic with the hormones of 50 teenagers living under one roof. These years found me chewing books up. My tastes had long since sophisticated: I was familiar with most of the classic, having read them in middle school, and I was not interested in authors that wrote what I call “pop lit”: the Steven Kings, James Pattersons, John Grishams, who populated my mother’s shelves. And, if I’m being brutally honest with myself, I wasn’t reading any women authors. I didn’t feel like they had anything to offer a 16 year old boy. It turns out I was way off on that one. 

The library at Lancaster Mennonite High School was broad with 20th century literature and gave me such favorites as The Human Comedy by William Saroyan and For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemmingway, two books that continue to influence me 25 years later. But it was a high school library, and a Mennonite one at that, so they certainly were lacking texts that appealed to my newfound sense of intelligence and a clean sense of curiosity. It was back to the Lancaster City Library to satiate those needs. 

Of course, my first stop was the aquariums on the third floor. They were still there. So were the goldfish. Once I saw them I immediately knew this was no longer my floor and I made my way to the basement, four floors down, and dug up books that informed the next six years of my life: Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche and The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis. These two books shook the already loose foundation by parents tried to build my life on, and, weak to the point of breaking, the walls fell. In college I majored in both philosophy and theology and emerged an ardent atheist and postmodern ethicist. 

Following college, I moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico and the library was my first stop. I went to the downtown branch the day following my arrival and get my library card first thing. It was 2006 and I barely had lint in my pocket let alone a computer, or money to have access to the internet. Instead, the library became a daily place to check my email and MySpace. After getting home from work, I would take my roommate to the library closest to us, on Candelaria Blvd, to the neatly rowed banks of computers, where we would sit for an hour addicted to that first shred of social media. Then I got a job with a computer. After that, the biggest late fees I’d ever heard of kept me away from the library for years. 

We’ve reached a point where a confession must be made. I am not great at returning my books on time. Not even close. I’ve had plenty of late fees at plenty of libraries around the country. Video rental places, too, back when they were around. But I always got the books back, sometimes it was months late, but they always went back. Well, not always. I do have a couple books from the Hesston College Library in Kansas sitting on my shelf. They were checked out in 1999. I’m currently reformed, though. I had to be after being banned from the library for 10 years. 

Maybe I deserved what happened to me for all the times I turned books in late. Probably not. No one deserves a $600 late fee. 

A few years after I’d moved to Albuquerque, when the library was still my main place to do business and rent movies, I was reading at a coffeeshop in Nob Hill and I absent mindedly got up to use the bathroom, leaving my newly borrowed bags of books and movies at my seat. This is not something you do in Albuquerque. When I returned the bag was gone. I slumped my shoulders and walked to the bus with no backpack, feeling naked. Well, that’s a bit dramatic. I felt disappointed because I’d borrowed the three original Star Wars movies and I was planning on bingeing them that night. I went to my friend’s house and played video games instead, forgetting all about the stolen books. Then I got the job with the computer and Netflix came out, so I didn’t need to go to the library anymore.

A few years later, I was at the library again, with a stack of DVDs for the weekend and a couple books. I set them down in front of the check-out desk and handed over my battered card. 

“Looks like you got a fine,” the small woman behind the desk told me.

“What? When? For how much?”

“Get the fuck out of here, you’re kidding,” I said with a laugh. She wasn’t laughing. She was upset I cursed. They always got upset I cursed in New Mexico. I straitened. “Ok, for what books?”

“Star Wars: A New Hope, Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi…” I cut her off before she could continue the list. 

“OK, yeah, I know what you’re talking about. That was like, three years ago,” I explained.
“Uh huh, and since they’ve never been returned you have a $652 late charge,” she said, spitting acid on each word, sending heat rays from her eyes and boiling my forehead to sweat. 

“Jesus,” I shook my head in disbelief. “Can I talk to someone about this? How do I reduce this or get it to go away?”

“You bring the books and movies back,” she directed. 

“But those were all stolen at Winnings Coffee a year ago,” I became defensive, thinking that saying the name of the coffee shop would bring about understanding and compassion from this slight woman who was beginning to look more and more like an orc to me. 

“I don’t know what to tell you,” she said, and her curt tone let me know the conversation was over. She turned to the circulation bins to continue checking returned books back into the system. I made sure to put each of my movies and books back; I feared what she would do if I just left them there. 

This was the end of libraries for me in Albuquerque. When I got to grad school, I was writing papers that needed scholarly journal articles for research, and I could get all of those on my computer. I never went to the library to read or write during my time at University of New Mexico, maybe that’s why I never finished my PhD. The UNM library was daunting and full of students. There was a Starbucks inside and the sound from the espresso and cappuccino machines was deafening, and burnt coffee was always on the wind. My wife moved from Philadelphia and got a library card, but we only used it to download audio books and comics on my iPad. By 2018 I was using a paid subscription service for both reasons and no longer needed the building that had long been a part of my life. 

We moved to Oregon in the summer of 2019. Six months later, the pandemic dropped a 2-ton weight on the world. I couldn’t go to the library, and all the sudden I needed it more than ever. We were stuck in our houses for months on end, some of us longer than others. The library closed its doors. They would drop off and pick up books from you, but it wasn’t the same. The library was a place to go, an event around which you could center your day. No longer. Now it was only a building full of letters, words, sentences, and pages, not people. How’s that old Joni Mitchell song go? You don’t know what you got…

Currently, I’m sitting, mask off, in a quiet corner of the Corvallis-Benton Country Library.  I have a window beside me and I’m gazing at the great, all-consuming flames of maple trees in the late October rain. The fact that I can type and look at them at the same time makes me feel awesome as far as being a human goes. There are no movies to distract me, no dogs needing to go outside, no loud construction from the school across the street. But there is this essay I just completed for no reason at all, eschewing my established projects that need a lot of work: 2000 words on libraries. 

Distractions are everywhere. 

January 22, 1987

The following piece contains graphic depictions of suicide and discussions of sexual abuse.

SNOW days are a special occasion around the northern parts of the country, but no more so than the mid-Atlantic. In neighboring, northerly and Great Lake states, the school districts were more snow-tolerant in both removal and what kids could handle standing outside at a bus stop. The mid-Atlantic regions sat in a sweet spot where there was enough snow to get plenty of days off in the winter, but not enough for the state to provide a larger force of plows and salt trucks. That equipment went to places like Erie, by the lake where snow was a given. 

In Pennsylvania, my sister and I woke early on many school days to huddle around the small transistor radio in our kitchen, crossing our fingers and squeezing our eyes shut in anticipation of the list getting to the L’s and announcing, “Lancaster Christian School… Closed for the day.” My sister and I would explode in a cheer, my mother often joining as she was the school nurse and it meant she got to stay home, too. On January 22, 1987, at 9 a.m., The temperature at our house in Lancaster, Pennsylvania dropped from 27 F to 0 in a matter of minutes and wind blew 5 more inches of snow against the sides of our family house as I ate my apple and cinnamon oatmeal at the dining room table. Later, my sister, mother and I would gather downstairs to watch The Price is Right with the eraser-headed Bob Barker. We weren’t alone in this day-off ritual: most of my friends have fond memories of the Showcase Showdowns of our youth. 

My sister and I were sitting cross-legged on the spongy, white carpet, staring up at the 19-inch screen of our old Zenith TV. A giant, gray box with a bulbous green screen and dials to change the channels, we were constantly fucking with it to get it to work right: smacking it on the side, jiggling the cables in the back. When we settled it, it settled us. That morning, like so many others, we sat gawking at the box until we felt like going out in the snow and completely exhausting ourselves. We moved through the morning cartoons (GI Joe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers and MASK) to the game shows (TPIR, Press Your Luck), then getting out of the house before the soaps came on. My mother rocked behind us on a yellow and green plaid recliner with a thick fantasy book open and resting on its pages in her lap. There we sat, watching the contestant spin the giant wheel with glittering numbers on it when a news break interrupted the show. 

Here’s what I remember: 

“This is WGAL with breaking news from the state capital today as Pennsylvania State Treasurer, R. Budd Dwyer is about to start a press conference where he is expected to announce his resignation following a conviction of…” 

I let the anchor trail off and exchanged an annoyed look with my sister before turning back to the screen and letting my gaze soften on it, slipping in and out of attention and wishing we could go back to the second half of The Price is Right. Three old white dudes were stuffed into brown suits at a white folding table and the one in the middle was talking. He was a balding, brown-haired man, beefy and looking hot under the collar. I heard cameras ticking off pictures and watched as the flashes lit shadowed the three men on the wood paneled wall behind them. The men bookending him remain faceless, but the man in the middle, R. Budd Dwyer, holds firmly after 35 years. Red-faced, frustrated, fuming, sweat beads carving lines down the slope of his fleshy forehead. He was angry and scared and I had no idea what he was talking about. 

The man pulled out a manilla envelope, stood and said, “Now, nobody do anything, I don’t want anyone here to get hurt,” and he pulled out a large, black revolver. The man then stuck the barrel of the revolver into his mouth, there was a pop and something brown behind him on the wall, and R. Budd Dwyer slumped forward, dead by suicide on live TV. 

“Oh my god,” my mother punctuated from the recliner behind us. I turned and saw her leaning forward with her hand over her mouth and her eyes wide behind her big, plastic framed glasses. The chunky paperback fell to the floor. 

“Mom!” my sister shouted. “You took God’s name in vain!” startled more at our conservative Christian mother’s slip than the live gore we had just witnessed.  

“I’m sorry, you kids shouldn’t do that, I’m just so shocked. You shouldn’t have ever seen that; they shouldn’t ever have showed that.” My sister and I looked at each other, barely processing what had just happened. 

“Why did he do that, Mom?” I asked calmly. Our lack of shock betrayed the intensity of our mother’s. 

“He accepted a bribe and got caught,” she said simply, as if that explained it all. 

“What’s a bribe?” I asked. My older sister rolled her eyes and turned back to the TV. 

“Someone paid him money to do something illegal.”

“Oh. Huh,” I nodded like I understood. I didn’t. I didn’t understand at all. I didn’t understand what he did or what made him do it. Suicide was outside the boundaries of my imagination, it had yet to be introduced. Budd Dwyer taught me something that day and I have kept it with me ever since. 

Over the next five years, suicide became a consistently constant companion and has never left me for good. Not really. Dark thoughts invade my happiest moments for no reason, turning my attention away from what is in front of me and putting me in a hypothetical future, if even for a few moments. Trauma was the seed, and, 35 years later, I’m starting to think Budd Dwyer was the water. 

MY mind is one of those dark and macabre places best left running from, not towards. I am the person who can’t sleep and puts on a horror movie to relax me. I stalk the stacks of the internet, reading about cults, serial killers, plunging depths the squares would never dream of. I’m not alone and I’m not weird. The fellowship of the dark is a wide and diverse space and most of us are very compassionate and conscientious in our daily dealings. A lot of speculation and discussion revolves around why I and others like me are quieted by the caliginous. In the end, it’s more important for the rest of the world to know we exist, and we are harmless, unlike the subjects we tend to obsess over. 

The impetus for my trips to the shadow side of life starts with my childhood. It was full of abuse and complex trauma. I dealt with depression as a child and increased in intensity when I was in middle school. By the time I was 14, in the 9thgrade, and had just lived through another very publicized gunshot suicide: that of my middle school hero, Kurt Cobain. By Christmas of 1994, the common thought of I wish I was dead turned to I want to die, and finally, I want to kill myself and this is how I’ll do it

There weren’t guns around the home, we weren’t that kind of family. My dad didn’t go fishing or camping or anything like that; it wasn’t our family’s style. My mother was a nurse, so what we did have was a lot of medication. One weeknight when I was 16, I tried telling my mother about these horrible thoughts and images in my head that drew out a profound sense of sadness, loneliness, and isolation. I told her I had started smoking pot and using other drugs and I thought it was part of the problem. I told her I wanted help and she spit in my face. 

“When I see how your father looks at you, I see the same hate I used to see in my mother’s eyes when she looked at your Uncle Tim.” My mother’s response to my feelings, my confessions, was to tell me my father hated me. It only served to confirm what I already felt: My entire family was against me, they hated me; they wanted me gone as much as I wanted to go. Thoughts of my family were the only thing barring me from swallowing a handful of pills and diving headfirst into oblivion. The following afternoon, before anyone came home, I took 10 Demoral, put on Pink Floyd’s The Wall and clicked to Comfortably Numb and set it on repeat. I laid down in my twin bed, looking out over my small, dim, and dirty room. Letting the music rinse over me, I closed my eyes and waited for the void and slowly drifted out of consciousness. 

My mother was screaming. 

“God damnit, mom. What?” I sluiced out. My head was at the bottom of the deep end at the pool, bobbing up and down, swimming in and out. I forced open my eyes, each weighing three pound and were Velcroed to my eyeballs; everything was ringed in its own halo of light. I was still in bed, but it was dark outside. My mother stood over me, still screaming hysterically and holding the empty, opaque, orange bottle of my father’s old pain medication. 

“You took your fathers pills to get high, didn’t you? DIDN’T YOU?” more unintelligible screaming as she left my room and walked across the upstairs landing to her and my father’s. I heard her muttering and punching numbers into the phone. I felt more fucked up than I had ever been, which isn’t saying much seeing as I was only 16. Honestly, I felt fantastic for the first few minutes, enjoying the high until I realized the high was far too much for me. I began seeing bugs crawling under my skin and beneath the sheets like some sort of afterschool special. Is that what I’d become? An afterschool special? A warning, like that girl who took LSD and jumped out of that window? 

“Talk to your uncle,” My mother hollered at me, handing me the cordless phone with the long, silver antenna extended out of the top. I put the phone to my ear. 

“Who the fuck do you think you are, huh? What the fuck do you think you’re doing? What are you doing to your mother? I oughta drive down there and beat your ass with a baseball bat,” my uncle was screaming now, too. 

Fuck this noise, I thought and pressed the hang up button, threw the phone on the bed and laid back down, fascinated and frightened by these little black bugs under my skin and sheets. 

My mother and father took me to the hospital where they were informed that it was too late to pump my stomach and they observed me over night. Sitting on a gurney in a hospital hallway, I tried squishing the bugs away, but it didn’t work. Eventually I fell asleep. 

The next morning my parents told me I was going to Charter Westbrook, which everyone at school knew was for crazy, fucked up teenagers on drugs. I had a couple friends who ended up there and the execrable stories they told when they returned scared the shit out of me. Sexual assaults, beatings, constant verbal abuse from residents and staff. No way fucking way in hell I was going there, but my parents were convinced I was a drug addict. They didn’t know I was trying to end my life; they wouldn’t know for a long time. 

An epic shouting match ended with my parents capitulating and not long after, they sat me down and told me I could do whatever I want. 

“No curfew?” I asked. 

“No curfew. Do whatever you want. We don’t care. If you get in trouble with the cops, it’s on you. Don’t come crying to us.” 

Suicide may have been a foreign concept to my mother and father, who were legalistic, conservative evangelicals. I don’t think depression existed to them until it was thrust upon them later in my life, when they could no longer turn away. Christians didn’t get depressed, and they thought I was a Christian. They knew about some of the abuse, but not all of it, and didn’t recognize their role in the torment I felt at home. Not that it would have mattered, we’re talking about two people who tried to exorcise a demon out of me when I was having a mental health meltdown in 8th grade (we’ll leave that for another essay). For me, suicide became more and more a part of my everyday existence. 

At some point in my 20s, I realized that I would have suicidal ideation at the strangest times: I could be at a party, laughing and drinking with friends, I could be on Christmas morning opening gifts with family, I could be riding my bike through the county park on a perfect spring morning, and suddenly I would picture myself launching from a bridge, or putting a gun in my mouth, like I’d seen Budd Dwyer do so many years before. 

My constant suicidality is a result of complex, ongoing trauma when I was younger, but I must wonder whether it was actualized by witnessing Dwyer on television on that snow day in 1987. I must wonder: Did seeing that man put a gun in his mouth and pull the trigger put the near-constant imaginary movies in my own head? 

THE website where I find the original video of R. Budd Dwyer’s suicide is called Deep Gore Tube.

It’s a website devoted to videos depicting gory, true events captured on film. Now, I love horror movies and gore and blood spray just as much as the next person who loves horror movies, gore, and blood spray, but I’m not interested in digging through real-life footage of grisly events throughout history, so I left the rest of the site alone. But I watched the footage I hadn’t seen in over 30 years; God help me I did. 

“No, no, no,” The balding, middle-aged, white bear of a man with a deep voice spoke as he held up a revolver procured from a nondescript manilla envelope. Media lights shine and sparkle off the revolver’s chrome chamber and long barrel.  “Don’t, don’t don’t. Don’t anybody move, this is gonna hurts someone.” 

“Don’t do it Budd!” Someone yells from offscreen. 

“Budd, don’t do this!” Screams a woman. 

More shouts of protest as the talk, balding man raises his hands, the empty one palm out. He puts the gun in his mouth and doesn’t hesitate to pull the trigger. There’s a pop and R. Budd Dwyer falls to his knees and then to the floor, held up by a desk and the wall. Blood is on the wall behind him, and the camera then zooms in on his face, rivers of dark crimson gushing from his nose and mouth, flowing heavy and forming a pool on his shirt. Another river cascades from the crown of his head, through the bald plains of his forehead, down past his left eye, then dripping onto his crisp white collar. 

 A screaming terror ensues. 

“Oh my god, no!”

“Oh god!”

“Oh shit, oh fuck!” 

“Ok, ok, everyone calm down.” 

“We’re need someone to call an ambulance and a doctor and the police, don’t panic.”

“OK everyone, don’t panic. Don’t panic.”

A man in a three piece suit stands at the table of the press conference, arms raised elbow height, palms down. He’s making the “calm down” gesture. It’s quite futile, these people just witnessed someone die by suicide right in front of them. 

And so did I. 

The video is incredibly disturbing, and I force myself to watch it over and over so I can describe it accurately. Afterwards, it is painted on the inside of my eyelids for a few days. I take a rest from working on this manuscript to become more tranquil with the video, to write about it with a clear head. 

There is a twist in the plot, here. My memory of watching Dwyer off himself was missing the gore, the detail. It’s as if my 7 year old brain burned these images out as soon as I saw them. In one eye, out the other so to speak. As I watched, 35 yeas later, a lot of questions ring around my skull. Why did Budd Dwyer do this? What drove him to such a public self-execution? How did it get played in full on network TV on a well-publicized snow day? Why did the camera operator zoom in? 

BUDD DWYER was a social studies teacher and football coach who at Cambridge Springs High School, a 45-minute drive south from the freezing Lake Erie. In 1964, Dwyer ran for the office of state representative for District 6 on the Republican ticket. He was elected and subsequently re-elected in 1966 and 1968. The turning of the decade saw Dwyer now running for state senator, which he also won and was re-elected twice. After fifteen years of service to the state house, in 1980 Dwyer ran for the office of State Treasurer where he edged out his Democrat rival, Al Benedict. He was re-elected to the seat again in 1984. 

On May 10, 1984, Dwyer awarded a no-bid contract to California-based Computer Technology Associates (hereafter referred to as CTA) which was owned by Harrisburg, PA native John Torquato Jr. The contract was awarded to the computer concern so they could track the payouts of FICA funds to state employees who had overpaid in taxes. The most salient facts were that the 4.6 million dollar award was overvalued at millions of dollars. A sharp-eyed comptroller from Pittsburgh noticed the discrepancies. In late July 1984, a CTA employee named Janice Kinkaid released a sworn statement that said Dwyer had received $300,000 in kickbacks from the computer concern after the contract was awarded. Federal investigators started the case, and Dwyer tried numerous times to derail the investigation. In the end he was charged with conspiracy, hightail bribery, and mail fraud. Furthermore, by obstructing a federal investigation he violated the Hobbs act and received another charge for this. 

The case was open and shut. Torquato Jr. and several of his associates were indicted in October of 1984. During their trial, Torquato testified that his associate, William Smith offered Dwyer a $300,000 bribe to receive the overpriced contract. Smith denied this and said the contribution was for Dwyer’s political campaign. Smith failed a polygraph, and by the time of the trial had changed his story, admitting to the bribe but noting it was upon Torquato’s insistence. 

Finally, in July 1986, Dwyer was finally indicted. William Smith, to reduce his 12-year prison sentence, testified against him (it didn’t work, Smith finished out his sentence). During the ensuing trial, more details about the investigation were released. In 1984, Dwyer won approval for special legislation that allowed him to have sole control over FICA funds, setting him up to control the contract offering. Dwyer attempted to conceal his involvement by erasing an important day in his planner where he met with Torquato and Smith and was offered the bribe. Furthermore, CTA was found out to be a fly-by-night computer company with only three employees and little to no experience. It was found that Dwyer also rejected a bid from a Pennsylvania based operation who claimed they could do the same work in less time for half the money.  Confronted with these facts, Dwyer dug himself deeper with his shovel of lies to cover the charges. 

On December 8, 1986, Dwyer was found guilty of eleven counts of conspiracy, mail fraud, perjury, racketeering, and was facing a sentence of up to 55 years in prison and a fine equal to the bribe he took. Dwyer subsequently wrote to then President Ronald Reagan requesting a pardon, and US Senator Arlen Specter for support. Dwyer angrily railed against the media, stating they crucified him. Dwyer blamed the uneducated, rural jury for not understanding the complexity of the case. This was all to no avail. There was no conspiracy to oust R. Budd Dwyer from the State Treasurers office. 

Budd’s sentencing was scheduled for January 23, 1987. On the night of January 21, he contacted his press secretary, James Horshock and asked him to set up the fateful press conference the following day. The press was rounded and turned out in force. Initially, Dwyer asked for certain journalists and outlets to be barred, as he remained committed to his claims of conspiracy by the media. In the end, no one was excluded. Journalist rushed to cover the event, where everyone, including Horshock, believed Dwyer would officially resign from his seat as State Treasurer before being sentenced the following day. He read his statement then pulled out the gun. 

THERE is a second part to this story: the airing of the tape. Dwyer’s on-camera death is a flashpoint for the political history of Pennsylvania. The footage was indeed shown across the state of PA, to children who were home due to the New Jersey blizzard that was affecting our state. Still, it depended on where you lived if you saw the footage. 

In the urban borders of the state, Pittsburgh to the west and Philadelphia to the east, the footage was not shown. There was a break-in from the news, but they reported the event instead of showing it. Edited footage was shown on some Philadelphia newscasts at 5 and 11 pm respectively and full audio of the press conference was played on other stations in both cities. In the south-central part of the state, which included the cities of Harrisburg, York, and Lancaster, the entire footage was shown. 

Backlash was immediate and powerful and anchor/producer of WHTM out of Harrisburg appeared at 12:30 p.m. to apologize for showing the tape, saying the station did not do a sufficient job of preparing the audience for the content. However, WHTM aired the footage in full again at the 6pm hour, as many families were sitting down to dinner. ABC27 also ran the footage twice. WGAL ran a slightly edited but still shocking clip. When contacted for a story running on the 35th anniversary of Dwyer’s death by suicide, one long-time WHTM assignment editor stated the event still casts a pall over the station. 

Returning to school a few days later, I can’t recall the conversations I would have had with my friends. I doubt we talked about it beyond a mere mentioning and asking if anyone else had seen it. 35 years later, I have asked over a dozen of my friends from that area if they remember the press conference. Not one of them knew what I was talking about; they’d never heard of Budd Dwyer. On the other hand, my sister immediately responded in the affirmative as did my mother. 

The footage is not hard to find on the web. Since it was broadcast in its entirety, it’s available on several different sites that cater to the grim fascinations of many. The event inspired a top ten hit in the 90’s “Hey Man, Nice Shot” by the band Filter. Various metal bands have used the audio as a backtrack to their songs. It is infamous amongst a certain crowd. People are fascinated by it. I’m fascinated with their fascination. I wonder if it’s because they can see themselves in a situation where they’d have no way out.

PREDICAMENT based suicide occurs when the victim has no previous history of suicidal ideation, no severe and disabling mental health diagnoses, and no indication of a plan. The suicidality stems from a predicament (such a cheap word in this context) occurring in the victim’s life, such as facing 55 years of prison time. Or facing a painful, terminal diagnosis, or dying in protest such as Thich Quan Duc, the Buddhist monk who self-immolated in Vietnam, 1963. The loss of a fortune, the unexpected, sudden loss of a loved-one, or the jumpers on 9/11: these are considered predicament based suicides. Each of the victims found themselves in a situation with (to them) no discernable way out other than death. 

Budd Dwyer turned out to have an entirely different reason for dying by suicide. While he certainly didn’t want to spend the rest of his life behind bars (Club Fed is not a real thing, Dwyer would have been in for misery), he knew if he resigned or was removed from office he would forfeit the 1.25 million dollar pension payout his wife would receive. Rather than saddling his wife with a life of destitution while he wasted away behind bars, Dwyer opted to die by suicide to ensure she would receive the pension. 

Suicide in my life has not been predicament-based. Initially, it was a maladaptive reaction to the complex trauma I’d experienced. As I grew older and inched into my thirties, I began noticing the suicidal ideation vaulting into my head space when I wasn’t actively depressed or anxious. Today, at age 43, I recognize these random suicidal thoughts to be a behavioral reaction, one that I have learned and wired into the schematics of my brain. It’s a construction that is difficult to get away from. Especially when you’re a musician and have seen too many of your friends die this way. 

The first person I knew to die by suicide was when I was 24. I remember was an author, and I didn’t know him exceptionally well, but he was well-known in my scene. He and I had started hanging out just prior to his death. I still don’t know what pushed him over the edge. Within the next five years I would lose two more friends to suicide by several different means. When I began working in case management at age 26, I lost clients to suicide. It was a constant concern when I was a psychotherapist. The number of funerals I have attended due to suicide is more than it should be. Death by suicide has been omnipresent in my life since I was 7 years old. 

THE PSYCHIATRIC emergency room (PER) at University of New Mexico hospital is a grim, beige-bathed cluster about a mile away from the actual ER. First I took my clients when they were in crisis. Then I took myself. I went to UNM’s PER more times than I can count. I was held and observed on two occasions. In my 20s and 30s, my suicidality was disabling. Jobs were abandoned, friends on high alert, and my life was constantly unraveling and stitching back together. In 2014 I was placed into residential treatment to address my constant thoughts of death. It didn’t seem to help. 

When I was officially declared disabled in 2016, I began working as a touring musician, thinking this was a burnout free zone for me. It wasn’t. My death wish continued and often worsened on these weeks-long cross country jaunts. There were several occasions when my wife had to fly to where I was, be it Twin Falls, Idaho, Cle Elum, Washington, or Indianapolis, Indiana, and drive me home to safety. I cannot think of one tour that didn’t end in this type of disaster.  By the end of 2018, only two years after I’d started embarking on a musical career, I was sidelined. Nothing was working. My wife and I seemed out of options and I was truly on the edge. 

Following yet another rescue by my wife, we decided it was time to make a physical move and we left New Mexico behind, heading for the coastal range of Oregon. People say you can’t run away from your problems, that they will always find you in the end. While this may be a dependable adage, it isn’t the whole truth. Running from your problems often results in the space one needs to address the problems. Then, once the problems catch up, the individual has a plan and place to operate from, finally confronting the problems head on with enough healing behind them to be effective. This has been my practice for a long time. 

WHAT if Dwyer had space to run? Would he have survived? I don’t think so. This is one of the differences between mood-based suicide and predicament-based suicide. The predicament must be the locus of control for the person’s life. There are no exits or places to run, there is no shadow where you can hide from it. With my moods, there were escapes. I could distract and comfort myself with cannabis, cartoons, horror movies, music, and lies. There was New Mexico, and eventually, Oregon. 

Hiding from my suicidality has given me the space to think clearly about it. Now, I know that when my mind wanders off trail and starts going dark for no apparent reason it’s a function of habit. A sad habit, to be sure. A damaging habit. A maladaptive habit. 

But just a habit, nonetheless. Today, as I stare out the into the first gray gloom of the Oregon rain seasons, I’m not bogged down with the darkness. I haven’t had a truly suicidal thought in a couple years. Because I ran, because I hid. Because I gave myself the space I needed to figure it out, to unravel the sweater. 

Last week my wife met me after work at one of our favorite brewpubs in town. It was a crisp and sunny autumn day and I was nursing an ice cold Bavarian pilsner from the Octoberfest event the previous weekend. I tore off a piece of soft pretzel, squinted into the sun, and smiled at my wife as I chewed. She laughs at my face There was a singer-songwriter singing beautiful songs on stage, a lot of laughter was echoing across the concrete floor and reverberating off the wooden, outdoor booths where everyone sat. There was a long line for the bar, but I had my full beer in hand, and it didn’t worry me. Suddenly, an image flashed in my head: Me, my mouth wrapped around the long barrel of a silver revolver. I pull the trigger. 

“What’s wrong?” my wife asks as she notices my change in countenance. 

“Nothing,” I smile, and the macabre image disappears in the blue pools of my wife’s eyes. “Nothing at all.“

IN the 35 years since Budd Dwyer’s public suicide, we have learned a lot of new facts about the man, most notably his desire for his wife to receive his pension when he died. She did– to the tune of 1.28 million dollars. At the time it was the largest death benefit the Pennsylvania Municipal Retirement System had ever paid out. It would be worth 3.1 million if adjusted for inflation in 2022.

We later learned that Dwyer handed a manilla envelope to his press secretary that held a suicide note to his wife. Another manilla envelope handed to his deputy press secretary held his organ donor card and instructions to get him to Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, PA for their harvesting. They couldn’t carry out this final request because Dwyer’s body was left sitting in that room for too long, the organs had all died. 

We learned that there were men and women who did actively and physically try and stop Dwyer from pulling the trigger. We learned there was absolutely no knowledge of Dwyer’s plan by his political team and associates. We learned there was a man behind the controversy, behind the shock, behind the barrel of the gun. 

We learned the person who replaced Dwyer after his death by suicide, Catherine Baker Knoll, was elated to show guests to her office the bullet hole Dwyer’s shot made. We can still see the bullet hole marking the wall of the office to this day. 

I Dream of John Henry

John Henry once came to me in a dream.

“I’m not as dumb as you think I am, you know,” He said, forlornly. His four paws patted the macadam, light and nimble, as his legs pumping him forward and a slight breeze blew through his rust-colored fur. A slight jounce remained in his step from his waning puppy-hood. Oy, our small, blonde Shiba Inu cross and Lucy, my loyal and recently deceased Rat Terrier trotted quickly on either side of John Henry and me.

“I’m smart in my own ways, you need to see that. When you see that, you’ll see me,” my relatively new rescue dog finished, then remained silent.

When I awoke, I told my wife about the dream and looked to John Henry. John is one of those eternally happy dogs who has a grin plastered to his face at all times and his ever-exploring tongue lolling out the front. He has kind eyes, dark brown and deep, but also aloof and graciously goofy. John took my look as an invitation to climb into our morning bed, and it was as such. He nestled into as inconvenient a position as possible in relation to my wife and I’s current coordinates in the bed, as was his way. I shook my head and scruffed him between the ears for a few seconds until he let out a satisfied “Phrumph,” and lay his head on my blanketed thigh.

John Henry came into our lives approximately six months prior to his short conversation with me. My aforementioned Rat Terrier, Lucy, had died at the age of fifteen. Our vet warned us of her impending expiry a few months ahead of time and I was able to prepare myself for losing her, my first furry companion. When she succumbed, I moved like a machine through the steps I had rehearsed countless times in my head and my wife and I took our loving Lucy to the appropriate pet cremation center. I cried a bit on the way home, but mostly I was prepared. What I wasn’t prepared for was the loneliness.

Prior to my then fiancée’s cross-country move from Philadelphia to Albuquerque, I had two small dogs: Lucy and Oy. Once my wife arrived, all of Oy’s loyalties shifted to her and I was so much chopped liver. Whatever, I still had my little Lucy, who’s loyalty would never wander (indeed, she mistrusted my wife for quite some time after she moved in). When Lucy was gone, Oy didn’t magically start velcroing himself to my side. To the contrary, he invested more of himself in my wife. I’d said I wasn’t going to adopt another dog right away, but this creeping sense of envy chewed at me like a puppy on a favorite shoe. Or a favorite t-shirt. Or my dad’s wallet. Or my brand fucking new flip-flops.

When I read about an adoption fair the upcoming weekend in a park across the street from our neighborhood I remarked to my wife, “Maybe I’ll just stop by and take a look.” As the days lead up to the event, I was remarking to myself, “I’ll only consider a dog who chooses me,” adhering to the mystical belief of many dog rescuers that their reclaimed pups were simply waiting for them to show up. On the day of the event I recited this mantra to myself, and said aloud to my wife, “I’m not getting a dog today.” I crossed the street and wove through the tchotchke shops in Old Town Albuquerque, making my way to a quad of grass where two, large campers were parked.

The was a lot of noise coming from the campers. Excited children squealed and equally exuberant prospective adoptees whined, pawed at crate doors, and let out random, staccato yips. The first camper I entered was about twenty-feet long and indiscriminately common from the outside. The mundane appearance betrayed the colorful chaos inside. There was slight walkway bordered by metal dog crates of various sizes on either side. Some had occupants, others did not. There were a few aforementioned squealing children and their exasperated parents, no doubt already thinking about how they were going to say “No,” when their kids inevitably asked to take one of the scruffy rescues home.

I made my way through the first trailer with no distinct emotions triggered by any of the dogs. I’d rescued my first two dogs, and I was awaiting the intuitive spark that would happen if my dog found me. It didn’t happen. I made my way to the second trailer, watching two kids play with a puppy in the quad. This camper was quieter: less dogs, less kids. One ASPCA volunteer greeted me jovially. He watched as I slowly walked through the camper, peering into each occupied crate, analyzing my emotions and coming up empty. I was about to give up when I got to the final crate.

There was a red-orange ball of fluff, the color of a New Mexico sunset, curled tightly into the smallest ball it could, pressed against the far-back corner of the crate. This pup had sad eyes and was obviously scared. Consider the spark ignited.

“Who’s this?” I asked, pointing at the fiery fur ball.

“Oh, that’s Aries. He’s uh, well, he’s a different kind of dog.” And the jovial worker proceeded to tell me that Aries couldn’t walk, was not house broken, and had spent his entire life (seven months at this point) in the shelter.

“Why can’t he walk,” I asked, “Does he have a permanent injury?” I was a sucker for unabled dogs: Lucy only had one eye and it was a deciding factor in adopting her.

“He wouldn’t walk to his food or water or to go outside when he was small, so we carried him everywhere. We still do, I guess he never learned to walk.”

A dog who never learned to walk? And they carried him around the shelter? No wonder he didn’t walk. I was astounded at these actions: Aries was easily thirty pounds, not even close to fully grown, and carrying him around would become untenable in the near future. I was angry at this perceived malfeasance. “I’m interested,” I snapped, “Can I spend some time with him?”

“Well, sure you can, but…” I stopped the volunteer with a wave and asked him to let Aries out. The volunteer opened the crate and Aries seemed to cower further back into the corner. He needed coaxing to move closer, so the volunteer could scoop him up and transport him to the grassy quad, where I sat down, and Aries promptly peed on me.

“Uh,” the volunteer began.

“Don’t worry about it,” I countered, and looked Aries in the eyes. They were big, sad, and dark. There was goop collected in the tear duct, staining his face fur a bloody brown. He smelled like a dirty barn. I was in love. I gently wheedled him closer, and he eventually lay his chin on my thigh and looked up to me. The hooks were set, and I pulled my phone out to call my wife.

“Love, I think you have to come over here,” I said, not hiding the joy in my voice.

“Oh boy, did you find something?”

“I think so, just come over.” Within ten minutes, my wife was sitting on the grass with Aries and me and I was explaining with some enthusiasm about how Aries couldn’t walk and peed on me immediately and weren’t his sad eyes just the sweetest and his name was stupid so that would have to change, and don’t you think we should just take him home and love him forever?

Admittedly, it was a lot to take in, but my wife has known me since we were in high school and knew there wasn’t much of an argument to make. She asked the volunteer all the sensible questions about vaccinations, health, temperament, etc. She asked me all the sensible questions about owning a dog that couldn’t walk and wasn’t housebroken. I was unphased, this dog was already mine as far as I was concerned. An adoption fee of fifteen-dollars was exchanged with the volunteer and I gathered Aries, newly christened John Henry, in my arms and walked him to the car, where he promptly peed on the back seat. I laughed. My wife didn’t.

When John Henry got home, I picked him up and walked him over the threshold of our small house. Oy, the little, yellow Shiba Inu cross, was wary as I set John Henry down in the bed next to him. Sniffing ensued, and my wife got the bag of treats from on top of the fridge to reward our newest member of the family. Oy jumped high in the air, his typical behavior whenever treats were introduced, and John Henry watched, confused, as if he’d never seen a treat before.

Oy greedily inhaled his treat and John Henry was interested. He sniffed at the small morsel in my wife’s hand, then he took it into his mouth with a gentle manner in complete contrast to Oy’s avaricious snaps. I had to laugh as John Henry visibly turned the treat over in his mouth several times before finally crunching into it. Something came alive in him: my wife walked the treats back into the kitchen and John Henry popped up onto his feet and followed her!

We were not-so-quietly astonished at this abrupt turn and we gave this stinky, sticky dog so many hugs and scruffles and treats to reward him that he forgot he couldn’t walk. My wife graciously bathed him (he was not a fan) and by the end of the day he was walking alongside Oy, with a new leash attached to a new collar attached to a head attached face that wouldn’t stop smiling for at least the next five years.

It wasn’t just walking that John Henry picked up quickly, either. His accidents in the park and back seat of our car were the some of the only times it would happen. John Henry seemed to pick up being house broken from watching Oy, and by the second day he was going outside in regular intervals and by the end of the week he was coming up and asking to go out when he needed it.

This transformation happened so quickly it was jarring. John Henry went from being a sad, forlorn, and lonely dog to a joyful, loyal companion within a matter of days. My loneliness had been evacuated, as John Henry was most certainly my dog. He sat with his chin on my thigh when I watched TV. He and I went on early morning walks before everyone else was awake, because we really liked walking by the local golf course when the sprinklers were running: me because of the smell, John because he liked to try and catch the errant spray in his mouth when it would breach the fence.

But, John Henry was still a puppy, and would remain so for the next year-and-a-half. This fact was hammered home when he ate my favorite shoes, sandals, flip-flops, shirts, and even completely trashed my dad’s wallet, credit cards and all. He always went after my things and left my wife’s alone. Because he was my dog. I guess he thought chewing up my things was a gift to me. It certainly wasn’t, and I yelled at him more than once. His response was always the same: He’d look up at me with those big, happy eyes and break into the biggest grin you have ever seen grace the face of a dog.

We started noticing peccadillos in John Henry’s behavior about a month into his residence with us. Training school had been a mixed bag, Oy graduated but John Henry did not. He couldn’t leave the other dogs alone. He could sit, (usually) came when called, but generally was fairly obstinate and didn’t seem to listen well. He would walk from room to room in our small house every fifteen minutes. At night, he slept by the door, blocking midnight trips to the bathroom. His general goofiness, imperviousness to correction, his ceaseless licking of every surface in sight, and his growing obstinance led us to believe he wasn’t intelligent.

On the contrary, Oy was obviously smart as a whip. He passed training school with flying colors. He always listened and did what he was told. I’m not saying Oy was perfectly well behaved, he certainly wasn’t. But, he did seem incredibly smart in contrast to John’s seemingly senseless behavior and overt rebellion.

My wife and I went so far as to begin introducing our dogs as “Oy, the smart one, and John Henry, the simple one.” She and I would laugh at John Henry’s slapstick actions and inability to understand what we saw as simple commands. In a relatively short period of time, John Henry’s behavior began to deteriorate: more items were getting chewed up and walks had become intolerable due to his inability to get along with other dogs. I started yelling and getting angry at him more often. I was frustrated: I loved this goofy, playful dog of ours, but he wasn’t getting it. I didn’t understand, my other two dogs had been so easy to acclimate to the house.

 I was right: I didn’t get it. Then, I had the dream. The morning after, as I remained in bed and the sun was breaching the cracks in the window blinds, I scruffed John Henry between the ears and he smiled and batted at my hand with a lazy paw. After breakfast, I began looking into the breeds John Henry was supposedly a mix of: Golden Retriever and Australian Shepherd. I was fascinated by the attributes I found. John Henry was a herding dog and was behaving perfectly as one.

As I read, it started to sink in. I was thinking about this all wrong. John Henry is constantly vigilant, that was his order. He is always protecting his herd. He paces from room to room keeping a watchful eye. His behavior towards other dogs is out of protection. He sleeps in front of the door like a sheep dog would sleep in front of the fence gate. His “obstinance” stems from his priorities: Protect the herd at all costs. Why bother listening to a pointless command when the herd needs watching? Our lives are more important to him than rolling over.

John Henry has been with us for nine years, now. He’s almost ten. He hasn’t changed much over the years. He’s slowed down, sure he has. Who doesn’t at that age? He remains ever vigilant, and he continues to learn new tricks. Recently, we noticed that if I say the words, “I don’t feel good,” he comes trotting over to check on me. This is a phrase uttered a lot in our autistic household, and John Henry never fails to answer the call.

My Problem with Autistic Meltdowns: Part Two

This summer has been an adventure in more ways than one.

This past spring, I wrote a piece about my long struggle with violent, autistic meltdowns. In it, I talk about the problems I’ve had with controlling my meltdowns and basically not breaking things in my house. As I promised in that piece, I’m back to provide a “part two” update on my work with meltdowns.

Freedom from Shame

Over the past year, I’ve been lucky to reconnect with a good, old friend of mine from my undergraduate years. He has been walking his own mental health journey and we have been able to forge a meaningful connection based on some of our shared experiences, mainly the explosive vents we both experience within our respective diagnoses, but also regarding the shame and depression that follows each of these incidents.

When I have a violent meltdown and throw something against the wall and create a dent, or I punch a door and create a hole, or I throw my inhaler and it errantly hits the TV and completely bricks it, I inevitably feel incredible amounts of shame once I have returned to a more stable sense of self. This shame perpetuates depression, which can then push me towards another meltdown. For me, autistic burnout occurs when this process becomes cyclical: I can’t free myself and it becomes self-perpetuating.

Shortly after writing my original piece, I was speaking with my friend about my most recent violent meltdown, and I was recounting the myriad of things I had done: Thrown my lamp, broken my nightstand, screamed and screamed at anything moving or making noise in my house, and it lasted for hours. He offered this: “Instead of telling yourself about all the stuff you did, try telling yourself all the stuff you didn’t do.”

The Next Meltdown

I didn’t have to wait long for my next meltdown and to try my friend’s advice. What precipitated the meltdown was immaterial; what’s important was the aftermath. I remember running to my bedroom, slamming the door, screaming unintelligibly, and remaining on my bed with my face in a pillow for some time, but not for long. When my screams subsided, and our dogs sensed safety, they came rushing onto the bed to comfort me, as did my wife. The meltdown was over, and swiftly.

Afterwards, I began listing the things I didn’t do: I didn’t throw anything. I didn’t break anything. I didn’t yell at the dogs or my wife. I also didn’t feel the cold shame I’d become used to in the aftermath of my meltdowns.

Data and Debriefing

Another thing my friend recommended I do, and something my wife and I always have done, was debrief each meltdown and collect the data. Both my wife and I are serious data hounds: we’ve both been researchers in our lives and it’s ingrained in us. We hadn’t combined our practice of debriefing with our custom of data collection (we do have a tendency to chart a lot of my behavior for interpretation).

In debriefing, I was able to list the ways the meltdown went right to my wife. Any time I would begin to drift towards a damning statement about my behavior, we would check it and return back to what went right (kind of like following your breath in mindfulness meditation: when you get distracted, make note of it and return your attention to your breath). This is where the anti-shame work really happens.

By collecting data, which we do very informally (but I could totally see my nerdy wife and I turning it into spreadsheet), I am able to see the progress I’ve made in several areas including frequency, intensity, length, precipitating factors and stressors, and levels of shame or depression following. We then use the data to screen for future meltdowns: what situations could lead to one? What environmental triggers cause more intense meltdowns? How are the levels of negative emotions effected by the aforementioned factors?

In reviewing the data, we saw the change we’d been hoping for.

The Shame-Rage Cycle

The shame-rage cycle describes feelings happening when a person is shamed (being humiliated, embarrassed, or feeling judged) and those negative feelings turn into aggressive behaviors. The rage or aggression occurs as the person is trying to avoid feeling the shame. In counseling and psychology, we see normally see this occur in people who have been abused or bullied because these people are made to feel fault and shame by their perceived defects.

When we apply the shame-rage cycle to my meltdowns, we can see direct results. The more shame I feel following a meltdown increases the severity of my depression, which is a stressor that often leads to another meltdown, another incident where rage can emerge.

Shame-rage cycles are hardwired processes, so they are incredibly difficult to change. Mine come directly from an abusive childhood. However, the human brain has something called “neuroplasticity”, meaning it can and will change its schematics under optimal conditions. My friend gave me one of those conditions by telling me to focus on what went right with the meltdowns rather than what went wrong.

Breaking the Cycle

One simple change made an enormous difference in breaking the shame-rage cycle of my meltdowns. After the first debrief, where I was able to name all the things I did not do, my wife and I saw a change. My meltdowns were immediately less intense, less long, and occurred with less frequency. We went from seeing meltdowns occurring multiple times a week to once every three or four weeks. It has been a summer of change in our house.

Perhaps the most exciting change has come in my moods. Autism affected my moods for years, causing intense depression and anxiety. Through debriefing and looking at hard data, I’ve come to understand a lot of my depression comes post-meltdown. Levels of severity and violence in meltdowns appear to have a causal relationship with concurrent levels of depression and stress.

At this point, at the end of the summer, I can say with surety that I have broken the cycle for the time being. Honestly, I’ve had a wonderful summer as a result.

Living Free

I feel like I’m living free from the anxiety of meltdowns for the first time. This summer has seen me travel all over the place: from New Mexico and California to an upcoming trip to Colorado. Not to mention all over my home state of Oregon. My travels are no longer accompanied by a foreboding sense of doom. I used to leave for my road trips in tears and come home exhausted and completely crashed. Now, I am excited when I leave, and recharged when I return.

Part of this is how I’ve learned to mitigate my sensory and social environment (another blog, for sure). A lot of this is because I’m living free of the shame and rage I’ve come to expect in life. I owe a lot to my friend’s words.

But I also owe a lot to myself and my commitment to this work, which is something we often ignore.

Moving Forward

I’m so glad to be moving forward in my autistic life after living in a morass for so long. Right now, the name of the game is maintenance. This is new and exciting for me. I feel like I can breathe clearly, like my head’s above the water of my autism for the first time ever. It’s wonderful.

I plan on continuing my practice of debriefing and data. I plan on adding new stress reduction techniques to my life. I plan on seeing as much of the world as I can, as safely as possible with regards to public and personal health. When I think of how far I’ve come in the past five years, I’m quite happy with who I am.

Meltdowns have made me a better person. It’s strange to frame it like this, but it’s true. I’ve come to a place where I am grateful for them, and I welcome them into my home.

An incredibly happy summer…

Final Session

Happily gazing over the northern Puget Sound.

I had an epic final session with my therapist of eight years earlier today. For the first half of that tenure, I saw her once weekly. I graduated to every ten days, then twice a month, then once monthly. When I moved to Corvallis, I continued to see her via telehealth monthly, and about two months ago I realized I didn’t need to do that anymore.

See, after years and years of work, I’ve finally turned a corner. For the first time in my life, I’m on top of my autism and mental health, not the other way around.

I began seeing Lisa in 2013, right after I applied for the PhD program at UNM. My life was spinning at that point: I was burnt out after only a couple of years as a therapist. I was chronically depressed and suicidal, actively having trauma flashbacks. Lisa supported me through leaving full-time employment and then starting the PhD.

She was instrumental in helping me organize my life when I left UNM suddenly in 2014. She helped me as I navigated residential treatment at Life Healing Center and helped me pick up the pieces when that facility fell short. Lisa supported me as I embarked on my life as a disabled musician, constantly helping me correct the distorted thinking that leads to shame in disabled populations.

And, most importantly, in 2017 she pivoted alongside myself and my wife as the three of us began an exploration of autism and neurodivergence.

When my wife and I brought up our concerns about the possible presence of autism in my life, Lisa did not discount them. She nodded in agreement as we presented the facts of the situation and joined us as we discussed it with my long-time psychiatrist (then in the same office). Not only that, but she referred us to the audiologist who then referred us to the neurologist who eventually handed down my official diagnosis. She was with us the entire time.

We immediately moved away from the trauma-informed sessions that had become the norm. My wife began joining the sessions with me, and from then on, she would be sitting next to me at each session, the three of us learning and collaborating together, as there was no expert to guide us.

Adults who become diagnosed with autism later in life know the trials of finding therapeutic options to help figure out how to cope with the neurotypical world. Simply put, there are very few options out there. Lisa, my wife, and myself spent the past five years in the process of trial and error, and as a result we figured it out for me.

Eight years is a long time to spend in therapy, but when you have complex trauma combined with a developmental disability heretofore unknown, it’s the kind of time you need to process through the muck and develop new strategies for living. It’s hard and noble work. It leaves a lot of blood on the tracks. Most people aren’t privileged enough to work with someone this long, someone who is as committed to the puzzle as they are, and as a result they never feel recovered or whole. Lisa stayed with me throughout the entire process and as a result we won.

That’s how I put it to her today: We won.

Today’s session is a testament to humanistic counseling and person-centered therapy. Only with the space of time could I find myself as healed today as I am. Confident. Happy. I know when I get depressed or suicidal it’s not a life sentence, its merely a weekend stay. I couldn’t have learned all of this in eight sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy, I needed the eight years of unadulterated Rogerian theory: The therapeutic relationship is the most important factor, given time everything else will fall into place.

Lisa and I demonstrated intense “congruence”, or the feeling like we were on the same team, working towards the same goals. There were times in our eight years where I felt we were out of step with one another, but it never took long to get back into focus. It was this congruence that led to The Pivot, and it was The Pivot that led me to where I am today.

While my sessions are ending, my journey continues. In fact, a new one starts today. I am not planning on attending any talk therapy sessions in the near future. I am interested in EMDR therapy for some pesky remnants of my childhood, and I’m also wildly interested in equine therapy for my autism. But these more experiential practices are more for polishing the trophy than earning it.

Because like I told Lisa earlier today: We won.

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.


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.
People who aren’t disabled will never understand disability unless they work hard to wear the shoes of someone else. IMG_2796

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.


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.


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.

Pay Attention Final Artwork.png

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.


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.


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.


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.)


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.


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.

Russell James 10 may 2019

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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.




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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Hiking in Virginia.



The Road Part II: Meaning


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Feeling good on the southern California Coast, April 2017.