A Newer Leaf

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

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

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

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Me at 40

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Elliott Smith, an early hero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My Greatest Fear

I can’t remember a time when I haven’t had twenty irrational, unfounded fears circling my head. These anxieties can shut me down, can cause meltdowns, and are always hanging out with my depression. I’m pretty sure it just goes with the territory when you’ve had a life like mine, and honestly, I don’t know what it would feel like to live a life free of crippling anxiety, so don’t feel too bad for me.

There is one fear so pervasive, in the front of my mind and all times. It causes more depression in my life than anything else I can identify. I think it is the fear of many people in my situation.

I’m scared to death of my wife dying.

Most likely, my wife and I’s relationship is not like yours. First, we were best friends for a decade before we got romantically involved. When we did, we knew it was forever from the first kiss. Because we were already best friends. Furthermore, we have dealt with more adversity in our marriage than anyone reading this will ever know. We are madly in love with each other, we only want to hang out with each other, and we go through some of the toughest shit a family can go through. Together.

Damnit. None of these words are expressing with our marriage means. It’s unconditional love at its purist. It’s unconditional support and its most powerful. It’s constant companionship; I would literally rather spend 10 minutes with Deborah than any amount of time with literally anyone else (sorry, Obamas). This isn’t the lip services I hear coming from people’s mouths. This is the truest thing in my life.

Deborah not only loves me, hangs out with me all the time, snuggles, raises the dogs with me, she also provides extremely important care for me. Deborah is what we in the disability world would call a “Caregiver”, and she is extremely good at it. Because of her vast, intimate knowledge of who I am, who I have been, and who I want to be, she is (almost) perfect in this role. No one else could ever do what she does, and that’s the truth. No one.

When I think of losing Deborah, my honest first reaction is “Well, that’s a wrap on ol’ Russ, too.” And I would immediately down a bottle of clonazepam and fall into the forever sleep. Not because I have some ridiculous notion that she and I would meet in some afterlife. No, I would die by suicide because life would be too hard without her, and it would no longer have a point.

Here is my greatest fear: I would lose the love and companionship, but almost as important I would lose the support, the caregiving. You don’t understand, I have such a hard time with life-skills. I can’t pay my own bills, I can’t hold down a job, I can’t remember what day it is or what I’m supposed to do tomorrow. I can’t keep track of my appointments or even my daily medication. All the intricate systems we’re developing to keep my life glued together would completely fall apart. I would not only have lost the most important person in my whole life, I would be destitute.

I would be in abject poverty. Most likely I would end up in a group home, which is about the worst thing I can imagine having consulted for them in the past. See, I’ve worked with people like me when I was more functional. I know the system I would become a part of, a system Debo and I are working hard to avoid.

Why am I saying all of this depressing shit? Well, I’m pretty depressed and melty today. I have a friend going through a similar situation, so the issue is in front of my head. But most importantly, YOU NEED TO KNOW.

You need to know because if this ever happens I’m going to need you, my friends. I’m probably going to have to live with someone. I’m going to need a lot of help. I’m scared that won’t happen. This blog is an insurance policy for an awful life-situation that’s completely plausible. I don’t have a family, so to speak. My father and I talk, my two cousins and I talk, but that’s it. My safety net is torn apart. I will have nowhere to go but a bottle of pills.

I’m not trying to scare anyone, or be overly morbid, I’m just trying to be honest. I always try to be authentic, this is no different. It’s a future cry for help before it’s too late.

PS, Deborah is in fine health. We both are, other than my usual bullshit.

The Burden of a Good Day

This post was originally written in fall of 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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GHOSTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ghosts on Soundcloud

Mental Health Awareness Year: Redux

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

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

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My amazing wife in Colorado this summer 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

Thank you, beyond the earth and the sky.

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A Summer Spent Inside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Road Part II: Meaning

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Barker Dam, Joshua Tree National Park, April 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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Fight or keep moving.

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


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

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Feeling good on the southern California Coast, April 2017.