Grateful

Grateful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me, Too: Afterward

TW: Sexual abuse and assault.

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

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

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

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

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Let some light in.

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Oh, Big Mountain. I’m gonna climb.

 

(dis)Abled

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

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

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Performing in NYC, depressed AF.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Summer 2017: Walking On. And On.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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Hiking in Virginia.

 

 

The Road Part II: Meaning

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Barker Dam, Joshua Tree National Park, April 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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Fight or keep moving.

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


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

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Feeling good on the southern California Coast, April 2017.

 

The Road Pt. 1: Meltdowns

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Cape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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