Grateful

Grateful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me, Too: Afterward

TW: Sexual abuse and assault.

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

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

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

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

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Let some light in.

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Oh, Big Mountain. I’m gonna climb.

 

Me, Too.

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

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

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


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

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

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

 

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Tiny Russ, circa 1983-84

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

(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.

 

 

Recovered. Uncovered.

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

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

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

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

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

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