January 22, 1987

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

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

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

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

Here’s what I remember: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Someone paid him money to do something illegal.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

My mother was screaming. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No curfew?” I asked. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 A screaming terror ensues. 

“Oh my god, no!”

“Oh god!”

“Oh shit, oh fuck!” 

“Ok, ok, everyone calm down.” 

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

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

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

And so did I. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time for Change

I have been Russell James Pyle all my life. Russ, RJ, Russell, Russell Sprouts, Roos. I’ve gone by a lot of names. My first two solo recordings were under the moniker Russell James Pyle, for what reason I don’t know. I guess I thought it sounded cool. RJP has been an anchor in my life, as all names are, but it’s time to pull the anchor up and move forward.

A lot of people have noticed I’ve changed my professional name and it will become much more pronounced with the release of my latest album in April. In the spirit of authenticity, something I prize a great deal more than any other trait, I’d like to offer a type of explanation. While not exactly candid, it provides some insight into my choice.

Russell James Pyle was abused. Russell James has stood up to the abuse and is proactive about healing the trauma left in its wake. Russell James Pyle had no awareness of Self. Russell James is aware of the true nature of the Self and uses this knowledge to grow. Russell James Pyle was lonely, especially in groups, and even amongst friends. Russell James is confident his true nature relies upon solitude and recognizes the immense beauty found in being alone.

This has been a year of change for me. The changes have come from a deeper understanding of my troubled mental health and I believe they will lead to a more enriching and engaged life. In order to move forward I needed to leave some things behind me. All the shame and rage and all the toxicity associated with my past has to be purged. It’s a life-long project for me. The first step was changing my professional name to reflect the person who has emerged over the past twelve months.

The name change was flying around the back of my head as I was recording my album, and there’s no coincidence in the parallel between a change in musical direction and the change in the moniker. As I was putting the finishing touches on the album in September, I had a deeply personal experience and it pushed me to make the decision. Although I won’t detail the experience (it’s personal), suffice it to say it was a watershed moment in my life. My core beliefs have been based on my past and these beliefs are the foundation for everything else about me. One does not go about this much schematic change willy-nilly. It has been difficult, more so than I could have imagined.

Letting go of a narrative informing the way I have felt and behaved for decades is some serious business, and I’ve had to go to work. It’s painful, but I’ll continue the work in 2018 because it’s worth being done. Changing my name was the first step in another long hike. I can’t wait to see the view at the end.




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me, Too: Afterward

TW: Sexual abuse and assault.

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

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

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

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


Let some light in.


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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


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


Oh, Big Mountain. I’m gonna climb.


Me, Too.

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

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

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

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

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

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



Tiny Russ, circa 1983-84


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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


Performing in NYC, depressed AF.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Summer 2017: Walking On. And On.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hiking in Virginia.



The Road Part II: Meaning


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Barker Dam, Joshua Tree National Park, April 2017.

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


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

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

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

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


Fight or keep moving.

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

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


Feeling good on the southern California Coast, April 2017.


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.


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.


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.