Monday, January 29, 2018

What's Not There

The other night a friend asked how I am. We were at a party, and hadn’t shared a conversation for a few weeks. He asked casually, not putting any special emphasis in his tone, his eye betraying no deeper meaning. Nonetheless I knew I could skip the small talk and go right into talking about how much my meds and therapy have been helping my mood the last few weeks.

Slipping into depression is like being in a room where the breathable air is slowly leaking out. The effect is inconsistent. Sleep becomes mismanaged. Logical errors in thought are explained away and compensated for. It’s difficult to notice before it turns severe, and by that point Pride has already snuck in and moved the EXIT sign to the wrong door (which is locked, bricked up from the other side, and once you finagle and hammer your way through those obstacles it turns out to be a closet filled with snacks and Netflix to trick you into staying. It works).

This same friend had contacted me privately a few weeks ago. When I posted about my most recent Bout, he offered guidance as one who was some steps ahead on the same path. At this party the other night I had been trying to sneak out and go home, but sneaking is a challenge when you’re built like an ogre and dress like The Matrix takes place in Texas. I even had one foot literally out the door when I heard him call my name, but – introverted as I am – his request for my company made me happy to spend a few more minutes in a loud room of mostly strangers.

Depression has been a companion of mine for many years, but this is the first time I’ve fought it with professional help; the results are difficult to quantify. As my friend and I talked he helped me to realize that when depression starts to abate, it’s not about what you feel, but which thoughts and feelings aren’t there anymore. One day you simply catch yourself in the middle of an average day and are surprised to realize that you didn’t struggle to get out of bed that morning. Or call yourself worthless. Or hope to get hit by a bus. When you stop to think about it, you didn’t do those things yesterday, either . . . . huh.

I’m not walking around feeling good per se. But there is a lack of feeling bad, and I’m looking forward to moving into the void with a few projects I’ve been putting off.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Spoiled for Choice

It’s worse when there’s nothing to do.

I’ve recently begun to take ownership of my depression and anxiety. I guess what I mean by that is that I’ve started to realize that I can’t expect to find my way out of this sinkhole by myself.

If I have somewhere to go, I’m good. If I have somewhere to be, a job to do, if someone is relying on me to show up and Do Something, those are the days I can handle. Maybe it’s because I like to feel needed.

Days off are the worst. The great irony is that there are so many things I want to accomplish in my personal life, but when I’m afforded the freedom to do them, I just won’t. What I want is to learn to play the guitar I bought in 1997. I want to learn to draw, possibly even paint. I want to record voice-over reading interesting things. I want to write something worth reading. What I actually do is none of these things.

I get stuck somewhere between the bed and the couch. I move from one room to another without purpose, hoping that a little physical activity will grant enough momentum to push through this invisible, impermeable barrier between desire and action. Instead I find myself standing still in some random place in my apartment. Not stopped, only . . . paused.

I convince myself that I’m fatigued. Maybe another nap will help. Perhaps I’m undernourished, and what I need is another snack. I think a good cry could wash away the emotional topsoil weighing me down, but I’m not sad about anything. I could force a cry, but that feels like forcing myself to puke when I’m just nervous instead of physically ill.

What’s confusing is how recently I had my shit together. My days off were capable of being productive and stable. I could clean my home and exercise without being scared to begin. I would cook varied and interesting meals.

What the fuck happened?

There was no Event. No date I can point to and say this is when everything started to dissolve. There may have been a moment when everything changed, but if so, I didn’t notice at the time. Just a slow dissolve into this soft lump of a human who can barely muster up the motivation to pet my cat.

Yesterday I admitted to my Lady Love that I need professional help… just three short weeks after I finally realized it myself. Nothing worth having comes easily, it seems. I’ve taken steps to set up a doctor’s appointment, and a therapist should shortly follow.

I’m tired of my life slipping past me.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Support Class

My first two years living in Chicago nearly ended with my suicide. This is not an exaggeration, and this is not a joke. I had a step-by-step plan of how to execute myself with a few items found in my own home so I wouldn’t have to go buy anything and risk changing my mind at the store. The plan was carefully thought out so that it would work the first time. I practiced the steps mentally over and over again so that if I ever made the decision I would be rehearsed enough to carry them out without screwing it up or losing my nerve.

Never mind the reasons why. Never mind the reasons why not.

It took months before I didn’t want to any more, and those were some of the longest and loneliest months I have ever faced. Certainly I could have benefited from either medication or therapy, but what I ached to feel in those days was human contact. My friends were all Back Home, and my problems couldn’t be solved over the phone.

What I really needed was to be . . . held.

It was in my first year of grad school when I started to realize how much I’d missed another person’s touch. In a class focused upon movement exploration we were assigned to follow one another around the room. I was instructed to walk normally, and one of my classmates was instructed to place her hand upon the side of my shoulder and feel the way my joint swayed when I walked.

It was the first time in a year someone had touched me on purpose. I struggled not to cry. No one seemed to notice.

Eventually I got over it, but only just. Found a woman who wanted me, and being touched came not so few and far between. I felt better for a while, because of her and because of time.

A couple of years later, I found myself again Wounded. Wanting. Alone. This time I made a plea to my Facebook friends, and I was flooded with support. I didn’t want to put all the weight of what I was feeling onto any one person, but dividing it among so many alleviated enough of the guilt, and I was able to recover in weeks instead of months. I’ve been okay since then.

Why tell this story now?

A new friend is going through some trouble, and confided in me so that I might help. While sitting together I reached out and took her hand in an expression of comfort. She held on tight and mentioned how good it felt to have human contact after so long without it.

Suddenly I remembered again what that was like, to nearly weep at the slightest gesture of kindness. I thought of that time in my life when such a simple, fleeting moment of contact could have such a profound effect. I began to fear for my friend, and that fear has driven me to press forth every ounce of support I can reasonably muster to the point where I’ve begun to question whether I’m being overbearing with it.

Today I realized that I’m the one I’m trying to save. I’m reaching back into my own past to make sure I don’t kill myself eight years ago. I guess it’s working?

Maybe I didn’t leave those days behind; maybe I’m just outrunning them. I’ve a strong lead these days, but on worse nights I’ll nightmare them within the reach of recent memory, and I’ll fear for those around me. I’ll fear that the Loneliness will take them, too.

Is there anything I can do for you?

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Good Old Age

Contrary to the popularity of the meme, it is not the age of pop culture which makes me feel old. It’s not about what year SpongeBob premiered or how many seasons of Full House had aired by the time I finished high school. It’s not about old Bart Simpson would be if he aged normally. It’s not about how long ago New Kids on the Block stopped being relevant, and it’s not about how long ago Kurt Cobain died. Time passes for us all, and to us all is an equal potential for it to be unkind.

It’s not technology that makes me feel old, either. I don’t care that “kids today” don’t use floppy disks and don’t know why the Save icon is shaped that way. It doesn’t bother me that they never used a VCR, a phone with a cord, or shoved a pencil through an audiocassette. It’s not like I ever used a lawnmower that wasn’t gas powered or stood up to change the TV channel. Technological advances are always coming, and future generations will have unique quirks which are shaped nothing like my own.

I do feel old, though. Ancient. Decrepit. Irrelevant. Useless. Used up. Washed out. Cashed in.


It’s all because of injuries.

Anyone who has known me long enough has seen me in some kind of exercise-induced physical pain, and “long enough” is about three weeks. I’ve bought braces and wraps more often than I’ve bought socks. I’ve eaten more ibuprofen than M&Ms. I’ve absorbed more camphor than sunlight.

It’s too easy to say that I’m not young anymore, and besides, none of this is a recent phenomenon. I started having knee problems before I’d tasted my first whiskey. Once when I was twelve some asshole on the opposite football team dove at my leg. His helmet speared my thigh pad hard enough to bruise me hip to knee. It was a while before I could walk normally.

Sometimes I can point to a reason, like that one(several) time(s) I fell and sprained a wrist trying to catch myself on a reflex. Sometimes I can point to NO fucking reason, like last night; my ankle hurt so badly it woke me up. I had to disturb my Lady Love to bring me an ice pack and some painkillers because I couldn’t walk without gasping loudly enough to wake her. Why is my ankle in pain? Not a clue.

The frustrating bit is always when an injury first presents itself. First I have to figure out the rules. How am I allowed to move without the shock of agony? Am I supposed to stretch it, or is stretching what caused it? Do I ice it or heat it? Does it go away on its own, or do I medicate?

If I’m very lucky I can identify what instigated of the pain and avoid the behavior which lead to it. If I’m very unlucky it can take YEARS to identify and undo the damage. In the meanwhile I move slowly, aggrieved, longing for last week when I was able to do simple things like walk to the toilet without strategizing every pitfall.

If only so much of my career weren’t based upon my physicality I’d hardly mind at all.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Recognize Vulnerability, Stress Empathy

In the seventh grade we were given an aptitude test. The questions measured our desire undertake certain tasks as well as our ability to carry them out. When the results were processed and returned there were two things I was best suited for:

Artistic Expression

I’ve never been able to remember in which order these were listed, but I do recall their scores were rather close together. I remember thinking how divided these paths were. Apparently I was equally suited to run a soup kitchen or write a novel, though it didn’t seem to me I’d be able to pursue both. We were only allowed one elective a year.

In the end it was the artistic expression that won out. After a couple of false starts, I’ve spent the last twelve, maybe thirteen years trying to make a sustainable acting career. Some years are more successful than others.

I’ve always had an itch to do something more important.

A few years ago my Lady Love suggested I try a gig that several fellow Chicago actors have been doing for extra cash: working as a standardized patient. Most medical universities have such a program whereby their students can practice their communication, physical exam, and diagnostic skills on a real live human being. It helps them to work on a stranger, who is an average layperson, instead of a colleague or instructor.

There’s an area of the school designed to look like a clinic. Examination rooms line a carpeted hallway. In each room there’s a standard set of basic equipment: blood pressure cuff;  wall-mounted thermometer; That Thing they use to shine a light into your nose, your ears, your eyes. A glass jar full of tongue depressors. A reflex hammer.

I’ll sit on a narrow exam table, in a thin gown, waiting for a student to knock and enter the room. My street clothes hang on a set of hooks by the door. Based on the questions they ask I give them a series of answers (carefully scripted by their educators) based around a chief complaint. Shortness of breath, ankle pain, persistent cough, “it hurts when I do this.” If they ask the right questions, they get the answers which lead them to conduct the tests which lead them to the correct diagnosis.

A typical exam gives the students five patients to examine. After their first, third, and fifth encounters, we drop the patient persona and give them feedback on their communication skills. Essentially we’re coaching them on their bedside manner through a combination of objective criteria (as defined by the school) and subjective (as defined by We the Standardized Patients).  

I’m very fortunate to have rarely had a need to see a doctor. Most of my experience has been vicarious as I’ve shown up to provide emotional support for someone I care about. For each and every person I know who voiced a complaint about going to the doctor, it’s always been on the same topic: the way they were personally treated by the staff. They felt belittled, judged. They felt like no one cared. They didn’t want to go back no matter how sick they felt or how much pain they were in.

These are the memories I carry with me during the communication feedback sessions. Nearly every student I speak with expresses a desire to make a personal, human connection with their patient. Many of them get stuck on how to do that while simultaneously trying to determine cause of their complaint and how to treat it.

Unless there’s a more pressing issue to discuss I always stress the same two elements to every student. I’ve said it so many times now that it’s become a script:

The very nature of the fact that a patient is sitting in your office means that something has gone wrong in their day. They’re uncomfortable, they’re in pain, they’re probably scared to some degree. This room is not where I want to spend my day. This gown is not how I like to dress when I meet somebody for the first time. It’s an incredibly vulnerable position for your patient to be in. Especially compared to you – you’re at your job, you’re in your element, you’re dressed professionally. The key in making a human connection is to recognize that vulnerability, then bridge the gap with an empathetic connection. Tell them, “I’m sorry you’re feeling this way. We’re going to do our best to find out what’s wrong, and get it taken care of, and get you back to your day.” If you make that the foundation of all your communication, it creates a partnership, fosters a trusting environment for your patient to tell you the things you need to know to make your diagnosis and find the best treatment plan.

I never did become a professional caretaker, and I probably never will . . . but I can help other people do it. Like Sam said to Frodo, “I can't carry it for you, but I can carry you.”

And I can use my acting skills to do it, and that’s gratifying.

And I can earn a paycheck doing it, and that’s satisfying.

And lots of people get to see my back tattoos. They get extra credit for telling me how cool they are.

Thursday, November 3, 2016


I remember the first day of 6th grade. Not the whole day. I remember standing at the doorway to my first class (English), about 40 minutes before it began, staring at the empty desks lit only by the fluorescents spilling in from the hallway. I remember recognizing that I was at a kind of crossroads. The world was now a bigger place. It was going to ask more of me than ever before. I developed strategies for how to be successful. I would fall short of them all.

For many years I thought about where I would go if I could go back in time and start over. Where was the point it all started to go wrong? This was the moment I would have picked.

Then the same thing happened again in high school, college, the first five years out of college, grad school, and the first two or three years after grad school.

Skip to my 18th birthday. In an attempt to find guidance I got myself a subscription to Men’s Health magazine. After a year of rephrasing the same handful of articles (Make More Money, Lose That Gut, Fun Times While Naked) I cancelled that subscription, but not before I saw the following in an article regarding getting into shape:

“What’s stopping you? You may say, ’But in two years, I’ll be 40!’ Look, in two years you’ll be 40 no matter what. The question is: what kind of 40-year-old would you like to be?”  

I remember thinking that it was okay to slack off just about anything in life as long as I got it together by 40. It’s an arbitrary deadline set upon a round number, and I understand that. It’s the same mind frame as when I get out of bed in the morning; it has to be when the time ends in a 5 or a 0, but 15 is better than 10 or 20, 30 is better than 25. It’s a way of negotiating with myself that it’s okay to postpone.

It’s not okay, though. It’s bullshit. Approaching a task with an attitude that it’s okay to push it back is NOT helpful. It’s worse when, instead of a singular task, it’s about making a permanent lifestyle change.

I do it anyway.

One year ago today I started trying to get a head start on my Two Years to Forty. It wasn’t a Monday, the first day of any given month, or my favorite arbitrary-self-improvement-start-date: my birthday. It was simply Day 1. My goal was never really about the result. My goal was about making the change to my lifestyle and keeping track of how those results played out. Most of all I’d hoped that by the time my birthday came around I’d have made so much headway that I’d be an unstoppable improvement machine.

Maybe I was trying too hard. Certainly I was drinking too much. By publicizing my journey every day I found myself the recipient of a LOT of advice (none of it solicited, much of it contradictory). Instead of losing weight, I was gaining it. My mood soured, my health got worse, and five months after I began my resolve finally broke, and I quit trying altogether. I decided to take some time to clear my head and regroup.

Then I turned 38. My Two Years to Forty had begun, and I was behind.

I found a measure of success with my summer job. Thanks to a close friend recommending I join him for the World Naked Bike Ride (so many butts!)  I found myself the proud owner of a new bicycle. I started riding it to work every day – twelve miles, which took me an hour. Then I’d work on my feet for six to eight hours in the summer sun before riding back home. I’d get home too exhausted to do much drinking. My lunch was either chicken broth or a Clif Bar. I lost 30 pounds in about two months.

So far I’ve kept that weight off, but the progress has stalled since August. It’s been nearly three months since I dropped the weight, and I can even feel some pudge trying to creep back on.

No more. Enough.

Three days ago was my second wedding anniversary. Through a series of merry miscommunications I joined my Lady Love for an 8:30am Halloween-themed spin class she had originally intended to skip. Pedaling through a hangover, in the dark, music thumping loud enough to vibrate my core, hair hanging in my face, beads of sweat chasing each other down my arms to pool at my feet, I had a thought: I could be super-human if I wanted to. I found it odd, but empowering.

So now I’m going to start the same daily ritual I started one year ago today, only this time, I’m not going so public with it. No daily photos. Not indulging so much in habits I know are harmful. I’m tired of looking back and seeing myself make choices I know are the wrong ones. I’d rather look back at moments like this one and recognize them as those first moments I started to do something right.

This is Day One.

…Take Two.

“There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said no. But somehow we missed it. Well, we’ll know better next time.”

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Day Itself

Yesterday I hoisted the mainsail all by myself because no one volunteered to help me (a colleague stepped in, but once I got going I wanted to see if I could finish on my own). I even got to quote Fezzik: "It's not my fault, being the biggest and the strongest. I don't even exercise!" Which is true, I stopped exercising a couple of months ago.

Speaking of The Princess Bride, I started reading the book for the first time yesterday. It is an absolute treasure. Make sure you get the 30th Anniversary Edition, which includes a delightful introduction in which William Goldman explains the superior introduction in the 25th Anniversary Edition. Both introductions are included, and they are worth reading every word, even though it delays the first chapter by 50 pages (this was after pages, but before eBooks).

On our last sail yesterday (at 3:45, the 5:30 was cancelled due to an impending thunderstorm), the delightful couple who helped me raise the mainsail asked if these were eel infested waters. They didn't know why yesterday was the perfect day for them to have asked.

I finally figured out where the roasted almonds stand is, and I plan to finish every work week by buying a very small bag of them while walking toward my bus home. Yesterday I got out my cash to pay, and the cashier stopped me. I'm guessing it's because I was wearing my work shirt and folks on the pier do each other little favors from time to time, but I will forever remember it as The Time A Stranger Didn't Know He Bought Me A Secret Birthday Present.

Finally, on the walking portion of my way home, I got to experience one of my favorite sounds in the world: the rain dancing on the leather brim of my hat. It was the best part about forgetting to bring an umbrella.

It was a Happy Birthday.