I think if I could give my younger self advice that I probably wouldn’t listen to it would be to actually learn to enjoy life. Which when said out loud seems silly and self-evident. But I spent a lot of time refusing to do anything that would sway me from the goals that I had (I remember becoming furious at a boy in college for wanting to spend time with me, because it was taking time away from writing), unaware of the reason for why I was doing such things, or that refusing to take a break would burn out the enjoyment for anything.
There are days when the existential (or life-event) depression becomes crushing, like a visceral weight in your chest making it difficult to breathe. Every motion feels like its underwater. Your skull seems to be floating outside of your body. Maybe you’re suffering from an illness, a loss, a kind of Kafka-esque nightmarish awareness of your environment. Maybe it’s PTSD, or a night job, or lack of money.
There’s no easy cure or simple fix for depression, but there is food.
I’m a self-proclaimed misanthrope. I covet solitude for the most part and I can go weeks without really getting the urge to have one-on-one time with another human being. This is partly because I live with a person and I get enough time there, partly because as the years have gone past most of the things that I sought after in other human beings I mostly found in myself, and partly because I have been hurt so many times and so frequently by others that on a base level it’s generally not an enjoyable experience for me. This isn’t something that should engender pity in anyone – it’s just the way it is.
It’s difficult to be human, but we all have very important jobs perpetuating the human race, and making ourselves better to contribute to the betterment of all humankind and ultimately the universe, probably shouldn’t be an easy job. Whether you’re a corporate executive, a coal-miner, or a kid who dropped out of college so he can fish all day and roleplay a werewolf on an IRC channel at night, it doesn’t matter. Your task is still critical – be human.
I used to be anti-meditation. Whenever someone suggested meditation as a method of relaxation, I imagined sitting cross-legged on the floor in some expensive studio, dragon blood incense filling the room and soft chimes blowing as a chirpy voice commanded “Breathe in. Focus on the magic inner being…”. It was another facsimile of peace, something that “spiritual” white people did to make them feel better about themselves. It was right up there with laughable suggestions that warm baths, sunlight, and chocolate would cure me of a lifelong depression wrought from trauma. (Those things do help, but not in the way that most people simplify it. I might write a post about that later.)
The first time I meditated – really meditated – with posture straight, mind fully focused on the breath and the countdown, I realized the purpose wasn’t to relax at all.
Those fantasies of happiness used to always be so far away, in a future that I knew I’d never get to.
They were reclusive fantasies, hermit-like, in bubbles of isolation that had the gray edges of a dreary afternoon. I’d live in Oklahoma or Iceland, writing and raising sheep, eating alone in diners to the whispers of strangers who’d be frightened of my wild hair and my dream-shot eyes and the way I never quite answered questions how they wanted me to. There was no real romance, no money or prestige, or feelings of satisfaction. Just me, a computer, maybe someone I loved, coffee and a moon.
See, even in my fantasies I wasn’t really happy. I just imagined I’d gotten to the point where my heart could slow down to a familiar rhythm, and I wasn’t spending most nights scratching at my inner thighs and waking up with a gasp from a nightmare in which I couldn’t breathe.
We took our dogs out today. And Robert said “Baby, what are we?” as we were in the car, as Pris pushed herself up onto the arm-rests as if she was trying to press her nose against the windshield.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“We’re going to the beach with our dogs on the weekend,” he said, as if he can’t quite believe it.
Maybe I’m imagining that there’s a new kind of vibration in the car with us. A tentative hesitancy, that we’re right on the cusp of a transition. That maybe we just get to be happy, that we can live instead of surviving, trying to tie together blood vessels with our teeth just to gain another second. I know that I’m not the only one who feels it.
Three years ago, I never imagined I’d be taking dogs to the beach, or that my heart possessed enough space to love so much. Or that I’d wake up like I was on a precipice with my body pounding, a new lightness that I’m unsure of, like little pieces are finally flaking off of the hard dense ball that I’ve carried inside my chest my entire life.
I think, I’ve never wanted anything more.
I think, in a few years maybe that density will no longer define who I am.
It’s a new kind of terror.
Nobody writes horror books about opening up your heart after 9000 days of living like a crustacean, keeping your softness and your blue blood inside untouched.
About learning to love again after all those days spent wondering how you could reduce your feeling and your empathy because -fuck- you felt so much and it hurt so much and god, how does anyone just exist without pressing their throat into glass and their hands to their faces and turning away inside, inside, hide, don’t look or touch because if anything comes inside it’ll destroy whatever floating fragments of you that are left.
About finally looking up from the floor you’re crouching on and seeing the patterns in the ceiling and on the woodgrain and realizing how much time you’ve spent refusing to look, and just how much there is to see that you were missing. That you exist in a world that is more than gray edges, bad dreams, Bukowski fiction, and whiskey burn. Infinitely more.
There is no horror fiction about crying while building a bookshelf from Ikea, finally realizing you can look at the pieces in your hands, that you’re not turning away from your own knowledge, and when your boyfriend asks you what’s wrong you say, “This is the happiest day of my life.”
When he laughs and says, “It’s going to get so much better, in ways you can’t even imagine.”
Not believing him, but then a day passes, and another, and then it’s been a whole year and you realize he’s right, that happiness has a depth you are only beginning to explore.
Sometimes I actually look people in the eyes now and I want to reel back because of how much information is contained there. Entire full humans, like me. Two consciousnesses intersecting, acknowledging each other. They had been there the whole time, and I’d never even realized.
The waves of the Pacific Ocean go further than my comprehension.
I cry, because of how scared I am in this unfamiliar world. Robert catches me doing it all the time, realizing that I’m happy, that look of fear like I’ve woken up from sleepwalking, into a room I don’t recognize. He sees the whole transition.
“It’s okay,” he says, and he doesn’t have to explain. “You get to have this.”
He’s on the edge of the water, looking out, and so are the dogs, playing right up to the edge of the rocks. It’s cool from ocean spray and all my sense are humming. Happiness is not Iceland in forty years, in interminable space. It’s happening in real time, here, and so I must teach myself to keep being
That’s my family, I think, and if a thought could touch you that one would be an embrace that burns.
I got my first royalty payment from Eraserhead Press today, and it makes me think that occasionally the dream collides with reality.
In 2009 I ordered one of the ‘Bizarro Starter Kits’ in the mail and read it in my grandparent’s basement. I’d just heard of Carlton Mellick III and the whole bizarro genre, and was coincidentally reading “Naked Lunch” at the same time. I remembered thinking I wanted to be published by something like Eraserhead Press, even though my fiction never quite fit in with their aesthetic. Even at the age of 19 I was already “too weird to be mainstream,” and at the head of a cavalcade of rejection slips. But occasionally something beautiful and weird pushes its way into mainstream consciousness – Naked Lunch – and that’s what I wanted to do. Not because I had grand aspirations, but because I didn’t know how to write any other way.
At some point I pushed the idea out of my head – it seemed impossible. I was no one, and nothing I wrote would ever be good enough.
Those things that I carried for years, the hopes and dreams and fantasies that I thought would pull me out of the dense, black pit that was at the center of me. They formed a kind of exo-skeleton, an insectile armor plate, so thick that I could barely see out of my eyes. I froze inside of there. I simultaneously wanted something, and knew that I couldn’t have it. I mastered the art of dreaming without dreaming, of wanting something just enough that I could feel the pain of having it being denied. For years I lived this way.
But sometimes I realize, I CAN have what I want – and little cracks appear in the armor. I see out of the eyes a little more.
Even in the center of hopelessness, I never really stopped writing. There’d be periods I’d think about giving up. I slept on the floor in a house with no heating, shivering in all my clothes. When I woke in the morning my fingers would be so cold that I could barely type on my keyboard.
So I got gloves, and I wrote through the stiffness.
I can finally come to terms with the fact that I haven’t had an easy life. I’ve been told a thousand times over how ungrateful I am, for the things that I’ve been given. And I read stories about people who have mothers that force them to drink bleach, or sleep in their own piss. I’m white. I was raised middle-class. I’m educated. As I’ve gotten older, I haven’t always had the money to eat what I wanted, but I’ve never gone hungry, except by choice. I’ve been homeless for a brief period of time, I’ve lived in more places than I’m able to remember and almost never more than a few months, but I’m resourceful, so I was always able to find some kind of job. By the age of 22 I was making yuppy money and presenting design documentation to a bunch of directors, leading the design for multi-million dollar features. Now I don’t even have a job – but I have a computer, enough money to buy beer, my own office, no real responsibilities except the ones that I impose upon myself.
But the body doesn’t lie. It remembers what it’s like to be a frightened animal. Hissing, caught in the trap. Sometimes when someone stands too close to me panic will cascade through my body. A certain word, a certain phrase, will dissolve into me like an angry ghost. The child that can do nothing but scream is so close to the surface of the skin.
I keep writing – even though the whiskey is making something inside me twitch, and when I stare at the words on my laptop, cross-legged on the floor – something comes through. Something awful, and buried. It has no words. I only see the reflection of what I’ve written, and see how broken I am. It twists its way through my body. I’ve spent too much of my life crying because inside, I’m a desert.
I keep writing.
I read recently that when rats are scared they will always run back to their nest, even if that nest is crowded and dirty and inhospitable. There is a thing inside of us, some kind of mechanism, that has us always moving back toward the origin.
But what if they have no home to go to? What if the thing that is home has been obliterated, so that nothing is left but a gaping hole?
I carry around the skeleton of dreams.
I keep writing. Even though I entertain the idea of stopping often. I know it’s the only thing that’s holding me together. There have been very few people who have seen me go completely insane, but trust me, it’s a theatrical production. But writing always brings me back. It’s the reason why I can’t become a cocaine addict, or go to the mental hospital, or lose what’s left of myself. It’s the reason why I can’t become a thief, or a murderer, or throw myself off a balcony. Even though -I want to-. I want to know what it’s like to lose. To give up completely. I want the thrill of fucking over what I have often perceived to be a worthless life. But I can’t, because I have to-
I couldn’t help but often be disconnected from other writers, especially in college, or growing up, or in the Austin “scene”, where art is really just a disguised social activity. I hear people who say that they have to write to live, or if they’d write they’d die. Or that they’re CRAZY, they’re WRITERS. They BREATHE words.
And I have to wonder, do they know what it’s like to turn the headlights off in the middle of a rural road and drive plunging into the darkness? To touch your skin and be unable to feel it, because you’re so far gone into the ghost that is you? Did they ever wake up gasping almost every night, for months straight, terrified they were going to die before they finished their novel?
I stood in the center of a storm once, because I wanted to learn how to transmute the feeling of terror into words. I wanted to take all the awful feelings I’d ever felt and stretch them out, grow them, place them in the nursery and cradle them so that they’d go out into the world carrying the truth. I wondered if they went to therapy and the therapist recommended sunlight, yoga, exercise, pills, cognitive behavioral therapy, chocolate-
And they had to resist the urge to scream: “Don’t you understand, I don’t want to feel better. I want to walk through hell?”
But after a lifetime of hell, it begins to obliterate even the thing that was holding me together. And if I kept going, even writing wouldn’t be enough to keep me from falling over.
The armor has to collapse. I have to let good things in.
So you see, occasionally the dream collides with reality. Sometimes, we do get to have our quiet. We get to fall in love. We get to be published by the publisher who we thought in a thousand years, we’d never be good enough for.
We have to build our home. We have to grow something in the desert again. We have to learn how to retrain our body to stop walking into nightmares, night after night.
Not only because it’s right, but because we have to keep writing.
You can purchase Ecstatic Inferno here, now out from Fungasm, an imprint of Eraserhead.