A MAN APART
When it hit me, it was like crashing into a brick wall. Only the bricks were invisible. I had no idea where it came from, or why it was there. This made it all the worse, and left me with a deep, desperate, and abstract feeling of unreality. I knew one thing – it was a feeling so desolate, and dark, that I would never be the same. I felt as if I was on a planet with which I had no connection – I was spinning infinitely from some other unknown place with no hope of returning. I was alone and disconnected. I was a man apart.
My first thought was that perhaps I was nuts. Had I gone crazy? What was this foreign desolate feeling? AND, what in the hell am I? Like anyone that realizes they are wounded or in danger, I immediately thought of running for help from family. Only, they weren't my family anymore. They were strangers, and that sense of security and safety that comes from being “connected” and near the ones you love, was gone forever. It seemed as if everyone in the universe was completely blind, disconnected, and foreign. They were just robotic automatons going through life unconsciously responding to data and stimuli.
Changing Colors Changing Tastes
When I looked at a child, all could see and feel was his as yet unrealized empty meaningless life. Food had no taste. The air was like a thick humid oppressive cloud hanging from my soul blinding and disconnecting me from what was. Things that had brought me pleasure – a movie, a book, a friend – no longer brought pleasure. Sleep was rare. Everything was empty and black. Beauty was black. Love was black. And everything was at a distance. I was in a void completely separate from everything I had previously known.
The abstract nature of what was happening to me made shouting for help impossible. It was as if I was speaking a foreign language. I was presenting with – well something - I really didn't know what? Was it pain? Confusion? Sadness? Insanity? What can anyone do when presented with “this”? We don't discuss “this”. The abstract nature of one’s existence – and whether it is real - isn’t covered in school and everyday discourse.
Desperate, I visited a Psychiatrist who, to his credit, prefaced our session with “I'm going to ask questions that may seem odd, but bear with me. Uh, your age? Sexual orientation? Experience with drugs? *Oh, and what does it mean when I say "the grass is always greener on the other side?" And, what would you do if you found a stamped addressed letter on the sidewalk (Referencing my ability to think in the abstract, as well as test my frame of logic and reality)”
These seemed to be absurd, disconnected questions with no relevance to this invisible Black Dog. This wasn't a broken limb that has a concrete physical plan of action in order to heal. I don't remember his saying anything that could explain what happened to me. He offered nothing that would help it take shape, have touch and form, and therefore be fixable. Without explanation, I was given medication that made me feel spaced out. I stopped taking it. What's happening to me wasn't physical or chemical; I was crazy in the abstract – so how could a pill help?
As a lucky teenager, a high lottery number kept me out of Vietnam - my generation’s life changing event. Many came back from that place having experienced trauma at an age that acutely defines one's life. Many came back dramatically changed. Today many young men and women are coming back from the Middle East facing this same existential crisis. To be faced with the dilemma war at 19 before any sense of stable self-definition had occurred. Many came back, men (and women) apart.
My first life changing event occurred when I was a devout member of a generation that was going to make a change – a paradigm shift into the way one looked at the world (The 60's man). Of course this involved hallucinating drugs. The world no longer seemed to be this flat insane place filled with hypocrisy, conflict, terror, and ambiguity. Reminiscent to those embracing the French Revolution almost two centuries earlier, WE were going to make a change. This was a revolution….. Two drug overdoses gave me my first glimpse of insanity, and altered reality. Both were painful, delusional, and terror filled. I spoke about them to no one.
My next life changing event came in three's.1. Being dumped by a woman I loved deeply. 2. I had also hoped to be a guitarist, and an instrument builder. Music was my passion. While building a guitar, my hand slipped into the tool I was using. BOOM! I looked down, saw missing fingers, and immediately thought, “wow, this is life changing.' I knew things would never be the same after this moment. How I would play guitar? 3. During a break from numerous surgeries to rebuild part of my hand with skin grafts, I drove home for a visit. Upon opening the door I found my father lying motionless on the floor. He had passed away a week before.
The insanity, the “Black Dog”, gave me a permanent visit a few months after finding dad. It was also life changing. I knew things would never be the same. Like my missing fingers, I was gone. I wasn't the same. It was as if someone had opened my head, and deleted everything that I thought I was. My reality was gone. I was an alien and detached. I was a man apart.
Being alone with this was difficult and frightening. Insanity, fear, panic, and separateness surrounded me 24/7. At that time, from a spiritual standpoint, I was somewhere between an Atheist and an Agnostic. Add a dash of cynicism and that was my “inner” location. I couldn't reach for God – how can one reach for something that doesn't exist? And wouldn't reaching for God just be a way of fooling myself, or a sign of weakness? *Regardless of this, I tasted every “ism” and “anity” out there, and found no magic elixir, no born again experience. I didn't know it at the time, but I was being introduced to a process. A slow, one step at a time, interpersonal, spiritual, and evolutionary process. It was initiated by what St John of the Cross called the "dark night of the soul."
Through the years, things lightened up a bit, but the unreality, the darkness, panic and depression, the fear and sleeplessness, the tastelessness, was always there. Just as I thought that maybe I wasn't weak and crazy, another life experience would let me know the journey was continuing. Eventually I saw another Psychiatrist and began counseling. It was difficult opening up that secret door where the “black dog” lies, but it had to be done. EXPOSURE. I felt I had to let out all my ugly. I would leave no stone unturned. I also began taking another anti-depressant medication. Each day was filled with fear, self - loathing, and the disconnection to life. I was diagnosed with Major depression. Hmmm… It had a name. It had a reason. This gave what was happening to me, definition, shape and form. This made my experience concrete and tangible. It was something I could see, feel, and touch. Maybe I wasn’t abstractly insane, or humanistic-ally invalid. Maybe I wasn't an alien? Maybe I will learn to taste again? To sleep?
I knew I had to DO SOMETHING. I had to create action. I made myself absorb beauty, nobility, and hope – if they existed. When I saw the child’s smile and the budding Rose, I felt empty and hopeless. BUT, I made myself repeat, “There is validity to that child’s smile! There IS beauty within the petals of that Rose.” I made myself exercise, and focus on doing things one step at a time. When in action, be only within that action (Sounding Zen-like?). Be mindful of my surroundings. Reduce multi-tasking. Focus on one thing at a time. FILM, ART, MUSIC. Seeking to be helpful also helped to lift me. I slowly discovered that within the nucleus of art, was the pure seed of man’s dignity and nobility. Mathematically I came to understand the equation, dignity + nobility + love = Hope.
Eventually I came to realize that there was beauty and order in the universe. Perhaps this is God? Reading about men and women giving of themselves and overcoming obstacles lifted me. It gave me hope. But, I could only embrace this process on an intellectual level - on a thinking level. I couldn't do it on a “feeling” level, because everything felt so bad, so colorless, so tasteless. But, I was going to slowly absorb this dignity, nobility, and order. I had no choice. I had to survive.
About two weeks after starting the medication, I began to notice that something was a bit different. The weight of the “Black dog” was reduced. I started to find interest and validity in being human. I began to realize that what was happening to me had a name and a reason. It wasn’t some abstract bolt of insanity and suffering that would hit me for no reason, or because I was bad. It had shape and form. Therefore, I could deal with it concretely. (I could utilize methodology and design a road to health). Another thing it was ....my birth.
I realized I had been “depressed” for a very, very long time. I became more aware of the brain/body connection. I studied the inner workings of brain chemistry. I continued my internal exercise of positive self-talk, and the beauty of art. I developed an invisible “toolbox” containing all the things that got me through the night. Things like friends, exercise, journaling, walks in the woods, prayer, meditation, art, music, dance, and sharing issues with trusted others. I would literally clean a corner of my house knowing that each accomplished step was a metaphor for those internal steps necessary for growth, integration and a connection to being human. I would try to be introspective, without over focusing on myself. I would seek balance. I wanted to seek spirit, but the surface of many religions seemed empty to me (Bickering, religious bigotry, etc etc). Meher Baba had an influence with a universal approach to spirituality rather than religion. I was attracted by the mystic’s or spirituality rather than religion. In terms of Christianity I was drawn to the mystics like St Francis, St Teresa, Kahlil Gibran and Thomas Merton among others.
I began to make friends with depression. I began to embrace that “Black Dog”. As I have learned more about him, he has surprised me less. I gained strength and confidence. He and I were brothers. That “Black Dog” became my rocket ship jetting me far beyond the limited horizons I had been clinging to (And sometimes still cling). My illness was my teacher and guide. It instructed me in the ways of weakness, strength, resiliency, compassion, spirituality, honesty, forgiveness, and hope. It has increased my depth of vision, and acutely steadied the balance of the ying and the yang, the happiness and the sadness of life. It’s a strange but beautiful irony that one’s worst enemy can become a guiding force on the path. The limitation of my lost fingers has made me a better guitarist, and created a style and voice unique to my composing and performing. I still struggle. But, I am becoming a part of something, and seem no longer "a man apart."
When one takes on a journey such as this, there seems a magic that unfolds. You meet others with similar pathologies and it becomes more clear that there is order to this universe. Paths of others don't cross by accident. We are fellow travelers whose "dark night of the soul" has navigated them in our way. And I hope we can support one another on this journey. And when we find that sense of deep self, we are no longer men apart.