Ten years ago:
I came a little unglued.
My boss at the store had once again taken a week off, leaving me with series of open-to-close shifts. Eight hours with no support, no cigarettes, and no conversation. I tried to imagine myself as a retail machine: turning incoming shipments into shelved inventory, making a sale, dusting a display case, lather, rinse, repeat. While this kind of work schedule would not have bothered me normally, I was not in the proper state to shepherd the numbers the way I should have. I zoned out a lot behind the counter, waiting for a part timer to arrive so I could smuggle myself out to the loading dock and have a smoke.
I saw Allie that week, but things were kind of weird. It could have been all in my head, or maybe I was the source of all the weirdness that week. Honestly, I was too far wedged in my own head to be able to make an objective assessment. We kept things so incredibly light that we barely referred to each other as people with feelings or thoughts about anything at all. I would go back to the store feeling like shit, and then stand there and break down the entire conversation while the shoppers passed by in the hallway.
When the shift finally did come to an end, a wave of disappointment would wash over me as I realized that I would be heading back to my apartment by myself that evening. Allie would still give me a ride after work when she was there, but always ending in my driveway without a word said one way or another. And then I would be there in my kitchen, wondering about what had actually happened.
Evenings started with some horrendous television, and then a pot of pasta for dinner. I would stand over the stove-top and watch the water boil one little baby bubble at a time, crawling their way up the side of the pot before escaping. I stood there and stirred the pasta the entire time it was in the water, as if somehow stepping away from it would cause some cataclysmic string of events to occur and the entire evening would crash around me. I washed everything after dinner, leaving the kitchen exactly as it had stood when I got home. And then I would sit on the couch, chain smoke, and try not to think about Isis or the brewing situation in New York. Even though I could do nothing about either, they still flooded my thoughts, and made me cringe.
I am a creature of routine by nature, but even this was extreme for me. Every action was parsed down to the barest detail, with as little change between moments as possible. Every thing I did was mapped out and mechanized in order to formulate a defense against my own thoughts. It is because of these moments that I can identify this behavior as somewhere in the middle of a descent into a very bad mental place.
Since my brain was already running a downward trending scatter plot, I took the opportunity to quietly beat the shit out of myself over several other things:
Despite the year and a half that had transpired by this point, I was still dealing with my now ex-girlfriend's suicide attempt. Yeah, yeah, people said that it wasn't my fault, but I knew the truth. I had been the one that let things drag on for so long that the event became inevitable. I was the one that didn't tell anyone about the little things that I knew were bad. I was the one that sat there and tried to talk her down while things only got worse. I had accepted that maybe it wasn't all my fault, but I certainly didn't help prevent the event from happening.
I was still upset about dropping out of college, even though there was little I could do about that when it happened. Colleges won't let you take classes unless they get paid, and I simply did not have any money. I tried a variety of schemes to generate cash to go back for another semester, each scheme becoming more and more morally and legally dubious. But everything still went south at the end despite my struggle. I don't know what it is, but I still feel like I could have done more somehow to prevent it.
I was angry at myself for creating a situation where I could feel so isolated from everyone. I felt like there was no one there for me to talk to, and no one who would bother to understand what I was going through. I felt very alone, and thought that this was merely the result of my fucked up actions toward other people, or my inability to truly connect with them, or my consistent pattern of driving away anyone who got to close.
Eventually all of my self-criticism fell around me in a ring on the floor, and staring at it was all I could manage to do. Everything within me was sadness and confusion.
I've done my share of mind-altering drugs. I've spent time floating alone in the middle of secluded lakes in the small hours looking at the stars. I've been in sensory deprivation tanks, trying to ignore time. I've sat in churches at night listening to the air move around me. I've had panic attacks, and I have flirted with full-on nervous breakdowns.
But I am still unable to truly understand what happened to me on the evening of February 20, 2000.
I had been close to losing my shit for the previous few days, and the confusion of the events of the last several months was weighing on me very deeply. I had not been sleeping, opting instead for smoking at the computer and trying to distract myself. I was trying to write anything that would take my thoughts and get them out of my head, but the words would not form. I was jammed up, frustrated, and frantic to find some kind of strength.
I don't remember exactly when I dozed off. It was somewhere between reruns of old sitcoms on some cable station, sound echoing off into space while I was huddled there. It was another night where I was deep in my mechanized pattern of living. The sun went down while I slept, and I was alone in the glow of the television.
I woke up and saw the shadow of the trees outside projected on my ceiling by the street lights. The wind was blowing the branches around, which was throwing the light around in its little frame. Something felt different, and I didn't know what it was.
I could feel that the world was so much bigger than I was, but it had opened up to me. I was both completely irrelevant and critically important at the same time. Where there was the need for self destruction before, there was a feeling that I was wasting very valuable time. I realized then that my emotions were not a universal truth for me, and that they were prone to exaggeration and deceit. It was best to apologize for wrongs I had done and try to move past them, rather than beating myself with them over and over again. There was comfort, maybe even love in these new thoughts. What had been empty was not empty in that moment. I was not blameless, I was now willing to be free.
I felt loose and alive, and in the glow of something that was definitely larger than I. How is it that I could feel so large but know that I was so small? Even though I was fully awake then, I went to bed and huddled under the blankets, and let these new feelings sink in for me. I wept, trying to figure out how badly I had hurt myself, how badly I had hurt others, and how I was going to prevent both from happening ever again. Under those covers late into the night, I took the first steps to becoming someone different.
I eventually slept again, exhausted and twisted into my sheets.
I am trying right now to use words to describe a set of feelings, so of course these words don't feel right to me. I've tried to describe it several different ways in the time since: epiphany, moment of clarity, revelation, insight. None of these are right. I learned a lot about myself that night, but even today I still have not learned all of the lessons.
I don't know what caused those events to occur. Some people I have talked to about this have said that it sounded like I was touched by something spiritual, or that I had somehow stepped outside of myself. I had a girlfriend once that suggested I had lost my sanity that night, and that I am living in the ruins of my previous reality. I previously thought that my brain had somehow conjured up a distraction, so that I could think about something other than my current misery for a while. Today, the only thing I am sure of is that I will probably never know what happened, and that maybe this is another part of the same lesson.
Whatever it was, I think that the ideas that came to me that night were all things that I needed to hear. I needed to reevaluate myself, and how I related to things. I needed to apologize to people, and learn and grow. I needed to know about the balance between right and good, and how I was going to handle my future choices. I felt that I had a better understanding of myself in those moments, and it was a comfort that I was yearning to have.
I have felt something close to that one time since, nearly four years to the day after that night. I was in the hospital waking up from from my first vasectomy, and I discovered I was weeping with joy and I didn't know why. I felt soaked in blessings and light. There was a nurse in the recovery room with me and I tried to get out of bed to hug her, tears streaming down my face. She managed to convince me to stay on the gurney while the drugs wore off. The entire time I was mindlessly euphoric, saying "thank you, thank you" and patting her hand while I cried my eyes out.
I eventually calmed down, and I asked the nurse what the hell all of that had been about. She said that drugs do weird and unpredictable things to to the brain. Anaesthetic can affect people differently: most people wake up perfectly fine, but others are angry or confused or happy. I happened to be one of the lucky ones that woke up to bliss.
That is exactly what I am. I am one of the lucky ones.
Notes on a life in exile: A retrospective
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