Ten years ago:
These conversations are hard to have without making a short note about self-identity, so maybe I should start there. By the time I had washed up at my brother's apartment in Holland, I was in the midst of existential despair. The things that I thought I was had been utterly destroyed by the previous six months, and I was left trying to resolve how those beliefs had been so vulnerable. I was starting from scratch again, and the shaky first steps into rediscovering myself were negotiated and painful.
Growing up in one Dutch-American community and moving into another Dutch-American community seems like it should be an easy transition. But there were two factors that prevented this from happening: I had spent the previous few years rejecting large swaths of my upbringing, and this community tended to highlight and celebrate those parts I had done away with. There was no way I was going to be able to get along out there without an overtly cynical perceptive hovering over every interaction. Since this was by far the easiest thing to grasp in my current shape, it was the one thing that I militantly held on to for the remainder of my stay. I'm sure it was annoying as hell for anyone that I tried to interact with, and I'm happy to say that my jingoistic side has mellowed somewhat over the many years since.
The other thing I held for my identity was probably more damaging than the first: I decided to embrace being broken. After all that crap that I went through, I decided that I might as well make de facto aspects of my life more internal and defined. Down this path lies madness obviously, which was something I would end up fighting over and over in the coming months.
But both of these were baby steps I suppose, and I'm having a hard time truly finding fault in them even now. Sometimes all we can do is grab around in the dark.
My greatest fear in those days was being unable to find a job. First of all, western Michigan wasn't a hotbed of employment opportunities just then, as companies like Herman Miller and Johnson Controls were systematically eliminating positions year after year. To make things worse, I felt that I was largely unemployable at that time: high school diploma, and a job history that included lackey mall work and a string of work study type jobs from college. I had no practical experience in a traditional workplace, and the idea of having a job where I could sit in a chair and use my brain seemed so far away that I didn't even make an attempt at one. Also, my transportation options were limited to Holland's crummy bus service, and bumming rides from people.
I spent about a week handing out resumes and filling out applications at places where I thought I would have a decent shot. I walked up to 8th Street and milled around, chain smoking in the cold, before hopping a bus up to Westshore Mall and trying not to let the idea of living the mall life again depress me too much. At the end of the day I would head back to the house, actually eat a regular dinner for the first time in years, and hope that I would eventually hear back from someone. Looking for a job is inherently a morale-crushing experience, but I told myself that this was part of the price to pay by making the choice to move out here, and that in exchange I knew exactly where I was going to sleep for the next few weeks.
To my surprise, it didn't take all that long. Within the first two days, the Walgreens on 16th and River had called, seemingly desperate to have me in for an interview. Dork that I am, I put on my suit and walked over there, where an overenthusiastic store manager eschewed the interview to instead drone on about "growth opportunities" and "management potential". In the mental state I was in I was happy to just have the work, and accepted a job in the photo lab on the spot. I justified this with the firm belief that I could easily walk right out of the store if another opportunity came up.
When I found myself with extra time, I was focusing on physical things. When I had left Michigan the first time, I had left a bunch of boxes behind because I couldn't come up with a practical way of moving them back across the country. Going through them that first week was a twisted nostalgic Christmas, full of mostly forgotten things. I imagine that some of those items were repacked in boxes that are now sitting in my basement today, once again lost to the pile of clutter.
There were also things in there that I would have been better off never seeing again: love notes and little trinkets from relationships long dark and cold, ideas that I had in college that had faded into dust, mementos from moments that I would have preferred never happening in the first place. Those things were destroyed mercilessly on discovery, and another layer of revisionist history was placed on my life. That purge was healthy for me at the time, and the causalities piling up beside each newly opened box was a reclamation of my life up to that point.
Even though I was staying with my brother and his wife, and didn't yet have any money of my own just yet, they took me out and bought me some furniture. I bought an actual desk, and just enough parts to get an old computer up and running. As little as this little act might seem, it was the first time in a long time that I went out and bought durable goods, and the action itself was dizzying and full of guilt. After being in survival mode for so long, spending money on things that didn't directly contribute to my day-to-day survival felt incredibly decadent. In the end it took me nearly three years to get to the point where I could buy something for myself without having wave after wave of anxiety wash over me. Assembling that desk in my room later, I cursed myself out for thinking that this was such a good idea.
But later that night, trying to get to sleep while staring at this thing that would certainly ruin me, I discovered that this was probably a good sign after all. This was a part of the progress I was hoping to make by coming out here in the first place. I owed more money by purchasing it, but this was a symbol of the permanence that I was looking to build. I was finally able to sleep after swallowing that idea.
Despite the panic and the anxiety that I was facing, I actually did a pretty good job of not drinking so damn much those first few weeks. I don't want to hit on this too hard, as my struggle with drinking never reached any sort of critical depth that would normally be associated with a problem like this. I never developed a physical dependence for it, but it was certainly my primary way of dealing with my brain racing out of control.
The idea of tanking myself in that house was embarrassing, so instead I watched my brain play a loop of all of the terrible things I had done in my life: traumatizing moments, faux-pas, miscommunications. This is not only mentally uncomfortable but physically taxing as well, as each idea that popped onto that loop caused me to shudder, sometimes groan with panic and anger and self-loathing. I now know that I am not alone on this trip at all, but at the time I thought that this was only happening in my head. It was a sign of a problem that was unsolvable, and I would let it consume me for hours on end.
It was the first time in a long time that I let this loop run instead of reaching for something to make my brain shut the hell up. Facing it was terrible, and made getting out of bed in the morning staggeringly difficult. But I had a determination not to fuck things up because of my brain, if only because I was living in a place where the people were expecting real things from me. Descending into the madness I had been living in was going to ruin what seemed like that last good chance to get out of that world. So I did try to pull myself together, pleading with my brain to defer the torture until later when I was alone. I wasn't successful all of the time, but when I was able to cut through it I did okay for a while.
I wish I could say that I've taken care of that problem all of these years later. I'm a lot better than I was, but some days see me sinking back into those depths. At this point, I'm just glad it doesn't constantly remove me from reality the way it once did.
Notes on a life in exile: A retrospective
Previous: November 4, 2009 <|> Next: November 22, 2009