It was 1994. I was 32.
My first marriage was already starting to crumble from the strains of navigating the unchartered waters of a diagnosis of autism, ennui and my own mental condition.
You can always say – if I could go back to one point in my life for a do-over. . .
Well, the problem is, I can’t and even if I could, I’d have so many ‘recovery points’ I couldn’t choose one over the other. Our lives are defined by mistakes, yearnings, unforeseen blows and dumb luck. It starts with your parents and what you inherit from them – money, looks, intelligence but most of all, guidance.
I was constantly groping for something. I wanted someone who would marry me before I got too old. I found one who said ‘yes’ when I was 20. I wanted a full-time, go-to-a-big-downtown-office responsible job and I got one with the Department of Labor when I was 22. I wanted a house with a yard and a fence and I got one when I was 24. I wanted kids and I got the first one when I was 26.
I saw my father die at 51 when I was 20, and, in some way, felt that if I didn’t do all the ‘adult’ stuff now, it might never happen. The ‘adult’ stuff, unfortunately, was always someone else’s dream – my parents, society’s, and the media’s. I spent an entire childhood not fitting in anywhere so I spent most of my adult life striving to fit in somewhere.
I didn’t realize it until I was much older how much I was ‘playing’ at being an adult. I didn’t have any real idea of what I wanted so I tried to copy various acceptable lifestyles.
I blew through my young adulthood like a tornado and never stopped to think why I was living this frenetic pace. All I knew is I was ticking boxes: graduate college, marriage, job, house, kids.
Divorce 1996, remarriage 1997, moves, jobs, careers, lost friends, divorce 2008, remarriage 2009 – one long blur of activity.
There were times I stood still for just a moment and asked myself: is that it? Is that all there is? Did I make it? Did I experience everything? Would my relatives be proud of me? Is there something else?
There are two ways to look back for me. One, I can say it was a bumpy ride but a hell of a wild one. So what if I didn’t learn anything? The other is to survey the wreckage left in my wake and wonder why I did what I did.
The one thing bipolar disorder always steals from you is perspective. You do things that seem normal to you while everyone you know looks aghast at your choices. I never felt as sure of my destiny as I did when I was wrecking my life.
There were 29 mental health professionals, at least 25 different types of medications and all the king’s horses and men that made up my friends, and all of that could not stop me from running because I didn’t know what I was running from or to.
I just knew there was something out there I had to catch as soon as I could and once I did, my life would be justified and everything would make sense.
When you’re depressed you don’t want to be depressed. When you’re manic, it’s great because you have a reason and the energy to get out of bed and make great plans. If you have no idea how your brain chemistry is screwing with you, everything seems like a big adventure and you are the star.
I suppose there is a third way of looking at my life: once you have the cause and effect figured out, spend the rest of what time you have left finding meaning in your life and listening carefully to your own mind.
And make amends, somehow.
And ask for forgiveness, if possible.
I remember the first time I heard Round Here. It’s one of those songs that convey a powerful mood, in this case, longing, despair and maybe not a little anger.
It was one of those songs that were the soundtrack of the start of a very tumultuous period of my life. It would be a long time before I would pay attention to the lyrics and try to figure out the symbolism of the video. Once I did, I knew why every time I heard it on the radio, I choked up.
Counting Crows lead singer Adam Duritz said the song was about him. He explains:
“The song begins with a guy walking out the front door of his house and leaving behind this woman. But the more he begins to leave people behind in his life, the more he feels like he’s leaving himself behind as well, and the less substantial he feels about himself. That’s sort of what the songs about: even as he disappears from the lives of people, he’s disappearing more and more from his own life.” (emphasis mine).
I think that’s why I keep looking back so much and trying to figure out why I did what I did. I lost something of myself along the way with all the people I left behind. They always will carry a part of me and I of them, but not the part I want remembered.
I sat on the other side of 50 years wondering who the hell I was and how I got here; hence the allusions of this blog to the Talking Heads’ Once in a Lifetime.
One theme in Round Here I didn’t even realize until I read Duritz’ explanation (from soungfacts.com) was the song’s comparison between childhood wants and adult realities:
The theme of childhood promises not panning out is one that shows up a lot in Duritz’ lyrics. In the chorus of this song, he lists some sayings that our parents often say: “Around here we always stand up straight,” “Around here we’re carving out our names.”
Said Duritz: “You’re told as a kid that if you do these things, it will add up to something: you’ll have a job, (a) life. And for me, and for the character in the song, they don’t add up to anything, it’s all a bunch of crap. Your life comes to you or doesn’t come to you, but those things didn’t really mean anything.” (emphasis mine)
It was a shattering experience when I realized that after all the houses, cars, jobs, awards and stuff, that if you hate what you’ve become, those things will not comfort you but indict you – the stuff of life is not ‘stuff.’ These things will not love you back.
“By the end of the song, he’s so dismayed that he’s screaming out that he gets to stay up as late as he wants and nobody makes him wait; the things that are important to a kid – you don’t have to go to bed, you don’t have to do anything. But they’re the sort of things that don’t make any difference at all when you’re an adult. They’re nothing.”
One of the first things I did when I left home was go to the grocery store and buy all the food I wanted to eat which included a lot of snacks and garbage food my parents refused to buy. During one lunch I ate an entire box of Rice-A-Roni chicken followed up by half a bag of Oreo double-stuf cookies and milk.
I could do what I wanted but I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I had the freedom to screw up my life and I made the most of it. I bought beer, got cable TV, went out at night.
Always looking, always searching for that ultimate feeling that says ‘you have arrived, you’ve made it.’
It never happens.
The greatest mania of my life led to me starting my own business – a used bookstore in 2007, just when online bookseller were destroying the brick and mortars and the mom and pops. It was a few months after I opened that even through the fog of my own disorder, I could see this was madness.
I can’t tell you how many times I thought about suicide in response to questions I could answer: why did I do this? What was I thinking? If I can’t get my own life on a straight line and all I experience in the end is defeat and depression, what is the point of enduring more of it?
The mind is a terrible master. A fucked up mind is playing Russian roulette with six bullets.
Paranoia set in. Since I no longer trusted my own judgment and didn’t trust people, I withdrew. I married a wife who gets me, bought one last house I love and managed to get a job that’s steady. And yet, my illness almost blew that to hell not that long ago.
For a while, I stopped moving forward. I stood still, scared of losing what I had. I have a basement where all the ephemera, all the memories I’ve been carrying around for decades, are displayed like a museum. I can go down there and thumb through my life any time I want.
Even though after 40 years, the meds seem to be working, my mood swings have become tolerable and I have more self-awareness than I ever had, I don’t want to move. So I force myself out of the house, force myself to write, force myself to re-connect with friends from high school, but every step is filled with heaviness and dread.
What if this awareness is merely a remission? Like any bipolar condition, if I fall into mania where I do and say things that alienate people, will I even realize it before it’s too late?
I think I’m in charge of my own thoughts and emotions but I remember the disasters of the past. I realize full well there is no guarantee it couldn’t happen again. And it’s scary. I could stay home. I could shut down. I could isolate myself and all of that would lessen my chances of causing pain to me and others.
If I don’t move, I don’t get hurt.
But if I don’t move, I might as well be dead now.