Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Finding Strength

An Occasional Blogger's Journey
After A Rough Few Years,
Toward Feeling Like a Person Again.

Part One: The Old Days

Do you know who you are? Do you really know who you are?

It's human nature for someone to think they have all the answers, to think they know everything there is to know - or need to know - about themselves, their lives, their potential, their worlds. In this life, as we grow from infancy through childhood and young adulthood, we are bombarded with the great Societal Messages. Virtue is its own reward. College is the key to prosperity and success. A penny saved is a penny earned. Good is stronger than evil. Over the last few years, the gradual disintegration of our collective perception of safety and soundness - after the events of 9/11 and the War on Terror, the economic recession, Ponzi investment fraud and many other such events - has made it become more clear to the people of our world that there are, in fact, no promises in life. No guarantees. No answers.

The last ten years have been a fairly dark time for us all. The 1980's were an interesting time to grow into adulthood, around here. We were all fed the lines that "this is America and we deserve the best!" We grew up with a perceived sense of entitlement, as if we were (or are) due nothing but good fortune, if we work hard and live right. A few years later, we leased cars and bought McMansions and flat-screen televisions because we felt we deserved them. We cheated on our lovers or got divorces because this is the land of opportunity, damn it, and if our loved ones don't agree with us on some slight non-issue when placed against the grand scheme of things then we'll find someone who will.

None of this is meant to be any sort of essay about politics, not about assigning blame nor pointing fingers. Terrible things happen all the time, but how often do they happen to you? Loss, unemployment, financial difficulty... these are facts of life. We read every day of tragedy, sickness and fear in the lives of others and we say "how terrible." What are the effects of such tragedies? How have the last few years affected you? What have been the tolls upon our souls? And how have we changed?

Some time ago, my own particular collegiate and post-collegiate employment world consisted of nothing but labor gigs in warehouses and factories. This lasted for a year or two, all after spending nearly six years in college -- an institution I was told would guarantee me a better life, and being considered a fairly decent writer, filmmaker, creative-artist, even being told by one professor that he thought I was destined to make "lasting contributions in the industry." Powerful was my sense of entitlement. And the only job I could get in my podunk town, where I had no car and no money and no family contacts to make any sort of career or life for myself, was in Manual Labor. Sweeping loading zones, running conveyor belts on assembly lines, washing buckets in warm water and bleach, illegally driving fork lifts at the direction of my bosses, being surrounded by the "lifers," people who had been stuck in this same situation for years, sometimes decades, often drunk on the job, stealing from the employers, joking about their "stupid" spouses...

One morning after working my typical overnight 7pm-to-7am shift, I arrived home, sat in a chair, looked out the window and had a very strong nervous breakdown. Shaking, laughing and crying, unable to think about anything but what seemed to be a very dark future, I collapsed into hysteria.

This had been coming for quite some time. When one is depressed -- in this case due to the unfairness of my life direction given my hard work in college and perceived so-called talent as an artist, which is fairly self-aggrandizing in a certain respect -- one's relation to his or her world can snap in a heartbeat.

People often talk and often hear about that great monster, Clinical Depression. Every day can feel like a stay in hell. Simply waking up and getting out of bed in the morning can be a torture. Many get diagnosed, receive pills and move through their lives in a medicated haze. While I've never been diagnosed with such an affliction, nor taken extended meds, I do believe I have a sense of what said people often go through. Case in point: on my way to working that overnight shift, I'd pass by a lake and over a set of railroad tracks both to and from work every day. And there were a few times when I'd thought to myself during a sub-freezing winter's moment, "I wonder how far out on that lake I could walk before the ice breaks under my feet." Or while crossing the tracks, perhaps hearing the whistle of an approaching commuter rail train, "it would be so easy to just stay on these tracks and not move."

These are the thoughts of someone who's had enough. And, in a retrospective way, they feel very... I don't want to use the term "over-dramatic" so I'll say... "childish," which isn't to say that they're not serious or terrible, but perhaps lacking in knowledge or being of a world view, at that time. When you're a kid with very limited life-experience, all you know is your own life. Your own pain. Something as seemingly minute as being unhappy in your job can seem like the end of all things. "Why go on, if this is to be my life?" I would think to myself. And I'd joke about such thoughts with certain close friends that I thought (and hoped) could handle the gallows humor of it. When you're in dispair, sometimes it helps, however briefly, to have the right people around you to help laugh it off. Not that I would have ever done anything like end it all... I might have wondered about it, but never could do it. Why? A few reasons, really.

One: The whole Catholic concept of suicide leading to an immortal soul's eternal damnation. It might sound trite but even though I've never been the regularly church-going type and I'm not sure I'd consider myself overly religious, I've always - to put it simply - appreciated the Big Man and the Big Rules. And I've always felt that some pain in-the-now was nothing compared to the possible never ending darkness of the purgatorial void.

Two: My Mom and My Friends. She, my Mother, would truly be devastated if I'd ever gone and done anything so horrible. Never mind whatever pain I might've thought I was feeling. This is a woman who's had what I think many would agree to be -- if they knew all the facts -- a very hard life, one with doubt and fear and pain and some loneliness and the occasional ray of hope and sunshine. When things were bad, and they often were, it was us against the world. I know what I mean to her... And then my Friends... There was a time when I didn't have many friends. All through high school I considered maybe three people close enough to call friends -- and one of them was an adult, a teacher who saw something of value in my artwork. In those situations where your peers just don't seem to care - if you're a heavy kid, picked on, living in State-assisted housing and a form of Federal Assistance - loneliness is the greatest potential killer that I can think of. I knew about this as a child and high-schooler here and there, but this moment of Labor Work wasn't one of those times. This moment instead, the point of my college and post-college years between 1988 and 1994, brought me many of the friends I would consider my lifetime ones. Friends I still love and cherish to this day who I hope know this as fact... Friends that might just be reading these words right now... Friends I can't do without.

Three: Blind hope. If someone removes themselves from life, they could miss something better down the line. It could be anything... Love. Art. Career. Riches. Family. Sunlight. Music. Good books and films. People. Animals... How could one know things could get better if they weren't there to see it?

Some truly unfortunate people spend their lives in famine, disease, sorrow... What right did I have to consider such an end if I simply didn't like my current situation? And yet, some do just that. My cousin did. And my step brother. Boys I played with as a child, boys I saw movies with, exchanged birthday presents with, joked about girls with. My cousin was the athlete, the talented musician, had the girlfriend, the bright future... He seemed to have it all in ways I never had and in some ways still haven't. My step brother went the other way, I'd heard; alcohol and drug addiction. Another two people in my life got into their respective cars and drove themselves into trees. One drank himself to death and died alone over a Christmas holiday. What brought them to their last breaths? What sadness made them give up?

An hour or so later after my aforementioned breakdown, I finally calmed down enough to take some medication (given to me me by someone with several other issues that required such medication) and fell asleep. The sadness of what I perceived to be a wasted life in front of me hit me hard. Not long later, I got my first adult employment opportunity , a video/audio editing job at a nationwide press clips agency, lost a little physical and emotional weight -- no small feat for someone who grew up poor, heavy and never got a date until his twenties -- and moved into adulthood and into the city of Boston with college friends. So yes, things got better for the next, oh seven years or so... (More on that, later.)

This is all backstory, though. None of this is any sort of cry for help, any sort of "poor me" attempt at attention-grabbing. I only bring it up to place a few things in context.

Sadness, fear and sorrow all take a huge toll on the human spirit. You see, much of this was all between 1993 and 1995. Years before the World Trade Center, the Taliban, Bernie Madoff, George Bush, the Failing Dollar, Ten Percent Unemployment... All the above, all that seemed so sad and harsh and important, was "only a test," compared to what would eventually come to town in all our lives. You really never know who you are -- or what you're capable of -- until the time comes. When you're feeling strong, the phrase "when the going gets tough, the tough get going" might come to mind. And maybe, for a time, you feel like you can handle anything life can throw at you. "That other stuff, that was kid stuff. I'm an adult now," you might think in such moments. "I can take anything."

We were all about to find out just what we could take. Just who we were. And just what we were made of.

To be continued...

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