Friday, November 30, 2012

Re: My November 14th Post

I have heard from a couple of different people who actually read that post. I'm honestly surprised that anybody reads my blog at all, so I'm stunned that two people read the post and felt moved to comment about it. Thank you to you both.

I don't share that story about how my dad passed away very often. I'm not sure I've told any of my friends the whole story; hell, I'm not even sure that I've really shared the whole thing with Alan. I've spent a lot of time since November 14th second-guessing my decision to leave it posted to my blog, especially since I'm so reluctant to tell people the story in person.

I guess I posted it because I really do have to work things out in text form. For some reason, I cannot process feelings or make certain obvious connections on the fly as events happen in my life. I literally have sit down and write out the situation in detail later, so that I can begin to figure out the feelings I was having (if any), and make the connections between events that should have been obvious at the start. In short: I have to write it down to organize it and figure out how I feel about it. Why? I have no idea. I joke that I'm not from this planet, but sometimes the joke feels a bit too close to the truth. It seems I'm really wired differently from most folks. (I am not sure if that's true, but since I never talk to people about these things, I guess I won't know whether it's common or not.)

Some of my weirdness has to come from my upbringing. My father was an abusive alcoholic whose addiction started shortly after I was born and spiraled out of control until he died in 1979. I'm sure he must have been bipolar, but of course, at that time there were no effective treatments for most mental illnesses, never mind addiction issues. And at that time, society itself thought very differently about things like addiction and  mental illness. When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, it was tacitly understood by everybody that "Nice people never talk about these things openly in polite conversation. EVER."

Of course, such socially-enforced secrecy only led to isolation and desperation. Knowing the statistics as I do now, I realize that my family couldn't possibly have been the only one dealing with these issues, but I don't ever recall anyone else saying anything about having a crappy home situation of their own. I came to believe that we were the ONLY family wrestling with the horrible degenerating cycle that comes from the conflation of untreated alcoholism and mental illness. I thought my brother and I were the only kids who had to put on the brave face every morning and head out the door into the world while ignoring the despair and the rage and the frustration and the hurt and the abandonment; and who felt such anxiety about going home in the evening, wondering what the hell was going to happen tonight. It was like living in a war zone -- we never knew or where the bombs were going to explode, what would trip my dad's temper or my mom's rage, or what would happen next. In that sort of environment, it's best NOT to feel anything. It's the only way to cope.

There's a line in a Pink Floyd song that resonates with me to this day. In "Wish You Were Here," Roger Waters asks:

"And did you exchange
A walk-on part in the war
For a lead role in a cage?"

Oh yes. Yes, I did.

I began to live in a cage of my own making almost immediately after my dad died. That particular night I decided I would never ever plan anything ever again, since it was so patently obvious that disaster could happen at any moment. But a bit later on, I also decided that I would never let anybody get close to me ever again. (Because they can so easily be taken away, you know.) I also consciously decided that I would do my best to be self-sufficient and self-contained and never need anybody ever again. I decided I would never be weak enough to share myself or my feelings with anybody ever again, because my interior critics assured me that I had nothing to contribute and nobody really wanted to hear from me anyway.

And I carried out these decisions beautifully: I became invisible through high school. I had no friends. I got high grades because all I did was go to school, go to work, go home. I had no social life, no interests, no desire to do anything fun -- hell, the whole concept of "fun" was completely foreign to me.

And I felt so desperately alone and trapped in my own head, with no respite from the interior voices that continually reminded me how useless, how terrible, how much of a failure I was and always would be.

Like I said in the previous post, I made it to almost 21 before I broke down. I was living in Albuquerque, attending UNM and working part-time at a law office as a file clerk. It was a Wednesday in January of 1987. I had decided that I had had enough pain. I was ready to kill myself, so I decided to drive out to the Sandias and disappear. I didn't want the whole drama I had experienced with my dad's death. I didn't want anybody to find me.

But on the way out of town, I felt compelled to stop in at the office where I worked. And my boss (who later became my friend) was still there. He asked me why I was there. I told him this was just a brief stop before I left and never came back. He said, "Sit down. Let's talk." And he spent the next four hours talking to me about his own depression and his own struggles. And he said something that I just could not wrap my head around: "There can be life without pain. And you can have one yourself."

Floored me. What a vastly strange, unlikely, but incredibly intriguing concept. Me? Have a life where I'm not in excruciating emotional pain or complete numbness? How is that even possible?

It was possible, eventually. He got me in to see a therapist. He paid for my initial sessions until I could afford them (I had no health insurance). I owe the man my thanks and my life, literally.

I remember the pain of opening up to that therapist and telling him the horrible things I saw, felt, and did. It hurt like hell at first, but it also lifted a tremendous weight from me mentally. I learned from that experience that sharing my past isn't necessarily a bad thing, sometimes.

And that is why I'm posting all of this, and why I've left the November 14th post still up. I still have to remember that my first instinct -- which is always to ignore, to bury, to not say anything -- is not necessarily a good one. And I'm still learning how to share and how to talk about my past, and realizing that it's a necessary part of me that should not be buried or ignored. That I need to embrace it to get past it.

A friend who read my November 14th post sent me a message in which she encapsulated the most important thing I've never even considered about my experiences:

"What you wrote really captures some important aspects of being human and certain human experiences that some humans have to live through, live with, and somehow live despite."

I'm guess I'm living right now despite everything that should have made me dead by now. I hope that's a good thing. I think it is.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Wake Me Up When November Ends

Frankly, I hate this time of the year. It gets dark too early. The upcoming holiday season, particularly since I'm surrounded by people who celebrate and actually enjoy Christmas, just adds to my stress levels.

And today is the 33rd anniversary of my dad's death.

On Wednesday, November 14, 1979, I saw him walk through the house with a .22 caliber Colt Peacemaker revolver. He walked out the back door with it in his hand and closed the door behind him.

My mom screamed. "Oh my god, he's shot himself!" She was completely overwhelmed. She dialed 911 and tried talking to the operator.

Meanwhile, I went outside to check on him. He was lying on the ground in the backyard, on his right side. A pool of blood surrounded his head. I took a pulse at the wrist. Nothing. I took a carotid pulse, nothing. The life was leaving his eyes as I watched. There was nothing else to be done. The sun was going down and it was getting steadily darker and harder to see.

At this point, my memories become a series of individual film clips, taken in small, regular intervals over the course of the next two days. 

I take a blanket outside and cover him with it. I call 911 again and say something to the effect of "No hurry, guys, it's too late."

I wait for the ambulance to arrive and meet the EMTs. Carrying a flashlight, I show them the way through the side yard to the back yard, tell them over my shoulder that it's too late, but here he is anyway, you can take it from here.

I take my brother back to my parents' bedroom and keep him occupied while police descend upon my mom. I also call my mom's friend and ask her to come over.

The police come back to the bedroom and take us to the living room. They tell us he is dead. I tell them I already know that. I get the strangest look from one of the detectives.

A neighbor comes over and takes my brother and me to get some food at McDonald's. I don't remember what we get. I don't recall if I eat or not. While we are gone, my mom calls family members to let them know.

My dad's body is gone when we get back home. Another neighbor is out in the back yard with a bucket of water and a sponge, cleaning up the blood. I watch dispassionately.

We end up leaving the house for the night, staying at my mom's friend's home. I spend most of the night staring up at the ceiling in the dark. I wonder how on earth we go on from here. How is the world continuing to spin? How on earth can the sun rise and things just go on, when my life has just been turned completely upside down? How can anyone go on when this happens to them?

At some point, I decide it's completely worthless to make any sort of Plan ever again -- because when complete and utterly-life-changing disasters can come out of left field like this, what is the point of Planning to Do Something with Your Life? How is it even possible?

The next set of memories involve being back at the house, doing my weekly housecleaning chores, because People Are Coming Over and The House Has To Look Good. And watching the piles of food accumulate:  food cramming the refrigerator, food spread across all the counters in the kitchen, food covering the dining room table and card tables. So much freaking food. And I wasn't hungry at all.

From there, numbness sets in. I have sporadic memories of people trying to talk to me. I don't know when or if I finally cried. It may have taken weeks because that's how I work: I stuff the emotions down and deal with the situation at hand. There'll be time for emotions later. I would have made an excellent EMT or ER doctor, I think.

Of course, the longer the emotions are stuffed down, the harder it is for them to come out, and the more damaging they are when they finally do....

When I was almost 21 years old, I finally broke. Badly enough that I went into therapy for the next seven years. It helped immensely in putting most of the pieces back into place -- but it didn't get all of them. There are still a lot of gaps and cracks and holes in me. As I get older, those holes become more apparent. The failures loom larger and larger as the time ahead grows shorter.

People have always told me I'm smart. They've always told me I could do whatever I wanted to do with my life. I've always looked at them like they're insane. They don't see what I do when they look at me. They don't see the person who failed to stop him. The person who failed to save him. The person who decided that there is no point to planning anything beyond the next few minutes because disaster is always waiting around the corner. They don't see the person who is broken beyond repair. The person who will never amount to anything, ever.

I know it's been 33 years. Some years, the anniversary passes almost without my noticing it. This isn't one of those years. This is one of the years where the whole thing plays out in my head like it happened yesterday. Because to the 13-year-old still living inside me, it just did.