An Ordinary Disaster

What kid gets that there’s a lesson encoded in every rule? I was no different, and so my confident rule-breaking was also a precocious defiance of all the things that I could have known. I learned most of all to reject what others had built, what they had assumed for me. I got good first of all at dismissing, and nobody suggested how necessary it is to learn how to feel, how to connect with others, how to become known, how to know myself. I avoided all of those things. I kept my distance from others, and I didn’t develop much of a self: the perfect formula for an ordinary disaster. 

I was in pain. I was lonely. I was hurt, angry and lost. I didn’t know how the world worked. I didn’t know why I was so isolated. I knew that life at home was terrible—there was no warmth there, no depth, no closeness—and worst of all: no truth—but what could I do about it, at the age of fourteen? 

One of my closest friends at that early age had left home and was renting the spare room in my mother’s flat. Sandy was a stunner: intelligent, handsome, radiant charisma. Walking down the street in his studded leather and foot-high mohawk, his smile landed on everyone he passed. Under the bed in what used to be my sisters’s room, my mother found a burnt, crusty spoon and asked me what it was. She later saw a photo of me with a syringe poised over my arm. At least in that case what I told her was true: that I was aping for the camera. Sandy leapt through a fourth-story window in SOMA a few years later. When a housemate picked up the phone at my shared apartment in Italy, the mis-translated message was that my mother had been killed. I took the phone, and it was her calling to tell me that Sandy was dead. 

It took me so long to even start to see beyond the dark world that I grew up in. For years I hid and crawled, wounded and unconscious, seeking only relief. I knew in some way that I wasn’t who I wanted to be, but I had no idea that it could be possible to become someone else. I still thought that life mostly just happens. 

Twenty-five years after Sandy died, I’m alone in my apartment on Potrero Hill, feeling the effects of the bottle of wine and three tequila cocktails from the night before. An hour or two of phone calls and email are done, and I have nothing else to do. My phone doesn’t ring. 

A familiar feeling is growing inside me, a desperate feeling. I’m at a loss. The question hovers before me, flashing: What do I do? With my life, with the day, with the next hour? My hopelessness grows and materializes as a bad air that I can’t escape, a sheet winding around me into a straightjacket. I’m painfully aware that I don’t even know what to do with the next minute, and this awareness brings me that much closer to panic. The whirling dread and desperation envelops me, growing stronger, and sharper. 

I knew it was coming, and now it does, this horrific image: my face, lacerated, bloody, and foul. My lips slashed by whirling razors, a buzzing alarm ringing in my ears. I can feel the metal between my teeth, cutting into my gums. In with the blades is something even worse: shit. It’s a small relief that I can’t smell or taste it, but it can be nothing else. Filth smeared in with the blood, the razors cutting into me, everything mixed together in a terrifying, polluted, catastrophic mess. 

This vision came to me many times in those years. Even then, by objective standards I wasn’t severely depressed. I was never suicidal. I didn’t lose my mind, and I never became a barfly, a fall-down drunk. 

I’ve never told anyone about the horror that I saw. 

As I just heard meditation teacher and psychologist Tucker Peck put it: “If you’re in any depression, it feels severe”—and I had no reason to believe that it wouldn’t get worse. 

Alone, angry, frustrated, desperate—and exhausted, I sought relief, and alcohol delivered. Down in the garage I had cases and cases of beautiful wines from the Loire, Galicia, and Sicily, like so many books lined up on the shelves. I drank those stories in, and their alchemy calmed the harsh, cutting wind of the day’s pain. They also made me feel like I was part of something. There were real stories there, stories that I wanted to be part of. I needed something to be part of, something other than waiting, alone, for something worse to happen. 

Ten years before that, I’m sitting at my desk in the front room of my flat on Bryant street. Ceaseless noise seeps in through the old plaster walls. The number 27 diesel bus line stops directly in front of the building that I bought with a friend. Like Sandy, Ted is a magnet, and a man that I admire. He seems free in a way that I desperately want to be. We met back in motorcycle days and drove across the country together once, stopping in Salmon Idaho to play pool, destination Tiger Stadium, Detroit. He’s scraping by, driving a cab, and I can see from the bank statements that he’s missed some payments. The bus stops on the corner below me with a hiss of escaping air and lowers itself, exhaling again loudly, kneeling with a series of insistent beeps, and then jacks itself back up to full height. The driver gives it gas and roars off, the exhaust aimed directly upwards at my second-floor window. Before any calm can settle, the trash man double-parks his truck and leaves it idling, rattling, clattering. These insistent sounds harry and crowd my thoughts. A Harley accelerates through the intersection in second gear, setting off a cluster of novelty car alarms. Each sound invades me, unsettles me, leaves me shorter of breath. Black particulate dust accumulates on the windowsill. 

It was then that I finally started to notice that something was getting to me, something that I couldn’t sustain. What came to me seemed like a radical idea at the time, and obvious now: that I should leave the city. I applied to grad schools only in quiet places, and moved to Wisconsin. There I found some peace in the green streets where the other older students lived, the easy bicycle ride to campus, teaching sailing on the big lake. 

In planning school I was immersed in new world, a subject that I was passionate about, and I had other students to interact with. My intellectual life was reawakened, but I was still the same person: isolated, lonely, and angry, and my drinking habit and pursuit of edgy, violent sex both escalated. I was enjoying the darkness. 

The loving girlfriend that had agreed to join me there in Madison didn’t last beyond the move. Combing the net, I found the one person in that college town whose interests matched mine, and Lola and I spent many nights bound up with bourbon and each other. Although I wish we had been able to step outside ourselves, talk to each other about what we were doing, it’s also true that we helped each other immensely in that time. We needed each other and gave each other exactly what we needed, right then, and we did no permanent damage. 

I discovered alcohol at that same age that I began to feel alone, but it wasn’t the drinking that caused my pain. Drinking was a Band-Aid, and then a blindfold. Caroline Knapp sums it up well: “alcohol has the insidious dual effect of deadening the discomfort and also preventing us from ever really overcoming it.” Alcohol dumbed me up and kept me down—it didn’t want me to learn what I needed to escape its sad, subterranean temple. I’m ashamed of how readily I climbed right down in there, and for not using all those years more wisely. It shouldn’t have happened that way. Russell Brand asked “Why would we not be dogged with the construction of our identity, the fragility of our lives…?” — exactly, that’s the paradox, and the joy, of the human condition. But the human condition is not meant to be solitary. Trying to construct my identify by myself nearly broke me. My parents should have been there. It’s hard to not blame them more. I can still dig up anger, but there’s no treasure in that hole either. 

In pictures of myself from that past, I see that I look like shit. I didn’t think so at the time, but really I don’t remember. I did what I could when I could. I kept moving because that’s one of the few things I knew—and at least I knew that. It was clear enough to me that I needed to change, but I was afraid of the unknown, the effort seemed like it would be overwhelming, and I was already overwhelmed. I hadn’t learned how possible it is to change. I resented the circumstances that brought me to where, how, and who I was. I was angry, and my anger justified my inaction. I didn’t want or know how to begin, and it felt unfair that I might have to start over. I did, and it still does. 

Now, as it’s becoming clear that life is only just barely long enough to make some meaning, I see also that even so, there is space to live several lives. That’s the lesson that I so dearly wish to have learned earlier: that it’s possible to become someone, and how. 

This morning, as I run one of my favorite trails on the mountain behind me, my body carries me along a path perfectly designed by thousands of steps just like mine. The trees shift with the movement of the spring air, my feet dancing and snapping fallen branches. Even the distant rumble of traffic on the highway is welcome, now, to my ears.