Why I Write: The Blur of the Past Two Years

Well, it's the first bump in the road for me in getting back to writing regularly here on The Cinema 4 Pylon. Through yesterday morning, I had posted an article here every day for fifteen days straight, from September 30 forward, as part of my Countdown to Halloween celebration. And then I hit today.

I have been trying to keep things light on here as I start writing again. The main focus of this site is about my love of movies -- and every so often, about music, comics, baseball, and books, as well -- and how they have influenced me over the years, sometimes in surprising ways. I do like to focus intensely on issues I have with filmmaking trends and controversies, but in general, I like it to be a fun and humorous atmosphere.

Except sometimes, fun and humorous just isn't in the works. There are days where putting something down on paper or in a simple text document on your computer screen becomes unbearably hard, because you can't process some of the thoughts in your head. Sometimes you just don't want to, and doing anything but writing is preferable to confronting your own truth.

If you wonder why this is such a big thing to me, it's because I am writing for my health. Apart from finding out everything to which I am allergic recently so that I can breath easier and not wanting to throw up all the time, and going cold turkey on soda pop and potato chips -- and keeping to 1800 calories a day max -- to get the weight down (lost over ten pounds in the very first week), and making sure to get out for extended walks daily for exercise. Those I am doing for my physical health. The writing is key to my mental health.

To be blunt, a couple of years ago, I was doing what is called in the health industry as "suicidal ideation". I wasn't trying to commit suicide. I was just ruminating on it at length. We would be someplace swell like the Grand Californian Hotel at Disneyland, and while the rest of the family was figuring out what to wear to dinner at Napa Rose that evening, I was sitting on a fifth floor hotel room balcony trying to divine the angle and perfect way to jump to make sure I did myself in properly and didn't survive the leap. Walking to a job I hated increasingly each morning had me pausing on the overpass above the 91 and musing on whether it would be better to hit the freeway first and then get railed by a car, or to wait for a semi to come barreling down the road. (Thinking about the safety of others does not enter your brain at those moments.)

It was not a romantic thing for me. I was in pain. I traced it initially to the death of one of our sweet dogs, Isabelle, with whom I bonded even greater as I worked from home while she went through a couple of months of chemotherapy that failed to destroy the tumors overtaking her small body. I got too close, and when we had to take her in, I held on to her as they put her under. This was a massive mistake for me, as I had never been with any of my former pet friends as they succumbed, and feeling her body makes its last shudder has stuck with me ever since. And it is not something I wish to repeat.

As I said, I traced it to that period, but I have always been prone to depression; I just had never been diagnosed with it. I had periods like this when I lived in Alaska, but I mostly kept them hidden. And it has gotten worse since moving to California; though all seemed peachy to me at first, I was going through it all the same. While the first few years at the place were glorious to me, I lay most of the blame at my inability to deal with my job at that time as a writer, editor and communications manager. It was for a company of which the office staff is still composed entirely of wonderful people with which to work on a daily basis, but has a board which is largely comprised of bitter, abusive jerks. As the jerks overrode the daily workings of the office setting, my need to be removed from that atmosphere increased. I saw no way out, as I am not prone to walking away from such situations. My previous job lasted for 22 years, from the time I was 18 until I was 40, and in that time, while I encountered people with whom I did not work easily, I outlasted them all (and in a couple of cases, befriended them and came around to their side).

In this new situation, as I had been in the job for a few years already, I knew full well it was really getting to me. I just didn't know what to do about it. Jen would tell me to quit and find something else, but I didn't know what that meant. I just couldn't comprehend quitting. A job, that is, because I certainly quit other things. For instance, once Isabelle got sick, I quit writing. I could no longer bear to put my fingers on a keyboard if I wasn't being paid to do it. My personal writing dried up. I still considered myself a writer and editor because I was doing it professionally, but everything else that I had been working on at home -- the regular blog, short stories, comic strip scripts, and a screenplay for a monster movie I wanted to make one day -- not only got squashed, but in some cases, all of my notes and work to that point were thrown in the trash.

Instead of quitting the job that was slowly devouring my soul, I gave up on happiness outside of it. I still showed up at work and was friendly with my co-workers (many of whom I still adore and speak to or text with occasionally). But I wanted out more and more each day. Gradually, those feelings began to gnaw at me as I left the house. Somedays, assuming that most bosses were not great when dealing with mental issues, I would feign a physical illness, and then turn around on the street, go home, and curl into a ball. Somedays, I would be at the bus stop or even halfway to walking to work, and I would have to turn back, so upset I would get at the thought of walking through those office doors, even though none of what was bothering me was likely to be inside the office that day.

One morning, nearly two years ago, I thought that I was doing fine. I put on my headphones to stomp my way to the bus stop. I had my workday planned out in my head, and on mornings when I was feeling great, one of the bands I liked to listen to was Blur, and especially, what I believe is their best album, Parklife. I had left off listening to the album the previous day with Magic America, the thirteenth track, set to play next. The band's wonderful mocking of my home country finished, and then the band zipped through Jubilee, a raucous, semi-punky number that usually gets me going pretty well. But my mind by that point had started to dwell on more mundane, earthbound things. The dog was in there; yes, even a year away, I was still reeling from that. And so were some things from the job that were going on that involved some demands from the board president and a couple of his toadies. I had sort of stopped listening directly to Jubilee by the time it was done, and was more into drowning slowly in my own thoughts. I remember telling myself to stop doing what I was doing, because it would begin to hurt.

And then This is a Low started. My favorite song on Parklife, a gorgeous, almost pastoral early on but swelling ballad that is largely based around a British shipping forecast, with references to areas in the sea around England, and with the biggest reference in the title itself (and lovely chorus) to a low-pressure weather system. To some, the song could sound nonsensical if you don't understand the names mentioned in it; it did to me at first, almost like something Lewis Carroll put together, with its "Tyne Forth and Cramity" phrases. But like any song, the lyrics can be interpreted by the listener to fit the demands in their life.

Through my half listening to the exceedingly familiar lyrics, my brain started making connections that it shouldn't (or couldn't) help. Singer/songwriter Damon Albarn sings...
"And into the sea goes pretty England and me..."
at the very start of the song, and my mind latched onto it immediately. The rest of the verse, if you don't know the song, heads straight into nautical references and place names, to where it is, at least on the surface, not seemingly about the depressive state that I was experiencing. But I knew that monster of a chorus was coming up:
"This is a low
But it won't hurt you
When you are alone
It will be there with you
Finding ways to stay solo"
In my interpretation of the song, that final line is not heard as "solo," but rather as "so low," especially given how Albarn spreads out the syllables when he sings it. At this point, starting to near the turn to the last corner before it was a straight shot to the bus stop, my heart is hurting. Not physically, but the opposite of the way when you are lovesick, with your heart beating in the bloody hands of an uncaring enemy. I was starting to feel a sickening sweat run over every inch of my body, as I married the song's words to my own unclear thoughts. And then the final lines of the second verse were sung:
"And the queen, she's gone round the bend
Jumped off land's end..."
and I lost it completely. In my mind, I saw myself falling, falling, falling over and over again. I started crying uncontrollably as a jogging couple that I saw every morning with their bull terrier gave me the usual nod, along with a curious look as they kept moving. I made it to the crosswalk, and dropped to the ground. I was still crying and shaking, and I had to tear the headphones off my ears. I couldn't listen to the music anymore as I sat there on the sidewalk and held my head in my hands. After a few minutes, somehow I gathered myself together just enough to get up and cross the street, with tears cutting canyons of shame down my cheeks. I made it the final 400 yards to the bus stop, and within seconds, I was on the bus. (My bawling time ate up the normal few minutes under the shade of the bus stop that I used to cool down from my brisk walk.)

On that bus were people that I saw quite regularly, some with whom I often had morning conversations. And here I was, cheeks (the upstairs ones) wet and salty, and still shaking nervously. One lady not of my acquaintance handed me a tissue and asked if I were okay. "Just having a bit of a breakdown," I replied. "Thanks." I took the tissue, and start crying anew with everyone (about a dozen people) staring at me. Everything was in slow motion on that bus, but luckily, it was a relatively short trip to the stop across from work. Once there, however, I wasn't any better. I was considering just going back home, but I had some duties that required me to work from the office that day, as they were more easily performed on the PC at work rather than on my Mac (I much prefer using Excel on a PC). And so I made to cross the street at the light.

Then a stray thought hit my brain. Tears started to well up, and then they started to roll anew. I was staring into the fast moving traffic running parallel to me as I made to cross, and I stopped, mesmerized by it. The cars were going only 40 mph -- 45 tops -- but I knew that if I just casually sidled my way into that rushing mix, it would likely be over for me, especially if that first car threw me just right. I stood staring at the traffic while standing about four feet out into the walkway, but then reality set in, and I realized that the cars from the opposite direction were starting their turn to swing left, where I happened to be. I jumped back out of their way -- nobody was near me, as they did see me standing there -- but it showed that I still had a care about not ending up hurt or dead. I didn't want to end up, as Frank Zappa sang, as a "suicide chump".

I crossed with the next green light and made it to the office. My face was red and flushed and wet as I unlocked the front door. We were not yet open to the public, so the doors were locked, but several of the staff were on hand already. Our maintenance person, Cindy, was there in the kitchen, and she came out and saw my condition. "Are you OK?," she asked. "No. I think I might be having a breakdown." Her reply was "Well, don't." It was the sort of response I would have given her in the same situation, such was our repartee, but it made me start crying all over again. I just left the room and ran up the stairs to my office, where I sat in the dark for a little bit and tried to calm myself down.

When my partner Logan arrived and came into the office with all the lights and even computers off, he was quizzical. I told him what happened, and he said matter-of-factly, "So, what do you need to do?" "Get some help," was my meek reply. He said, "Good." When my boss Bill came in (who is perhaps one of the kindest people you would ever want to meet in these sort of circumstances),  I told him that I was going to call my doctor and see about getting in to see a therapist. Calling the hospital, I was told that it was unlikely that I would get to see one in the same day unless I went straight to the emergency room. I called my wife Jen to pick me up, and we headed to UCI.

Here's the thing about the emergency room. If you are going in for a possible mental health issue like I was, you have to fill out a 5150 form (the one mentioned in the Van Halen title). Basically, I had to sign something that said that if it was determined that I was a legitimate threat to myself or to others while I was under their care that day, that they could hold me until it was safely determined otherwise. That is an eye opener. In my case, I still had hold of my senses to a very large degree, and was able to understand the hot water into which I had plunged. Yes, I was having a definite problem, but I was pretty certain I wasn't going crazy. 

To point this out even further, Jen and I had to wait to see a therapist in a small 8' x 5' room with only seven chairs and two doors, with a security guard at one of the doors keeping an eye on me. He was exceedingly nice, made small talk with both of us, and even grabbed bottles of water for us as we waited for what was estimated could be up to four or five hours. It ended up being far less, just a couple, but the wait was made more interesting by the addition of one extra security person with an actual crazy person: a guy who muttered to himself constantly, was fighting with at least one demon unseen to us, and who waved his hands in wild motions all around his head for the roughly one hour we were in his presence. His presence alone made me feel a bit better, because how could I possibly be considered to be losing it with such an example around?

When I finally got in to see an emergency therapist, I thought it was going well. My vitals were fine, with the usual high blood pressure, and we talked for well over an hour about what happened that morning (all of which I have related here almost two years later). He then wanted to have a discussion with Jen to see if she was alright, and if I had caused any problems that I wasn't willing to share openly with him. After that, I was treated for what I thought was mild depression, and released.

Two weeks later, I could barely stay awake. I couldn't focus on my work or watching a movie or reading. I drifted in and out of everything. I might as well have been a zombie in a mental ward, except that I wasn't drooling. I had been put on Seroquel by the physician at the emergency, and had no idea it was a drug more commonly used for bipolar disorder, and was in fact, a real pain in the ass of a medication. However, because I had done the shortcut through the emergency room, it enabled me to get a referral to a regular therapist at the hospital, and after my first visit with the doctor, I finally started to see things a little more positively. First off, he wondered why they had put me on Seroquel, because he saw not the slightest sign that I was bipolar. It was a mystery to me, I replied, and he switched me to a much less intrusive medication, Effexor.

For over a year, Dr. Boombatz (not his real name... duh) and I discovered two common themes in my therapeutic revival. The first was that I hated my job. HATED IT. For the first few months, he would act astounded as I brought in stories about the crazy demands of our board, and of the temperamental manner in which some of them behaved. He spent the last seven months of our time together constantly suggesting to me that I should just quit the job and go elsewhere. When I resisted and came up with excuses, he would shrug his shoulders, and say "Why not? Why would you stay?" I found this odd to me, and a little cavalier of an attitude for a therapist, but he was completely right. Why should I stay? (But I did. And just a little too long.)

The second theme that came out in these sessions -- and let me tell you, after a lifelong cynicism about his profession, I thoroughly shifted the other way regarding psychiatric therapy -- was my love of writing. It was so clear that my happiness was tied completely to getting things out on paper, a white board, a computer screen... somewhere. Just not kept in my head. We discussed writing in nearly every session that wasn't dominated by that week's crisis. And while I was not posting again online through all of this, I had started writing again, creating a couple of short stories and outlining several others in that span, and I had already begun to feel more confidence.

Getting fired eventually from that horrible job situation for insubordination (really, what took them so long?) fairly shattered that confidence again, as I have found it exceedingly difficult to pin down new employment in the intervening months. Not long after getting fired, my time with Dr. Boombatz ended. He weaned me off of the Effexor over the last couple of months, and left me to my own devices. It is now only a little later in the year from end of that job and my therapy, but it might as well be light years. We are in a new living arrangement, in a new city, and in a new house. Though I do have my real doctor's personal info if I feel myself slipping again, my new doctor has now become the written word.

Cut to today. I felt myself slipping a little over the past 24 hours, after an exceedingly depressing dentist visit, and money worries hit me harder than they often do. I began to resort to old bad habits in my thought processes, and was unable to use my usual stops to prevent this. When I woke up this morning, while I had planned on knocking out a fluff review about a movie that I really enjoyed to post on this blog, I no longer felt like it. I spent my morning cleaning the bedroom and office, goofing around with my cat, and staring out the window. I would keep approaching the review, but after a couple of sentences more, the drive to complete it would dissipate.

But I knew that I had to write. I don't necessarily have to write every single day, but I would rather that I did. I know it is too hard to get caught in traps, and ones that are most often of our own design. Such are the ones in my mind, that make me indifferent to everything the second I lose concentration, and that keep me from picking up pen and putting it to paper for longer and longer periods the more I resist it.

And so I told you this story, world. I have shared it in person with several people, some of whom are within its text and will now read it again. If you are coming to this blog from the Countdown to Halloween website and have discovered nothing in these words about our shared favored holiday, I apologize. But this needed to come out of me. I had yet to write it down, and if there is anything I have learned over the last few years, its that I need to get things out of my head for me to move forward. Hopefully, this will prove fruitful to me.

Now, on to that fluff review...


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