I've never taken time to learn any instruments, so I admire anyone with that ability. Radar, a New Orleans native, is more than just a guitar player; he's one of those freaky-talented musicians who can play any instrument put in front of him. After a few quick strums to familiarize himself with Heath's guitar, Radar burst into an impromptu set of Bayou guitar favorites - blasting acoustics against the thunder, rain, and lightning. Over the next two hours, the instrument was passed back and forth between Radar & Heath, as I watched in amazement as two relatively unfamiliar men found commonality within music. At one point, Heath made a comment...something about writing lyrics while stoned. Shortly before that, Radar had played a melody he'd written himself...and when the two offhand comments joined in my head, I suddenly found a way to contribute to the creativity: "If You Write the Music, I'll Write the Lyrics." In the magic of the moment, while watching two men share both sadness & joy through music, I'd heard the voice of inspiration...and it gave me the title of my next book.
It made me feel small, but in the biggest and best way possible.
Going forward, as I begin the 3-6 month process of writing a novel, I'll be using this forum to share my creative process. I get crazy when I write. I scare the hell out of people when the process is in full-force...and at times, I'm completely unapproachable. I wake up early - 3-4am - and type, pace, smoke, talk to myself...hopelessly lost in my head. I pride myself in the fact that most every part of my life is in order, but when I write that all goes out the window. I become, for all practical purposes, a crazy person. And I'm not going to hide that anymore, either :)
There are many things happening right now that I suspect are being caused by the emergence of thirty-plus years of depression. I've learned that depression has a specific name - dysthymia - a type of chronic depression that often lasts for decades, and becomes such a part of a person's life, sadness actually "becomes" happiness...that is, the person only feels "normal" when sad. Chronic depression is very similar to drug addiction in that addicts only feel normal when using - and depressed people only feel normal when sad. When Prozac hit the market in the 90s, there were many stories about this topic. People who spent a lifetime being quiet & reserved would suddenly come out of their shells while on the drug, sometimes becoming a completely different person.
My old psychiatrist - who helped put this all into perspective a few years back - told me of a woman whose life took an unexpected turn while taking modern antidepressants. The patient had clearly been suffering from dysthymia when marrying her husband, and there was absolutely nothing wrong with their relationship. The husband fell in love with what he thought had been a quiet, private partner, but after a few months on Prozac, her personality did a 180. She started exercising. She went back to school. For the first time in her life, the woman was experiencing the excitement that coincides with happiness - but that enthusiasm caused problems because her husband had married a depressed person. I don't know how their story ended - if they stayed together or got divorced - but the important thing to take from the case is that the real woman had always been energetic; it had just taken the right antidepressant for her to realize that. Emerging from depression is, quite literally, a life-changing experience. Or, as I've taken to calling it lately, "coming back to life."
Three years ago, after a sudden leave of absence, Cheryl returned to work one morning, looking beaten and frail. Her son - a man she'd never really talked about before - had taken his own life after years of fighting depression. In an effort to find some normalcy in her life, Cheryl resumed her bookselling duties without the twinkle she'd had for years. We all knew what happened. But as mental illness is poorly understood by most, the topic was avoided in leu of the polite pleasantries that likely made her feel worse: It's good to have you back, Cheryl. You're in our thoughts and prayers.
A few weeks had passed when Cheryl came up to me for no apparent reason and asked, "Are you okay?" My heart hit the floor. I knew exactly what she meant. Having gone through the death of her son - and no doubt reflected on the signs she had missed - she recognized my own depression, and broke my silence. I remember telling her "No," but not going further. In the weeks and months that followed, the two of us shared our stories and eventually became good friends. As mentioned in earlier blogs, I started going to church with Cheryl - a batshit-crazy offshoot of Mormonism whose first encounter offered a transexual speaker. And I say that with love. The services I attended in the time that followed were always a blast - both funny and spiritual - a strange combination of Catholic ritual and uncomfortable scenes from Big Love. I liked to go on potluck days, not because of the food, but more to watch the congregation's social interaction after the formality of church service was dropped. These people were delightful. They genuinely cared about each other. It was during these Sundays when I saw Cheryl as she really was - happy, playful, a young woman in an older woman's body. Happiness, I realized, could be found without drugs. A few antidepressants maybe, but alas, the elephant in the room, holding a Manhattan in its trunk...
Denial is a chilling defense-mechanism, especially when it evolves into its own form of dysthymia. I genuinely believe that denial is the root of addiction - whether addiction to substance, or addiction to depression - and it grows beneath the surface like a cancer of the subconscious, making behavior that would scare the hell out of most seem normal to an addict. Again, I'll spare the details...the blackouts, the hangovers, the waking up on an unfamiliar floor in an unfamiliar place. But what I will share is that after spending 14 years writing a book that I thought was a study in depression & mental illness, what I ended up doing was putting my denial system on paper...begging the reader to read between the lines, and to say out loud the words I couldn't say myself: Please help me. Ultimately, when those words finally came, it was as magical of a moment as a stormy night on the porch.
After Radar left (he didn't move in formally until a few days later), I sat alone on my living room couch, my mind as fuzzy as television static. I couldn't move. I couldn't cry. I couldn't even drink. My denial system - normally effortless - had absolutely no way to rationalize what I was feeling at that moment. There was grief, for sure - but also something bigger than that. The madness of drinking, the madness of depression, the madness of doing the same thing over and over and over again...something inside me snapped. I knew in my heart that if I didn't make the right decision at that very moment, I'd never write another book - and my life would have been for nothing.
So many alcoholics have gut-wrenching stories about how addiction ruined their lives, alienating friends & family. I have those stories myself, and I'll likely share them as appropriate; for now, I'm just putting the topic on the table...and formally changing the direction of this blog.
I'm not one of those dry-drunks who inflicts his recovery like a zealot witnessing Jesus. I'll share if asked - and my experience and thoughts in/post rehab are definitely incorporated into the plot of my next book - but I'll never be a man who wears recovery like a badge, or finds a way to work sobriety into every conversation. What I do want to share however, is the key to success in my own recovery has been the dogged, relentless pursuit of joy. In my 25 years of drinking, on the countless nights spent drowning in an ocean of Canadian Club, I was searching for a "human connection" - for the joy I saw within the lives of others. "Why is everyone else so damn happy?" I'd wondered. "What's the secret? Why does happiness come so easy for most people?" Social anxiety I've since learned was a big reason for my own struggle, but it wasn't the only reason...and drinking - itself a life-threatening issue - wasn't the only reason, either.
I've come to the conclusion that many of us are afraid of happiness, and showing our "real selves" to others. Society has trained us to doubt nearly everything we do, and it shouldn't take a Trump to call the obvious to our attention. We hide our insecurities behind our work faces, our friend faces, and our puffy, red intoxicated faces. It seems like we do everything possible to avoid connecting with other people - as mentioned in the documentary: Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine. But avoiding others is where we screw up - and people prone to substance abuse screw up badly.
Joy is what matters, what really, really matters...and the pursuit of joy is how I've chosen to live the rest of my life.
I'm pleased they found some joy in their visit.