“The Thought of You is Never Far Away”: More Than Poetry

Last night I pulled out a book of poetry I have. I bought it in an independent bookstore in Austin, Tx in the spring of 2000. Probably in May. I remember because I was in Austin for a poetry competition. In high school I lettered in poetry interpretation. (Ha!) Basically, I performed a 7 minute poem or group of poems for 3 judges, and we would compete at local, regional, and state levels. I was pretty good at it, actually. I went to state my junior and senior year. I placed 4th in the state my senior year. And I really enjoyed performing. There were a lot of rules about what you could or could not do. There was a technique to picking the right poetry. The performance had to be restrained but engaging. Being both a drama and lit nerd, this was my bag.

But it wasn’t just about being the best performer. For me, the exposure to so much poetry was exciting. When I was a sophomore I remember there was this guy from a nearby school who made it to state reading Gregory Corso’s “Bomb.” Usually, picking something by a well known poet was risky. It was smarter and easier to pick something new to the judge to avoid comparisons. His performance was amazing, though, and we all had the biggest crush on him (T.F.). He even had a beard–in high school! I knew nothing of the beats then, and he was one hell of an attractive and engaging introduction. I never performed Beat poetry in competition, but his performance is where my love of it began.

In 2000, at my senior year state poetry competition, I heard someone read a beat-style poem titled “For Carl Wilson” by Robert M. White. I was at the competition with my soulmate girlfriend at the time, and we both scribbled down the title and author. That day we went found Robert M. White’s one and only published book of poetry titled Redemption Songs.

It was published by Oddfellow in Albuquerque in 1998. Last night when I checked online the only trace of Robert M. White or his poetry was one used copy of Redemption Songs on Amazon through a third party seller (it is signed by the author even). This little book of beat poetry is just an obscure footnote. But to me it is so much more. That is why I remember it so well. That is why I still have it. It doesn’t matter that the poetry isn’t groundbreaking because my encounter with this little book was. I can see that random kid performing. I can see the corner of the bookstore where I found it. I can practically feel my heartbreaking all over again when I read it.

My girlfriend and I had our own secret obsession with this little book. We would read it and talk about it, regularly reference it in conversation, and we even used some lines from it as metaphors for things happening in our lives. (“…and [we] missed the street/ so it was longer getting/ home.”) It became a centerpiece of our blossoming friendship. It helped us process being angsty teenagers struggling with (undiagnosed) mental illness.

Over the next couple of years, this book was my constant companion. I filled it with my favorite quotes and song lyrics, underlining my favorite lines in my signature green ink pen. It traveled with me to London and Paris the summer of 2000, and stayed beside my bed in my college dorm room. I remember buying and giving away a copy to someone I loved. It was the most personal gift I could think of. I wanted to give my heart, but this little book that spoke so deeply to me was the closest thing I could think of that usps would accept.

One of my favorite poems begins, “If I had a choice/ in these things/ I would have chosen to be elsewhere/ than here, in this silent room/ surrounded by memory and fantasy.” I think about all the places I wanted to be other than in my dorm room in Texas. I dreamed of California, the Midwest, New York. I dreamed of just leaving. Just getting up and leaving everything behind. Starting over and trying to be happy. Underneath this poem I have a Kerouac quote from On the Road: “…because he had no place he could stay in without getting tired of it and because there was nowhere to go but everywhere, keep rolling under the stars, generally the Western stars….” I just wanted to go. I was bursting out of my skin. I felt so trapped where I was. I felt like I couldn’t escape. I was so enraptured by the beats. I was so transformed by their freedom, by their openness, by their quest to satiate the gnawing emptiness that I too felt, by what seemed like their success in at least feeling if not understanding the essence of life. I thought it all seemed possible. And yet I wasn’t allowed to do that. That or I was just too scared.

I know more now, the mythos is gone. I wasn’t as trapped as I felt, although I wasn’t as free then as I am now. But when I found Redemptions Songs at 18, I thought that maybe I had found the key to my cage. That maybe if I followed my heart–my pathetically beat heart–I could escape the life I was growing to resent. That didn’t really happen. No book of poetry could save me from depression. What was once energizing became draining. The more depressed I got the less likely it seemed that I would ever escape. I tried writing poetry. I tried reading more books. I tried listening to more music. I tried ignoring the things that I hated and obsessively latched on to the things that made me forget my misery.

I used to read this book with wonder and fascination. But it became bittersweet. I would read, “And I dream/ and I hope/ that the sounds of my brain/ cacophony of insane thoughts/ burst into daytime fantasy/ and I stretch my hand to the missionary of space/ hold it high to the stars/ to grasp tight/ to rip this body from this mind/ and this soul from this earth/ into the experience of me/ which touches hard the mind/ to find new future/ for which there is no witness” and feel my captivity deeply. I felt like a prisoner to my conservative Christian upbringing. I wanted to rip my body from my mind and my soul from the earth. And yet everything about that seemed prohibited. I would be breaking the mold I had been squeezed into. I wanted a new future. I thought I wasn’t allowed to have any future except one that I loathed.

It’s a bit silly now. I did escape. And it wasn’t ever really a prison. Depression made me feel that way. Depression makes everything taste bitter. It lied to me about my life. It lied to me about my agency. It lied to me about my value. And it lied to me about my options. Sometimes, I wonder what if I had just left my life in Texas at 19? What if I had gotten out before my suicide attempt? That in itself is also silly. It won’t do to play “what if.” It won’t help. But we all do it anyway. What if that had happened? What if this hadn’t happened? Where would I be now? And then there is guilt that even just wondering makes you ungrateful for what future you ended up with. But we do it anyway.

I wonder every time I look at this little book of poetry. And I remember. I remember being afraid of being myself. I remember being afraid of breaking out of the mold. I remember thinking that poetry could change the world one person at a time. And I remember my disappointment when escape finally seemed impossible. Mostly I remember how much I wanted to live. Just not the life I had. I believed in love, hope, and happiness. I truly believed. All of my favorite poets and songwriters told me that those things existed. But depression made all of those things seem out of reach for me. What had started as a way out, what seemed like the key to my finding happiness, became a painful reminder of all those things that I could never have. Depression made me believe that I could not do what I wanted, that I would never be loved, that I would never be allowed to be happy. And to have discovered freedom only realize that it was not for me was maddening. It drove me to tears and into isolation, and then it drove me over the edge.

The last poem in the book begins, “The thought of you/ is never far away.” That pretty much sums up my feelings about this little book and all it represents. It all happened years ago and yet that time is never far from my thoughts. Having studied poetry in graduate school, I won’t claim that this little book is an undiscovered gem. It’s just a book of poetry by some dude who likes the Beats. But my copy is irreplaceable to me. After 17 years, I still keep it close. It isn’t just memories. It isn’t just poetry. It’s a tangible piece of me at my most tragic and most vulnerable. It is a token of self-discovery. It is a record of the idealism that both led to my suicide attempt and drove my recovery. It is everything that a little book of poetry aspires to be–truly meaningful to even just one other soul. I love it because I found myself in its pages.

Robert M. White, if you’re out there, thanks. You changed my life just as much as Kerouac did.


Wild Mood Swings (or How to Know if Your Loved One is Depressed or Just an Asshole)

In October of 2015 I wrote a post about what do do when depression makes you act like an asshole, which it most certainly may do. This post of mine gets viewed more than any other, and and usually people find it because they are curious as to whether or not a loved one is depressed or just an asshole. On average, 5 people find that post everyday through a google search. Almost 800 people have read that post just in 2017.

What bothers me is that I don’t know how helpful my post is for answering the question that most often brings people to the post. That post is written for those of us who are, on occasion, depressed assholes. What about all of you trying to determine the difference between depression and moodiness or meanness in a loved one?

In my original post I discussed Kanye West’s song “Runaway” as a way to understand the motivation behind a depressed person being abrasive. In my case, I intentionally push people away in order to save them from my destructive, gravitational pull. I feel like a black hole, and I am desperate for those I love most to rescue themselves. I redirect the conversation away from my depression and place blame elsewhere. I detach. I become cold. I’m trying to save you from the inescapable evil of my true self. That is the bullshit that depression makes me believe. I push people away because I don’t feel worthy of love. It’s about self-sabotage in order to get what I believe I deserve–hatred and isolation. It is important to understand the motivation behind your loved one’s actions. If it is depression, the chemical changes change how you act, yes, but also how you think and feel. Better understanding the core of depression can help you understand where your loved one is coming from.

In that vein, there is this really beautiful but terribly sad song by The Cure called “This Is A Lie” from their Wild Mood Swings album. It’s this mulling-over of human connection, human purpose, and how false it seems to continue on without acknowledging the existential horror of our meaningless existence. It’s not just sad and resigned. There is a frustration at the impossibility of understanding the our meaning and purpose. And that going on with our existence without acknowledging this makes it all an unbearable lie. 

I’ve chosen this song as a starting place to differentiate between being an asshole and being depressed because I think that depression really is about deeply negative perspectives of life and the self due to chemical imbalances in one’s brain. And this song is a perfect example of that. I’m not saying that life is full of meaning and that we all have purpose–those are philosophical questions without final answers. But, most of us learn to live life despite these grand questions. We know that even though life feels empty, we still have to feed our children. We know that our jobs may not change the world, but we appreciate the need for income so we go to work. 

When you are depressed, these big questions become overwhelming. Why should I get out of bed to make dinner when life is meaningless? Why go to work when it just reinforces the purposelessness of life. We can’t get beyond questions of meaning and purpose in order to live. And, to be honest, that is sad, yes, but it is also incredibly frustrating. Especially when no one else feels the horror you feel. Everyone else seems like a robot. A clone. A puppet. And that can be intolerable. It makes you lash out; it makes you withdraw; it causes destruction.

But it can be difficult to get a depressed person to understand these deep feelings, let alone acknowledge and describe them. If your loved one is acting like an asshole and you are worried that it is because she is depressed, I think it is important to start here–with the depth of thoughts and feelings that arise from depression. It’s permeative. Living and breathing become more difficult. Love, hate, joy, and pain are all reminders of the ultimate emptiness of existence. Like Robert Smith sings, “This is a lie.” Under the pressure of depression, trying to survive seems not just futile and meaningless but also wrong and false. This means that just about anything can set off a negative reaction. Anger, paranoia, meanness, criticism, coldness–all of these can be ways of coping with the difficulty and emptiness of depression. 

When you are wondering whether or not your loved one might be acting like an asshole because they are depressed, I have thought of a couple of things to look for that might be signs of the deep sadness, emptiness, and frustration that is depression. 

First, if your loved one regularly overreacts to minor difficulties or problems, it could be depression. It’s not just about losing control, it’s about a disproportionate emotional reaction caused by an overflow of negative emotions brewing beneath the surface. Criticism can reinforce a depressed person’s self-loathing. And it feels really terrible to receive proof of your worthlessness or your destructiveness. It makes me angry. I don’t want to be the awful thing I think I am. But if my husband gets frustrated at the growing pile of dirty dishes, I respond angrily. I’m angry for 2 reasons: first, I am angry at what I perceive to be inescapable truth–that I am evil, rotten, horrible. Second, I am angry that I can’t push through the crisis in my mind to do what other’s so obviously think I ought to do. I get so angry. I hate living. And I’m supposed to do dishes at the same time that that is ripping my heart apart? I know the truth–I don’t deserve life. How do I know? Because I didn’t do enough dishes. 

See how fucked up that is? It’s not just an overreaction, it is a highly disproportionate reaction to a minor, innocent criticism. In no world should a life be valued by any number of clean dishes. I’m not just being an asshole because I’m embarrassed by the criticism. I’m deeply distracted from my day to day by the existential crises of severe depression. The very things that make me feel empty when I do them make me feel worthless when I don’t. I can’t win. And that is frustrating. And it makes me act out. I want it to be something else other than because of me, but deep down it is all about me and the way my illness is manipulating my thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Second, look for patterns of meanness rather than just remembering isolated incidents. Depression can be harder one day and easier another, but without treatment, depression will not go away, and it will grow. Look for emotional patterns. Do certain topics set your loved one off? Are there any phrases they repeat that might clue you in to a deeper problem? Does every problem lead back to self-worth, the meaning of life, or purpose? 

When I was getting severely depressed at 18, a year before my initial diagnosis, I was constantly in crisis concerning college. I didn’t know where to go. I was so afraid. But it always came back to my feelings of inadequacy. I didn’t feel like I was good enough for college. I felt not only like I would fail but that I ought to fail. I felt like I didn’t deserve a good college experience because I didn’t deserve anything good. I didn’t deserve happiness or a good life. I didn’t deserve success or scholarships. I deserved death. And it made me a pill to be around. I didn’t want to talk about college. I didn’t want to talk about graduation. It all seemed so meaningless for me. It wasn’t just once or twice. Any conversation or activity associated with graduation, college, or the future put me in a bad mood. And it was all because deep down I hated myself. And it all seemed like a lie. Life was so full of pain and shit that being happy about college was intolerable. I would sometimes weep, sometimes grow silent, sometimes act bitchy. My reactions varied, but the root of my depressed feeling–the self loathing and feelings of eternal isolation–ruled every reaction. I just seemed like a moody teenager facing a typical, stressful life event, but beneath my negative reactions my depression was preparing to take me down.

In 2004, during my 2nd depressive episode and a difficult breakup, I wrote, “Sorrow plagues me. Every feeling, every choice leads to sorrow. I am drawn to it. I survive only off it. Happiness is temporary and I am unhappy in the midst of it. I have to pull away from it. …I lead myself down stupid pathways that lead nowhere. But I continue to walk into the brick wall at the end and beat my head upon it repeatedly–not purposefully but fully aware. …I want to fall away. Life is too hard. Too difficult. Too painful. Too, too painful. Awfully painful. Dreadfully painful. My heart is never whole. Always broken–always has been. It refuses to repair.” 

I could see my actions hurting myself and others. The break up ended up okay, but at the time was both a questionable decision and heartlessly executed. It was destructive. It was purposefully getting rid of something good in order to feel the unhappiness I felt I deserved. And yet I hardly talk about my boyfriend in the passage above. I was so self-consumed because of depression that I was more concerned with what I saw as my eternal brokenness and my intrinsic worthlessness. When your loved one is a depressed asshole, they may just look like an ass but they probably feel more like shit. And they may be unable to stop themselves from letting their depression tell them how to react. 

All of this is to say that trying to figure out if someone is depressed or just an asshole can be pretty damn tricky. Mostly because depression likes to hide. Because if you know your loved one is depressed, then the depression loses control. And if a depressed person can successfully alienate others, then their depression can run rampant without interference. When life seems meaningless and everything seems fake, it isn’t surprising that a person might become an asshole. I’ve been there. At 19 I thought 99% of the people in the world were disgustingly unaware of the true emptiness of human existence. I thought happiness and love were almost completely elusive, and that I had no chance of obtaining them. On the outside, I just looked like a moody, lovesick college girl. But inside my pain was leading me to a singular conclusion. My depression only ever wants one thing from me: my entire life. And it has to get rid of everyone who might save me in order to get me. So it makes me act like an asshole. 

So, is your daughter, boyfriend, or coworker depressed or just an asshole? I don’t know. It’s a hard determination to make. I look at myself and can’t believe that no one figured out how depressed I was at 19. I can’t believe that months of moodiness and isolation could be chalked up to hormones and personality, but they were. I was dying but all anyone could see was a miserable girl. If you are asking the question, “Are they depressed?” you’re already doing something right. Find out what you can about symptoms of depression. Get educated, find resources, and be ready. Maybe it’s just a phase, and all of your preparation will be for naught. But maybe, just maybe, you can save your loved one’s life just by being ready to help. Maybe, your loved one can be rescued before it gets to be too bad. Or maybe you’re just at the start of a long, difficult journey. I don’t know. But wherever life takes you and your loved one, know that there is help available to fight depression. There is hope for healing. You just have to reach out.

Reading Distraction

With The Dark Tower movie trailer release this week, I have been thinking about rereading Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. It is one of my favorites series, and I am looking forward to the cinematic take on it. I pulled out my old copy of The Gunslinger, and I was hit with a wave of memories. I remember the first time I read The Gunslinger. I had picked it up at my favorite used bookstore in my hometown on some trip back, and one night, sitting on a lounge chair beside my parent’s pool I read by firelight, “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

I was immediately hooked for several reasons. First, sillily enough, I thought of Lost–the tv series. I really like Lost; it is in my top 10 (maybe top 5) tv series. And the man in black is an important character in Lost. I knew that Lost had a lot of literary inspirations and references, and I immediately assumed (correctly, I believe) that the man in black from Lost was named after the man in black from The Dark Tower series. Second, westerns make me think of my grandfather and some of the great classic western films I watched in a film course in college. I had both fond nostalgia and a little bit of background knowledge concerning the genre. And I had read that King chosen to incorporate the western genre partially based on some classic western films.

Third, I was already a fan of both Stephen King and some classic fantasy series like The Lord of the Rings. When I was roughly 13 I started reading some adult books. One of the first was a recommendation from my dad: The Shining. I scared me so much that one night I remember throwing the book across the room because I was so freaked out and sleeping with the lights on. I loved how much it affected me! It was a rush! I had never been so scared by a book. Since then, I have really enjoyed everything I have read by Stephen King, but my favorite is The Dark Tower series, I think.

I posted a picture of my copy of The Gunslinger on my instagram page talking about how I’m about to give it a third read, and a friend commented that she had just finished it and thought it was a really great escape. And I totally agree with her. One of the best things about book series that create new worlds is that they are perfect for escaping our daily lives.. We all need to escape sometimes; in fact, escaping into a book world is a great way to distract yourself from ruminating on depressive or anxious thoughts. In behavioral therapy it is often referred to as a form of distraction. Sometimes with mental illness, we need to redirect our thoughts by distracting ourselves with some other activity that requires thinking about something different.

Some other ways I distract myself from ruminating on negative thoughts are tv, writing, beadwork, cross stitch, spending time with my pets, cooking, cleaning, playing games with my daughter, listening to music, watching YouTube videos, putting on makeup, window shopping, meditation, and even sometimes exercise. In the Dialectical Behavioral Therapy class I took in 2012, we received a list with like 200 ways to distract yourself. It was fantastic. I am sure that you could find something comparable through a google search. You could even search for “DBT distraction techniques”. But it is extremely useful to find ways to distract yourself from negative thought loops.

If you are struggling with negative self talk or anxious thoughts, find a therapist to help you deal with your issues and find a personalized plan to improve your mental health and your ability to better control your thoughts. Something as simple as purposeful distraction can really be good for you! Taking time to reread a favorite book or listen to a new album or any number of fun things can help take your mind of of what is stressing you out. And if you work with a therapist, you can hopefully deal with your bigger issues as well as figure out what type of therapeutic techniques will best help you live a happy life. Of course, on the flip side, some of us, myself included, have the tendency to turn distraction into full on escapism–where we spend too much time escaping the real world by immersing ourselves in fictional worlds. Again, that is why working with a therapist is so useful. You can work with a therapist to formulate a personalized plan that allows you to use distraction when needed while also helping you avoid becoming too detached from the real world.

I think I may go start reading now. I feel fine, but I have a little time for myself today. I don’t need to distract myself now, but if I do in the near future, I will be ready. Sending you all good vibes. I hope you are able to find something enjoyable to do this weekend. ❤️

On Suicidal Ideation, full reading

In October of last year, I had the opportunity to give a reading from my book at the Peace of Mind conference in Tyler, TX. The chapter I read is titled “On Suicidal Ideation.” Here is a link to the reading on youtube. It is roughly ten minutes and tells the story of my suicide attempt in 2001. I look forward to doing more readings in the future, and I am so grateful that I get to share my  story inhopes of encouraging others to keep fighting. Much love to you all.

Something a little lighter…

People close to me can verify that after recently being introduced to The Cure, I quickly fell head over heels in love. It’s a match made in heaven: quirky, happy, dark, and deep. My current favorite tshirt is a Cure tshirt with a minimalist drawing of Robert Smith and the lyric “why can’t I be you?” I wore it yesterday, and every time I wear it (every week or two…) I feel the need to listen to The Cure to match the shirt. So yesterday and today I have been listening to The Cure, and I really started thinking particularly about the song quoted on my tshirt, which is also called “Why Can’t I Be You?”

I’ve decided that I really dig that sentiment. Especially because it had never occurred to me. But I get it. Loving someone so much that you almost want to be them. To be exactly what they are or exactly what they want. To be as perfect as they seem. I love the kind of twisted idea of loving someone so much that you express it as this weird desire to be them. It doesn’t really seem healthy necessarily, but a lot of us have loved that deeply anyway. Man, that’s a fun feeling–and this is a fun song. But the comedown from the rush can be rough.

But what really draws me to this idea of “why can’t I be you?” is that that specific way of describing romantic infatuation had never occurred to me. I like it because it’s interesting because I would never have come up with it on my own. It strikes me as an original idea, presented in a nice form,  about love.

But I wondered why it seemed so original to me. Why did it seem so surprising an idea? And I think it’s because as much as I tried to change myself to be what I thought one guy or another wanted when I was a teenager, once I became depressed, I began the fight to fiercely be myself. I’m almost stubborn about it. I change at my own pace. I change of my own will. Once I learned that severely neglecting self love and self acceptance combined with and resulting from depression can be life threatening, I discovered, first, that I deserved life. Then I learned that I deserved happiness. And I also learned that I deserved love. It never occurred to me to want to be like someone I love or am infatuated with because I have fought long and hard to be me.

I love the song–it’s a favorite for sure–and I really love the kind-of-dark/kind-of-sweet obsession in the song. I get it. Love is fun. New love is especially fun. But I also love that my journey has forced me to focus on loving myself over the last 17 years. I love that I have trained my brain to default to self-acceptance. I love that I can’t for the life of me remember the last time I wanted to be someone else.

And I guess that that is something I really like about me. Maybe it makes me seem proud or self-centered, but I have to put a lot of work into keeping my demons at bay, and genuine self love certainly helps. Something else I guess is that if I could wish anything for my readers, it would be that you learn to love yourself as you are and as you grow. Being someone else is overrated. No matter how great they are. Being you is who you were meant to be. Be yourself proudly.