To Understand Something, Note It in Your Own Words

Ego is identity.

We identify ourselves with what we believe about ourselves, how we carry ourselves, and what we want others to think of us.

This identity is a wrapper that we twist ourselves in.

This wrapper is safe because it tells what we can be, and where we can go. It’s also constraining because it limits us, and tells us where we have to stop.

I can’t do that. What will the others think?

The wrapper is a container, a border, a boundary.

True growth requires the puncture of this wrapper, the expansion of these boundaries, the destruction of identity.

Thus the need for ego death.

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A Pain in the Brain

The mental pain that I experience during and following a panic attack is always the same. There’s a sense of anguish, a physical reaction that’s not far removed from the reaction to physical pain. It’s frightening to know that thoughts can sear as effectively as any fiery brand.

What I believe is happening is a clashing of philosophies. Throughout my life, I’ve attempted to juggle two diametrical modes of thought. I’ve considered describing them as “conservative” and “liberal,” but I think a more accurate terminology is “Shore” and “Ocean.” They are armies at constant odds, columns of artillery continually shelling each other, but there’s never any attrition. One side or the other merely retreats and regroups, and then makes another charge with full force. The only possible casualty in this conflict is myself.

I charted some of this out. Perhaps I’m naive to think that I can make sense of it, but if there’s anything I can make sense of in this world, I’d like to think that it’s my own mind. There are many rivers of thought and possibility flowing through both sides, so I’ve had to filter and condense many of them. Here’s how I broke them down:

The “Shore,” or “Western” nation, fights on the side of culture. It is masculine, hierarchical, goal-oriented, and irrevocably sold on the immortality of the human empire. The motto of the Shore-dweller is “Suck it up, Nancy!” On the shore, you put your head down, you accept your position as it’s assigned from birth, and you collect things (artificial ones) to soothe yourself. The mark of success on the Shore is the accomplishment, or the creation, or the purchase of something “valuable,” as determined by the Shore’s inhabitants. By the Shore’s standards, if you labor long on a work that only has value to yourself, you die a failure, a sad little person who is soon forgotten.

Sounds pretty horrible, doesn’t it? Yet, this is the mode that many people not only accept, but embrace. It thrives, not because it is the truth, but because it only needs money to keep it going. The more money that is pumped into it, the bigger and more intrusive it gets. It analyzes us, seduces us, and makes us feel secure. The Message is so pervasive, at all phases of our lives, that it becomes familiar, and therefore comfortable.

Recent events prove that this mode is outdated and dying. Once-sacred institutions are undergoing entropic failures, but more importantly than that, we are aware of these failures. We know that our idols are false, and yet we continue to erect new ones, because we don’t know how else things can work.

We’re scared to leave the Shore.

The “Ocean,” or “Eastern” nation, fights for the individual. It doesn’t believe in boundaries or categorization. It doesn’t believe in grinding and burning one’s life away in a box for a machine. It seeks opportunity and fights for it, usually at great material risk. Money is a minor concern to those on Ocean; meaning is what matters to them. Any activity that doesn’t reap fulfillment or personal satisfaction is wasteful and pointless. Instead of seeking to collect, the Ocean seeks to prune. It asks, “What can I do without? Where can I simplify, reduce my encumbrance? What shall I release, and what shall I nurture?” The Ocean does not trust in artificial structures built to corral large groups. It takes pride in refusal.

Most profoundly, the Ocean-dweller accepts the possibility that there is no “real” answer, no promise to be kept at the end of life. It clings to nothing, and fluctuates at all times. It knows that humanity and all its creations are finite, and that life is a cycle of birth and destruction. It does not need the opinions of culture as they relate to “lasting” or “enduring” value. The “why” of the universe may never be revealed, so the Ocean-dweller simply hunts for occupation and joy wherever it might occur.

This mode of thought sounds pleasant and idealistic, even heavenly, but the rub is that it demands immense, unshakeable courage. The Shore-dweller dismisses the Ocean-dweller as a loser, a looney, a whack-job…unless he or she makes a lot of money.

The root of my anxiety lies in the conflict between these two ideologies. I’m sure that a philosophy major would tell me that I’m not making any revelations here. I’m sure that I’m just inadvertently repeating the positions of Nietzsche or Heidegger or Plato or some such person. Still, while I’m sure that studying the works of these gentlemen would improve my articulation, I also think that I’d do better to develop my own ideas, basing them on my own personal experience.

Focus! Focus!

This last week has brought some interesting possibilities. Some I rejected, and some I’m still wondering about.

The doctor I saw last week suggested that I might have Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. I’d never considered this before. I know that I was a hyper kid, with lots of nervous energy, but I figured that I wasn’t much different from any of the other kids I grew up with. Kids are hyper, right?

I know I was bored in junior high school. I was allowed to skip a grade because of this, and I adapted pretty well. I still didn’t enjoy school very much, though. I was always frustrated, and had difficulty finding things that had real meaning to me. I can’t remember a single lesson from biology or physics. There are some golden moments from English/Literature and Fine Arts, but not a whole lot of practical knowledge.

Lately I’ve found it extraordinarily difficult to focus on anything. I’ve been miserable and frustrated, and most nights I’ve been opening Flash to work on my latest cartoon, only to stare at it. Things reached a head on Tuesday, when I had a panic attack and couldn’t hold out at a job that I started. I’m hurting for cash, and I’m trying my best to get my life going again, but there’s this thing in my head that keeps holding me back. It assesses my situation, calculates, comes to a conclusion, and then screams, “Get the hell out of there!” until I finally break down and comply. I’m so ashamed, that I usually hide out, away from everyone, until I gather the courage I need to tell my family.

Medicines have been my companions for nearly twenty years. I’ve tried several different brands. Wellbutrin worked for a while, but then the panic attacks hit me again when I realized I was taking classes I didn’t care about, and didn’t want to waste time in. I didn’t know the alternative, though, and that terrified me.

Paxil worked for a long time. In fact, I’m still taking it, at the maximum dose allowed. It seemed to help me for years. I started working part-time at a little trucking company in my hometown. No commute. Tricky work, but I got good at it. Life came together. I had control. I was free to do what I wanted. When they promoted me, I got in over my head and crashed again. I hated myself. I hated what I was doing for a living. I hated everything about myself, and I was ready to cast it all away. I even tried to run away one night. I left my keys in my apartment, locked the door and took off into the sunset. I was prepared to walk until my legs wouldn’t work anymore, and my body dehydrated.

I don’t know exactly where I was when my hips began to ache, but it was far from home, and the stars were shining. I was near a shipping yard and a field, with a railroad bridge on the horizon. I wanted to get to that bridge and sleep under it for the night, but my legs wouldn’t work. I lied down beside an electrical transformer at the edge of the field and stared at the sky. Eventually I decided that I was doing something stupid, and I got back up and walked home. My hip protested all the way back, and I limped by the end of the night. I sat outside my apartment as the sun rose, and I waited for the apartment manager to show up to let me back into my place.

That wasn’t the end of my troubles, but it’s representative of the patterns of my mind. I punish myself when I can’t get things to work right. The problem is, things only stop working right because my brain concludes that they can’t.

Where are these calculations coming from? Why does my mind continually look for roots and causes, seeking the pathway that explains what the hell I’m doing in the first place? This world is completely illogical; there’s no answer to this question. Still, I know there are times when I’ve felt all right with everything. I’ve been okay, capable of handling myself; proud to carry on along a path, even if the purpose was unclear to me. It was nice to feel like I was good at something, and that people appreciated and respected me.

It’s also a very rare thing to achieve.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy has helped with other issues. I don’t worry as much as I used to about relationships. I used to hate myself in this area, calling myself ugly and unloveable, but now I hardly think about it. Of course, this is because I have evidence: truths I can hold up to shut down the doubts and the hate. There are other fields where I’m yet unproven. I don’t know if I’ve paid my dues, I don’t know if I’m good enough at work, I don’t know what to say to counter the negative thoughts that tug at my brain. I feel like I’m starting all over here. All I can think about when I set out on something is whether I’m set to succeed, or to fail. My mind often determines this before I even get started.

My counselor calls this thinking “the twenty-four-hour bad news radio.”

Are these irrational, racing computations symptomatic of ADHD? Why is it that I most feel like writing when I’m stuck in an office where I should be performing mundane, repetitive, pointless tasks? Why is it that I most feel like animating when I’m running from a job that I hate?

If I have ADHD, that means that there’s a whole new foundation to start from in terms of my treatment. Perhaps there’s a reason that sodas and coffee helped me to stop thinking and focus when I worked at my previous job. Stimulants work to slow down the minds of those with ADHD. Perhaps that’s what I need for myself?

For all my disgust and disdain with myself, there are still many things that I wish to accomplish. It sure would be nice to advance on that road without fear or self-hatred, and just go and do these things. Whether I attain fame or not shouldn’t matter. What matters is that I’m happy with what I’m doing.

Expressing myself, even though I don’t like my own feelings.

Twelve Answered Prayers

Day Twelve, The Letter-Writing Campaign: I’d like to preface this post by warning that it might sound crazy to you. It sounds a little crazy to me, too, but I insist that it is absolutely true.

I was an atheist for most of my life, but I wasn’t one of those arrogant, fedora-wearing pricks who take joy in deconstructing people’s beliefs. No, I was just a man who, having learned of the atrocities, iniquities, and warped values of humanity, decided that there couldn’t possibly be a God. The lives we lead are completely out of balance: we work ourselves to death or coma-like states, we ignore the suffering of others, and we spend our earnings to emulate and worship those who exploit us. I could reach no other conclusion but this: there is no plan here. Nobody really knows what he’s doing. Life is a meaningless parade of lunacies. We are cosmic accidents, burning our precious lives away on a Mobius strip in the unforgiving dark of space.

That’s what I used to believe. That changed this summer. I was kneeling over the edge of bathtub filled with hot water, holding the edge of a chef knife to my wrist, when I realized that I couldn’t afford to think this way anymore.

It started with a comedian. Doesn’t it always? I listened to the audiobook Me of Little Faith by Lewis Black. In particular, I listened to the chapter titled The Psychic. I had never believed in psychics before. I figured they were all charlatans out to make a buck off of the bereaved, but something about Black’s story touched me. If he could be made to believe that something could be watching us, the evidence must have been overwhelming. Perhaps there was a way I could find proof of that sort.

According to Black, the psychic Michael Bodine explained that he no real “superpowers,” as it were; he simply could see and talk to people that most of us couldn’t. These people, called guides, or angels, or whatever name you like best, were the ones who brought him knowledge of the future, or possible futures. Bodine was just a messenger.

I did some research on these “guides.” Different psychics have different ideas about what they actually are, and I suspect that none of them really know for sure. What they agree on, however, is that they are intelligent, helpful beings who can be communicated with.

So how do you communicate with one? Again, the methods differ depending on who you ask. Some say you can just talk aloud to them. Others say you can have a mental conversation with them if you meditate and clear your mind properly. Still others recommend writing letters to them, leaving them out for them to read.

I kind of liked this last idea, so when my long dark night came, I got out a sheet of paper and a pen, and wrote. I wrote a brief but desperate plea for help, to whoever might have been watching. I didn’t care who it was, if it was God, or my guardian angel, or whatever. I closed with, “I am open to you now,” and I stuck the finished letter to my bulletin board.

Not long after, things started to change. I kept on going, leaving letters out everyday, to “whoever might be watching.” I wrote about the worries and problems I had, and one by one, they were solved, often within a day or two of my writing.

I got in touch with my counselor, whom I hadn’t seen in months, and she offered to continue my therapy at a reduced rate.

My physician agreed to help me get on state disability while I worked my problems out.

I reconnected with an ex-girlfriend with whom I shared a long relationship and a hostile breakup. We were able to reconcile after years without contact.

I had to leave my apartment before my lease was up, and my landlord warned me that she hadn’t had any interested renters in months. Still, I couldn’t afford to stay there. I figured if I had to ruin my credit, that’s the way it had to be. I moved out, and less than week later, my apartment was taken. I was even able to get my deposit back.

Daylight crept back into my life. The biggest question remained, however. I needed to know what my path was. After years of decisions that continually brought me to the brink of suicide, I had to recognize what I wanted for myself. What is my dream? We all know the answer to this question, but we make mistakes, we make excuses, we make compromises, and years later, our dreams are buried so far beneath the layers of stupid bullshit that we can barely remember them.

I did remember mine, but I never believed I was good enough to make it come true. It was always there, though, that desire to make my own cartoons. I wanted to be like Jim Henson and share my characters, my stories, my imagination, with the world. I just never had the confidence. I always considered my artwork to be pretty weak and crude compared to what some of the kids are doing with Photoshop and Illustrator these days. I never believed I could measure up, so I pushed my old dream into a closet and locked it away. Still, the other paths weren’t working. I wrote a long letter asking for guidance to the one that was right.

That’s when I got the request to make a commission, and I began to realize that maybe, just maybe, I was good enough.

I know how this all sounds. I know. I could be subconsciously pouring effort into solving these problems, and then giving credit to something supernatural. It’s a possibility, but the resolution of these troubles always seemed to involve something outside my control. Perhaps this was just a series of crazy coincidences, but all in my favor?

No, it seems, or rather, it feels like communication is happening. Carlos Castaneda said that to find your true path, you have to stop listening to your thoughts, and start listening to the world around you. Only then will the answers will reveal themselves. I have much to learn, but this part seems to be true. I still don’t know what God is, exactly, but I’m pretty sure He, or She, or It, wants me to succeed, to say and do what I feel is right, and most of all, be the person I was born to be.

I believe that profound growth isn’t possible without some pain and tribulation. All the challenges I faced this year were for a purpose. I think I needed to recognize and accept that there is indeed a force greater than ourselves, one that is actually involved in our lives. My misery, and the miseries that I described in my past eleven entries, did not happen because this force allowed them, they happened because we rejected it. I don’t completely understand its nature, but I can no longer deny its existence.

Knowing this gives me some peace, and I hope that 2015 will see a personal renaissance in not just myself, but in all of the people who’ve undergone significant trouble this year. I can’t change the problems in the world, but I can change my views on them. The hope, the reality, the truth, is in how we look at things. Everything in the world has its place, and every event has its meaning, even if we can’t discern them from the TV news. I refuse to accept the falsehoods from the glass boxes as true and then use them to make myself feel bad. Instead, I will find the truth within myself, where God put it at the very beginning. I came to the edge of death, but I didn’t fall. I am alive. I am here, and even though I nearly lost everything, I can still see, hear, and feel the precious miracles that surround me everyday.

I’ve got a chance to change, and I will not be the man I was. I’ll begin again, I’ll rebuild my life. I will live to know that I’ve fulfilled my life. I’ll begin today, throw away the past, and the future I build will be something that will last. I will take the time I have left to live, and I will give it all that I have left to give. I will live my days for my fellow men, and I’ll live in praise of that moment when I was able to begin again. I will start anew, I will make amends. I will make quite certain that the story ends on a note of hope, on a strong Amen, and I’ll thank the world and remember when I was able to begin again.

God, whatever it is, showed belief in me by answering my call. I don’t know why, but I will use this chance to find out. Likewise, God gave you the power to make this holiday, this world, this life, as shitty or as lovely as you want it. Why would you want it to be bad?

The world is indeed lovely, and full of possibilities. Choose the good ones. Wherever you are, whoever you’re with, make it a Merry Christmas.

Eleventh Hour Desperation

Day Eleven, Depression and Friends: All these things that I’ve been talking about, these things that made this year so lousy, they fucking sucked. They disrupted, ruined, or flat out ended lives. I was very fortunate, however, in that none of them directly affected me. I was insulated, viewing them comfortably through the filter of a computer screen. I’m just a little fellow, in a wide world, after all. Sadly, knowing this doesn’t make my problems feel any smaller.

Just a few months ago, my life was very different from what it is now. I had a full-time job and my own apartment. I was doing pretty well. I had lived that way for four years before the relapse. When the depression struck me, it struck hard. I lost my will to work, and worse, my will to do anything. I lost all interest in life. It didn’t help that it seemed like my peers were doing great, building families and buying houses.

Getting degrees.

Depression and panic attacks first visited upon me when I moved to USC in 1997. They immobilized me and made it impossible for me to leave my dorm, let alone succeed in class. I had to withdraw, and give up a substantial scholarship.

I’ve since developed an indelible fear of college that’s left me scrabbling for dead-end jobs, and I had trouble keeping those. As for a social life, forget it; I had no foundation, no sense of who I was, and I shrank from the friendly faces that approached me. I finally thought I had a sturdy handle on things in 2008, when I got a fine job that I got pretty damned good at. The company was well-run, successful even in the dark days of the recession, and my supervisors treated me like a prince. Before long, I had enough money to finally get out of my parents’ house again, and live on a modest budget. I started going to parties, making pals, dating girls. Life was looking up, and I was grateful.

But I overreached. Lost sight of the sunny spot I was in. I became afraid of looking lazy, or unambitious, and I requested more responsibility. I got it, and it turned out to be a heavier weight than I could bear. I became tense, and then stressed, and then miserable. I stopped socializing. I stopped drawing. I stopped doing anything, really. As soon as I got home, I fell into bed. The days smeared into a dreary, gray blur of work, sleep, work, and sleep. I requested my old job back, only to find that it wasn’t available, at least not in full-time. There was nothing for it. I had to leave.

I found another job, but it paid less than my old job did, and my budget was crunched. I found yet another job, and it paid more than my old job did, but by then the panic attacks were in full swing, and I couldn’t bring myself to go there.

I was in a spot. I had already been living hand-to-mouth before the depression hit. Now I was too crippled to bring anything home. I burned through what little money I had saved. I had to give up the apartment and move back in with my folks. For the third time. Not long before, life looked like a shining skyline of upward mobility and romance. Now it was a bleak flatland of counseling and disability claims.

Turned out I wasn’t the only one in the house having a hard time. My father was fighting a long, tiresome battle against his former employers and insurance companies for workman’s compensation. He needed back surgery for years, and it looked like it was finally going to happen. My mother knew that he’d need help once the operation was through, so she struggled with the idea of retiring. She’d been at her job for over twenty years, and it paid a tidy sum that she was loth to give up. Still, she decided to take the plunge for the sake of my dad and I.

Meanwhile, my grandmother was ailing terribly. She was suffering with congestive heart failure, a condition that made it a challenge for her to simply walk across a room. It was clear she was going to need open-heart surgery. At eighty years old. As this was in the wake of Joan Rivers’s death, my whole family was on edge.

This year has felt like the final act of a very long movie, where everything is at stake, the tension is at its height, and long-running threads converge and, for better or for worse, resolve.

I thought about resolving them for good many, many times.

My saving grace was recognizing that I had support. I’ve known for years that I could count on my parents, for they are good people who help others in need. However, I also know that they are still just people, and can only give so much before they break, and my guilt often overwhelms me. What I only recently discovered, when I was so deep in the jungles of despair that I thought I’d never get out, was that my parents weren’t the only ones looking out for me. Someone, or something I can’t explain, was waiting for me to call out to it, too.

The Step of the Devil

The peaks pass so quickly, and the valleys are so long.

My counselor describes the creative process like the eight notes on a musical staff. Step 6 is the tough one, the one where the artist gets stuck, frustrated, and unmotivated, right near the end of the project. I’ve been stuck in that shadowy place for the last few weeks. Hell, maybe even the last few months. I just couldn’t find my focus, my mojo, to animate. I was beginning to feel like a fraud when I remembered that I had just ran face-first into Step 6.

So what’s the solution? My counselor says that the artist needs to back away from the work, let the ideas percolate, and relax for a while. Sometimes we look so closely at our stuff that we lose perspective. I’m not sure if that’s really what happened, but I know that I felt blank and blocked, and I wasn’t far from the end of my work. So I started what I call “picking,” that is, completing small bits of the animation even if I wasn’t happy with it. Eventually I got to a point where I felt all right again, and I found my energy.

It happened last night. I kept chipping away at the rock with my blunt little stylus until something gave way. I finally got through whatever blockage was holding me back, and I was able to plow ahead at full speed. I reached a significant milestone as a result, but the celebration has been bittersweet.

I hate that I can’t work consistently. I hate that I can’t just hit the gas and fly down the highway. I wish I could summon my talents and wield them like a master. Perhaps I’ll get to that point one day, if I just keep practicing. Perhaps that’s what these Step Sixes are all about.

From the Journal

Dear God, Angels, Spirits, or Whoever’s Out There,

My brother, father, mother, and grandmother are all suffering right now. My sister-in-law and close friends are having personal crises too. We need your help. I feel that a massive shift is happening, something that will change us all, and I am frightened and nervous.

I just have to trust that things will be okay, possibly even better than they were before things went wrong. I just have to trust in you. I know you’ve answered prayers of mine, and prayers of my Dad’s, and I’m grateful for that.

I hate to say it, but we need your help more than ever right now. We are all in scary places, waiting on answers or results that are slow in coming. Please help us to find ways to douse that fear hanging over our family. We miss the peace and stability we once enjoyed.

Of course, I understand that we’re are only now confronting the conclusions of events set in motion long ago: I with my depression, Mom with her retirement, Dad with his bad back. Getting through them will be challenging, but somehow, I know it’ll be worth it in the end. It just has to be.

With Hope,

Daniel