The essay originally written as part 1 of If Anybody Could Have Saved Me: Battling Depression at Mid-Life has been traditionally published on rolereboot.org. Please take some time and read it here.
Depression sometimes feels like drowning. You’re wading in a river, and the bank drops from under your feet, and you realize that someone filled your pockets with stones. Perhaps it was you. You fight with all your might, trying to surface, but your lungs burn and your muscles ache and the light gets dimmer until darkness seems like an old friend.
Another take: David Foster Wallace, the great writer and suicide, once said that depression is narcissistic. Though I doubt he meant it as a universal truism, and I certainly don’t take it that way, I understand his point. When you feel emotionally crippled and physically ill because of your life, your career, how people perceive you, and so forth, it’s easy to dismiss your reactions, your very emotional health, as navel-gazing. Admitting that there is a certain amount of narcissism inherent in depression, though, I think such a blanket dismissal of its legitimacy would be a mistake.
If you’re not going to dismiss it or just try to “suck it up” and ignore it, though, what do you do?
I’m a writer, so my first instinct is to write about it.
Going DFW one better, I think there must be an element of narcissism in any personal essay or memoir. It’s far from the only or most representative element in those genres, but it’s there. To believe that some story from my own life might be entertaining or enlightening to others is to assign myself value. The same is true when I “write for myself,” at least when I subsequently publish those works.
I suppose that this project therefore represents a double-dose of narcissism, but those who know me can tell you that, like much of my work, it also originates in a deep and well-earned sense of self-loathing. I am not doing this to make myself look good or sympathetic, nor am I doing it to punish myself. I am writing it to understand and deal with my depression. At the very least, I hope my doing so can help remind other depressed people that they are not alone.
I first proposed this project as a kind of dark joke on Facebook. “I am thinking of honest-blogging about my struggle with depression,” I wrote, “but my depression tells me nobody would read it or care.” I expected to get a few “ha-ha” reactions and, perhaps, a couple of well-wishes. The status update hardly went viral, but it produced more responses than I imagined. Between comments, which are still appearing as of now, and personal messages, at least two dozen people have encouraged me to share. “Perhaps,” I thought, “there’s a space for something like this, maybe even a need.” More specifically, since the depression blog/memoir could well constitute its own sub-genre, maybe there is a space for my contribution.
As for what that contribution will be, it’s anybody’s guess. I don’t have a specific structure or form in mind. I would imagine that some entries will be long and detailed, like book chapters or personal essays. Others will probably read like journaling. Sometimes I may tell you about what I’ve fought through on a given day; sometimes I may recount an experience or a hope/fear for the future. Some posts may be only one or two sentences long, or contain only a single image, or read more like a prose poem. If I solidify my own conception of what this project is over time, I’ll let you know.
What I can tell you at this point is that it’s not my only focus. I teach five English classes a semester. I am working on several writing projects besides this one: several stories and essays, a potential novel, and a script I’m tinkering with. I’ve got a wife, three kids, a son-in-law, a granddaughter, a cat, and a dog. And as a narrative junkie, I read and watch movies and television all the time. If some time passes between entries, keep checking back, or join my mailing list. I’m probably just buried in work. I’ll be back eventually, God willing.
I can also predict that, like most of what I call my “freebies”—works I post on my site, rather than trying to publish them traditionally—these entries will be rawer, not as exhaustively drafted and edited, less organized. I’m trying to do something that’s very difficult for me—share intimate details about my life and emotions—and if I think about it too much, I may well dilute or even ruin the work.
Now, a warning. Some of my content may be disturbing. You might find descriptions of live-wire nerves, rock-bottom anguish, poor behavior, harsh language, violent acts, sex, and more. I hope you’ll also find humor and love and light. Life is, after all, good, and I am quite lucky and blessed. That’s one reason my depression is so maddening. That’s one reason I need to understand it.
Join me, won’t you? The waters are choppy and filled with jagged rocks, but if we work together, you and I, we might just find our way back to shore.
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I’ll Tumblr 4 Ya
Back in the early 1990s, my life pretty much imploded. I had gotten married just before my senior year in high school. The bride was the person I would point to as my “high school sweetheart,” whatever that means. Without delving too far into the details—a soul-wrenching undertaking that I shall save for other columns, or my memoirs, should there ever be any interest in my writing them—I can safely tell you here that our divorce knocked my world off its orbit. I have often said that we loved each other deeply but didn’t like each other very much. I still think that’s accurate, at least from my perspective. She was the first person I ever truly loved, and though our lives together turned almost unspeakably ugly, the death of our marriage destroyed my concept of “forever” and my faith in relationships in general. It took a long time and much trial and error for me to recover in substantive ways.
When I think about that time period, my memories are inextricably linked to my life’s soundtrack. I don’t remember exactly which books I was reading, what films I was watching, or what TV shows I followed, but I remember the music.
Often, after the latest kick in the teeth, I would get in my car and just drive. My piece of junk had no air conditioning, so I would roll down the windows, crank up the volume, and hit the road, the wind whipping my hair as I banged my head and sang along, not caring who heard. Some of the songs appealed to me because of their lyrics. Others fit my mood perfectly through their tones, their tempos. Some did both.
When I think of that time period, these songs play on a loop in my head. It’s always in stereo, always loud. If you’re going through your own personal hell, you’ll probably find your own soundtrack, much of which might well be more contemporary or, possibly, more historically widespread. You might, though, want to consider the music that follows. Much of it will probably mirror how you feel. Some of it might help uplift you just when you need it most. In any case, for those who want to join me, here’s a little window into my past—my own personal songs for divorce, in no particular order.
1. “What’s Up,” 4 Non Blondes.
“Twenty-five years and my life is still / Trying to get up that great big hill of hope / For a destination…”
I was not yet twenty-five, but with all my plans dashed to pieces, I identified with the struggle to reach one’s goals. I no longer had any destination in mind. Indeed, sometimes it seemed that the only possible destinations were jail or a cemetery. That sounds melodramatic, I know, and it was, but to my younger self, it was real.
“And so I cry sometimes / When I’m lying in bed / Just to get it all out / What’s in my head / And I am feeling a little peculiar / And so I wake in the morning / And I step outside / And I take a deep breath and I get real high / And I scream at the top of my lungs / What’s going on?”These lines eerily nail what I was going through at the time. In my life, I have almost never cried, not even when I should have. But during this period, I would often awake to find tears on my pillow. I sometimes cried while watching sitcoms. Sometimes the tears echoed the aching sadness I was feeling; sometimes they were expressions of a dangerous rage. But that need to get out of your own head, to scream, to hit something or someone—I could relate to all that. And for me, the words “What’s going on?” took on a special importance, because I honestly had no idea what had happened, how life had come to that point.
A lot of people dismiss this song, and the band that produced it, as an early-90s lark. As for me, I still remember how I felt back in those days, and when I hear this song now, I feel grateful that I can understand it in a different context.
2. “Jet Airliner,” The Steve Miller Band.
“Goodbye to all my friends at home / Goodbye to people I’ve trusted / I’ve got to go out and make my way / I might get rich you know I might get busted / But my heart keeps calling me backwards / As I get on the 707 / Ridin’ high I got tears in my eyes / You know you got to go through hell / Before you get to heaven…”
A song with multiple personality disorder, “Jet Airliner” combines the desire to get the hell away from your current situation with the knowledge that wherever you go, there you are. The above verse of the song says goodbye to important people in one’s life and suggests that the speaker desperately needs a change, even one for the worse (rich or busted). I especially identified with the idea of going through hell to get to heaven; I desperately wanted to believe that something better lay in my future (spoiler alert: it did).
If this verse was all about leaving, though, the chorus reminds us that we can never truly get away from ourselves: “Big ol’ jet airliner / Don’t carry me too far away / Oh, Oh big ol’ jet airliner / Cause it’s here that I’ve got to stay.” Take me away, but not forever. Let me leave and find myself again, but know that I want to come back. With my family, my friends, my daughter, and my work, I had too much in my life that I could never leave. Too much that I would never want to give up.
The need to go, the need to stay, pulling you in opposite directions, ripping you in two—I heard all of that whenever I listened to this song.
3. “Already Gone,” The Eagles.
Every single lyric in this song—as well as its up-tempo, celebratory nature—appealed to me back then. It’s really a “screw you” song, and I needed a few of those. A couple of examples:
“Just remember this, my girl, when you look up in the sky / You can see the stars and still not see the light (that’s right).” The image of a woman seeing but not understanding really got my blood pumping in those days. Not “woman” as in “women in general,” of course—I always pictured my ex. I believed that she did not understand me. I believed that one day, she would realize what she had given up and would look to the heavens for some answer to the question, “Now what do I do?” It was the same question I was asking so often, and the petty, revenge-seeking part of me really wanted to be there when the epiphany happened.
The verse that appealed to me most, though, went like this: “Well I know it wasn’t you who held me down / Heaven knows it wasn’t you who set me free / So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains / And we never even know we have the key.” Those lines were so prophetic that they sent chills down my spine. I knew that I had not been happy in our marriage, but I also knew that the decision to stay—or to leave—had been mine. I had been the key to my own liberation for all that time. Even though leaving cost me a great deal, it was still the right thing to do for everyone involved.
In my more upbeat moods, I listened to this song until the cassette broke. Then I bought a new one. I would repeat that pattern for most of the works on this list.
4. “Black” and “Jeremy,” Pearl Jam.
“Jeremy” tells the story of an angry young man who erupts one day in school. It’s a great song, but it had little to do with me. I listened to it more during my divorce than I ever did before or since, though, mostly because of its ominous, angry tone. It fit my dark mood on most days.
“Black” was different. “Oh, and twisted thoughts that spin round my head, I’m spinning, oh, I’m spinning, how quick the sun can drop away” could have been written about what was going on inside my head on most days. But the lyrics that really drew me in were, “I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life / I know you’ll be a star in somebody else’s sky / But why, why, why can’t it be, can’t it be mine?” There were, you see, many days when I missed my wife. When I wanted to go back, even though I knew it would be the death of me, or her, or both. When I wanted to scream at life or fate or God and ask why my path had led me to feeling so lousy about myself.
When I wanted to revel in my own misery, “Black” was a great accompaniment.
5. “Blew” and “School,” Nirvana.
I loved Nirvana from the first time I heard their album Bleach. That record contained several great tracks, perhaps most notably “About a Girl.” But in my time of emotional dying, these are the songs I repeated ad infinitum. There is nothing terribly thematic about either song, at least in terms of my own situation, though the refrain of “Blew” resonated with me: “Is there another reason for your stain / Could you believe who we knew was stress or strain? / Here is another word that rhymes with shame…” I suppose it was that image of being stained, marked somehow, that I related to, though the seemingly throwaway reference to shame probably contributed to my fascination.
“School” never appears on any best-of lists, but its sheer simplicity appealed to me in a time of complex causes and effects. The lyrics are as follows: “Wouldn’t you believe it? / Just my luck / No recess.” Later, the repeated line “You’re in high school again” give the whole track the feeling of a dark fever dream, one of those where your life doubles back on itself. There you are, back in high school (or grade school, or college, or your twenties, or whatever), doing the same things you used to do. You retain the sum total of your life’s experience, your knowledge, yet you’re covering the same ground that you never expected to see again—the road already taken.
Neither song completely adheres to Nirvana’s famous, Pixies-esque “loud-quiet-loud” aesthetic. Neither is particularly memorable compared to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or the dirgelike “Something in the Way” or the eerie, nightmarish “Heart-Shaped Box” or the tinged-with-regret “All Apologies.” But both “Blew” and “School” found their way into my divorce rotation. Make of it what you will.
6. “Don’t Go Away Mad (Just Go Away),” Motley Crue.
Look at the title. Remember that I’m talking about divorce. Do I really need to explain this one?
Let’s let the lyrics, about a good-riddance separation, speak for themselves.
“Seasons must change / Separate paths, separate ways / If we blame it on anything / Let’s blame it on the rain / I knew it all along / I’d have to write this song / Too young to fall in love / Guess we knew it all along / That’s all right, that’s okay / We were walkin’ through some youth / Smilin’ through some pain / That’s all right, that’s okay / Let’s turn the page…”
This one has an upbeat, poppy tempo—a departure from most of the Crue’s hair-metal jams, though not unheard of from them. It’s more of a kiss-off than anything else, and any divorce mix needs some of those. Plus, it references two awesome songs—the Crue’s own “Too Young to Fall in Love” (off their album Shout at the Devil, which should have been on Entertainment Weekly’s list of 100 Best Albums) and Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page.”
Then there are these lines: “We were two kids in love / Trying to find our way / Thats’s all right, that’s okay / Held our dreams in our hands / Let our minds run away…” When I hear that, I can only nod and say, “Yep. That’s it.”
Of course, the song ends with, “Girl, don’t go away mad / Girl, just go away,” which is how I felt about my ex more often than not.
Incidentally, 80s hair metal is often unfairly maligned, sniggered at, dismissed by hipsters and music snobs. I don’t know why. Recently, someone giggled when my wife mentioned that we’re going to see Motley Crue in concert. I wasn’t around, but if I had been, I would have said, “Yep, they’re funny, all right. All they’ve done is sell millions of records, make tens of millions of people happy, influence thousands of young musicians, and make lots of money in the bargain. What have you done with your life?”
1. Led Zeppelin, IV.
There is nothing here that lyrically spoke to me about my own life at the time. But sometimes I just wanted to be happy, and Zep always does the trick. I’m not sure I would want to live in a world where Led Zeppelin had never existed.
Why this album? Well, why not? You can’t really go wrong with Zep, but this is the one I played until the tape broke.
Think about it. The nasty, hard-driving blues of “Black Dog.” The pure heart-pounding joy of “Rock and Roll.” The esoteric weirdness of “The Battle of Evermore.” What some people think is the greatest rock song ever, “Stairway to Heaven.” The best Zep song that people keep forgetting about, “When the Levee Breaks.” What’s not to love?
When I felt optimistic, you’d hear this album blasting from my car as I drove down Arkansas backroads.
Of course, there was one album that, for whatever reason, served both kinds of moods:
2. Nirvana, Nevermind.
The album that effectively ended hair metal as a music phenomenon. The record that made Kurt Cobain a household name, in spite of his own ethics and aesthetics.
Nevermind is one of those perfect albums, and one I’ve written about before. Of all the songs on it, I have a hard time remembering what “Lounge Act” sounds like in between listens. The rest are as fresh as the day I first heard them. I suppose the best compliment I can give the album in the context of this writing is that my horrible mood did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for it.
3. Alice in Chains, Dirt.
During my divorce, on eight nights out of ten, I was either drunk, or driving really fast and seriously considering a hard right turn into the nearest tree or bridge abutment, or both. On those days, I did not want cheering up. I did not seek happiness. Call it out-of-control romanticism, that weird death-wish that so many young people seem to have, or a pity party. Both would be accurate. But when I felt that way, I sought out music that would reflect and enhance those feelings.
Dirt by Alice in Chains fits the bill. Understand that I love this one and the last record on my list because they are great rock and roll records. I still listen to them a lot. But they had special significance during my divorce.
Tragically, two of the musicians who made this record are now dead—Mike Starr, the troubled bassist who passed away in 2011, and Layne Staley, the band’s distinctive vocalist. He died several years ago. I have never really gotten over it, to the extent that I can’t yet bring myself to listen to the band’s new album. It ain’t AiC without Layne.
How about these lyrics from the track “Rain When I Die”? “Is she ready to know my frustration? / What she slippin’ inside, slow castration / I’m a riddle so strong, you can’t break me / Did she come here to try, try to take me?”
Or these: “Will she keep on the ground, trying to ground me / Slowly forgive my lie, lying to save me / Could she love me again, or will she hate me”?
Of course, the dirge-like “Rooster” is always good for your sad, angry mood. That goes without saying. It’s also arguably the album’s best song, and that’s saying something.
“Hate to Feel” is a full-throated shout of frustration and misery, perfect for those nights when even the stars seem to be laughing at you. “Angry Chair” is great for head-banging, steering-wheel-pounding moments.
The two songs I was most drawn to back then, though, were “Would?” and “Down in a Hole.” I present some lyrics for “Would?” below:
“Into the flood again / Same old trip it was back then / So I made a big mistake / Try to see it once my way…”
These lines make up the chorus. They speak of covering the same old ground to no good end, of mistakes acknowledged, of the desire—the drive—to be understood. Of course, the chorus’s very repetition suggests that understanding never happens. Then there are these lines:
“Am I wrong? / Have I run too far to get home? / Have I gone? / And left you here alone? / If I would, could you?”
Did I make all the mistakes? Have I been wrong about everything all along? Is it too late to fix things? Is reconciliation possible? The song never answers these questions. Neither did life, at least not all at once. Sooner or later, I realized that the answers were no, no, yes, and no. And then all I had to do was figure out how to live with those answers.
“Down in a Hole” is perhaps the most appropriate song on the album for a divorce soundtrack, at least if you’re unhappy that your life has taken such a turn. Again, I’ll present the chorus, the lines that we hear more than any others:
“Down in a hole and I don’t know if I can be saved / See my heart I decorate it like a grave / Well you don’t understand who they / Thought I was supposed to be / Look at me now I’m a man / Who won’t let himself be…”
Self-explanatory, right? You can’t ask for a more fitting breakup song than this, at least if you’re a self-pitying kid who just wants to be loved.
So some songs on Dirt appeal to your self-indulgence. Others are good for moments when you’re just plain good and pissed off. But if you want darkness, you should seek out the final album on my soundtrack…
4. Nine Inch Nails, Pretty Hate Machine.
A lot of critics claim that The Downward Spiral is the best NIN album. Maybe they’re right. I also freely admit that NIN’s later song, “Only” (from With Teeth), provides one of the best kiss-my-ass lines in history: “You were never really real to begin with / I just made you up to hurt myself.”
But in many ways, Pretty Hate Machine kept me sane during those long, sunless months. Sometimes it didn’t make a lot of sense. The album’s opener, “Head like a Hole,” isn’t ostensibly about relationships; it seems more like an anti-capitalist rant, with its pejorative references to “god money.” But the pounding music is good for working yourself up into a lather, and the bridge and chorus fit bad breakups like a snug pair of jeans:
“head like a hole / black as your soul / I’d rather die than give you control / head like a hole / black as your soul / I’d rather die than give you control / bow down before the one you serve / you’re going to get what you deserve / bow down before the one you serve / you’re going to get what you deserve…”
If your ex is greedy, even the verses can fit.
As for the rest of the album, you can probably understand how well they work during a divorce just by reading titles: “Terrible Lie”; “Sin”; “That’s What I Get.”
How about these lines from “Down in It”? “So what what does it matter now / I was swimming in the hate now I crawl on the ground / And everything I never liked about you is kind of seeping into me / I try to laugh about it now but isn’t it funny how everything works out / I guess the jokes on me, she said…”
Trent Reznor might well have been spying on me when he wrote those lines. “I was up above it,” he wails, “now I’m down in it.” I know exactly how he feels.
“Sanctified” perfectly captures the helpless self-awareness, the bipolar tides that pull you apart: “Heaven’s just a rumor she’ll dispel / As she walks me through the nicest parts of hell (bitch) / I still dream of lips I never should have kissed / Well she knows exactly what I can’t resist / I’m still caught up in another of her spells / Well she’s turning me into someone else / Everyday I hope and pray this will end / But when I can I do it all again?”
Then, of course, there is the funereal “Something I Can Never Have,” and the line that perhaps best sums up the loathing you feel for all that you’ve let someone else make of you: “Gray would be the color if I had a heart.”
Those who knew me at the time can probably recall how well these lines fit: “You make this all go away / I’m down to just one thing / And I’m starting to scare myself.” I scared a lot of people back then.
When you have lived with someone for a long time and wake up one day to find them, or yourself, gone, you feel dislocated, as if someone picked you up and dropped you in a foreign country, the language of which you do not speak. Nothing makes sense. Nothing seems right. Yet everything still reminds you of what you’ve lost. Hence these lines: “In this place it seems like such a shame / Though it all looks different now / I know it’s still the same / Everywhere I look you’re all I see / Just a fading fucking reminder of who I used to be.”
Pretty Hate Machine punched all the right buttons for my darkest moods. Listen to it often, with the volume turned all the way up, during your next catastrophic breakup. Then go pet a puppy and look at a rainbow. You’ll need to cleanse your soul’s palette.
These are the songs, the albums, the artists, that saw me through what I might, in a moment of tremendous understatement, term a “rough patch.”
Now…if you have made it this far, you might feel like this essay (if that is the right word for this piece) is less developed than other things I’ve posted, other things you’ve read. Perhaps that’s true. Maybe it’s less revealing, less “important,” less eloquent. Maybe it’s thought-provoking and emotionally bare, but maybe it’s only one or the other. Perhaps it’s neither. What it will do, I hope, is lead is to these questions?
What did you listen to during your divorce, or your engagement, or that whirlwind six months between meeting the love of your life and committing to a full-blown relationship? What did you listen to after your mother died, after your first child was born, while he/she was growing in the womb? What made your playlist when you graduated medical school, got rejected from a graduate program, published your first poem? What music accompanied the ripping out of your heart or the greatest triumph you have yet experienced?
What makes up the soundtrack of your life?
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Has Anybody Seen My Teeth?
Bodily Changes and Other Minor Tragedies
If you’re a fan of pretty much any professional sport outside of golf or bowling, you’ve probably heard announcers lamenting the increasing age and declining skills of once-great athletes. Recently I read an article about a Dallas Cowboys’ cornerback, referred to in this instance as “the aging Terrance Newman.” According to Newman’s Wikipedia entry, he was born on September 4th, 1978. That means that in roughly three weeks from the time of this writing, he will turn 33 years old.
Randy Couture and Dan Henderson are considered exceptional specimens in the world of Mixed Martial Arts, not just because they have won multiple championships in multiple weight classes but also because they both competed at high levels into their 40s. Couture finally retired in 2011 after losing to former Light Heavyweight Champion Lyoto Machida via front kick to the face (think Daniel-san’s crane kick in the original Karate Kid, a move heretofore thought to be purely fictional). Couture is in his late 40s. Henderson, the current Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Champion who is likely headed back to the UFC, is around 41.
Sticking with the MMA world, for a moment, we should consider the case of Rashad Evans. Until his recent TKO of Tito Ortiz, Evans had been out of action for 14 months. Most people thought he would struggle with so-called “ring rust,” the condition stemming from long layoffs. Train all you want, the philosophy goes, but if you aren’t actually competing, you don’t know how your body or your mind will respond in the heat of battle. Dana White, the bombastic UFC president, said of Evans, “He’s 31. He’s not 26.” You’d think that Evans had turned gray and wrinkly overnight, that he used a walker or a wheelchair, that he might knock over the glass containing his dentures on the way to his fifth bathroom trip of the night.
The conventional wisdom in the NFL is that running backs decline sharply after their 30th birthdays. Gymnasts and swimmers enjoy an even shorter shelf life.
All of this has always seemed patently ageist to me. But at the same time, it seems to be true. For every Randy Couture or Brett Favre, there are thousands of athletes who never play past their mid-30s, when their “advanced” age and allegedly declining skills make them unappealing at best, completely disposable at worst.
Yet, for all of my grousing about the ageist trend in athletics, I also can’t exactly argue with its logic. I am currently 40 years old and no longer an athlete. And even I suffer from aches and pains that my 20-year-old self—hell, even the 35-year-old version of me—did not believe in and had never experienced.
I often tell my students that I have the perfect evidence of life’s unfairness, and it is this: at 40 years old, I get both gray hairs and pimples.
Oh, I’m no silver fox, at least not yet. But every day I find more gray hair—in my beard, at my temples, even on parts of my body that had always been covered with downy dark hair. Everything seems to be bleaching out, slowly but inexorably. Yet as I look at those stray gray hairs, I often find new zits in my hairline, on my head, even on my face, as if I were still a teenager readying for a date. It’s just not fair. If you have gray hair, you should be too old for pimples, and if you must regularly use Clearasil, you should be too young for gray hair.
My goatee is probably the most startling evidence of my hair’s transformation from young person’s to that of someone who might reasonably expect a recruiting letter from the AARP. Once it reflected all the aspects of my heritage. Mostly the hairs were dark, almost black, though in some cases they looked blonde or red. My beard epitomized America: democratic, diverse. Walt Whitman would have been proud of it. Now, though, it consists mostly of two colors: dark brown and gray, with the gray quickly gaining prominence. If I still have it at 50, it will probably look like I just stepped out of an arctic blizzard.
Athletes’ faces undergo similar transformations. It happened to Brett Favre. About the same time that gray began to appear on Favre’s hair and on his chin, his face got a little more wrinkled every year, and for every interception he threw, more and more people questioned how much longer he could compete. Never mind that he kept taking teams deep into the playoffs and breaking records; because he had passed some tipping-point age, he would forever after be suspect.
Of course, part of the reasoning was that he felt the hits more than he used to, that it took him longer to recuperate. And again, here is where I cannot argue with the logic of the age factor.
Before I reached my mid-30s, I had undergone surgery on a diseased appendix. I had had perhaps four cavities. I could engage in pretty much whatever physical activity I wanted and move reasonably well the next day. But around my 36th year, I suddenly started feeling pain in places where I didn’t know I had places.
I had to have my wisdom teeth removed. Though they had come in years before, they had never really bothered me. Suddenly they made my jaws ache. I had two very minor procedures to remove a surface-level basal-cell carcinoma from my chest. I discovered that I had Irritable Bowel Syndrome, though not the highly embarrassing kind that plagued poor J.K. Simmons in The Ladykillers; it bothers me just enough to make travel uncomfortable. My ear, nose, and throat doctor discovered that I needed a septoplasty and a turbinate reduction. After that procedure, I could breathe normally for the first time in my life, which is when I began to snore. A trip to the neurologist and a couple of sleep studies revealed that I had mild-to-moderate sleep apnea.
None of these conditions were serious or life-threatening. But they piled up in a relatively short time, and after a life of good health. They were particularly disturbing in light of my family medical history, which includes cancers of various kinds, heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. One of these days I expect a Riley newborn to skip all the preliminaries and just spontaneously combust.
I’ve taken precautions against these and pretty much every other major issue that my doctors and I can think of. But there’s only so much you can do to prevent health problems as you get older. It’s not really fair. Most of us go from never having to think about our health, or exercise, or what we eat and drink, to worrying about all of it all the time. It’s like being in a car that goes from zero to near-death in five years.
Then there are the aches and pains that accompany getting older. Right now, my right shoulder inexplicably hurts at the joint, especially when I raise the arm above chest level, and most especially when I have to raise it and lift something, or even remove a tight pull-over shirt. I’m not sure if the problem lies in the bone or the muscles or the ligaments and tendons, but something’s wrong, and time—plus lots of exercise or the lack thereof—hasn’t helped. My neck is stiff most of the time and pops painfully when I turn it too far to the right. And now even my jaw hurts a little on one side. Where do these problems come from? What did I do to cause them, if anything? It’s all a mystery, and the only way to solve it is to go to the doctor yet again, to undergo even more tests, and/or to take even more medication.
Speaking of which—I currently take a pill that lowers my cholesterol. I take another that helps my stomach and my poor sleep patterns. A third helps regulate my triglycerides. And I also take over-the-counter medication for joint pain. I fondly remember the days when all I needed was a Tylenol or a BC powder.
When I look at how my body has changed regardless of circumstances, I believe that it’s a miracle that athletes last as long as they do. If I had to spend every day getting punched in the face or body-checked into the boards or feeling my ribs crunch under a linebacker’s shoulder pads, I’m not sure that I could get out of bed at all. And I’ve been pretty active most of my life.
What must aging be like for those who were never in shape? Or those whose lifelong medical conditions have prohibited them from even trying to exercise? In this day of medical miracles, why can’t we all live long lives free of pain and discomfort and, yes, the gray hair-pimple combination?
Still, I’ll take aging over the alternative every day. I’d rather be gray-haired and above-ground than a young-looking corpse.
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I make no claims that what follows is a great piece of writing. It is, however, highly personal, and it’s something I’ve needed to say for longer than I care to think about.
Hard to Say I’m Sorry: an Open Letter to Someone I Miss
As a doctor of American Literature, I am well-acquainted with the fact that most people don’t know much (or care to know) about Modernist poetry. But if I had to bet my paycheck that almost everyone had heard of at least one Modernist poem, I would wager on Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” In case you haven’t read it since high school, I hereby quote the final stanza, in which the speaker, having been presented with two possible paths, finally makes his choice.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Once, during my Master’s program, I heard one of my professors say that he had always read “The Road Not Taken” as satirical. He had a hard time believing that a poet of Frost’s caliber would simplify to such a degree the difficulties in navigating life. After all, as we make most of our choices, we see not two paths but several, often looking much the same, the end never in sight. Try as we might to apply logic and foresight to our decisions, we often result to the mental equivalent of flipping a coin; “I’ve got to try something,” we say to ourselves, and we plunge ahead, hoping that we don’t sail over some cliff hidden in the foliage.
Of course, some choices are more important than others. In the end, who really cares if you choose Taco Bell over Burger King on a given day? Does it really matter if you watch Movie A instead of TV Show B, especially in this age of Netflix instant access and DVRs? Possibly not. But some choices can literally change lives. I discovered that as I have discovered most things—through painful experience.
Back when I was much younger—before fatherhood, before marriage, before graduate school and a truly adult life—I had to make a choice. I cannot get into specifics in a public forum, and so I am left with generalizations, half-descriptions, and facades. I hope that if the person I’m talking to ever reads this, she will recognize herself and understand what I’m saying. I have never been good at talking about my feelings, so if I lose my way, I apologize to you, reader, and especially to her for whom this is meant. She deserves better.
If you’ve found your way here, you probably feel like I’ve blindsided you. We haven’t spoken in many years, a situation for which I am solely to blame. I wish I could go back and talk to my younger self; I could avoid so many mistakes that way, including one of the worst—losing touch with you. I cannot, of course, turn back time or reach across the years and fix things. I can only apologize, and believe me, I know how much there is to be sorry for.
We met at a tumultuous time in my life. I had experienced things that devastated me emotionally. After that, I made some dumb decisions about who to care for and trust; these people piled their own kinds of damage on top of what had already been done. I had been convinced that I was worthless, that I would never be happy, that at best I would not drive my car off a bridge. Some days, I hated getting out of bed, and I always teetered on the edge of grim mania, barely stopping myself from punching people in the face for the flimsiest of reasons.
Then, on yet another gray day, I met you.
We hit it off quickly. Something about the way you smiled made me feel warm, and for whatever reason, you seemed to smile at me a lot. We talked. We saw each other socially. Soon, in a moment of unbridled and spectacular surprise, we came together in a kiss that was as desperate as it was passionate. Perhaps you were looking for something, too. I don’t pretend to know. I only know that it happened, and that it shocked both of us, like something out of a movie. When we broke apart, we stared at each other for several weighty moments. Then you said, “Oops,” and I could add nothing more profound. It wasn’t supposed to happen. We didn’t mean for it to. But it had happened, and we would have to deal with it.
We embarked upon a relationship. Your family didn’t like me (and in this, they were not alone); I was the very definition of “damaged goods.” You could have done better. But for us, it worked, at least for a while. I remember that you ended it once, knowing that things were too complicated, that the timing wasn’t right. I accepted your decision with disappointment, but also with understanding. After all, I wouldn’t have wanted to be with me at that time in my life, and I wanted you to be happy. So I watched you walk away. If I recall, I went out with one of my best friends and got drunk and pretended that I was fine.
But I was miserable. I felt a roaring inside me, a howling emptiness that you had begun to fill, and while I was willing to let you go, I didn’t want to. I wanted to call, to drive around until I found you, to beg you to come back. I did none of those things; I was strong enough for that, at least. But I missed you. And the really odd part? This separation only lasted a few days.
Because you did come back. You told me that you had made a mistake, that you knew the problems and the risks of loving me and that you didn’t care. And even though I knew I was too unstable to give you what you deserved, I weakened, because I loved you and wanted to be with you so badly. So we started up again.
But in the end, you can’t run away from your problems. I was too broken for anybody to fix. Only time and a lot of self-analysis would do that. My guilt over some things I’d done and my desire to be a better person in the future led me to break things off. I’m here to tell you that I didn’t want to do it. Walking away from you was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life, and that’s saying a lot, especially now that I’m forty years old and have been through two divorces, family deaths, long separations from friends and loved ones. But I did it, because I knew that I had a lot of work to do on myself and that you deserved better than I could give. I simply could not ask you to wait until I got myself together.
But because I was afraid, I handled things wrong. I let the situation drag out over a period of weeks in which you wondered what you had done wrong, why I was holding myself at a distance, when things would go back to normal. I tried to tell you the truth many times, but every time I opened my mouth, the words would fail me. The prospect of losing you scared me, and I have never frightened easily. By the time I finally told you that I would need time, that there were things I’d have to do in order to live with myself and be worthy of anyone’s love, I had hurt you. You were very understanding, but any amount of pain I might have caused is unacceptable.
For my poor handling of our relationship and its conclusion, I apologize, from the bottom of my heart. Everything negative that happened was my fault. I tried to be a good person, but you know what they say about good intentions and the road to hell. I truly loved our time together, and if circumstances had been different, I would never have done what I did.
For my silence in the years since, I also apologize. Of course, I don’t know if you even wanted to speak to me; I just know that I wanted to speak to you. But I was ashamed, and I was both hopeful and afraid that you’d moved on. So for any moment, no matter how fleeting, that I left you sitting near a silent telephone, I’m sorry.
I’m with my soulmate now, someone who loves me both for what I am and for what I’m not. We’re deliriously happy, something I never thought possible. I would not give that up for the world. I’m trying to be the best father I can be. I’m still trying to be the kind of man I can admire.
But my healing started with you. Your love showed me that I wasn’t worthless, that happiness was possible. For that, I can never repay you. The point I’m trying to make here is that my feelings for you were real. They still are; for me, that kind of love never goes away. No matter the circumstances, I’ll always be here for you. And even in your absence, you’ve always been important to me.
I know you’ve moved on. You’ve got a family of your own now, a life, a career. You seem happy, from what I’ve heard. And no one could be happier for you than I am. For any part I might have played in delaying that happiness, I’m sorry.
I’ve hoped to say all this to you personally, but I can’t seem to get in contact. I’ve thought about this, and I’ve come up with three possible reasons why you don’t want to talk to me. 1) You still love me, even after all this time, and fear what might happen to your life if I come back into it. 2) You’ve realized you never really loved me at all and simply don’t care if you ever talk to me again. 3) Your own feelings (or lack thereof) notwithstanding, you’re afraid that I have some kind of agenda, that I will make trouble for you.
But I’m not egotistical enough to think that you still love me, at least to the extent that you, as an older and wiser person, couldn’t control yourself around me. I don’t think you’d run and leap into my arms, consequences be damned. So I’m crossing out #1. As for #2, I hope it isn’t true. But if it is, I wouldn’t blame you. I can only repeat that my feelings have always been genuine, and that I’d like to be in your life in whatever capacity you’d allow. In terms of #3, I’m not the guy I used to be. I’ve grown up. I’m not selfish enough to cause you problems. I’m no longer confused about who I am or what I can offer. Know that I would never hurt you or the people you care about.
What I’m trying to say is that I miss you, and I’d like to be your friend. I’d like to introduce you to my wife; I think you’d like her. I’d like to tell you about my life and how you’ve affected it. It’s a pretty good story.
But you have more than earned the right to say no. If you don’t want me in your life, I don’t blame you. I will only say that I will always be here. If you ever need or want anything, call or write me. If it’s within my power to give it, I will. In the meantime, just know that I’m sorry for the way I mishandled things, and that I have thought of you often over the years, always fondly.
Saying this has been hard. Thinking about your potential silence is harder. But I made this particular bed, and I’ll lie in it as long as I have to.
I hope this finds you and yours well.
Here by popular (well…occasional) request, another poem from my files…rather dark. Thoughts?
Untitled on Purpose IV
Standing on vague borderlands
Foot in each country
Can’t see the landscape
Teetering on a great wall
The wind changing directions
Nearly makes you fall
On one side on the other
The burn ward of hell
Here’s a short one I wrote WAY back after my first divorce. I don’t know if it’s any good or not, but call it a look at one moment in time, lived in another life.
Sometimes I miss you
At night when the lights
Are out and I fail
To see who is not
Here though I still hear