Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Riding The Bummer Train

Here's my studio and myself in the late eighties, back when I had a dog and some hair. This was done in pencil and ink on tracing vellum for an architectural rendering class -- I drafted the room from the blueprints, then drew the rest with a combination of classic perspective and guesswork. Yeah, that is the actual shape of the studio. And at the far end, that is a lavender staircase.

I took the line drawing and had it copied onto watercolor paper. I took six of these and painted them simultaneously, discarding the ones I fucked up until I had this at the end. I hate trying to get accurate results with conventional media... Note the boot print in the upper right-hand corner, a not uncommon feature in my work. I need to learn a little respect.

Well, there's a good chance this post will fall into the Too Much Information category. Please, if you don't have any interest in the complaints of an overprivileged white boy skip this. It's all pissing and moaning intended to get my bitching out of my head so I can get on with my work.

I've been going through a very nice little period in my life for the past week and a half. Last night it came to a screeching -- or rather a hollering -- halt.

In many ways I'm an extraordinarily fortunate person. But there are a few issues in my life that give me real problems and make me feel concerned for my future. And unfortunately they act to reinforce each other.

They're located at each end of my spinal column.

I have a bad back and I suffer from mental illness. As a nut, earlier in my life I was able to find refuge in physical labor. If I slapped my headphones on and worked until the sweat flowed I was able to cope and be useful at the same time.

My last job of this sort was in the warehouse of an employee-owned book distribution company, BookPeople. After working there for a couple of years I had the single most physically demanding job in the place, restocking the gravity flow racks. These were a series of racks with wheeled tracks installed in them and they were where the fastest-moving titles were stored. Instead of stacks of books on a shelf, the gravity flow rack held whole boxes of books, typically five or six boxes of a given title at a time.

This was a perfect job for me. I was able to work four days a week (yeah, I took a substantial pay cut for this -- but I had no real choice -- explanation to follow) I had my own little kingdom, I had minimal interaction with the people around me, and I had as much work as I could handle. But during my first couple of years I had a bad habit -- I'd straddle the cart I used to carry the boxes and then twist to the side to load the box into the rack. These boxes averaged about thirty-five pounds each and went up to about seventy-five pounds and I did this all day long.

When I was told that this was a really bad practice that could lead to a bad back I changed the way I worked. It was too late.

When I started to feel sciatic pain I countered it with exercises that helped for a while. My routine involved getting up at four-thirty or five and doing an hour's workout to prepare myself for work. Let me tell you, I was in monstrously good physical condition. I miss it -- having a genuinely powerful body is a real pleasure.

But the pain continued and got worse. And they installed a new set of gravity flow racks and the most strenuous part of my job was doubled. Finally after working in constant pain for well over a year I went to see a physical therapist. Who after a while had me get an MRI. One disc compressed, one disc spectacularly ruptured. And it seems that working hard for a long time has given me nerve damage. I will never not hurt again.

That was it for my career as a big strong guy.

I don't want to go into detail about the drama that attended my settlement. Maybe in a later post. But I will say that everyone associated with my rehabilitation training -- including my insurance adjuster -- told me it was inadequate. If I'd been injured a few years earlier I would have gotten a lot more rehab. If I'd been injured a few years later I would have gotten a much larger settlement. I was just lucky enough to hit the sweet spot. And the lawyers who act on behalf of the insurance companies are honest-to-God sociopaths. No fooling.
If the money that had been spent on the PI they had videotape me (which actually hurt the case the insurance company was trying to make against me -- truth is always the best defense) had been spent on my rehab I'd fucking well have a job now.

So. The reason why I worked part-time? I'm nuts. The one time I was in counseling I asked how I'd be diagnosed. The answer was complex.

Agitated depression with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, violent and suicidal impulses, accompanied by visual, tactile, and auditory hallucinations. The last shrink I consulted with said he'd tentatively peg me as borderline schizophrenic. The combination would seem to indicate psychotic agitated depression -- but I think the schizophrenia and the depression are compartmentalized enough to clear me of that diagnosis.

(Of course I never told her about my Whitley Strieber-style saucerman experiences. For the record, yeah, abductees experience the things they report. I believe that it's a form of mental illness rather than an exterior phenomenon. I think that getting caught up in the mythology around UFOs is really, really unhealthy for people with schizophrenic tendencies. I think it should be studied and I damn well would like it if they came up with an effective treatment.)

I was given tricyclics -- Nortryptiline, to be specific. It was worse than useless. These days they say that anti-depressants are bad news for people with agitated depression -- powerful tranquilizers are reccomended and I am considering getting a supply for emergency use. My couselor told me I was the sanest person she had ever met. She also wanted to have me institutionalized because I represented a danger to myself and the community.

Agitated depression is the kind of mental illness that results in death. Here's one way to get a glimpse into the condition. It's a metaphor but I suspect there's some literal truth to it.

Our emotions are generated by physical structures in the brain. (I suspect the body as well -- my own belief is that the mind is concentrated rather than isolated in the brain -- but that's just one nut's opinion.) Just as with any other part of the body things can go wrong.

So imagine the way you felt when you were betrayed by someone close to you, or someone you loved died. Think of the very worst that you have ever felt, those moments when it seemed as if there was nothing good at all in your life. These feelings are generated in your brain. What if your brain generated these feeling spontaneously? Think of it as emotional epilepsy.

Or imagine that your ability to feel pleasure suddenly vanished. That nothing felt good, tasted good, looked good. That every sensory stimulus was a source of irritation. It is possible to be blind to pleasure the same way you can be visually blind, or deaf, or lack any other sense.

Those two states are components of depression.

In agitated depression this misery is compounded by a flood of nervous energy that compels some kind of action. This is what makes it one of the most dangerous mental illnesses. And this is what I've got.

And how did I get this way? Heredity and environment and plenty of both. A violent life during childhood and my teen years and a history of mental illness on both sides of the family. It's like I'm the result of a eugenics program intended to produce the craziest redneck in the world.

The thing is, when people at work (I was a janitor in a high-end department store at this point) found out that I was seeing a shrink they were baffled. See, if you aren't right in my immediate circle I come across as a really nice guy who seems to have his shit together. (Haw! Haw! Haw! As an aside, this period in my life is one of the major elements in the novel.)

Potential employers -- I'm great on the job. I'm a good friend. When the crunch comes down, when there's an emergency -- that's when I shine.

But living day-to-day? I just don't have the knack. I think of myself as being like one of those British sports cars that are soooo much fun to drive when they aren't in the shop.

And at the same time my creativity is directly linked to my insanity. That's why I have to work part-time if I'm going to function in society. Creative activity, whether art or writing or music, is the best therapy I've found. Ol' Lunchboxxx commented on my ability to crap out art -- this is where the ability comes from.

For those familiar with drug use, at my most sober and stable my mental state is comparable to a half-hit of bad acid. Twitchy, excitable, nervous, uncomfortable, and vaguely hallucinatory around the edges, just waiting for the overwhelming visions to roll in. Distressingly, the closest I come to what I would regard as a 'normal' mental state is when I have a mild hangover. There's a strong history of alchoholism on both sides of my family so this really isn't the solution I'm looking for...

When my back pain is bad, the only things that can make a dent are narcotics. But they tend to trigger my depression. But so does the pain. Cue the trombone -- bwaa-waa-waa.

So. Two things that are important for my maintenance of a tolerably mental state are eating and sleeping. And that's why I'm back on the bummer train.

My back's sensitive this semester. I have a four-hour class on the same day that I have band practice and that hurts and the next day I have a three-hour class. It takes me days to recover from that one-two punch. When I attended the Digital Arts Club Meeting followed by the Milvia Street release party Friday before last it screwed me up. Saturday's writer's group meeting didn't help. And on Monday I went to grill some lamb for lunch (I do the cooking -- my food tastes better than what you'll get in most restaurants) and found that the missus had stacked a bunch of plants and planters around the grill. The lamb had been coated with a mustard/garlic/horseradish paste and thus was not fit to put in a saute pan. It had to be grilled. I moved the pots because the missus wasn't home.

Biiig mistake. If I take care of myself I hardly notice my back. This makes me start thinking, "Dude, you are totally goldbricking. Time to find your lazy ass a fucking job." And then I push it and I wonder how long it's going to be before I need more surgery. I need a job I can do from my workstation. That's why I'm trying to be a writer/artist -- but when the novel's done I'm getting training as an editor. Please, please, please don't make me have to go on the public tit, no SSI, no welfare...

So for the last two nights my sleep has been interrupted by a new pain. It's like two sharply curved hooks coming out of my spine and jabbing into my hip joints. The only place I can be comfortable is in the recliner that's the center of my workstation. Which means I can't sleep. Which is why I'm sitting here bitching into the intertubes.

And for the last two nights I've gone to make myself dinner and found that the missus had eaten the last of a crucial ingredient. She's got food issues (my take on it is that the masculine tendency is to be perverse about sex while the feminine tendency is to be perverse around food) and so if I've bought something for my own meals -- I don't cook all of her food, since she's a food nut and thus is compelled to eat a lot of seaweed and pureed green slop and so on and so forth -- she will unexpectedly devour it all.

I have to be patient; I have to understand; but it screws me up. If I'm in an emotionally delicate state I have to convince myself to eat. I have to focus on what I'm going to make ahead of time and coax myself into looking forward to it.

And if I can't have what I've set myself up for, I either eat randomly until I get indigestion (best case scenario and that happened Monday night) or I can't eat at all (the more common result and that's what happened last night). If it's because the missus has eaten all of something she's sworn she will never eat again I become frustrated with her.

So last night when I found she'd eaten the salami I'd intended for a pizza I snapped at her. Keep in mind that I'd been in a state of pain for the last two days and have slept badly even by my (typically five hours a night) standards.

But she was going through a hassle with one of her friends and was emotionally delicate herself. So she got mad at me for being mad at her. I think of this as two-for-flinching. She does something to piss me off and then punishes me for being unhappy. This ain't the typical mode in our relationship -- but it is one of the typical hassles.

So the bottom drops out and I plunge into the pit. And she tells me that because of what's going on she feels like there's no one she can turn to, that she's alone. So I choke down my feelings and comport myself in a way intended to alleviate what she's going through.

But inside I'm eating out my fuckin' liver and she knows it. But since I'm being nice she doesn't press matters. Finally, when we're in bed at the end of the day I'm laying next to her seething and hating myself and I realize that if I lay there I may scream or put my fist through the window or some goddamn thing and the best recoure is to go to the studio and work for a while. But when I get upstairs the kava and melatonin I've taken in order to have a chance at sleep make me incapable of functioning creatively. And she had earlier told me that when I went out walking she worried (quite legitimately) that I might do something that would get me in trouble.

I kept my voice even and my manner low-key when she asked what was going on. We lay next to each other and talked ("I don't understand how you can go from the top to the bottom so fast.") and we both settled down and appreciated the love we feel for each other. It was a satisfactory ending to a stupid conflict. Despite these occasional flareups we really are good for each other -- thank god, because we love each other enough to stick together no matter how bad things get.

But my back still hurts and I didn't sleep well and I was only able to eat one meal yesterday. I'm back on the bummer train -- but the last week and a half was great. And there will be more good times in the future. But.

I been shot at and missed, shit at and hit.

I've got a hell of a lot to do today -- get three stories ready and delivered to Milvia Street (the editor contacted the woman who runs the Saturday writer's group and asked her to get stories from me -- I quit submitting short fiction and now editors come to me), so I'll be taking a walk downtown. While I'm there I may as well make an appointment with the school shrink and see about those tranqs. I want to knock out a full chapter of the novel (I'm almost done and if I crank hard I can be finished in two weeks), and I want to do a logo for Deborah. But if I can find the time I'll put up a more cheerful post to compensate for this disgusting outpouring of self-pity.


Anonymous said...

"All things must pass." Or is it "This yeast toast seems to be working"?

Or "These pretzels are making me thirsty!"

One could say that those who have blocked the smoker must themselves unblock the smoker. But then again, one could say that those who have a half-deaf husband must learn to walk on the proper side. Such rules can rarely be enforced.

I hope that you'll not be adverse to the idea of a 25 pound bass guitar in a few hours' time.

Sean Craven said...

The missus had one of the world authorities on treating back issues over yesterday (!) and she gave me a bodywork session and taught me some new techniques and recommended daily walks, which I already knew I should be doing.

So this one will be ready to rock.

And you know how it is in a relationship -- you can't control what they do, only what you do. And according to the missus I did the right thing considering the situation -- that is, after I yelled at her for eating my salami when she was already feeling upset.

Whatcha gonna do but shit and fall back in it?