Keeping the Demons at Bay

IMG_0163IWSG Question o’ the Month: How do major life events affect your writing? Has writing ever helped you through something?

Do you know, I almost forgot it was time to post for IWSG? My head has been “out of the game” for a couple of weeks now, and a certain passive shrug of acceptance has set in. Acceptance of fatigue, acceptance of frustration, and — worst of all — acceptance of my struggle to find the energy and time to write.

Oh, the words are still there, but lately it’s been harder and harder to crack through all the bullshit to get at them…

I was sitting around today, not doing much of anything. I was tired, I was bored, and I had no intention of doing anything. Finally, I forced myself out for a short hike. Now, keep in mind that where I live is not…err…civilized. Hell, the closest thing to civilization is an hour’s drive away. When I want to get lost, when I want to recover, all I really have to do is walk five minutes out the back door.

Rocks and trees, wind and sun…all the greys and greens of the Colorado mountains, broken only by knots of gold as the aspens huddle together, holding on to the last of their leaves.

I needed that hike.

I wrote before, when I was still living up in Yellowstone, about how getting out into the wilds is (usually) enough to renew my failing balance and energy. That hasn’t changed. A hike — even a short one, like today — is enough to get me in touch again with those words that can sometimes seem so far away.

It also helps me to hold the demons at bay. When frustration and bitterness begin to turn to depression — as they always, always do for me — one of the only sure answers is to hike my way out.

Which brings me to the IWSG question I listed above. There really is only one other way out, for me. Only one other way to keep at bay the demon of depression, and that is to write my way out.

“Has writing ever helped you through something?” the question asks.

Every single day.

I’ve lived with my personal ghosts and demons for so long, I don’t even notice them anymore. Until I start writing, that is. It is only through writing that I can truly recognize them, and only through writing that I can (temporarily) exorcise them.

Expressing my thoughts and emotions through my fingers — whether on a keyboard or with a pen — has helped me through more shit than I care to really talk about. I don’t care to talk about it, but I will write about it.

Writing has helped me through the suicides of close friends, through the destruction of my soul and the hardening of my heart, through the worst times of my life…it has helped me, even, through my own dancing flirtations with suicide.

Take away writing, and I lose all those fights.

Take away writing, and I wouldn’t be here.

When I was young, I would lose myself in the stories I read. In the machinations of the court of Amber, in the adventures of Pug and Tomas, in the interplay of Garion and Belgarath and Polgara, in millions of words by thousands of authors. But never — even in the worst of times, even when I needed escape the most — never did I lose myself like I can in the fluttering ghosts of my own characters, and in the words of my own stories…

Addendum:  As ever, there’s a song for that (in my world): https://youtu.be/D6-EUSvJchI

There Go I…

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a hockey guy. I’m a hockey guy from, err, way back.*

*I’m pretty sure the definition of “way back” is when you see the sons of players you loved as a kid entering the league…

Now, most of the US sports-news outlets are garbage when it comes to hockey. I am, in fact, pretty sure that ESPN doesn’t even realize there is such a thing as a sport played on that mythical thing called “ice”.

Thank God, then, for Canadian networks…

One of those networks — TSN, if you’re curious — just ran a story about a former NHL player named Joe Murphy. Now, Murphy was drafted very, very high in a star-rich draft in 1986. While he wasn’t a perennial All-Star during his NHL career, he most definitely was a legit player on any team in the league.

Then he disappeared.

No, really, he pretty much fell off the face of the planet.

A reporter from TSN recently took on the challenge of tracking Murphy down to see what had happened after his playing days. After much effort, that reporter finally did find him…found him drug-addicted, broke and homeless. After a fifteen year playing career, after earning millions, after having everything, Joe Murphy had become one of those guys holding a sign on the street-corner…

Now, the writer in me can make a hundred stories out of that situation; out of the why’s and how’s, out of the choices made, and out of the tragedies that resulted from those choices.

But I’m not just a writer…

I never knew Joe Murphy. I do, however, count more than a few current and former NHL players as friends. I know the pitfalls they face, and the prices they pay. Mental and emotional prices, as much as the physical ones.

I know the very fine line they walk, and how quickly it can all disappear. Especially after retirement, especially when — for the first time in their lives — no one knows their name. When no one is cheering, when every single aspect of the life they’ve led since they were three or four years old is different. When they no longer have a place or a purpose in the world.

It’s more complicated than just this, but that dislocation and desperation is one of the themes behind the fantasy story I’m currently developing, as well as being one of the reasons why it is (tentatively) titled Once Magnificent

Joe Murphy is not the first athlete to fall, just as he is not the first successful person to lose everything, but still his story resonates with me. Still, his story means something to me. As a guy who has lost everything more than once in my life, as a guy who battles my own private demon of depression, I can sympathize with Murphy.

No, that’s not quite right…

I don’t feel for Joe Murphy, I very well could be Joe Murphy.

Murphy, alongside a host of a nameless others, is one of those unspoken reasons why I write, why my stories and characters inevitably revolve around the flawed and the broken.

D21E96E2-4A53-405A-98D0-0E857B426261I’ve said a million times on this blog that I write for me. I’ve said that, but it’s not 100% true. I write for me, yes, but I write also for anyone and everyone who just might see a bit of themselves in my words. For anyone and everyone who might take even a grain of hope at burdens (and demons) shared. For those for whom that light at the end of the tunnel never seems to get any nearer…

I Wanted This To Be Funny, But…

I’ve been reading some recent stories about the NFL’s settlement of the “concussion suit” billionagainst it.  Let’s start with the basics: there is over a billion dollars involved

A BILLION.

That’s…err…a lot.

im-shocked-shockedAnd yet people are shocked — SHOCKED — that there is fraud and gaming-the-system going on.

Look…humans are humans.  The naive, wishful thinking of both the left and right aside, human nature hasn’t changed one single bit in the 10,000 years of written history.  Let me make clear something I’ve implied before: drop Julius Caesar, or Alexander the Great, or Ghenghis Khan, or pick-your-own-ancient-figure, into the modern world and, after some language lessons, they would fit right in.

Shit, Ivan the Terrible and Vlad the Impaler would probably share a reality show on basic cable: ”Real Executions of Eastern Europe”…

At any rate, back to the topic at hand.  The single best story about the NFL last week was the one describing the advice one prominent ex-player received from his (very expensive) lawyer: show up to the medical test hung-over and doped on Valium.

Dammit!  Why don’t I get instructions like that?!  A bad morning-after, and a couple of mommy’s little helpers, to help “win” a million bucks?  Sign me up!

Okay, so all joking aside…

I’ve had more than my share of concussions.  I started playing tackle football when I was nine…I still play full-contact hockey at a high level…hell, I actually used to — shh! Don’t tell my mom! — take part in the very early days of the UFC…you know, the days when it was a weekend tournament, and you fought over and over until you lost…

Nowadays, I get a concussion if I shake my head too vigorously.

I also happen to receive all of the medical and practical data from the hockey players’ unions (some I “earned”, some I have been gifted by friends).  Honestly, that data scares the hell out of me.  No one can know for sure if they have CTE until a doctor cuts their skull open and takes a brain sample.  In other words: no one really knows until it’s too damned late.

But…but, there are symptoms.  Let’s look at the symptoms, shall we?

Depression.  Isolation & emotional instability.  Tendency to anger and self-loathing.  Suicidal impulses.  All of life’s little demons in one shitty package.

Now, look…this wouldn’t be anywhere near my radar if I didn’t have a number of friends for whom it is a DAILY issue.  Friends for whom this is very much reality.  Hell, let’s be honest: if I didn’t have a friend who killed himself over it…

It wasn’t until high-level hockey and martial arts were added to the “foundation” of football* that my brain got knocked silly, but I’m still nowhere near where some of my friends are…

*I was fourteen years old…got the shit knocked out of me on a kick-off.  I got helped to the sideline and the coach put up some fingers.  “How many?” he asked.  I got it wrong, according to my friends/fellow-players on the sidelines…but I was back on the field for the next play, anyway.

Chronic_Traumatic_EncephalopathyI admit it: I make fun of a lot of shit.  I have to make fun of the world and the universe, or it just might make me scream in rage and fear.  But as much as I wanted and intended this post to be funny, to be a “joke-post”…well…the damage that repeated concussions cause, and the reality of CTE, that I can’t make fun of.

I’ve lost one friend already to CTE (sadly, confirmed), and I have a number of others — tough men all, looked at as “fearless heroes” for their play on the ice and the field — who are utterly terrified that they are next.  So, the next time you condemn a football player for going out of bounds a step too soon, or a hockey player for declining a fight, or any other player for committing some athletic “faux pas”, just remember what really is at stake for them: everything.

If You Love Me, Don’t Let Go

 

Yes, the title of this post is a line from a song…because, well, of course it is.  The song in question is “Unsteady” by X Ambassadors. Below is a post that has been sitting in my Drafts for…well, for a long time. Talking about this stuff ain’t easy. Not for me, and not for anyone.  But, sometimes you just have to…and in honor of Thanksgiving and the coming family-oriented holidays, it is time again…

There’s really nowhere else to start: I suffer from depression.  I’ve mentioned that before, but if there is any disease that gets pushed aside and forgotten, it is depression.  It especially is pushed aside and forgotten by family and friends.

“What’s wrong with you today?”

“What mood are you in today?”

“Why can’t you just fix yourself?”

For those who’ve never felt the stifling, suffocating, paralyzingly grip of depression…thoughts like that do nothing but make it worse.  A lot worse.  That feeling of being alone?  Of having nowhere to go, and no one to turn to?

Yeah, “checking on my mood” ain’t helping.

Why am I writing about this? I hear you ask.  Why, more importantly, am I writing about this again?

Because it needs to be talked about.

I’ve fought this demon since I was teenager.  I’ve fought this demon in the only way I’ve ever really had: alone.  I’ve lost more battles than I’ve won…but I’m still alive, and a number of my friends are not, so I guess the war itself is going okay…

“C’mon…just change yourself.”

“Turn to Christ” or “think happy thoughts” or “look on the bright side”…

It doesn’t work that way.

The reason I am writing this post is because…well…hearing other folks talk about their own struggles helped.  It helped tell me that I wasn’t alone {and remember the central theme to Wrath & Tears: alone is worse}.  It helped to tell me that, as broken as I am, there are others out there just as broken.

It told me, in the end, that I wasn’t a freak who had to suffer in silent solitude.

How can I not try to pass along that support?  How can I not, to throw out an over-used and tired phrase, pay it forward?

Carrie Fisher became very open about her battles.  Ashley Judd has become equally so.  Even so huge a figure as Winston Churchill had his struggles with depression.  NFLer Joel Klatt…NHLer Marek Svatos…actor Owen Wilson…Heath Ledger…Buzz Aldrin…Art Buchwald…Terry Bradshaw…Johnny Carson…Ray Charles…Dwayne Johnson…it ain’t a short list, folks, and these are just a semi-randomly selected handful.

I’m not alone, and that helps.  That is important to know…and it does help.

How can I not share my own experience in the face of that?  How can I not try to help — to support, and hopefully to save — just one fucking person, if that is all I can reach?

As many things as have gone right in my life, this is a demon that still hovers over my shoulder. He always has, and he always will.  Even as things got better in my life, he never left.  When things were bad, he was there…but when things were good, he was equally there.

Honestly, even today his voice still has power…and I still pay attention.

Depression, for those of you who just don’t know or understand, is very very real. Even those you think should never suffer problems of any sort — those with money and loved ones and lives to be envied — can suffer from depression. Trust me on this one: I’ve lost friends who had every single fucking thing in the universe to live for.

Hell…I have everything to live for, and still I hear that little voice: why bother? Who the fuck are you? Nothing will ever get better…

Believe me, I hear that voice. Far, far too often.

There ain’t much to hold on to in the universe for people like us…but what there is, is important.

And what folks like us have to hold to is simple: people.

Look, we know we’re annoying…we know we’re hard to deal with…but, holy shit, we have, in general, pushed away almost everything and everyone we know, and we need something. Trust me on this — it is far, far too easy to lose yourself in the isolating currents of your own thoughts and emotions. It is far too easy to drown.

When I’m at my worst, when I’m a drowning man at sea, I’ll clutch at anything. Unfortunately, far too often, that something is exactly the wrong thing. Whether it’s booze, or drugs, or isolation, or despondency…they all seek to fill the space that only friends and loved ones can truly fill.

Just one friend — just one loved one — can make all the difference.  Does make all the difference.

To those who fight similar demons, I’ll say this: I have my own tiny little list of those who have helped save me — some figuratively, but some very, very literally — and you need to find a way to create your own little list.  One name…one name, one person, is all it takes.  That being said, there also are ways to work yourself out: after so many years, I have learned to write my way out…or to hike my way out…or, in a very few instances, to love my way out.  So, please: find…something.  Some meaning, some tool.

And always remember the first rule: alone is worse.

To those who can’t even begin to conceive of the numbing pain, nor the suffocating isolation: I know we can be annoying, and challenging, and hard to understand…but we need you. Trust me on this one: we’ll push you away, we’ll isolate ourselves and say we don’t care, say that we don’t need anyone…and we’ll be lying.

We need some form of stability — some semblance of life — to hold to, or that little demon in the back of our minds will win…

…and when that bastard wins, you end up with a rope around your neck and a bottle in your hand.

Trust me on this one, I know.

Further reading here and here.