I started writing this blog in July of last year. If my math is correct, that makes this blog just about one year old about now. Some reflection is in order. Bear with me as I recount the details of a difficult year. My point, ultimately, though, is to share with you what good has come from it, not just to complain. But first, I need to seem like I’m complaining.
The past year, as it turns out, is one that was probably well-worth documenting, though I didn’t know it would be quite so dramatic when I started writing. I started writing because I found myself in the depths of the deepest and most prolonged depression I had ever experienced. I still remember the moment it hit me like a Mack truck. It was April 30, 2014, my birthday. In retrospect, I had been somewhat manic for a few months – full of energy and enthusiasm for life. Anyone who has ever been around the private school where I taught knows that the spring semester is insanely busy, and I was feeding off of the frenetic energy around me. Also, my family and I had moved homes a month before, and despite all the stress that comes with that, I kept telling my doctor how great I was doing. She looked at me, month after month, appointment after appointment, shocked that I was doing so well. We both thought we had finally found the right medication cocktail. I thought I was fixed for good.
It all changed when I got called into a meeting where I got thrown a curveball. Nothing terribly dramatic or worth detailing here, but the short version is that I felt like my boss backed out on her word about something, and it really pissed me off. I walked out of that meeting an entirely different person from the one who walked in. Within that thirty minute span I had gone from celebrating life to everything in the world looking dark and foreboding. Every person seemed like s/he was out to get me. Every comment seemed to be a subtle jab directed at me. By 11 p.m. that night, I lay despondent on my basement couch. As Ann headed up to bed, she asked what she could do for me. The answer, as always, was “nothing.” Then she asked this: “Do you promise me that you’ll still be here in the morning?” As in, “will you be alive?” not “will you be out partying?” or “you’re not going to your mistress’s house again, are you?”
I don’t even remember what my answer was, but I can honestly say that it felt dark enough in my head that I was hoping I’d be dead by morning, though I didn’t have the guts to do it to myself.
I didn’t climb out of that hole for a few months. I believe it was sometime around when I started writing this blog that I began to feel some sense of hope again. I was pulled out of my depression, to some degree, by deciding that my work environment was no longer suitable for me. Despite the fact that every last practical reason told me to stay put in my job, I knew that I had become a square peg in a round hole. My Christian faith had been waning for years, and I wasn’t sure I could even pretend anymore to offer students the answers I was supposed to give.
I rallied, but when I returned to work in August, I was immediately dragged back into the depths. I hid from people in my office, eager to simply put my head down and get through the year and move on. I felt like some sort of a circus freak surrounded by people who saw the world so differently from how I did that I didn’t even know how to make small talk anymore. The loneliness of mental illness was reinforced by the loneliness I felt spiritually. The “family” of Christians I had always been a part of felt more and more foreign to me. I didn’t speak the language as fluently as before, if at all. The ten thousand small references to various Christian ideas and ideals no longer made sense to me. One doesn’t choose to walk away from everything he’s ever believed; one doesn’t choose to find himself half way through life no longer sure of anything he had staked his life on. My loneliness and depression got deeper than ever.
And then my dear friend Riley overdosed on drugs and alcohol and died on September 1st, 2014. This didn’t help matters.
I spoke at his funeral. I spent three weeks completely numb to his death, not shedding one tear, not having my voice break even once as I recounted his death. Then I sat in a Mexican restaurant in Dunwoody and fell apart in front of my friend, Mike. He couldn’t have handled it any better. He asked me what I would tell someone to do if I knew they were feeling like I felt. I knew the answer immediately: I needed a break from my work environment – a place where I couldn’t process my friend’s death because the pat answers and explanations were so infuriating to me. I was suffocating. I took three days off. When I went back the next Monday, I could only stomach an hour of work before I walked out the door for a “prolonged break”…which turned out to be a permanent one.
And then I spent the rest of the fall trying to climb out of the goddam hole once again. People who have never been depressed can’t possibly appreciate how exhausting it is. A week or two into my sabbatical from work, I decided to try to be productive by cleaning my garage. I only had enough energy to take a hammer from one side to the other side before I needed to sit down for half an hour, head in my hands, trying to work up the physical and emotional energy required to stand up and put one more thing in its proper place. I never managed to do anything else to the garage that day…or the many days or weeks that followed.
I climbed out of the hole to the point that I decided to start a business doing handyman work, something that had been a hobby for a decade. I survived the winter, but by the time my birthday rolled back around, I was back in the deep, dark hole. At this point, my wife wanted to put me in a hospital. I agreed to do whatever she wanted me to do. I was desperate.
So I entered a long-term, outpatient treatment program. I found a new job and a few new friends. I moved into an apartment to give my family some space from my ups and downs…to try to get my shit together, not that I had a clue how it fell apart in the first place or what getting it “together” would look like.
It’s hard to start putting a new life together when you aren’t sure of the rules anymore. It’s not like I went looking to abandon everything I once believed. Why would one intentionally tear up the only road map he owns when he’s already feeling lost? Now I was lost without a map.
However…while it has been quite a year, I am writing this post as a celebration of my growth, not as an attempt to elicit your pity for the difficult year I’ve had. I’ve actually learned some amazing things over the past year.
I’ve learned that when your friend Frank, from Chattanooga, finds out you’ve hit the bottom (again), he’ll drive the four hour round trip (on Father’s Day) just to hang out with you in the hotel room you’ve checked into so as to spare your family another “episode.”
I’ve learned that when your friend, Steve, finds out you’ve been struggling for awhile, he’ll fly to Atlanta and help you navigate one of the harder weekends of your life. He’ll sit in your car with you while you sob uncontrollably over the loss of just about everything you used to think and believe and hold onto. And he won’t judge you one bit. (And the next day, he’ll ask who drank the whole bottle of bourbon, surprised to find out that it was, in fact, him.)
I’ve learned that some of your religious friends, even the really conservative ones, will tell you that they still love you no matter what you believe these days; they won’t even mind it when you tell them you don’t want the Christian label applied to you anymore. They’ll stick with you when you tell them your views on God’s love for gay people and Caitlyn Jenner…even when you tell them you’re living in an apartment, separated from your wife and kids, in an odd effort to be a better, not worse, husband and father.
I’ve learned that the people whose lives are the most supremely fucked up are some of the most amazing people on earth:
- The alcoholic friend who you don’t really know all that well will call you every time he hears that you’re struggling again. He’ll offer to do “what the fuck ever,” in his words, to help you through this time.
- The friend who was routinely molested by her dad, who spent some time as an exotic dancer, will be the best listener you’ve ever talked to. She will understand you more fully and more quickly than just about anyone else on earth. She will truly “get it.” She will love you simply because you exist and your paths have crossed…no agenda other than friendship.
- The guy who read your book, who lives across the country, who you’ve never met face to face, will write you one encouraging email after another when you post on your blog. He, too, gets it. He, too, is very much “with you,” even though you may never meet face to face.
- The parents-in-law and sister-in-law and sister-in-law’s boyfriend will encourage you even as you navigate your difficult marriage. They will send you books and blogs and quotes, not to get you to be someone you aren’t, but to get you to love yourself better than you’ve been in the habit of doing. They will accept you even though they are directly involved in the complexity of your messy life.
- The wife who keeps on loving you as you even when you move out. She’ll get pissed at you, but she’ll keep telling you that she’s on your team even when her friends tell her to kick you to the curb, as they think you deserve.
- The parents who will offer unconditional support even as you walk away from most of the things they raised you to be.
- The strangers and long-lost friends who will read something you wrote and take the time to reach out and tell you to keep it up.
These “ordinary” people are actually remarkably extraordinary. They are the folks who are far more equipped than your “together” friends to offer you a listening ear and a sympathetic hug without telling you how sad your life is or how often they are praying for you.
I’ve learned that admitting you don’t know the Answers doesn’t mean you lose your sense of right and wrong. Admitting you don’t know very much at all, actually, can be a pretty damn good starting point for figuring out what is important to you at the most fundamental level. I don’t know much these days, but I know I love my kids unconditionally and that I’m committed to fulfilling my obligations to the people I love most even if it looks different from what I originally envisioned. I know that I was made to teach and to write and to think about things that most other people don’t think about very often. This doesn’t make me better or worse than anyone else. It just makes me…me.
I’ve learned that I might as well start figuring out how to like who I am rather than continually trying to change who I am. I am who I am, for better or worse. I can hate it or love it or resign myself to it, but I CAN’T change it, and I don’t need to. I don’t need to be perfect to offer something to the world. Maybe I am a bit more emotionally volatile than others…maybe I am a little (a lot) maddening to try to be in a relationship with at times…maybe I’m not the Ward Cleaver of fathers…maybe I’m not as great of a husband as Hosea (who married a prostitute…even though she kept on hookin’)…
BUT I’m pretty good at plenty of things…like caring about the people in my life immensely, even painfully…and wanting everyone in the world to understand me and to like me and to see things the way I see them. This, too, leads to a lot of frustration for me, but it’s not such a bad thing to want world peace, or at least interpersonal peace, is it? I think my new year’s resolution (at least in terms of this blog’s fiscal year) will be to see the good parts of my complicated personality. As one of my literary heroes, Walt Whitman, said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well; I contradict myself. I am large; I contain multitudes!” He also said, “I exist as I am; that is enough.”
You see, people, if this year of losing pretty much everything I once staked my life on has taught me anything, it has taught me this: I am still here; still kickin’; still dancin’; still trying; still hoping. What’s left of me is less and less of the grime and dirt and tarnish that had built up over four decades of pretending to be something I was not…am not. What’s left is very, very raw and real. I used to be a tell-it-like-I-think-you-want-to-hear-it sort of guy. More and more I’d like to “sound my barbaric YAWP over the rooftops of the world” (more Walt Whitman) sort of dude. I like this new dude a lot more than the old one. I’m still learning, still letting go of the old version of Tim Blue. But today I can say honestly that I think Tim Blue 2.0 has plenty to offer the world. I used to want to offer answers, but now I am content to offer my questions instead. I used to want to show you my shiny parts, but now I’d be happy to show you the dull, scuffed, and scarred ones because they come with better stories than the shiny ones. I used to want to offer others a way out of their pain, but now I just want to sit with them in their pain because that’s all I can really do.
And to you, my friends, I’d be happy to keep you company in the midst of your pain. That’s what this blog is for: to let you know you are not alone. Feeling alone is worse than depression or anxiety or spiritual malaise. Feeling alone is probably the number one cause of every bad thing that happens on this earth. I’m pretty sure that the reason people join every institution from the Nazi Party to the Unitarian Universalist Church to a college fraternity is quite simple: People just want to be belong…to be WITH others who are at least somewhat like-minded. Hell, people will even join groups that they have nothing in common with just so they can belong. We are hard-wired for belonging. We are herd animals through and through.
So, I hope you’ll keep reading. I plan to keep writing. But most importantly, I hope that this blog will somehow encourage you that you are not alone, and I hope it will inspire you to tell others that they are not alone, either.
Happy Birthday, bloggy-poo. Thanks for walking me through a tough year!
***Please share this with someone who might need to read it. Thanks!
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