[Author’s Note: This was the longest con. I wrote a memoir of my life throughout the 2010s (with some mild backtracking for context). Much of it eventually ending up on Medium — in scrambled order, in full public view. Today, I present its entirety as one final, exhaustive, impenetrable piece — at long last, in chronological order.
This is the story of a lovesick, anxious, anonymous, unremarkable Rust Belt gutter-punk white-boy who moved from Buffalo to Austin and changed his life —For better? For worse? Perhaps a lot of both? — one essay at a time, and a recap of the lessons he learned along the way.
This is the story that nobody asked for and no one wanted — a colossal, 20-part delusion of grandeur befitting the commemoration of a decade’s end. Will you dare to read it all? Even worse, what if you already have?]
Table of Contents
I. When the Magic Runs Out
II. A Warm Wind
III. How I Got Here
IV. A Brief History of Hypochondria
V. How I Did It
VI. Everything Was Beautiful And All Of It Hurt
VII. Nothing Turns Out How You Think It Will
VIII. A Letter of Resignation
IX. The Machine Becomes Self-Aware
X. The Sea Comes Ashore
XI. A Letter of Celebration
XII. Darkness Falls and Darkness Fades
XIII. How to Change the World
XIV. The Overview Effect
XV. 30 Years of Depression, Gone
XVI. This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things
XVII. How I Became A Writer
XVIII. Be Your Own Hope
XIX. A Letter of Exploration
XX. The End
I. When the Magic Runs Out
“Love you. We’ll do it again soon,” I told her, “only 19 more days!” I’d always been good with numbers, and I knew the countdown by heart. My arms quaked as they wrapped her in an embrace and the E-Train — my train — pulled into Penn Station. We’d just spent all Memorial Day weekend together. Four long, luxurious sunsets in New York that left me breathless and scraping heights no skyline could reach. Again.
“Sure thing.” She kissed me goodbye. I boarded the car. The door slammed shut. I popped my headphones in my ears, with nothing but all the joy and angst and oceanic warmth of romantic bliss flooding my synapses, and let The National’s Boxer serenade me to JFK Terminal 5.
I was hers. She was mine. At long, long last. Lord, I could burst. Sublimate several times over. Hers was the love that never took questions, that never played coy, that never bobbed-and-weaved through mysterious obstacle courses of our minds’ own making. I could write a million pages about her. I’d already penned 674 … but we’ll get to that.
A full seven years before that vignette on the E-Train, I’d been seduced by a spellbinding, pot-smoking, torch-singing wildfire in a sundress. I was 18 … a freshman at Syracuse University. We’d grown cozy over sojourns to the graveyard at night to get high as the moon — conversing in the kind of deep, dark stream-of-epiphany you can glimpse at the age, but never see. She was dazzling, devilish, and disarmingly sexy. Yet she was not my girlfriend … and that was the problem.
My girlfriend, a freshman chemical engineering major at Penn State, had been boring for months: Four of them, in fact. Ever since January 1, 2001, when we swore after having never dated a full year before, despite having dated in parts of four of them before, that we would start and finish this new year together, and potentially beyond.
She would call up and cry about how she thought she might score a C+ or something on a test she’d end up acing. Or drunkenly ramble about how one of her girl friends left her at a party for a finance major with a six-pack. These calls were the least interesting parts of my day. I had better things to do, like take bong rips and make up twee songs on acoustic guitar about whoever stopped by for beer. The woman I’d fallen for would always listen to them. Intently. And harmonize.
I missed passion. I missed desire. I missed intimacy. Not the cold, clinical climax of run-of-the-mill, go-through-the-motions young love. No, the genuine article. The leave-your-cares-in-another-state, make-out-in-the-rain kind of love that doesn’t beg questions or sew seeds of doubt.
We’d spent that summer cooing and canoodling in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Maine. We dropped ecstasy in Lower Manhattan the night before 9/11. And for as wild as we ran, and as bright as we burned, the warmth and glow were comforting, soothing, life-affirming. We’d hold our hands over each other’s hearts to feel them race to a place untraceable on any map. We’d fuck till the sunrise. No, not the morning after … the morning after that.
The other gal? Dumped via phone call on August 1, 2001, 12 hours after ingesting two tabs of acid and three double-stacked igloos, and downing half my weight in Bacardi Limon and Pepsi, while my new flame went down on me in my kitchen.
Serial Monogamy was the name of my punk-band in those days, but it may as well have been my given name. Starting in November of 1997, after a chance run-in with a transfixing oboe player at an All-State band conference, I’d been careening from woman to woman. The oboe player. The basketball player. The better basketball player. The field hockey player. The sax player — who I left at the curb to keep myself available for the oboe player.
I wanted to take her to prom. I traveled two cities down the Thruway to ask her. My mom driving me, to check the box of “it’s okay with me so long as we meet his parents.” I met her parents. She met one of mine. If it was a job interview, I’d have had an offer at 20% over market value before I’d even answered the first question.
Each relationship that ended — until prom, anyway — ended for the same reason: Every woman I’d been with was a distant second. I’d parade around high-school senior year, skipping class and showing friends my real girlfriend. The one I would marry. The one who had the whole of my heart. And they’d always tell me I was lying, and that she looked like one of the pictures that came in the wallet. They stopped saying that when they’d met her.
The student body stopped motion as we walked arm-in-arm. They gazed lustily at us in our own little world, the lionhearted New York dago and his wholesome queen, levitating across the parquet dance-floor of the VFW. It was still shiny. No, we glittered. Joyful tears, diamonds and sparkles cascaded around us.
We’d decided as we approached our college careers that we could never be exclusive. It was just unfair from four hours away.
When I signed her senior yearbook, mere days before we were fated to attend our respective schools, I wrote a scroll that stretched from front to back cover across all available white space. I left it out on her bed and she sobbed as she read. Then she kissed me goodbye. That was that.
I hitched a ride down in September and watched a puka-shelled punk-ass awkwardly undress her with her eyes. I took a Greyhound down in December to join her for a Dave Matthews Band concert. First semester, freshman year, and the only woman on my mind went to another school. I rebuked the advances of mere mortals — except when I was too drunk to say no. Which, I think, only happened twice.
Shiny things didn’t seem so shiny anymore. No flame could burn hot enough to sear me the way she could. Until I met her … a spellbinding, pot-smoking, torch-singing wildfire in a sundress. Turns out no shine is too bright for the right flame to extinguish.
The nuclear fission of our love laid waste to preconceived notions of possibility, perfection and passion. And yet, by January 2002, after a 36-hours-too-long stay at her parents place over break, I’d noticed a shift. The sex, less intense. The future plans left in the past. The calls left unanswered. The cries met with silence.
Each day felt more tenuous, each night more tedious, each weekend together like two days left on the calendar and we couldn’t rub them together to get a spark. By March, we were through. I’d found out through a mutual she’d been seeing someone else for months.
I was devastated. I hadn’t a clue what to do. I’d never been with … no one. For the first time in 52 months, I had no Plan A. I’d drummed in a punk band, and the relentless running and round-the-clock MDMA-ing chiseled my frame, and so I’d had more than my fair share of flings. But they all blended together — a faceless, amorphous sea of monotony. Sex. Dates. Long phone calls over cigarettes. Longer conversations over drinks. Shorter lived than the spark in a wick.
I’d dated again starting in April 2005, to a woman who gave me the option of crashing at her place, carpooling in her BMW and cleaning up from coke, or … you know … destitution. The streets would wait another seven years.
But she was never the right fit. Oh, sure, we had fun — laughed a lot, enjoyed some fine meals together — but something about being accused every six hours of cheating grows tiresome after year 2. Our relationship exploded in a Quick-Fill parking lot on a Thursday afternoon. She rolled up in her car. She cursed me out. I drove away. She chased me. I topped 100 on the Kensington Expressway. She thought better of it. She grabbed what she could from my place. She left the cat. I’d stuck it out way too long. I’d stick out no longer.
I’d always been good with numbers. In July 2007, I learned just how good. I picked up the phone, and dialed a 585 area code. It went straight to voicemail. It went straight to her voicemail.
Now, to be fair, I’d called her a fair number of times over the previous half-decade: Chance meetups for lunch in between pad-hunting in Buffalo and punk-drumming in Utica, a birthday weekend visit, quick treks while she was home on break. But either I wasn’t single, or she wasn’t. My most recent ex hated her, thought we were sleeping together (from five hours away? suspect.), threw my phone over the Falls when this mystery woman had the audacity to dial me. 12 months and two phones later, I remembered how to dial her.
When we finally reconnected for her birthday in New York, April 2008, we were practically insatiable. I cooked her swordfish. She grinded on me while my ex drunk-dialed me, saying she was in New York, too. My other ex — also in New York — was long-since gone, lost in a haze of key-bumps and knife wounds. Neither of them were this woman … they never could be. We made love through misty eyes. We drank wine between the sheets and drank each other beneath them.
I was hers. She was mine. At long, long last. Lord, I could burst. Sublimate several times over. Hers was the love that never took questions, that never played coy, that never bobbed-and-weaved through mysterious obstacle courses of our minds’ own making.
We’d just spent all weekend together. Four long, luxurious sunsets in New York that left me breathless and scraping heights no skyline could reach. My arms quaked as they wrapped her in an embrace and the E-Train — my train — pulled into Penn Station.
As the E-Train arrived, I whispered, “I love you. Only 32 more days.” I knew the countdown by heart. “Oh, and check on your bed. I left you a birthday present.” We embraced, and savored a noir-like train station kiss that lasted the length of a Coltrane vinyl.
“I love you too. 32 days.” She kissed me goodbye. I boarded the car. The door slammed shut. I popped my headphones in my ears, with nothing but all the joy and angst and oceanic warmth of romantic bliss flooding my synapses, and let The National’s Boxer serenade me to JFK Terminal 5.
I could write a million pages about her. I’d already penned 674, printed them, and left them all bound on her bed, along with a diamond necklace I’d procured with the money I got from keeping the receipt on an engagement ring intended for the woman before.
She called me, crying. “I’m reading. Oh my god … it’s us.” Indeed it was. I’d never written before — I was always good at numbers — but when my voice found her voicemail in July 2007, I’d made it a point to prove this time it was different. This time I was serious. This time I wouldn’t dump her 12 hours after ingesting two tabs of acid and three double-stacked igloos, or downing half my weight in Bacardi Limon and Pepsi, while my new flame went down on me in my kitchen.
And so I began to write the unabridged version of the tale I just told you. About the transfixing oboe player, my real girlfriend. The one I would marry. The one who had the whole of my heart. The lionhearted New York dago and his wholesome queen, levitating across the parquet dance-floor of the VFW. The scroll in the senior yearbook. All the kisses goodbye. The puka-shelled punks and Greyhounds to State College. The times when we glittered. The nights she was boring. The chance meetups for lunch in between pad-hunting in Buffalo and punk-drumming in Utica, the birthday weekend visit, the quick treks while she was home on break. All of it. From November of 1997 all the way up to the moment she found the obsessed-over draft strewn about the bed-sheets under which we’d just finished devouring each other.
“I’d happily move here for you … just say the word,” I told her, as we waited for the train the following month.
“You know I can’t ask you to do that,” she said. I could feel her inquisitive gaze grow a second gaze. I soaked myself in it. I wanted to remember. And then I spoke.
“Love you. We’ll do it again soon,” I told her, “only 19 more days!” I’d always been good with numbers, and I knew the countdown by heart. My arms quaked as they wrapped her in an embrace and the E-Train — my train — pulled into Penn Station. We’d just spent all Memorial Day weekend together. Four long, luxurious sunsets in New York that left me breathless and scraping heights no skyline could reach. Again.
“Sure thing.” She kissed me goodbye. I boarded the car. The door slammed shut. I popped my headphones in my ears, with nothing but all the joy and angst and oceanic warmth of romantic bliss flooding my synapses, and let The National’s Boxer serenade me to JFK Terminal 5.
When the magic runs out, and the boredom sets in, that’s when you know what you have. And when you know what you have, you know what you stand to lose. But there’s always another hand being dealt. New cards to play. No two people sit at the same table forever. No one person’s heater lasts even half that long.
Boring isn’t a death-knell … it’s a blank canvas upon which two people can paint their masterpiece. In the colors between moments, in the moments between the diamonds. It’s only depressing if it’s a demand, but all demands are merely just opportunities in disguise.
Sure, you can try and leave boring, but it always finds you, whether you’re cool on the old flame, or blind to the glitz on the sparkler. Pursuing the next new hot shiny thing is like chasing the sun. You can follow it anywhere, still never catch it, yet it always comes back, tantalizing you with its glow.
And when you really, really want or love something but it’s just out of reach, it only matters if where you’re willing to go to meet it is farther from, or closer to, where you ultimately think you want to be. And we’re all terrible judges of what we think we want, and where we think we want to go. Life is long. People change. Detours become the way.
It was July 4, 2008, just shy of midnight, the last time I ever heard from her, some 10 years, 7 months, and 12 days after we first met. I told you I was good with numbers. And to recount her final words, I’d only need to remember just four: “Are you still out?”
She left me on read. How poetic: my final communication to her was my perpetual answer to her, except the one time I said no. For a spellbinding, pot-smoking, torch-singing wildfire in a sundress.
I fell from grace and from the sky. Shiny things didn’t seem so shiny anymore. I’d have other lovers. I’d press pause on more engagement rings. Yet no flame could burn hot enough to sear me the way she could. Not even the last one, who became the first one I’d write about, except for the first one I wrote about.
Those pages are long gone now. She’s long gone now. They all are. Vanished under the gothic sprawl of the New York skyline. Films about favorite characters frozen in Season 4 of a show that hasn’t aged well. Yet those pages still speak.
Had I never been so bound and determined to atone for my greatest mistake — as a lover, and as a man — I would’ve never written my way through to redemption: to learn how to bask in the warm glow of a white screen with nothing but my feelings to keep me company, to wrangle and wrestle with verbs, adverbs, idiom, metaphor and axiom. She left and left words in her place.
When the magic runs out — that’s when the real magic begins. The art of taking what’s left and making it right. The alchemy of rearranging disorder into a new chaotic assembly. Clusters that burst, fracture, fizzle and fade. That’s why I write. I told you this in the beginning — hidden in plain sight. Writing’s my actual love language. It’s how I process. It’s how I rearrange disorder into a new chaotic assembly … and it’s how I met the love of my life: 10 years, 7 months, and 12 days after the last story ended. 10 years, 7 months and 12 days since it began.
It was February 16, 2019, just shy of midnight. That’s the night she picked up the phone, and dialed a 512 area code. It didn’t go to voicemail. It went to a man she’d been reading on Medium.
I said “hello.” It would be 8 hours before our call would end — only because we both had to go to work — and just over two weeks before we’d meet in real life, when she’d say after reading the things I had written, about all the lovers I’d lost, that she knew what she was getting herself into, yet still wanted me anyway.
She’s endlessly fascinating, yet not at all shiny. Ultimately, the best loves are just two people who like each other the same amount, and express it in the exact way the other wants to receive it, without compromising or blurring their senses of self. That’s her. All other words feel superfluous. I could write a million pages about her … I’ll talk about her soon enough. But first, we need to get to that place, to a place where I learn how to bring out the language it takes to properly understand love and life.
No rush. After all, I’d always been better with numbers.
II. A Warm Wind
My friend — one of my best friends — watched me slam my trunk on a cold, wet Christmas Eve at around 2 p.m. It was the last door left to close. We embraced like brothers do. Someone may have said “be well” or “good luck” or “peace out.” But the doors were all closed now. And my friend — an amazing friend — closed the door to his own car and drove off into the winter abyss, back to his girlfriend, his life, his Friday afternoon.
I watched the car drive away. Now it was my turn.
I climbed into the driver seat and spoke a brief soliloquy to my cat, all caged up in her cat carrier with enough food, water and catnip to distract her from the hostage situation, and we meandered down U.S. Route 62 for one last lap around the block before embarking on a solo voyage to my new home of Austin, Texas.
When I next got out of my car, I was at my Nana’s house. It was a home I knew very well. It was my home after home had left me, my home away from home, my home for when I came back home, and my home when home was lost — my centering point. No matter what other faces awaited my arrival, it was the one constant place that endured 28 years of address changes, a rotating cast of characters, ups and downs and hard left turns.
I trudged out of the car that afternoon around 4 p.m., and I unloaded two cardboard boxes of things and memorabilia my mother had stored for years, and carefully set them on the porch, along with a Christmas Card about as eloquent as I could muster at the time.
I rang the doorbell and waited. 10 seconds. 30 seconds. 60 seconds.
I peered inside and thought of all the times from all my years of peering inside that 6″ crack between the door and the doorway where all is transparent, and I traveled back in time, remembering the steadily decreasing heights from which I peered through that crack all the way back to being young, with a vibrant grandfather, my Papa, who when I was born was just a couple decades older than I am now, and younger than my parents currently are. I remember him hiding behind the door panel pretending not to notice us loud kids raising a ruckus, begging to be let in. No such pretending this time. He’s long since gone.
Nobody home. I stared right into that low, dull, wooden kitchen table and through the back window toward the house I was born in — the one directly behind it . I stared through that window into my old kitchen, and my sight refracted through the glass back to when my family was all very much alive, and close, and together.
I looked long and hard. 2 minutes. 3 minutes. And in the freezing cold, I turned away and shuffled off that porch one last time, the way I always did in the winter, whether I was ready to walk back through the backyard to my childhood dwelling, or ride 176 miles back to Utica, where my family moved in the Summer of 1993.
I took one last look at the Christmas Tree in the front window. There would be a Christmas for her. Nana’s daughter and her grandchildren will burst through that front door and unwrap presents in joy. I’ll just look at that front door on my way out and put the car in drive.
I listened to the afternoon sports radio show on WGR, Schopp and The Bulldog — which, if you can avoid listening to them, you probably should, since they’re as bad as a Small City Afternoon Sports Radio Show could be while covering a 4–12 football team and a hockey team that just lost their leading scorer for the season — and remembered. I remembered playoff post-game reports and late-night ESPN radio updates driving home from parties, and commutes to and from work peppered with fatalist football quasi-analysis.
As I crossed into Pennsylvania around 6 p.m., I listened to the eerie crackle and fuzz of the station fading away. Perhaps I should stay for the next segment when they interview that prominent coach of whatever. I hope that interview went well. I didn’t make it that far in the broadcast, because I had to keep moving farther.
Some time around 11 p.m., I called one of my buddies who lived in South Bend, Indiana and let him know I’d be passing through. Earlier in the year, we’d spent some time heckling drunk Notre Dame students while cheering for the wrong team at a football game at the hallowed grounds. He told me he’d have some Absinthe at the ready for me to ring in a very Merry Christmas.
I brought my cat in her carrier into the spare room, and dragged in a change of clothes, and we played some NCAA ’11 and drank Absinthe, and I called my dad to let him know that he’d see me for Christmas the following day.
I didn’t get much sleep at all. By 7 a.m., my cat and I were gone. Split town again. The never-ending Quest For Something More must continue. I thanked my friend for his hospitality and wished him and his family well. And he drove a few miles up the road to Niles, Michigan, to celebrate another Christmas.
I drove past Chicago in a blinding snowstorm and made it to Iowa to visit my dad, his wife and my sister for Christmas. It was comforting to see so many faces I recognized and loved so far away from home. I spent four days in their company, equal parts nostalgia and excitement for what’s to come. We opened presents, ate prime rib, drove a few golf balls at an indoor driving range. I felt at ease and very briefly at home. My mind relaxed. My cat … not so much.
My cat barely picked at her food. She didn’t move much outside her carrier in the spare room. All rooms are spare rooms when they’re not yours.
On the evening of December 28, I left Des Moines, Iowa and headed for St. Louis, Missouri, where I would spend the evening with a friend of mine I’d only briefly met a few months prior — she was the new roommate of a friend I’d met through her former roommate. Another familiar face in an unfamiliar place.
The trip was cold, dark, and haunting. I stopped briefly in the Middle-of-Nowhere-in-Winter town where the American Gothic House stood. I pulled off course through the small village to see it first hand. It was every bit as unimpressive as it was painted to be. It was just the type of cold, creepy thing that really shouldn’t be a must-see when you’re pumping gas in total darkness at some undefined coordinate between home, nowhere, sanity, your destination and your future.
By the time I’d reached St. Louis, it was almost midnight. My friend had just gotten home from a Blues game and wasn’t feeling well, but she offered me a couple beers and let me crash on the couch in her basement.
When I woke in the morning, her mom made me some breakfast — eggs and potatoes and some meat for the road — and I shared some stories with these kind strangers I’d never have the chance to thank again in person. They told me before I left I needed to try some Pizza on The Hill and check out The Arch and Busch Stadium, which I did, since I was there and because how will I justify being in St. Louis and not doing these things, and I didn’t want to get hit by a bus and think, “Shit. I really under-valued the St. Louis Experience.”
It was a cold, grey, sleeting morning. Couldn’t have been more than 40 degrees outside — and a very depressing, mid-life crisis 40 at that.
My friend and I embraced one more time before I hit the road, some time around 11 a.m. on the morning of December 29. As I pulled away from the home, I watched her turn back inside, and continue on with nursing her way back to health and making small talk with her mom and sister.
Missouri is a big state. I mean, it’s technically not that big — not that I am a cartographer or anything — but driving through it felt like driving through the past and into the future.
There were towns called “Sleeper” and hills they called “Ozarks” and a Steak-n-Shake just outside of Springfield where I stopped to grab some lunch because I’d heard of Steak-n-Shake and hadn’t seen anyplace here on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives before. Obviously, the only way you should determine if you should eat someplace is if some bleach-blonde porcupine in a bowling shirt calls it’s proprietor the “Mayor of Flavor-Town.”
As I drove through Missouri, I watched snow-cover dissipate into the past. I watched the cold gradually, resiliently recede until I reached Joplin and within spitting distance of Arkansas.
My mind wandered a lot, as day turned to dusk, and each exit went from being an unknown to a reality to a distant memory faster than my brain could process each. “What if I stopped here? What is life like? How could I be sure?” I felt like I was leaving reality in the dust — reality being just a village on the road to somewhere else.
I stopped for gas after crossing into Oklahoma. This isn’t an important detail ordinarily, however, there’s this feeling you get in your bones that immediately hits you every time you go on vacation somewhere South of home. That first warm and loving caress of nature’s calming breath upon your face. And you take your jacket off because you’re not home anymore. And you let it marinate through your nasal passages and reverberate through your pores.
It was probably in the mid-50s at around 7 p.m. on I-44 in Oklahoma, but it felt like I had just ascended into heaven. I was now officially, purely, finally in virgin territory — in a wilderness far from home. I was a pioneer destined for wherever I chose. A pioneer. With a house cat.
I stopped in Tulsa and downed a short pint of Pyramid Hefeweizen at a downtown bar, me decked out in an Iowa State sweatshirt, peering around in awe at total strangers. I made no talk except “please” and “thank you.” I chuckled under my own breath. When I returned to my car to let the cat out to do her business, she ducked under other cars and I was petrified I’d leave this poor, defenseless creature in Oklahoma alone to die. But we made this journey as a team, and we would complete it as a team. And for 35 agonizing minutes, I kept watch before she eventually returned to me — ready to continue onward and westward. We stopped in Oklahoma City, where a sign greeted us asking if we’d like to exit to U.S. Route 62. Same road as home. Different city that wasn’t home and never would be.
Around midnight, I pulled into an unassuming hotel that only takes cash, in a place called Paul’s Valley, the type of place you’d forget about even if you lived there.
I brought my cat inside and turned on ESPN. I was exhausted, but I could not sleep. This is where it hit me, finally, that I’d willingly and of my own design uprooted my entire existence just because I could. That everything I knew, everything I was, everyone I’d grown up and old with, are now somewhere else. And that I made this journey alone. With a house cat.
Eventually, I dozed off to Neil Everett’s soothing baritone. And life, in those twilight hours of consciousness, briefly regained a somnolent semblance of normalcy. Briefly.
I rose before dawn and drove into Texas. I hit Dallas morning rush hour. These are people going to work on a Thursday. There is routine here. But routine was foreign to me now. My commute is anything but routine.
I stopped at a Starbucks and drank coffee outside on December 30. At 8 a.m. I texted all my friends to taunt them, because I’d never done such a thing before. And yet it was I who was teased, for none of them could join me. Bragging is no substitute for sharing.
I saw a sign: “Round Rock Next 6 Exits.” For the first time, my journey felt like it had a definitive end. I had heard of Round Rock, and knew it was close to where I would settle. I passed an Ikea, where I would one day shop for furniture, because I would need some.
And then came Austin: A land of opportunity. A city of ideas. A place plucked from a short list of six as “The Very Best City To Live In Given The Choice To Live Anywhere — and I Had The Choice To Live Anywhere, except anywhere too expensive.”
I pulled into my new apartment complex just before noon and breathed the morning air. It was 70 degrees and I worked up a sweat lugging my things up three flights of stairs into my empty new home. I dropped off my cat. I dropped off everything that traveled with me — some 500 pounds of streamlined clutter that now came to define my very existence, since it was now all I had.
Now that I’d come that far, it was time for me to go the rest of the way. A gal with whom I’d become friendly, after meeting at an Upstate New York wedding mere months earlier, waited for me in San Antonio, to host me for New Year’s. I grabbed a rose to say “Hello”, and “Thank You,” then made the 80-mile drive down I-35 in insane amounts of traffic to meet her and her friends at a local brewpub.
And when I opened the car door and she came out to greet me, I saw the way her face lit the night sky and it made me as warm as the first breath of fresh air west of Missouri. The car windows in my heart had all been rolled down. And I knew at that moment there’d be a warm, comforting place for me in a cold, isolated pasture. Or at least there would be, for a while, anyway.
I’ve never once retraced my steps backwards. I’ve never been back to Oklahoma. I’ve never returned to St. Louis. I’ve never seen that friend I stayed with. My dad’s long left Iowa. I went to Chicago again in 2017, for wildly different reasons (or, you could argue, for no reason at all). I’ve never returned to South Bend, and my friend who lived there is now gone. I’d driven through Ohio scores of times, but haven’t seen the state since. I haven’t listened to WGR. I’d only returned to Buffalo once — for a wedding. A wedding in another town. Even the gal I met in San Antonio has long since exited stage right. And now, when I see my friends, I see them in New York, or San Francisco, or places where we’ve all largely drifted and collected since the previous decade.
The entirety of the trip, from the bit players to the major scenes, lies mostly dormant, untouched and collecting dust. That life, that thing that happened that led up to this magical quest to somewhere New and Exciting, is crystallized in the back of my mind. Frozen.
In my head, should I ever really return, it will be December 25, 2010 in Buffalo, New York. I’ll be 28 and not 36. I’ll toss back drinks with my pals and stare through that window at my Nana’s house back through time again, back to a time when everything felt so close and the future felt so far away and probably somewhere warm.
And then I turn to my left, right now, present day, and my cat snuggles up with me in my new bed, while I type onto this new computer I got from this corporation I work for that makes computers. I don’t watch much ESPN anymore — or TV for that matter.
This new city is not so new anymore, and these new people aren’t so new anymore, and I have memories and nostalgia and a great job with a daily commute, and places to go and drive golf balls. I’ve made new friends, who I chat with on Facebook and Instagram and WhatsApp, and I can still call my parents when I feel like saying “hey.” And although life is 180-degrees different than it was before, I don’t feel much different. Just a man with new stuff and a new return address.
The old life, the old haunts, the old people and places and things I held dear — they’re growing up, growing old, moving on and moving out. They’ve got their own homes and jobs and friends and kids and families. And their lives are different, and their lives have changed. And I realize I traveled 2,000 miles to not change with them.
We really make a go at this life thing alone, and our every step and every choice are ultimately experiences we can never fully share, no matter who we’re with or where we are at the time. We can’t retrace our steps. We can’t un-see where we’ve already been, and we damn sure can’t travel back through time or skip ahead to the good stuff.
We can only step out of the car every chance we get, let ourselves get overcome with joy and confidence despite the omnipresence of the known unknowns, and the eternal mystery of the unknown unknowns that lie ahead, and smile while we let the wind wash over us like an exfoliating scrub.
And if that wind can’t be familiar, and it can’t be exactly as we always dreamed it would be, or exactly as we remember it … it might as well be warm.
III. How I Got Here
It’s 4 a.m., the poor pharm tech won’t refill my Xanax prescription, and I have a cross-country flight to catch in less than two hours, so I can sit behind a booth in a suit at the Los Angeles Fine Art Show. The event was a cacophonous, panic-inducing mess. I regularly left the Los Angeles Convention Center into the crisp January afternoon to toss back a 24-oz Sam Adams at the ESPN Zone across the street, and catch some fresh air. I was 29 years old. I took home $750 every week. My girlfriend lived four counties away. This was my life — and I hated every waking moment of it.
My boss micro-managed me like I was a piece of Ikea furniture he was trying to put together without instructions. I never worked fast enough for him. I didn’t know enough Photoshop. I didn’t use the right words to speak to his audience.
He was the type of self-important narcissist who’d say things like, “Dark women on covers don’t sell magazines,” and “Is our Graphic Design assistant a lesbian?” and “I let go of anyone who doesn’t abide by Good Christian Values(TM).” He also commissioned a self-portrait for each issue of his art magazine and hung them all over the office which we shared — an attic above a garage that remained unfinished and barely furnished, aside from his executive chair, which could’ve been an easy $5,000 worth of Tuscan Leather. It was enough to drive me to drink. And drink I did.
I would drive 45 minutes from the office in Westlake down 360 to my apartment in North Austin. I would drop off my laptop and proceed to the nearest bar, a Buffalo Wild Wings on the corner of Parmer and I-35. There, I’d drop a Xanax, slam two 24oz. Stash IPAs and stuff my face with a double-order of wings — half spicy garlic, half mango habanero — every night. I’d lived in Austin for 15 months, and my only friend was the bartender I regularly chatted with about music, school, sports and radio. I was closer with the Inside the NBA crew than I was with anyone in the 512 area code.
The bartender was sweet. An ambitious, roaring firecracker who was quick with a quip. She was the kind who sprinkled salt on the app napkin to keep your frosted mug from sticking to it. DJ’d on the side and invited me out to her SXSW showcase at Geisha Room. I’d lived in Austin for 500 days, and it was the first time I’d been invited anywhere by a local, because I always worked from home — or a garage — and never had a hobby.
In early March, through a crippling combination of lifelong immunodeficiency that leaves me susceptible to respiratory infections, poor diet, stress and an inability to deal with it in a healthy way, I became very sick. I called into work and went immediately to the doctor: Stomach acid had leaked into my lungs and caused them to burn up, resulting in pneumonia. In early March, I moved about the world at a glacier’s pace, rarely finding the strength to leave my bed, hacking up motor oil. I called into work a second day. Cancelled a weekend trip. Called into work all of the following week.
When I returned to work on Monday, March 12, I called my sales rep to catch up. Her response: “I’m so sorry.”
— “For what?”
“What [BOSS’s NAME] did to you.”
— “What’d he do?”
“Oh … you don’t know?”
“You should probably talk to him, then.”
I got off the phone and called him. Voicemail. I checked my email and scrolled down to the emails from 3/11/12. I saw, “SUBJECT: NOTICE OF TERMINATION” and closed Outlook. I printed a copy of the email and shoved it in my desk. Too upset to read it. Too scared to tell anyone about it. Thought I could ignore it and try something new.
I called my other boss, a kindhearted sports enthusiast, who had a knack for sales and an affinity for gourmet coffee. He said, “I knew he was going to let you go months ago. But he liked you as a person. He was just waiting for the right time.”
I was now jobless and alone, in an unfamiliar city — free, yet doomed. Liberation through damnation. I popped another Xanax and let SVP & Russillo sing me to sleep in the early afternoon.
When I woke up, I glanced at my phone. It was 4 a.m. again. I now had nowhere to be.
Against the wall lay a dusty Ibanez rare wood guitar I hadn’t picked up and plucked in 15 months.
When I first moved to Austin on January 1, 2011, I had no intention of playing live music in the Live Music Capital of the World(TM). But loneliness is a creeping demon, and I recalled music (and, by extension, booze) as the Great Social Lubricant. I met most of my blood brothers and sisters in my hometown of Buffalo, New York in this exact fashion, so I scoured the Austin Chronicle for Open Mics. I haphazardly selected to hit one that evening at the Red Shed on South Congress, a leisurely 40-minute drive from my North Austin home.
I hacked my way through four songs I remembered writing and playing in my younger years, and then I never played there again. I chatted up the host, and she let me into a secret Facebook group called of people who routinely make rounds on the Austin Open Mic circuit. On that group I found a place called Backroads to strum at on the following night — a Cheers-era bar embedded in a Best Western.
I introduced myself to the host, assuming he’d forget about me and I’d disappear into the ether as just another face in the crowd who drank beer too fast and played songs too slow. After 15 minutes of playing, he pulled me aside and informed me he was starting a new open mic at a bar called Stompin Grounds the following Monday. I made it a point to come, because that was the closest anyone in that city ever came to asking me out on a second date.
So the following Monday, and for each Monday following that, I meandered the 20 minutes down I-35 — an hour in traffic, depending on your luck — to the swanky semi-dive to play a few tunes and guzzle some Dogfish Head. It was here I met kindred spirits: grizzled veterans, soul singers, sensitive songwriters, hipsters, hippies, drunks, brawlers. And as I kept coming back, I began to realize something unexpected — these people were beginning to like me, and I began to feel a little less lonely.
I noticed myself opening up. An unfamiliar city became more familiar. Tamable. The group traveled as a roving band of raconteur rogues to each other’s shows, buying each other shots and doing the kinds of carefree, irresponsible things that young adults do when they’re allowed to party for free and in some cases paid to drink all their Fireball. Within three months, we were as tight a bunch as a group of goofballs could be with each other in such a short period of time. I imagine the music helped. I imagine the drinks did, too.
I began scheduling my days around Open Mics. Sundays were Baker Street. Mondays were Skinny’s and then Stompin Grounds. Tuesdays were Rusty’s — oddly, both a country line-dance bar and a gay bar, which made for interesting mix of clientele). Wednesdays were Backroads. Thursdays were Flipnotics. All of those haunts have since closed, replaced my condos and luxury hotels, as so much of Austin has become indistinguishable from Dubai.
One night in June, a couple of us went over to a friend’s pad to wish her Happy Birthday. We guzzled a couple beers, Hoovered a Tres Leches cake, smoked several bowls and watched Louie. (Oh, 2012.) I passed out on the the couch. Content.
When I awoke, I pulled out of the apartment and drove up South Congress to find my car had run out of gas. Undeterred, I grabbed my gas can and meandered up the street about 400 yards to a pump where I inserted my card, and I got the dreaded “See Cashier” euphemism for “Fuck Off.”
I logged into my bank app to check my balance. It was negative. Of course it was: because that whole “unemployed” thing. Shit. That day, I called my old 401K provider to try for a hardship withdrawal. I’d have enough to subsist and be safe for two months, but I was still running out of time.
A bastion of truth, Craigslist ain’t. In my life, precisely two help-wanted ads on the much-maligned marketplace piqued my interest. The first was sent to me in 2007, saying “Aspiring Sportswriters Wanted.” The second was forwarded to me in 2011, saying “Dream Job: Writers Wanted.”
I had never been paid to write, but I fancied myself a scribe from time to time, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to test the waters. The first ad turned into a four-year partnership with a couple of fellas that turned into NCAA Press Passes, four million pageviews, links from sites like Deadspin, ESPN and SI.com, and several life-long friendships.
The second turned into freelance demand gen copy for one website, followed by an ignominious exit while I was struggling to breathe without coughing up shards of lung — right around the same time I was being ejected from my attic office I shared with Tyrannosaurus Boss.
I struggled to find additional writing work with such a small, specialized portfolio, but a friend of mine contacted me and asked me if I’d be willing to come aboard to his sports website and write some freelance columns for cold hard cash. Would I ever.
My first month … I wrote three columns per day and I was given daps by Desmond Howard and retweeted by Mark Cuban. For my prolific gift of gab, I made $11. Then they assigned me to write a slideshow of the “20 Hottest Female Volleyball Players.” No thanks, I’m good.
In the interim, I applied to some 150 jobs in the Austin area ranging from Environmental Surveyor to Marketing Coordinator and none so much as even granted me an interview. Time was running out. The Bills were mounting up. My credit was taking a swan dive. Where left to turn when there’s spiked walls on three sides? The only place left to go for hope and help when you’re hopeless and helpless.
To say I felt filthy walking into a Loan Star Title Loans, in the baking hot Austin summer as demons sizzled inside me, is a fantastic understatement. I’d been inexcusably broke for years — come on, John, you’re a white man in his prime in the United States, you have all the cheat codes — but true financial ruin is a reprehensible feeling that leaves you with a nagging lump the size of a grapefruit in your throat and a football-sized knot in your stomach. You don’t choose this path down the spiral, essentially taking out a second mortgage on your car at an APR of 500%+, as anything but as a desperate attempt to circumvent the gallows.
The lights inside of the office are dim, barren. Pictures of smiling people line the walls like those old print cigarette ads where everyone’s “Alive with Pleasure.” They said something like, “Get the cash you need today. Take your life back.”
I sheepishly borrowed $1,000 to get me through until my check from my 401K cash-out cleared in 7–10 business days, but 7–10 days later, that check never came.
I called a former employer — not my previous employer, but the one previous to that as I’d barely been at my last job long enough to roll over — to assess where my 401K check was.
“We are switching 401K providers, so we’re in a 30-day blackout period,” replied the man who replaced me at that company. “Don’t worry. Your money is safe.” The blackout period came and went.
In the meantime, I needed to re-up my title loan and take out additional toxic money from a shady joint called EZ Money, to cover the cost of bills and pay for Advair — essentially the lung drug that keeps me alive — without medical insurance, a $300 per month endeavor, which is roughly an extra car payment if you owned the kind of car I had. In the month of June, I’d borrowed $2,500 in this way to pay rent, phone, Internet, electricity and the cost of gas for attempting to maintain a facade with my girlfriend at the time that everything was just totally Business-As-Usual-Nothing-To-See-Here and I could totally afford to keep traveling to San Antonio to visit her every weekend.
July’s rent was due. I called my old employer for my 401K again. My voice trembling, and I was losing my tenuous grip on a world that was beginning to swallow me whole. He said, “Let me check on this for you and get back to you.” Crickets.
It went on like this a while: A cat-and-mouse game of telephone-tag that became increasingly feverish, fervent and desperate on my end — and increasingly evasive, apathetic and lazy on his. I knew I’d be late with rent. I called my landlord to let them know this. He said, flatly, “We can’t wait.”
I applied to another 20 jobs or so and even sat down for an interview at the Buffalo Wild Wings I drank at regularly. Crickets. More restaurants. More crickets.
On July 17, my landlord filed for eviction due to unpaid back rent. That day, i also received an auspicious phone call. I picked up.
- “Hi, John! This is the owner from Austin School of Real Estate! I saw you saw our Craigslist ad and applied for our Marketing Director position! We’d love to have you in for an Interview!”
We scheduled a sit-down for July 24 — the day I was also scheduled to move out to avoid going to court. I began packing my things to move them into an air-conditioned storage unit a couple miles down the road. Perhaps I could crash there for a week or so while I waited for a paycheck. No one would have to know how big of a fuck-up I was.
I walked into the interview and wowed the man with grand ideas, quick wit and impeccable taste in ties. He hired me within 45 minutes. He asked me to email him within 48 hours with a start date and my total compensation at my last position. I did exactly that within 48 minutes. I believe the entire text of my email, beyond the requisite “Thank you for this opportunity. I am looking forward to it” was something to the tune of “50K. I can be free next Monday.” And then I went right back to moving out of my place.
The open mic host from Stompin Grounds was kind enough to drive up and help me pack up my things to move them into the storage unit. I joyously thought to myself, “I am just now beginning to find my way here. I’ve got a job. I’ve got friends. I’ve got my music and my social circle. I’ve got a 401K check coming. I’ve got a short reprieve from bills. Everything’s going to be alright. I just need to get through these couple weeks.” I checked my email that evening. Crickets.
I packed up my cat from my old place and packed her in her carrying case with some kibble. I was going to spend the night in San Antonio with my girlfriend after playing one last Stompin Grounds open mic. I played two songs and sang as hard as I could, for although I assumed I’d be back soon, if I’d learned anything from the past couple months, it was that no luxury is guaranteed. A lot of friends glad-handed me and even kindly offered to send me off proper with a couple rips off a one-hitter and a shot. I then made the 70-mile drive to San Antonio and waited for Austin School of Real Estate to confirm my start date.
July 25. July 26. July 27.
I called each day and left voicemails. Crickets.
A bastion of truth, Craigslist ain’t. This job I was offered; this position for which I’d been hired; I was reneged and worst of all the gutless prick didn’t have the cojones to call me and tell me.
Now I needed to grow some cojones. What began as an inexcusable situation manifested itself into indefensible behavior, as I now needed to let my girlfriend know I wasn’t in town on some kind of summer vacation. She didn’t deserve that. No one deserves that kind of surprise sprung on them. Not after months of not illuminating the darkness of my circumstances. Blackout period, indeed. If only I could black it out.
Money isn’t power. Money is options. And options are very, very powerful. Conversely, a lack of options? Well, let’s just say San Antonio isn’t a prison — it’s actually a pretty nice town — but it sure felt like prison to me.
If you ever want to feel inferior and incapable of guarding yourself against the oncoming evils of this world and the human spirit, try living as long as you possibly can without earning one cent — that’s my privilege talking, clearly, people do it, particularly people who don’t have all the cheat codes. Try explaining to people in a city you’re “just visiting” why you’re suddenly available all the time, but unwilling to initiate plans to go on a trip or out to a bar. Try to escape every interaction with upper middle-class white people with a nebulous, “Yeah, man, we should hang out more.” You should be on their level. You should be running the race at their speed.
My gal and I would go out to lunch. I’d order a couple of baja fish tacos and a chocolate chip cookie. We’d reach the register. [Me, whispering at a barely audible level] “Hey, ummm … c-c-could you, uhhh … m-”
Try to stare directly into the resigned sigh of the one who loves you, so subtle as to feign stoicism, as she reaches into her wallet and passes you her credit card from her hand to yours, so your self-loathing, self-serving ass can still pretend to feel like you paid for the both of you.
Try to answer to her friends, her parents and her colleagues when they ask, “So, what are you doing?” Or, when they observe, “So, you’ve been around a lot lately.” Try to do it without kicking rocks. Or holes in walls. Or without therapy. Again, people do it all the time. Particularly people without all the cheat codes.
Some mornings I would drive her to work, and spend the rest of the morning hijacking the free Wi-Fi at EZ’s — a 50’s themed responsibly-sourced burger joint on 281 and Bitters — ordering a single iced coffee with change dug out of the car-seats, and applying to somewhere between five and seven jobs, writing two to three sports columns and making all your business calls, like, “business” like trying to figure out where the fuck your blacked-out 401K money went and staving off debt collectors without screaming in public.
I’d run to her house and take a quick lunch break. A single egg with a wedge of laughing cow and a half-handful of spinach, hoping she wouldn’t notice, because I was too ashamed to eat all her groceries.
Afternoons, I’d put on decent clothes and parade around to San Antonio restaurants where I’d fill out applications looking for some work to tide me over. They’d without fail look at my sparkling resume (I have seven years of serving and bartending experience! And a college degree!) and politely decline. I guess the market for a pudgy, balding 29 year-old professional who isn’t local and could leave at the drop of a hat for an opening at corporate HQ isn’t the thing to look for in the restaurant biz.
I’d pick her up from work. I’d cook dinner and do dishes. She’d go to sleep and I’d lay on the couch awake. Thinking, “Austin. I have to go back. I need to prove I can do this. I need to prove I can ‘adult’ on my own.”
My girlfriend had connections in San Antonio and probably could’ve found me a gainful position with a moderate salary and decent benefits at any agency/firm/non-profit/company in the city, but that life would not be mine. Not that it even was anymore. I never once asked for a referral. I never once swallowed my pride.
On the sixth day of “JobApplicapalooza2012: San Antonio,” July 30, a friendly voice emerged from an email.
“ Hi John and thanks for your inquiry on where we are with this job search — Job #99087.
We have passed on pursuing your application because the client is adamant about the candidates having current and/or recent writing work experience for the high tech industry.”
Desperate, but not yet defeated, I replied:
I’m curious as to how my application didn’t convey recent writing work experience and marcom in the high tech industry, as I did plenty of it up until 2011 (for Cisco, no less).
She called me the next day. In an unusual twist, I felt completely confident talking to her about my situation, my qualifications and my enthusiasm for the job.
I am glad we discussed this position earlier. I look forward to your short description detailing some of your work so I can submit your presentation today.
I wrote back 20 minutes later:
Thank you so much for giving me a call today. Great discussion! As promised, here are some bulleted items that should give you an idea of my experience.
- Projects include: Email blasts, web content, blogs, SEO, PDF brochures, PPT, fact sheets (At-a-Glances), KMO (Statement of Marketing Strategy), social media, full campaigns, event materials (trade show collateral / event promotions / takeaways and leave-behinds)
I meant to ask if you could please provide some work writing samples? I have your sports column attached but they will want work samples. Darn, I forgot to ask you while I had you on the phone when you rung me up.
Could I? I sure could.
Please check the attached word documents I have for some tech-ish/sales writing, and then for an even broader scope of what I have, check out these three sites I created myself, including:
Lead-Generating Website for Financial Services Corp.
Promotional Website for Media Company
Informational Website for Annual Travel Event
Press Release for Media Company Event
And, also, some PDF promotional materials (attached as PDFs).
Boom. I got this.
August 2. August 3.August 4. August 5. August 6. August 7:
This copywriter role requires big agency dedicated writing experience. I’m sorry, but again, this one does not seem to be a fit but I did alert my colleague to your application.
Keep up the search John–
I wrote back in 20 minutes. Again.
I appreciate the feedback. Sorry I don’t appear to be a good fit! I am wondering what I can do to somehow convey to your client that I have the skills and passion to do the job effectively, since apparently it’s not showing in either my resume, my cover letter or any of my previous writing work. Thanks for your help!
August 8. August 9. August 10. August 11. August 12. August 13.
“Hi John, this is [REDACTED] from [REDACTED]! I got your information from a recruiter who says she’s been working with you, and I was wondering if you had some time to come in for an interview on Wednesday for a copywriting position.”
— Of course!
“Great! We’ll see ya then.”
And on Wednesday I drove 70 miles from San Antonio to Austin, and for the first time in three weeks, I felt free. I arrived at the office, and we chatted about being in bands, the writing process, the silliness of their culture and the greatness of the city of Austin. I saw the only shred of hope I could reasonably cling to. I drove 70 miles back to San Antonio that afternoon. After, of course, stopping to send a quick note of thanks.
The following day, he sent me an email:
Our onsite manager at [INSERT GIANT CORPORATION NAME] would like to meet you Wednesday [8/22] at 10am.
Ho. Ly. Shit. Now I *have* to get this job. No pressure.
I kept up my routine of applying to other jobs, leaving voicemails in vain for the man holding my 401K hostage and trying to ward off increasingly displeased debt collectors with a stick.
August 22 came and I drove the 85 miles up to just north of Austin, to the company HQ. The glass buildings and tall ceilings were unlike anywhere I’d ever worked. There were soft chairs and couches where one could wait. I wore a tie. It was 90 degrees outside but I didn’t start to sweat until I got into the air conditioning.
A meet-and-greet was had. It lasted nearly 30 minutes. I made them laugh and dropped old writing samples, clips, resumes, letters of recommendation and a cover letter that could’ve ended World War II.
“We’ll let ya know.”
August 23. August 24. An email.
Sorry no news yet. I will almost certainly have an update for you Monday. Have a good weekend. Enjoy it with the knowledge of the fact that you probably will get a job offer from me, and even if you don’t, you will still TOTALLY ROCK!
Please, stop teasing me you sweet, beautiful sonuvabitch.
August 27. A bulletin.
I am excited to officially offer you the position of Copywriter onsite at [INSERT CORPORATION].
Your start date would be September 17, 3 weeks from now.
It had been 31 days since I’d applied to this company. 34 days since I’d been kicked out of Austin. I’d just earned my ticket back. I couldn’t wait to begin apartment hunting. I had visions of stocking my place with my own groceries, eating fresh food, sleeping in my own bed, spending a sunset running around Town Lake, unearthing and reuniting with all my worldly possessions from storage. Pure, unadulterated, undistilled joy.
On September 10, one week before I was due to start at my first real full-time writing job, I drove 70 miles from San Antonio to Austin for orientation. I completed all the requisite forms and shook my recruiter’s hand.
That afternoon, I started to drive the 70 miles back from Austin to San Antonio when I realized I didn’t have enough gas to make it. I begged and pleaded with the gas station attendant to let me have $5 worth of free gasoline because “I was so far from home.” After 10 or so minutes of desperation and obnoxious white-boy entitlement, he obliged and I graciously thanked him. I loaded up and made it the rest of the way home to greet my gal home from work with dinner. I could rest.
One hour later, a storm was gathering outside. I was crying for the first time in years. On the floor of a home that wasn’t mine. 85 miles from where my future lay in wait. Completely powerless and out of options. I had just watched my 2009 Hyundai Sonata get loaded onto a tow truck. My car had been repossessed.
Through the grace of my girlfriend, who let me borrow her credit card, I was able to secure a rental for the week, so I grabbed something roomy with leather seats and tinted windows to protect against the harsh Texas sun.
On the morning of September 17, 2012, a clean-shaven, freshly-showered 29 year-old college graduate walked inside the shiny glass exterior of one of the largest companies in the world to start his new career as a copywriter.
On the evening of September 17, 2012, a clean-shaven, dizzy-headed 29 year-old college graduate walked outside the shiny glass exterior of one of the largest companies in the world to a maroon 2011 Jeep Liberty. I had nowhere else to go.
I wandered to a nearby Wal-Mart parking lot by the Buffalo Wild Wings I used to drink at, back when I had a spare dollar to my name. I saw similar cracked faces of broken people. People who were meandering up to frenzied shoppers asking for dollars and cents. I wondered what separated people like me from people like them.
I drove some 20 miles south while the sun was still lit to see my friends at the bar I played at. It was a welcome return after a seven-week absence that felt like six months. Everyone was still in fine form and folks were asking me how I was doing and what I’d been up to and usual small chit-chatty stuff and then they’d circle to “Where do you live?”
— “I’m staying with a friend. For now.”
Brief periods of normality surfaced from an abyss of aimless haze. A laugh with a friend. A strum of a guitar. I said my goodbyes and wandered back to that parking lot. It was still now. Vacant. Occasionally a drifter would surface down the sidewalk. Walking from god-knows-where to only-god-knows-where. I’d lock the car doors. What separates me from people like them?
My dad, who didn’t have much money himself, offered me $100. I gritted my teeth and took it. I had to make the money last until September 28. I ate a lot of fruits and vegetables. I ate a lot of imaginary food.
I had hung up my week’s attire onto the hanger-bars of the Jeep. I had a laundry basket of assorted belongings in the trunk. I had a spiral notebook and a Gita in the passenger seat. I lived simply — but not peacefully.
Some people claim there’s a kind of Zen-like calm that comes from being reduced to only what you are, from only your core essential being. That thing never arrived. I was restless as hell.
The nights were steamy. I was torn between letting fresh air through drawn windows and baking to death in the safety of a completely locked car with blacked-out tint. I charged my wireless at an AT&T Store in the adjacent plaza. I brushed my teeth and washed my face in the morning at the restroom of the H-E-B down the street from where I worked. Occasionally, someone would barge in on me in a bathroom stall. Life.
On Saturday, September 22, I received a surprise phone call from my mom.
“You owe me big time.”
— “For what?”
“For getting your stupid car out of hock.”
I was befuddled. I never asked her to do this. I never wanted her to do this. I cannot remember giving her my banking information. And I couldn’t even afford to drive to San Antonio to grab my car until the Friday, September 28. Payday. I looked around at the drifters and panhandlers. The answer was becoming more clear.
After spending 11 nights holed up in a parking lot, September 28 arrived. I was finally able to breathe, with enough money to fix myself a proper meal and drive back down to San Antonio to visit my girlfriend. For the first time in weeks, I rang up my debit card that morning for a coffee and a banana. Declined.
I called my payroll to ask what had happened. I tried hard to keep it together and not let on that I absolutely, positively needed this money in the worst possible way.
“I guess it didn’t go through on the first round. Maybe next pay cycle it will take. We can cut you a paper check in a couple days.” I called my bank. The account was closed due to excessive negative balance and inactivity. I walked into a Wells Fargo and opened up what’s called an “Opportunity Checking” and deposited $17. I blew $15 of it on gas to get to San Antonio for the weekend. I had $2 left. The following day, I meandered over to the impound in a remote corner of San Antonio that no Texan knows exists, and was able to take my car back free and clear the day before it would’ve went to auction.
On Sunday, September 30, I was thrown a surprise party by my girlfriend and her friends. It was amazing afternoon — one I can barely recall beyond 4 p.m. I drank partially because I was turning 30 in three days. I drank partially because the New England Patriots hung 45 second-half points on the Buffalo Bills. I drank mostly because just for a day, I wanted to forget what I was going back to. Another night in a car. People smiled and congratulated me and bought me bottles of whiskey which I vowed not to drink until I had a place of my own again.
On Monday, October 1, I starved myself. I had zero money for food and wandered the streets of Round Rock looking for change from anyone who would give me the time of day. I had to change out of an Oxford and slacks and into a scrubby t-shirt and cargo shorts to pass for, well, homeless. Later that evening, a friend called and offered to buy me tacos.
On Tuesday, October 2, at 12:37 a.m., I checked my bank balance because by this point it’d become a nervous habit, and something I did a million times a day. $830.
The fuck? I looked at it again. $830. Three digits. I looked at the transaction history. My unemployment benefits finally arrived.
I drove to the Hampton Inn next to where I worked and asked for a room. They said that had one left. “It’s a smoking room. Is that alright?”
Hell yes, it’s alright. I took a warm shower. I bought a bottle of ice-cold water out of the vending machine. I ironed my outfit for a Tuesday at work.
By 1:45, I was fast asleep. At 8:15, I woke more refreshed than I’d been in weeks. I drove to work and on my lunch hour I drove to my payroll office where I picked up my paper check they promised to cut. I cashed it at the issuing bank and deposited the cash in my new bank account.
That evening, I drove down to San Antonio where I was taken out to dinner by my girlfriend at one of the nicest restaurants I can remember eating in where I didn’t need to wear a sport-coat. We fell asleep in each other’s arms just after midnight watching “The Fifth Element.” Happy 30th Birthday, John Gorman.
What separates me from the drifters with whom I shared a parking lot for nearly three weeks? Two things:
- The cheat codes. My privilege.
- I have people who believe in me. From my mother grabbing my car out of the pokey, to my father gifting me money for grub, to my friends offering me a place to chill and be normal, and hell, even the people who brought me aboard my new job. I had people who believed in me. And I know that makes me lucky, and reinforces point №1.
The greatest thing you can do for someone in this world, beyond any tangible metric, is believe in them. When you offer love, money, support, time or advice, what you are really saying to the other person is, “I believe in you.”
And if you receive those gifts from someone, you be sure to hold onto that belief as long as you can, because it’s fleeting and fragile unless you come through spectacularly. The easiest way to get ahead in life is to ensure other people hope that you do. The world’s desire — however you define it — to see us succeed what separates us all from wandering around a Wal-Mart parking lot, sleeping on a sidewalk and holding our worldly possessions in a laundry basket. For whatever reason, people wanted to see my succeed.
On the morning of October 4, 2012, I drove 85 miles from San Antonio to Round Rock, to start my last two days of work for the week. That zen-like calm I was talking about finally arrived.
I made it 30 full years without ever being offered crack. I was walking into Room 415 — my Room 415 — of a dingy Red Roof Inn on the corner of 35 and Rundberg. The kind of hotel with cigarette burns on comforters in non-smoking rooms. The kind of hotel where displaced people live with their three cats. The kind of hotel where depressed and divorced men go to hang themselves from their ties.
“Ayo, son!” Said a passing stranger in the corridor. He seemed harmless enough. Solidly middle-aged. Possibly a construction worker in ripped up denim and a T-shirt stained by sweat and paint. I had a habit of saying hello to everyone if they said hi first. So I did.
We made awkward small talk. The type where you try and twist your legs away to subtly suggest you’re out of words but the other party clearly isn’t. I told him I was in town on business. He asked what my business was. I told him “marketing.”
“Well, hey, if you’re down to party later, I’ve got some ladies coming over to 403. Got some beers. Some herb. Some rock. If you’re down with all that.”
I gave him four words: “I work early tomorrow.” I walked the long way around the building, so he didn’t see which room I was staying in. I didn’t want him knocking, crack in palm, knife or gun in pocket.
It went on and on like this, for several weeks. I stayed in various rooms at this dive for $32.99 per night, four nights per week. Each room got 12 channels, of which thankfully ESPN was one. I watched a lot of football (NFL on Mondays, college on Tuesdays and Thursdays) and ordered a lot of takeout, sampling Austin approximations of various Asian countries’ cuisines.
Sometimes, I would roll up into the Buffalo Wild Wings across the street, where to my surprise, the bartender from the old joint several blocks north — my first friend really in the whole damn city — had relocated. She was pleased to make my acquaintance again, but I never told where I was staying. Only what I was doing.
Hotel life has its subtle charms: A housekeeper brings you fresh towels and makes your bed each day for you. No kitchen means no dishes to clean. On-site laundry for emergencies. A vending machine for whatever sugary soda suits your fancy. Peace and quiet, tucked away from the mayhem of home life, at least when the meth junkies and gangbangers aren’t busy roaming the halls like zombie bears. Small things.
At work, I was performing well and catching on fast — outworking and out-hustling all previous iterations of myself (I developed a reputation at nearly every previous job of being pokey and lackadaisical, and the place that canned me unceremoniously in March sited that lethargy as the definitive reason, and so I made it a point to basically be the 2004–05 Phoenix Suns of copywriting) — though I had trouble making friends at work immediately. It’s hard to project an aura of confidence and “I’ve-got-my-shit-figured-out-ness” when literally everything you are outside of your 9-to-5 is some of the slummiest scum you’ve ever been.
I ate in my car a lot, and listened to 104.9 The Horn on my lunch hour. Many of my lunches consisted of a handful of spinach, an apple, a banana and a Topo Chico.
I spent each payday evening swinging by the old title loan and payday loan haunts I once ripped for all they were worth to keep myself afloat. Now that I had started earning money again, they decided to come collect — and collect they did. The interest on the loans I’d borrowed were nearly half my paycheck. Every two weeks, I lit over $700 on fire. That money could’ve gone to an engagement ring for my girlfriend. Or a vacation. Or a 401K.
Ah, yes. A 401K. Perhaps one with an endless blackout period. After repeated emails and calls to my old employer, my old 401K provider and, eventually, the California Department of Labor’s investigations division, the process started to get unstuck from its glacial freeze.
Some time around Halloween, I got an email from a west coast company saying they were the new guardians of my retirement fund, and they understood I no longer worked for the company, and they asked me if I wanted to roll the funds over into my new 401K. I hadn’t worked at [ULTRA LARGE LOCAL TECH GIANT] long enough to have one yet, so I told them I just wanted to take a check. They said it’d be there in 7–10 business days, because of course they did.
On November 8, 2012, after a particularly brutal cycle of toxic debt hell, I’d been reduced to a negative balance in my bank account. I made a bet that by this point, my check from my 401K had to be in my P.O. Box. It had been 10 days. So one night, after work, I drove — without telling my girlfriend at the time — to San Antonio in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, I’d be able to escape this hell on the wings of a nighttime moonshine run in a 2009 Hyundai Sonata. I’m pretty sure I did some 94 in a 75 the whole way down I-35.
When I reached the mailbox, heart racing, I ran into the post office and reached box 700453. I put my key in.
I shuffled through letters. Speedy Cash offer of $50 off. ValuPak. A couple unfamiliar envelopes. Several, in fact.
Collections. Collections. Oh! A commission check from sportswriting netting me a cool $93. Saving that! And then … crickets. Fuck.
I sauntered back to the car and haphazardly turned the keys in the ignition. And I began to cry the most uncontrollable, ugly tears on record. I sounded like wookie on a meth bender. I screamed bloodcurdling screams of sinful, mournful, unchecked rage. Curses and cacophony and all. I pounded the dashboard of my car so hard I made myself bleed. I threw myself against the window head-first and knocked it off its track. And then I cried some more.
Fuck this whole life and this world and my own stupidity and ego and pride and rage and clinging to false hope that at some point everything as promised and deserved will be laid out on a silver platter and why on Earth can’t I just catch a break and how the hell am I going to find a warm bed of my own and who are these hacks who have lives so breathtakingly easy who can’t possibly be as talented or as hard-working or as lucky as I’ve been why me why me why and when will I ever buy a three-bedroom colonial marry my girlfriend in Belize have cute little rascals who play soccer in a goddamn yard I’m 30 years old and I’ll be dozing in my car tonight and this hell-on-earth will remain until it freezes over and I die from hypothermia and my soul goes directly to real live atheist fire-and-brimstone-and-anal-rape-with-a-hair-dryer hell
I took the $93 and ran to H-E-B to cash it, dropped $20 in the gas tank and lugged the remaining $73 to Austin, where I tried, in vain, to grab a room that was cash only. I looked in some of the seediest parts of Austin — at the kinds of places where gunfire and fifths of MD 20/20 were just another Tuesday. Places without signs.
Even these bastions of calm wouldn’t open their doors to me without putting a hold on my debit card I could not afford. I drove to the Wal-Mart parking lot. I reclined the driver’s side seat. I never closed my eyes.
The following day was Friday, and payday, so it was a regular day for visiting Loan Star Title Loans and E-Z Money to fork over half my paycheck, and then drive down to San Antonio telling my baby I had to “stay late at the office.”
Before stopping to visit my ladyfriend, I made a quick pit stop back at the mailbox — just in case. I reached the mailbox, heart racing, I ran into the post office and reached 700453. I put my key in.
One envelope. Unlabeled. I opened it. One check. For $4,256. And I unleashed a grin that stretched from Round Rock to San Antonio. A 30-day blackout period that lasted from April until November. Just over seven months.
It’s time to get my goddamn life back.
When I walked into my future home, I knew it immediately. Open kitchen. Gray spackle walls. Glass-top stove.
The location? Unbeatable. Dozens of restaurants within walking distance, as well as a Walgreen’s, an organic grocery store, four independent coffee shops, a doctor’s office, a dentist’s office, a bank, bike trails, the best pizza in the city and a couple surprisingly classy sports bars. I’d died and ascended to White People Nirvana.
I mulled it over just to be safe, and on November 19, I pulled the trigger and walked in to sign the lease. Two full months worth of rent’s cash on hand.
“There appears to be a problem.”
“You’ve been blacklisted. You owe money to your old apartment complex.”
— “Oh! For what?”
“I can’t see that. You’ll have to call them.”
I frantically rushed out of the leasing office and gave a call. Closed for the day. I needed to call back. I needed to come back.
The following day, I called the old apartment complex, who referred me to a collection agency, who referred me to another collection agency, before I could get a concrete answer. The total damage was $2,900. I negotiated down to $2,100. I needed to wait for the agency to fax a “paid in full” receipt to the new apartment complex. Tick. Tick. Tick.
On Wednesday, November 21, I dropped $1,250 to my new apartment complex and signed a lease for a December 1 move-in. I drove to San Antonio to celebrate Thanksgiving with my girlfriend. She was headed to New York the following weekend with her family, and I would be trucking my things from her place and my storage unit into the new pad.
When I returned to Austin, I spent my final week at the dirty Red Roof Inn in what they straight-faced called me their “Presidential Suite.” A multi-room, 600 square-foot monster that included a flat-screen TV and a king bed, and was completely gated off from the rest of the hotel. They offered it to me as a way of saying “Thank you” for my loyal patronage.
Seven weeks I spent there. Three more before that spent sleeping in a car. I had started my job 75 days ago. 75 days dodging drunks, druggies, deadbeats. 75 days of lamenting every circumstance and happenstance. And they would all be over.
I received my keys on Friday, November 30 — a day early. I drove home on lunch and picked up the keys to my new place. I still remember the way the jingled in my hands as I cuffed them to the carabiner I carry my car keys on. I ran through the parking lot and down the sidewalk to N220, twisted the doorknob and walked in. The power was on. The A/C blowing cool, dry, fresh air against my face. The kitchen and bathroom were spotless and the carpet smelled of lavender and steam-cleaner. I took off my backpack, threw a four-pack of Dogfish Head Punkin in the fridge to cool it down. I reached into my bag and grabbed the 750 of Glenlivet 15 Year French Oak I got on my 30th Birthday, unscrewed the cap and grabbed a rocks glass I’d been stashing in my backpack for just this occasion.
I sat on the carpeted floor of an empty apartment, on my work’s lunch hour, and I sipped straight single-malt scotch as the sun bled through the glass door leading to my balcony, reaching me for the first time in months to tickle my face with warmth instead of heat. And for 30 minutes, I just leaned against the wall motionless. No Facebook posts. No texts. No phone calls. No movement. Just let me have this. Please, God, let me have this.
At five-o-clock, the air-conditioner shuts off at [CORPORATION NAME], an auditory cue that your workday is done and to GTFO. I bounded from my chair and zoomed to my new place, where I again laid on the floor, this time clutching an ice-cold Dogfish Head Punkin in my fist and periodically raising it to my lips to remember what it tastes like to drink something for the sake of pleasure rather than just drowning my sorrow. It tasted much different. It was all different now.
6 p.m. I uncapped my bottle of Xanax and cackled as I dumped the remaining pill and a half into the toilet, while my gal boarded a cross-country flight, as I sat on a balcony overlooking a pool in the setting sun of a gorgeous Austin evening. This was my life. I was 30 years old. I took home $875 every week. This was my life — and I loved every waking moment of it.
I am now single. I could no longer live with the damage I did to the woman I loved when I essentially blindsided her with a “By the way … I’m broke.” I wanted to love her yet had nothing to offer, and the dynamic changed irrepressibly for the worse. I knew it. I think deep down she did, too.
Perseverance takes courage, sure, but sometimes it’s just ego and entitlement. I think I’ve been both blessed and cursed with both.
They’re what keep you from flailing your arms for a life-raft when you’re drowning in the middle of the ocean, because you think you can swim to a shore you can’t see. In life, we don’t get what we earn and we sure as hell don’t get what we deserve. We get what people give us.
I worry to all holy hell that this can all be taken away from me again. I shudder to think about what I’ll become again when all this beauty goes away again. It’s a mental scar I’m not sure will ever fully heal, and so I try to outrun it as if it’s not a part of me.
I hope I can make a difference the way other people made a difference for me. For I would’ve never made it without the generosity of others, their willingness to take a risk on an unproven and unstable commodity, a man who thought that with just one second chance he could make the most of it, and turn it into something tangibly valuable for the rest of the world.
I didn’t deserve this, or earn it, or ask for it. But I did work for it, persist at it, and take it. I have to hold these competing thoughts in my head — that this is simultaneously both a story about my darkest impulses and my finest hour, in the way that day and night fight a battle to a draw every day. I hope when the final tally is taken, for all of us, that the light wins.
IV. A Brief History of Hypochondria
The symptoms were always the same. They were saved in an inkpad file on my phone, where they were easily recallable. I’d complain of a lack of breath that turned me blue, and austerity of speech that sapped my character and rendered me mute, limp and lifeless. Fingers too apathetic to type. Lips to apathetic to move. Too tired to joke. Too lazy to think. Too afraid to die. It was a perpetual motion machine of terror — a Ferris Wheel of Anti-Bliss from which there was no jumping and no refunds. It was like this, on-and-off-but-mostly-on, for fourteen years. So I’d go back to the E.R. — the only place I felt completely safe.
I took 52 trips to hospitals, clinics and emergency medical facilities between 2011–2014. I’m three away from a lifetime achievement award, I think. I’ve been properly pricked, vetted, probed, questioned, CT scanned (with contrast!) and monitored. They would always proudly proclaim I was fine, and that I was free to leave, and then they would cast me back into a world waiting to welcome me back with open arms. Still, I was dying. Sure of it. And, several years later, still not quite sure I’m not.
The hospital was the only semblance of order in a chaotic whirlwind, where I fought to hold onto the last thin blade of my sanity, to keep from falling off the face of the Earth. I could be hooked up to machines to make sure I’m plenty oxygenated, hydrated and cleared of any tumors, lumps, cysts, diseases, disorders, illness, deficiencies and inefficiencies. I could take solace in knowing I was taking up residence in the only place where sounding crazy and/or dying young was perfectly normal. Boring, in fact. But why was I there?
If you think of the human stress response like a faucet — you can turn it on when you need to wash away something unpleasant or threatening — my brain is what happens when that faucet has sprung a leak and turned itself into a fire hose. It is a cacophony of delirious thoughts, fears and worst-case scenarios turned up to 11 and played on an endless loop. This horror show grew all-too-deafening and immersive in the first part of this decade. An example of certain thoughts I thought and resulting behaviors I behaved:
- I had an excel doc that contained a comprehensive list of steps I needed to take to repair my lungs, which I believed are rotting from the inside, and adhered to them religiously.
- I thought every Thursday or Friday afternoon meeting with my co-workers was, in fact, the meeting in which I was about to be informed they no longer needed me.
- I deleted my browser history every hour.
- I’d never answer the phone the first time you’d call.
- I would always sleep with the TV on so I had something to listen to that wasn’t me.
- I would go full days without food, because I couldn’t decide what I wanted to eat.
- I would trash my apartment the way an F4 tornado would, so I’d have a built-in excuse not to allow people over.
- To this day, if you tap me on the shoulder to say hello, I also jump like a seven year-old watching Saw.
- I would spend seven hours on a Sunday alternating between playing two chords on a guitar and commenting on dozens of Instagram stories, without changing my clothes or leaving a 12x12 area, and then follow that by spending the next four hours crushing beers and binge-tweeting before passing out at 3 a.m.
- I would stay in alone if I was not invited someplace. I would escape to my couch and half-gaze at NFL Network.
I’d spend every morning gingerly shuffling around my apartment in a half-conscious haze, every evening pacing around my apartment in a half-delirious trance, and every night laying face-down on a pile of pillows to help me breathe easy, scared to death my life was ending before my eyes despite all the reassurance in the world. I get how ridiculous it sounds.
My condition was not sexy. It wasn’t trendy. It wasn’t even particularly sympathetic — or interesting. Not only was it difficult to convince the medical professionals in the hospital that I had something physically wrong (I didn’t), it was just as hard to convince mental health professionals there was anything going on beyond a “panic attack.” I seemed fine. And that was enough.
Not enough people talk about how anxiety is essentially excessive risk mitigation. It isn’t just the worry that’s problematic — it’s the behavior that you engage in to distance yourself from your emotions to help you hide your pathology from others.
For example, I mostly communicated — still, really — with people via text. Facial expressions are sensory overload, and real-time conversation feels too “real.” I would talk “at” people rather than talk “to” people — communicating only exclusively in quips, jokes, idioms and zingers. I still rarely do favors, and if I do, I make sure they’re easy favors that require merely a one-time commitment of an hour or two, like picking up someone at the airport or pitching in to help someone move. Easy wins. Slap-singles.
Moreover, all but two of my ex-girlfriends have been long-distance relationships. I also tend to push people away to avoid being “found out,” and to keep from “letting them down.” And, I spend the vast majority of my day alone so I don’t ever have to explain or excuse myself when symptoms bubble up. I just mailed someone $20 that I owed them since July. It’s almost March.
I have schedules and budgets and “how-tos” strewn about my desktop to make every contingency for every uncertainty. I also have a pathological fear of asking for things, for fear of angering the people I wish to ask. Then — of course — I’ll wait until the last minute to ask for a great many things, angering the people I wish to ask for not asking sooner. Risk mitigation. All of it. On a mass pathological scale. So in that case, it would make sense that I’d end up in that hospital so many times. What better way to reassure yourself that you’re perfectly healthy than being under routine emergency medical care? And they’d tell me I seemed fine. And they were right. All of the craziness is concealed inside the cabin.
But you cannot hide it forever. Sometimes the rift between what is and what you’ll never see is too great to be airbrushed out. And once that chasm ransacks your mind, it takes dead-aim at your body. Shortness of breath. Belching. A warm, fuzzy head. Dizziness. Weak chronic cough. Weakness. Cramping. Fatigue. Labored breathing. Incomplete breaths. Fast pulse. Insomnia. Confusion. Wheezing. Closed throat. Difficulty swallowing. Vocal cord paralysis. Hoarseness. Bloating. Daily occurrences. Far beyond real and bordering on surreal. Sweats in the mid-afternoon that left me running out the door and gasping at bitterly cold winter air, which turns into a hyperventilation spin-cycle of despair. In my excessive risk mitigation, and constant worry, I’d developed the very symptoms to the diseases I feared I had, without ever having the diseases themselves. This is the true pain of being in pain. And then I’d check out of the E.R. around 3 a.m., get three hours of sleep, and roll into work the following day, smiling.
It is true. I am not sad. I am, overall, a very happy and awesome human already, who just happens to not be very awesome in all areas of life all the time. The area of “dealing with shit without feeling a whole bunch of things,” in particular, is one that I struggle with. (Also: I cannot dunk. Very sad.)
Somewhere out there, someone is reading this, and probably nodding in silent agreement, wondering if they’re supposed to struggle in their own silence. I don’t think they should. I think that’s how people end up in the E.R. I think that’s how people end up alone.
I’d become a hypermaximalist, hell-bent mess. Again. A bit off. A newly-acquired hitch in my gait. Trembling hands. Odd mannerisms. A ghost concealed from the world, communicating mostly through text, chasing other ghosts. Headaches. A weak, dry cough. Openly weeping for no reason. Sour and nihilist. Sick to my stomach every day.
I remember walking back into the urgent care facility, for the first time in three years, listing my symptoms. Shortness of breath. Belching. A warm, fuzzy head. Dizziness. Weak chronic cough. Weakness. Cramping. Fatigue. Labored breathing. Incomplete breaths. Fast pulse. Insomnia. Confusion. Wheezing. Closed throat. Difficulty swallowing. Vocal cord paralysis. Hoarseness. Bloating. Daily occurrences. Far beyond real and bordering on surreal. Sweats in the mid-afternoon that left me running out the door and gasping at bitterly cold winter air, which turns into a hyperventilation spin-cycle of despair. I told the nurse I have a history with hypochondria. She took my temperature, and said, “You’re very brave.” I didn’t understand.
“You’ll be fine …” she said. “You’re just going through withdrawal.”
V. How I Did It
My Grandfather’s last words to me were “I used to hear a lot of good things about you. Not so much anymore. If you ever get your act together, you’re going to do big things.”
I gave him a hug and left the hospital. That was August 11, 2003. He died 12 hours later.
On December 30, 2014, and after a lengthy escapade of Gin Fizz and Sazerac and Jazz and Crayfish Etoufee, my third trip to New Orleans in less than a year was coming to a close. I was on my way back to Austin from Alabama, but I was also on my way back from a lot of things: Namely, erasing a surreal four year alternate timeline spent trucking back and forth to San Antonio for a woman I no longer called mine, and a nightmare-ish year spent jobless, car-less and homeless which has been documented elsewhere. I decided to redo, relearn, rediscover and reconnect everything in my life. And I knew what was coming. I knew this would be the year to do it.
I trudged to the mailbox on January 4, 2015, and received an envelope postmarked from North Tonawanda. Like Red from the Shawshank Redemption stumbling into that field in Maine under a rock that had no earthly business being under that oak, I nervously opened it. I held in my hand a check for the largest sum of money I’d ever held in my hand at one time and nervously trekked to the bank. This was my reset button. This was my ticket out.
I reinvested it and withheld a small amount to pair with some money I’d accumulated from taking back a ring I’d purchased, a ring not intended for me. A ring intended to be given to someone on 12.13.14. With what I had on hand, I purchased my dream guitar — a Taylor 814ce, and a portable yet powerful PA, a Bose L1. Now, I could finally begin playing as much music in the Live Music Capital of the World as I wanted.
I was recovering from shoulder reconstruction, and was finally medically cleared to start playing live shows again for the first time in three months, so I started the following day at Red Eyed Fly. That began a run of 171 shows in 365 days. Within three months of playing, the guitar / PA investment paid for itself.
I started over. I decided to stop drinking. I cut out processed foods. I gave Crossfit a try. I moved out of my old apartment, dumped a chunk of my furniture and dumped a chunk of cash into a condo across the street. I purchased a memory foam mattress that feels like sleeping on a hug. I got rid of all my clothes and bought a small amount of new ones that more fit my mood. At the end of the month, I released a single, an ode to my sister and my grandfather called “Leave the Light On.” It felt appropriate. Everything done in January was big and heartfelt. I spent a lot of those early days (and very late nights) camping out at a Kava Bar, reading poetry, the Gita and the Dhammapada. I also meditated at the local Shambhala temple. I went to a wine and paella tasting in the company of good friends. This new, simple, quiet life suited me. And in the dark cold of the winter, I was warm with joy.
When it came time for me to visit my mom (and surprise my sister!) in Orlando, I was looking forward to finally feeling like I could visit my family and not be ashamed of myself and all my unfulfilled potential. I struggled with this in the past — always feeling like I should be better than I am, or should have accomplished more, or should’ve made better decisions. Hell, if Monday Morning Quarterback was a real position, I’d make the Pro Bowl.
I came out of “Drink-tirement” to drink “Around the World” at EPCOT, which is when you visit all 12 countries in the world showcase and sample the national drink of each. It was a bucket list item for me and ended up with me face-first in a bucket — allegedly needing to be carried out of a Disney Theme Park while screaming “MERICUH.” As you do.
And when it came time for me to use the last of the largest check I’ve ever seen to pay off the balance of a loan my mother inexplicably entrusted me with when I was down on my luck and needed my 2010 Hyundai Sonata out of repossession jail, I made sure to write her a heartfelt thank you. I remember that most of all.
I experimented with playing sober shows — something I hadn’t done since I started playing music — and the results were overwhelmingly positive. Cu29. Pat O’Brien’s in San Antonio (where I met my two favorite superfans). Dozen Street. Gypsy Lounge. Lucky Lounge. Stompin Grounds. New venues. New horizons. New faces. New places. Emboldened by my suddenly very busy music career, I announced to the world I would be finishing an album, “Mileage,” and releasing it on 10.5.15. I picked the date because, like 12.13.14, it was mathematically perfect.
And I continued to write. I started exploring the beauty of this new life, this awakening in places like “How to Get a F**king Life,” and “Success in Six Words.” Peace. Serenity. Rebirth. Out with the old and in with what I really, really wanted.
But like any dog with too many fleas, even a stash of bones and a comfortable dog-bed couldn’t stop me from scratching. I started smoking pot again for the first time since I was 21. I’d put a THC tincture in my tea and wander around town like a newborn. I messed around with a litany of women I didn’t love. I got (too) cozy with a 19 year-old model, and (too) cavalier with a 46 year-old housewife. I’d often wake up late, beating myself up and bleary-eyed.
I thought back to what my grandfather said to me: Man, if only I could get my act together, then I could really do some big things.
Old habits die hard. Soon, I would find out just how hard they’d all be to kill.
“Be good. Be well. Be interesting.” A motto which became my manifesto — published for the world to see — except from this point on, I only really got good at the third piece of that triumvirate.
I didn’t plan on drinking that day. It was a long one. But if I was going to be as epic as possible, I figured a drink couldn’t hurt. It started at a show at Bat Bar at 12:30, then meandered to The Parish for friends and food, and I met a comely blonde who I then followed to Cu29 for more revelry. We made out a bit and I left to play a secret show at Geisha Room. With a full-on army amassed by then, we went to Lucky Lounge to tear up the stage. That was one of the most exhilarating days of my life. And I needed more of them.
A woman I had a strong passion for recently broke up with her boyfriend, so I took her out for drinks and conversation. We had an incredible evening that lasted until 4 a.m. On a weeknight. This would become commonplace. I played another show at Dozen Street, then wandered to Red 7 to watch my Paella and Wine friends’ band tear up their last show before embarking on a trip to Spain. I played a 62-song show at Pat O’Brien’s before running back to join these same friends for a birthday party. I started seeing yet another woman unexpectedly. She was whip-smart and enjoyable company. And then another, who seemed to have a thing for me but not as big of a thing as she had for the bottle. The days were wild. The nights were long. I rested with Yoga.
No amount of Yoga could’ve prepared me for SXSW 2015 — a two-week madcap blitzkreg of music and mayhem, where I played 14 shows in 11 days, had a bit role in a vodka commercial, spoke at a panel, snuck into private parties, and drank my weight in free booze.
But, the concerts — oh, the concerts — where I got to see a litany of bands for free with myriad wristbands affixed to my arm. The complete list, which reads like a who’s who of who I adore:
Chance the Rapper & The Social Experiment
Plain White Ts
Green River Ordinance
Talk in Tongues
The Karma Killers
Daddy Long Legs
Lost in a World of Color
Samantha Lee and the Family Tree
Every night went longer than the last. Every day at work more exhausted and hungover than the day before.
Drunk off Hendrick’s Gin and my own success, feeling like I was finally maximizing every spare minute spent meandering around this metropolis, I dove into finally writing an epic seven-part anthology of my 2012, the year I found myself living in the back of a rented Jeep and panhandling just to eat. I published seven parts in seven days and I was floored to find out it went viral overnight. It became the most-read post on Medium.com that week. Employees at ESPN, CNN, Al-Jazeera and the Austin Statesman, athletes, business magnates and influencers retweeted it, calling it “gripping,” “heartbreaking,” “inspirational” and “darkly funny.” An employee at The Cauldron came across at, and encouraged me to send him a sports column for submission. More on that later. I followed it up by writing another minor viral sensation, “How To Talk to A Woman.”
SXSW concluded with the “Jailhouse Jamboree,” a barn-burner showcase I was privileged enough to play (as the only male on the bill!) as an opener for Ruby Rose.
And, yet, despite my SXSWTF experience, the night I remember most was a relatively tame evening out with a good friend from work, where we enjoyed some anonymous entertainment from friends I’d met at an earlier show, and some unremarkable Mexican food. Simple. Quiet.
The musical hits kept on coming, as I played a wild show at World of Beer and the Austin Weekly Singer Songwriter Series at Red Eyed Fly. I released another single, “None of the Above.” I appeared on a local compilation album. I parlayed my rising stature in the scene to a trip to the local FOX affiliate’s morning show, where I played a song I’d written and even read off a teleprompter for the first time since I gave up being a Weatherman long ago. The show host quipped, “You could do my job better than me.” I smirked.
Another insane show at Sweetwater sounded like a dream, then ended one of my myriad semi-casual relationships (the one with the gal who could outdrink me) as I pressed for it to get serious. Grown weary of my constant partying, I wrote the double-barreled blast of “You Are Enough” and “There’s No Such Thing As A Free Drink.” They were thinly-veiled cries for help as I plunged deeper and deeper into late-night debauchery.
But then came the Holy Grail of concerts, Stevie Wonder at the Frank Erwin Center. I went alone and didn’t drink a drop. For as many women as I was dating at the time, and as many drinks as I was drinking at the time, there was no way I’d ever be able to taint that moment at less than 100% or with someone who wouldn’t enjoy the experience as much as I did.
But that was just one night. I developed a reputation at work for being a hard partying loose cannon — often showing up 30 minutes late and resting my head on my desk for another 90. (Secretly, some friends noted I wreaked of “the night before” despite my best efforts to shower and douse myself in Banana Republic cologne.) But I also developed a reputation for being damned good at my job, working as hard and fast as I possibly could (much of that a response to being fired once for not working “fast enough”) and enjoying my profession more than many believed could be possible. It was true, my job grounded me, kept me sane and fulfilled me in ways that nothing else in my life — not the music nor the writing nor the women nor the booze — ever could touch.
When my creative director left where I worked, he informed me a team I had been on the DL moonlighting for while their copywriter was out on maternity leave wanted to bring me aboard. A bidding war between the two teams broke out. I was honored, really. I couldn’t imagine there would come a time in all my life where me, a man who’d been fired from six of his previous seven jobs, would ever be wanted by people in a professional setting. I turned down more money to switch teams, earn my first promotion ever and try something new, which I felt was more line with my skill-set — a lot of involving writing aspirational one-liners to make people feel warm and fuzzy. I can see some of you rolling your eyes right now.
The deal finished on Friday, April 17, 2015. I played a show at Bat Bar then reflected upon all my good fortune. I took to Facebook and wrote this:
“Six months ago today I walked out of surgery with my shoulder in shambles. High on oxycontin. All that has changed since then has been everything. I wish every single one of you the six months I’ve had. On Monday, the final piece of my golden era will be revealed. I love every one of you. I cannot believe all the good that has come of my life since then. It’s overwhelming and damn near impossible to process. To friends. To family. To fortune. Thank you. You made this all possible and I hope in six months to tell you this has been the greatest year of my life. Cheers.”
It was true. Everything was falling into place. All my dreams were coming true as fast and as furious as every night spent chasing an unknowable white whale.
The night of April 17 was the absolute pinnacle of my life to that point. On the morning of April 18, I woke up. No, I mean … I really woke up.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I should have never woken up at all.
I’d been chasing a ghost.
I have a saying, “Never hit on midnight.” It’s a blackjack term, but it doubles as a life philosophy that I’d recently forgone in pursuit of maximizing every waking moment with epic amazingness. I wondered what I was trying to find. And I came to a stunning realization: I was lonely. Not lonely in the sense of not being around people — I was around people 24x7. Working during the day. Out every night. Entertaining people through music. Engaging people through writing. But all that activity wasn’t satisfying me. All that activity did was reinforce how alone I was.
Loneliness isn’t feeling like you don’t really know anyone, loneliness is feeling like no one could ever really know you. Whether you’re at the bottom or the top, there’s no cure for loneliness except from within. My inner monologue is what prevented me from being fully present. Drinking silenced the inner monologue.
So I quit drinking again, and decided to pour myself into my passions harder than ever. Perhaps if I could learn to be present by simply pouring myself into things that make me feel present (at least, by my own admittedly low standards of presence).
I released two more singles in rapid succession, “Up and Away” and “Falling From Above.” I was tipped a $100 bill at Pat O’Brien’s to play an extra 30 minutes. I played a singer-songwriter showcase at the Gypsy Lounge. I participated in the critically-acclaimed “MASH OF THE CENTURY” with a great friend of mine, where the two of us took turns playing mashups of covers. I played what was, to that point, the best set of my life at Badlands. I played an epic show at Cu29. I guest-hosted an open mic at Red Eyed Fly. I played an intimate “Storytellers” show at Stompin Grounds. I played a show at Pat O’Brien’s during the heaviest rain the area had seen in 33 years.
I wrote with reckless abandon, writing “Dispatch from the End of the Golden Era” and “Stop Signs” to faint response. I wrote another viral hit, “The Art of Intimacy,” which none other than Umair Haque (a profound influence on this blog and my writing in general) found to be an invigorating read.
And then, of course, this woman I had a passion for since March continued to be a thing. We agreed we wouldn’t rush into a relationship, but we kept seeing each other. We hit up a music festival together. We hit up a friend’s show. We went on a luxurious dinner date. We swapped song ideas. Things were falling into place. I was less lonely.
Free from the throes of impulsively drinking myself into a stupor, I decided to get active. Medically cleared from shoulder reconstruction and done with physical therapy three months early, I ran the Capitol 10K and the Sunshine Run. I borrowed a friend’s mountain bike to complete the 50-mile Real Ale Ride. I figured if I was going to be lonely, at least I was going to something good for myself.
I went with a friend and saw Butch Walker for the fourth time (and second time that year) at Stubb’s in one of the greatest concerts I’d ever seen. The small, simple pleasures began to make me happy again — and yet they were selfish pleasures. Though I was no longer indulging, my pursuits felt self-indulgent. After all, there’s only so many ways you can please yourself before realizing that a legacy is only left by pleasing others.
That mental shake-up came quite literally.
After the Earthquakes in Nepal, a friend who’d been living there at the time shined the bat signal asking for a benefit concert to be held locally to raise money. I took the onus upon myself to create it. Through Lucky Lounge and the Red Eyed Fly, I had venues willing to partake. What followed was an enormous, surprising success. A 22-act, two-night, three-stage musical all-star extravaganza featuring friends of mine in a quickly-cobbled yet well-oiled tribute concert. The sheer thrill of seeing so many friends help out, so many friendly faces on stage and in the crowd, was breathtaking. Between our efforts and the efforts of friends across the world, #Rock4Relief raised over $5,500 for those afflicted by the earthquakes.
I remember at the end of the night, being on the raised outdoor stage, closing out the Red Eyed Fly and hearing the cheers of people praising me for putting something so wonderful together. And I remember not being able to take credit for it. I didn’t want any. After all, it was everyone else that made the show the success it was. The venue who agreed to host it. The musicians who agreed to play, showed up on time (in some cases from other cities), and played their asses off. The merch gal who made T-Shirts and drove in sick from Houston just to sell them and help host. They made it all possible. They were what gave the event its life, gave the cause its vitality and what fueled me to humbly become overcome with emotion on stage.
That moment, I realized there were no more ghosts to chase. That what I’d been craving all along was connection, a sense of purpose and duty. And ain’t nobody ever found any of those things after midnight, or at the bottom of a bottle, or at the farthest reaches of human potential.
When you’re chasing ghosts, you’re chasing your own shadow, and your own shadow is a very dark thing indeed.
I set out from that point forward to chase the light. That light comes in the form of banding together with others to create something larger than the whole.
I didn’t know it at the time, but in the endless sunshine of the Austin summer, but brightest light would arrive in a form I had spent my entire life striving for, but never expected would shine upon me.
And it was coming very, very soon.
Dreams never die, they just lay dormant.
I originally went to Syracuse University to become a sportscaster. My high school AP U.S. History teacher signed my yearbook, “To the next Bob Costas.” My family was behind me and expected big things. It wouldn’t take long for me to disappoint them.
The career fizzled out. It never materialized. I spent a very short amount of time as an intern at the Utica NBC affiliate, and an even shorter amount of time doing the weather at the CW affiliate in Syracuse, which was essentially staffed by a group of Broadcast students at SU and watched by approximately 15 people. And then … nothing … I graduated with a degree in Psychology from the University at Buffalo, my fourth school in four and a half years, with a 2.9 GPA and no job prospects. I started as a survey taker for $9 per hour.
Flash forward again, and I started sports blogging for free for a site The Love of Sports. Some good writers got their start there. Some who are now featured prominently on ESPN and FOX Sports. Me? Heh. I broke some news, started a few memes, wrote a couple well-received think-pieces (including one that Mark Cuban seemed to really enjoy), and then … crickets. Derailed by my 2012 crisis of confidence, and inability to make ends meet, I lost interest and faded back into obscurity, content with getting paid to do marketing writing.
It had been nearly three years since I last wrote a sports column, which was always a favorite pastime of mine, and directly led to me becoming a paid brand copywriter for my current employer. I’d given up on my strange little dream career to pursue other things. Life often gets in the way of life. But, I felt like I was in pretty great shape, and I had some time freed up from not going out and getting smashed every night, and I felt mentally sharp and emboldened by my year to that point. I’d been out of the game too long, and no itch can stay unscratched forever, so I plotted my return.
On July 5, I emailed the editor at The Cauldron — a smart sportswriting haven not unlike Grantland (RIP) — who saw “How I Got Here,” and dropped him a 1,000-word piece on LeBron James. No pitch. No introduction. Just a, “Hi, maybe you could use this.”
— And use it he did.
“LeBron James: Living the Millennial Dream” was my step into the major leagues and became the most-read column I’d ever written. I was back to writing, and in a big way. I decided to forge ahead. Within a week, “Serena Williams: Greatness in the Heart of Darkness” outdid my previous work, and was read around the world. Something big was beginning … I could feel it.
As I settled back into the comfortable groove of writing for the Internet, I settled into a burgeoning social circle of deep-thinking intellectuals with a passion for meditation, mindfulness and really, really fucking delicious tea. We gathered for lectures, Yoga sessions, meditation, creative workshops and more. I ended up writing, playing, singing and recording a song for part of this group, and it was released on July 16. “Playing to Win” is nominally a song by the Brothers Vinyl. But, oh, I’m in there. Trust me.
In our quickly tightening peer group, one woman stood out in particular — a radiant soul so ridiculously driven and determined that she found herself without a car or a home in order to launch herself into her dream career (sound familiar?) — I knew I liked her from the start. We spent our mornings rock climbing along the scenic 360 Bridge in Austin. We spent our late nights sitting by Walnut Creek reading. I occasionally wandered over to her house to play guitar.
We would often sit and talk for hours and comb the universe over a variety of topics — love, happiness, manifestation, belief, religion. We shared our stories and joined forces. Her and I started a series of video life-coaching podcasts — her as the starry-eyed big thinker, and I as the actionable pragmatist. We were a formidable team. As I worked on my latest piece for the Cauldron, we agreed we’d spend a Saturday together rediscovering another shared passion we’d both been away from for too long — golf.
I’m no athlete and don’t profess to be great at any sports. An avid runner, I am slow and methodical, beating myself to death against lungs that earlier in the year, a doctor claimed put me uncomfortably close to death if I had an asthma attack. Joke’s on him — I’ve been hearing that for 30 years. But golf? I’m a natural at that. I regularly shoot in the mid-80s despite having only played a handful of rounds in my lifetime. For me, there was always something that made sense about just placing a ball on a tie, lining up to hit it, taking a big swing and just coaxing the ball where it needed to go. It was a zen-like experience that was all feeling and no thought. It’s one of the few things I ever set out to do in life that just clicked.
I used to play with a torn labrum, with my shoulder often coming unbuckled during a round before I’d pop it back into its socket and continue on with the 18 holes. But it had been five years. And with my shoulder well-and-truly healed, it was time to get back into it.
My team at work sponsored a charity event at Top Golf, where I was invited with an extra ticket. I figured this would be great prep for getting back out on the course for the first time since I moved to Austin. In the pod to my left, 1983 and 1995 Masters Champion, Ben Crenshaw. To my right, skateboard icon Tony Hawk. And there I was in the middle of it, swinging away, and by the end of the night they were the ones watching me.
And on the morning of Saturday, July 25, at 8 a.m., this woman and I hit the links to start playing.
I had a rough go at first, posting a 53 on the front nine before settling down and shooting even-par on the back side. Not bad for a five year layoff.
When I checked my phone following the round, I noticed something striking. I had over 400 new Twitter notifications. I clicked into the app. My column, “Don’t Look Now, but ESPN Radio has quietly evolved,” posted that morning. And it was being read by everybody. Scott Van Pelt called me out. The column circulated all the way up to the top brass at ESPN. I got shout-outs on ESPN Radio and Sportscenter. If I wasn’t going to be the next Bob Costas, I would absolutely settle for the current Bob Costas saying “at-a-boy.”
The column dwarfed everything I’d ever done before. Industry insiders DM’d me to say “congrats” and “thank you.” Radio stations called me to interview me. It was a surreal moment in my life. The weekend hack from Austin, who dropped out of the most prestigious journalism school in the world 13 years earlier, was suddenly a living, breathing voice in an industry that I thought had spit me out forever. The gal and I shared a celebratory meal at Shake Shack. How could the day get any better?
Well, I had a show at Cu29 that night. And I brought my goddamned A-game. Several friends of mine joined me to say hello. I was in top-flight form, playing well past my midnight end time all the way to close. I looked around and found myself pausing mid-set in awe. Dreams never die, they just lay dormant … until you wake them up. When I settled up at the bar, Topo Chico in hand, pondering the events of another very busy day, a towering pinnacle of a day in a year already filled with them, I openly wondered if — after nearly seven months of moving, writing, working, playing, music, thinking, recording, running, biking and sobering — the magic was all out again.
I’d soon find out the magic was only beginning.
“Thank you.” They’re the two most important words in the English language, and two words I had never been particularly good at saying. So I made a pact to start saying them as often as possible, often in the form of thank you cards sent to random people for what they’ve meant to me and how they contributed to my life in whatever meaningful way they did.
And on August 5, when two people who needed a real thank you for helping to kickstart my music career, I sprung into action.
A couple friends ran a riotously popular open mic night at Firehouse Lounge in Austin. They informed the world that this would be their last Wednesday as hosts, and so I ran on down.
I always threatened to have the saxophone player jump on stage with me. And on this night, I knew I’d never get another chance. So I asked him to come on stage. A surprise in my back pocket.
“Can we play ‘Lease?’” He begged, referring to his favorite song of mine.
“Not tonight,” I said.
And so I gave him the introductory chord progression until we were on the same page. And then I stopped. And then the first verse. It was his song. A song by the band he formed with the other host. And I covered it note for note, eventually calling the other host to come up and sing the last chorus. “Thank you.”
I wrote a column called “Happiness is Overrated,” thanking Samantha Steele for saying what I always wanted to say but could never articulate — that peace and gratitude are what really matter.
I wrote a thank you note in the form a column for The Cauldron thanking him for being an athlete to come out as an atheist, as well as a poet, a thinker and someone far removed from football’s bizarre meathead jock culture.
I thanked the “Bros” who, earlier in my life, constantly cut me down, for teaching me how to live with “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Bros.” It was a surprise smash hit on LinkedIn, which, to this day, is a social medium I do not understand.
Another way I wanted to say “thank you,” was to start a Wednesday night open mic in place of the one that ended. I wanted to give the people who frequented the place that became like a family for so many a soft place to land. Through the kind folks at Cu29, I had a venue to do so — and on August 19, I started hosting an Open Mic of my own. I wanted to give back to the people who gave me so much, and I wanted to pay it forward and hopefully jump-start someone else’s music career in Austin the way open mics got me going in the beginning. It’s still running to this day.
But, truly, the best way to say “thank you,” is living well. I poured my heart and soul into my work, creating some of the finest branding work I’d ever done for a team that took a big risk in selecting me to do some of their writing for them. It was well-received and some of it ended up in Forbes and Entrepreneur magazine.
And it was at this time that people began to notice a transformation in me. A physical transformation. From not drinking, running, biking and eating well, I had lost a staggering 44 pounds. I had more energy than ever. I wrote about it. To this day, I am still losing weight. At one point I was 208 pounds — now I check in at a mere 154.
A lot of people talk about their “Finest Hour.” On September 10, 2015, between the hours of 7 and 8 p.m., I literally had it. I received a phone call from my editor at The Cauldron, and he revealed a secret to me — the site had been bought by Sports Illustrated. He wanted to bring a handful of writers over with him, and he tapped me to be a part of it. I didn’t have to think twice, and I couldn’t thank him enough. I graciously accepted. Mere minutes later, I received an email with a link to a Google Drive — I opened the link to find 11 WAV files of songs I recorded. The album, “Mileage,” was done — and I couldn’t thank my producer enough. I quickly burned the files to disc and drove around Austin listening to each song, in order, in my car. Within one hour, I became a writer for Sports Illustrated and a professional recording artist. I’ll put those 60 exhilarating minutes up against any other in my life any day. And somehow, at 9 p.m., I took to the stage at the Sahara Lounge, to play an hour-long set of songs I’d written over the summer that didn’t appear on “Mileage.”
Within a week, I had dropped my first column for SI, and later that week, I played another show at Cu29, with my old creative director and his wife stopping by to say hello.
Speaking of stopping by to say hello, I got a call from my dad who told me, “I’d like to come to Austin for your birthday.” It would be the first time my dad came to visit me since I’d moved in 2010. I was ready. I was excited. I was, strangely, nervous. What would happen if he came and found out my life wasn’t all it was cracked up to be?
I made it a point not to do anything out of the ordinary. My dad would spend “a weekend in the life of John Gorman,” and maybe he’d like it — maybe he wouldn’t. But I figured if he saw me doing things I enjoyed, maybe he’d enjoy them, too.
I had planned a big show for my 33rd Birthday at Stompin Grounds — the bar where I got my musical start in Austin. I’d bring out the Question Jar — an idea I stole from Mike Doughty where people can write questions and I would draw from the jar and answer them in between songs — and play all original music from all my years of making it. And yet this time I was nervous as hell … why?
My dad had never seen me play music.
Oh, sure, he’d seen a couple of high school talent shows back in the late 90s, but this was an entirely different animal. This would be me, unguarded, singing lyrics about drugs and one-night stands and violence and love and sex and anger and hypochondria and so on. What would he think? What if nobody showed?
When my dad arrived the day before my birthday, I took him for some BBQ at a joint I enjoyed. We went for a walk around town and I showed him Stevie Ray Vaughan’s statue and the place they film Austin City Limits. I played a show at Voodoo Room, all covers, as a warm-up for the next day. Then, I took him to Cu29 to watch two of my friends play music and have him sample some of the cocktails I took (perhaps too much of) a liking to earlier in the year.
The next day, we had breakfast tacos and I bought a rug to finally complete the reassembly of my living quarters after I ditched everything to start fresh in January. The reset was complete. We ate dinner at my favorite restaurant. We stopped in at the Kava Bar where I did most of my writing. And then it was on to the show.
And, like at the last open mic, I had a surprise in my pocket.
A parade of friends filed in to celebrate with me, as I rummaged through my back-catalog of music for an hour or so. I answered questions. I made off-color jokes. I enjoyed myself. And then, in the middle of the set, I stopped.
“Hold on,” I said, as I whipped out my phone. “I have to do this.”
I then began to tell a story — “For the past 12 years, I’d been writing a series of songs that would become an album. For the past 30 months, I’ve been recording it. And, as of right now, you can have it. Pay what you want. ‘Mileage’ is released. This is my ‘thank you’ to all my friends who are here right now.”
And a lifelong labor of love finally became available for public consumption. I played the songs from it, continued to answer questions from the jar until they were all gone, and had the best time hanging out with my friends after.
My dad and I played darts with my friends until closing time. I smoked cigarettes, said many “thank you”s and basked in the glow of what felt like yet another peak.
The very last thing I did that night, before scuttling off to start my 34th trip around the sun, was kiss a woman I couldn’t stand to not kiss any longer. We’ll talk about her soon.
But first, we need to talk about everything else. And I do mean everything.
“All I want is to smoke a fucking cigarette!” Said the young man who ran into me while I was texting and walking outside Dizzy Rooster in downtown Austin. It was Shia LeBeouf. 20 minutes later, he was cuffed for public intoxication. I know that struggle. Sometimes all you want to do is feel normal. Sometimes that’s impossible.
I drove down to San Antonio to play Pat O’Brien’s to play a last-minute show, and I left with a golden parachute. $500. I visited an old haunt with an old friend. I sat in on drums with another old friend’s band. I had a lot of emotions as I passed by the exit where I would normally go to see my ex. I gave up this life, this city, to pursue something different — something on my own terms. I gave up this city to chase ghosts. I thought about if trading love, simplicity and peace was worth it. That I had to think told me everything I needed to know.
I bolted town to take an adventure, to escape all the madness. I saw some rocks. I had the best meal of my lifetime. Duck confit ravioli. I spent a day and caught up with an old friend and ended up catching feelings. I’m certain it wasn’t received well. I called a friend of mine in a panic at 3 a.m. “I think you just need to rest,” he said, “and maybe just be yourself.” How? After cutting out drinking and sloppy food, and exercising regularly, how could I still be this burnt out? This is what I tried to avoid. The answer puzzled me.
I didn’t think I’d end up in Las Vegas. I never much cared for the town. But my best friend from Buffalo, the one who saw me off to Austin, was going to be in town for a law conference, and his girlfriend would be there, too. I got a room at the SLS, which — after merely being cordial and asking the desk clerk about her day — was upgraded to the Penthouse suite on the 28th floor. The room was the size of a mansion. It felt like everywhere I went this year, I was this much closer to “arriving.”
I woke up that morning and ran down the strip. 8 miles of opulence and decadence. And I then I met my friends. We spent the day wandering about town, zip-lining, gorging ourselves and we caught Penn and Teller. For the first time in my life, I played Blackjack. Midnight showed. I didn’t hit. I kept my money. I played another hand. 21 showed. I won and immediately stopped. Sometimes, it’s best not to hit on perfection, either.
The following day, my friend wandered off to the law conference and it was just I and his girlfriend for the afternoon. We went to the top floor of the Mandarin to a tea house and talked a lot. She had become close with my ex. And I opened up about wondering if it was all worth it. If achieving everything your heart desires is worth more than not breaking your own heart to get there. We both cried a lot. I learned two things that afternoon: You don’t have to make someone smile to make someone happy, and I absolutely, positively needed that cry to heal a heart I never gave a second thought to. As we went around on the High Roller, high above the Vegas skyline, I again realized that it was the small things that made life special: friends, family, health and laughter. Honor what you have, and what you want will come. And though I’d done a superlative job at going after what I wanted, I’d done a pretty shitty job at honoring what I had.
I returned home to another friend in from Buffalo, a friend whom I was — his words, not mine — “responsible for my music career, and responsible for meeting my girlfriend … I should give you a blow job on stage.”
We played four shows in three nights and generally had the time of our lives, bringing Buffalo to Austin and making merry with friends of mine who were in the music scene. I barely slept.
I continued to write, penning several SI columns, a short story, a collection of my aphorisms.
I did more branding work. I had an ad appear in USA Today, I did some volunteering at our giant annual tech conference.
I was podcasting with a friend from Buffalo, we hosted a weekly Fantasy Football show where we talked about the Buffalo Bills, the NFL and whatever else was on our minds. It was enjoyable. It was fun. And they provided great comfort for my Tuesday nights in.
And I continued to run — faster and farther than ever before. And with everything I did, I realized I was plunging deeper and darker into my own head. I was tired. I was scared. I felt like I had to keep this up to keep going. Burning the candles at all ends. I was hosting an Open Mic on Wednesdays, playing a weekly residency on Thursdays, another weekly residency on Fridays, and a show every Saturday — and that was just on weekends when I wasn’t traveling.
Burnout. At the worst possible time. Physically and mentally exhausted, and yet, I was far from finished.
I had an idea back in January that my father deserved a surprise party for his 60th Birthday. I made the 12-hour trek from Austin back to Alabama, stopping in Memphis for evening on Beale Street and a Memphis Grizzlies basketball game. Everything was happening. All at once. And there I was, flooring the gas once more.
I arrived in Alabama a couple of minutes before my dad did. I was greeted by his wife, his best friend and my uncle. The look on his face was priceless. We ate that unparalleled Alabama White BBQ Sauce for dinner. We cobbled together a group of his coworkers and friends and celebrated deep into the night. Friends. Family. Health. Laughter. If you go where you’re supposed to go, you’ll end up where you want to be. If you go where you want to be, you’ll miss the places you’re supposed to go.
When I celebrated with my dad on his birthday, as he did with me on mine, I remembered feeling an overwhelming sense of “This is where I am supposed to be.” And everything, all the pressures of constantly trying to undo and outdo myself, melted away. I could simply exist. And that, more than anything, is what I needed. I was burnt out. This year … this month in particular … but this year … had sapped the life out of me. All the energy I expended to try and be the best at everything had pinned me on E. I walked around like a zombie on painkillers, anxious, exhausted, paranoid. That kind of “success,” whatever it was I was doing, was completely unsustainable and a one-way ticket to an early, gold-plated grave.
All I wanted was to smoke a fucking cigarette.
The following month, I made a decision to drive out to Shiner, Texas to run a half marathon. I had only run one half marathon before (in 2014), and I hadn’t exactly trained for this one, and didn’t think I would finish. It was a cold, dreary day. I had no expectations. I took off at a snail’s pace and gave it a go. I played LCD Soundsystem’s 45:33 in the speakers. One mile. Two mile. Three mile. Huffing and puffing. Fucking lungs. Just let it in. Four mile. Five mile. Six mile. Seven mile. I stopped to take a picture. The sun cleared out from the clouds. I was more than halfway home. I can finish this. Eight mile. Nine mile. Ten mile. Eleven mile. I glance at my watch — I’m making good time. Twelve mile. Thirteen mile. My phone falls out of my pocket. I curse. And then I sprint. I finished in a time of 2:31. I shattered my personal best by 17 minutes.
I wandered around like I’d just won the race. A giddy smile on my face. A breathless excitement. I was alone. I was at peace. I drove the two hours back to Austin and napped before another evening with the woman, at a friend’s birthday party. We chilled. We relaxed. We drove home at 5 a.m. and fell asleep in each other’s arms. Sometimes, that’s all you can hope for.
Later that week, the two of us drove over to a friend’s house for a Thanksgiving feast. We chilled. We relaxed. We ate bacon-wrapped turkey and chicken wing dip.
The following day I trudged over to the cinema to catch “Creed.” I went alone. I relaxed and saw a lot of myself in the movie. It’s about a man who can’t escape his destiny, so he decides to embrace it by relentlessly doing what he was born to do. I know that struggle well.
A column of mine I poured my heart into — an interview with an Olympic hopeful — was on the shelf at SI. That week, it ran. It became the most well-read, most highly-regarded work I’d ever created — music, branding, writing, the medium mattered not — this was my magnum opus, an engaging read about a stirring subject. She was a woman who found out late in life she could run like the wind and gave up everything to do it. I called the piece “Race Against Time.” When I went back and read it after it’d been published, I realized I’d written partially about myself. I’m a man who found out late in life I could “run like the wind.” And so I did.
On December 1, I went and saw a friend and life coach speak. I asked him about impostor syndrome — the feeling that one day you’ll be found out and all your good fortune will be taken away from you. He didn’t really answer my question, but during his response I got my answer.
You fight impostor syndrome not by achieving more beyond your wildest dreams, but by doing small things well, so that when big success comes your way, you’ll know you deserve it. In other words, “honor what you have and what you want will come.” Too much of my year was spent swinging for the fences instead of just swinging well.
I think back on all my success in the past year. And I think back to what truly makes me happy. It was the small things. They were all small things.
- The way my guitar sounds and feels when I pluck the strings.
- The way I hold deep conversation without descending into debauchery.
- The way my mom hugs me when I fly in to say hello.
- The roar of a crowd after playing my heart out.
- The way my song comes through the speakers, or my words jump off a page.
- The taste of paella or duck confit ravioli.
- The thrill of seeing my favorite musical artist live.
- The exhilaration of finishing a race.
- The fulfillment of helping those in need.
- The joy of seeing your byline for the first time.
- The view from the 360 bridge.
- The alignment of a perfectly-struck golf ball.
- The quality time spent wandering the city with my dad.
- The reunion of good friends from long ago.
- The satisfaction of a job well done.
- The release of letting go of old demons.
- The look on my dad’s face when I surprise him by just showing up.
- The comfort of falling asleep in a woman’s arms.
- And, of course, saying “thank you.”
On December 7, my company made me an offer to be an official employee after over three years of contract work. With it, came a substantial raise and a promotion. And it made me proud. Not for the increased influence or increased affluence, but because I had actually done a little thing well enough, for long enough, that they wanted me to keep doing it for them. It’s all I ever wanted was to be wanted. In a year full of grand, thrilling, exasperating moments — that was the best moment of all …
… until December 22, when I walked into a Wells Fargo and made a payment of $1,105. It was the last of over $51,000 in debt I had in 2012, which saddled me with great financial hardship documented elsewhere. I was free. It was a perfect example of doing one little thing well, repeatedly, until I got the result I wanted.
That’s just one piece of a puzzle that’s as of yet undefined. There’s plenty I want to work. I want love. I want to stay sober. I want to fix my lungs. I want to communicate better. I want to laugh more. I want to become a better writer and a better human. Getting your shit together isn’t as easy as rattling off a list of accomplishments. It’s sustained, small, incremental excellence that builds on itself, brings you peace and leaves joy in its wake for others.
I’ve been to the top of many mountains. I’ve soared to new heights. In a year of constant heat checks and dares, of breathless effort and endless accomplishment, I learned that there’s always another mountain to climb, but there’s no view quite like the one you get when you can look someone else in the eye and you both know exactly what the other is thinking. I bought a camera the other day and spent an afternoon running and taking pictures.
Life isn’t about living a great story, it’s about living a good life. It isn’t about going where you want to go, it’s about going where you’re needed and saying, “I like what you’ve done with the place.” It’s about love, laughter, friends, family and health. It’s about believing in other people and letting others believe in you. From living in a rented Jeep in a Wal-Mart parking lot to making six-figures and staying in a Penthouse, I can assure you that every stop along the way, the rest is all bullshit.
My Grandfather’s last words to me were “I used to hear a lot of good things about you. Not so much anymore. If you ever get your act together, you’re going to do big things.”
A lot of good things were finally said about me this year. I hope you heard them, Papa. I did big things. And I’d hoped one day I’d get my act together.
At least … I thought I would. Until she walked in.
VI. Everything Was Beautiful And All of It Hurt
“One day, I am going to break your fucking heart,” my girlfriend confessed on my balcony in between drags of her Marlboro 27. “You sure you want to do this?”
There are only two ways for a relationship to end: Separation and death. Both options are pretty devastating, the degree of sadness at the end largely dependent on two variables — vulnerability and time elapsed. I pondered this as I locked eyes with her and smirked.
“As sure as I’ve ever been about anything in all my life.”
She scowled, tilted her head up to the heavens and howled “UGHHHHH” in a throaty roar, the kind you’d receive after making a particularly egregious food pun. “Of course you would say that.”
We’d met some months prior, as I’d drunkenly meander outside of this bar we both drank at eight nights a week, me after playing music and her after tending bar, and I’d probe her for cigarettes while she shot me side-eye in her black-on-black work getup. I maybe got 12 words in at any given moment before her scattershot attention would wander to the next shiny thing her coworker was yelling.
We’d first become friends when I, too drunk to drive, too shamed for a cab, and too weak to say no, was invited by an odd friend to visit this woman’s house by the old river, and we decided to take a swim long past dark and long after the municipal park’s closing hours.
“You just gotta get in there,” she instructed her friend. “The water is perfect. Don’t be a bitch about it.”
Four in the morning and freezing, we careened through the rapids, beers in our hand, on a hazy summer evening that felt three weeks long. Her wide eyes, drunk on adrenaline and high on adventure, the only stars in the sky.
Some time later, I’d be playing some music at a local dive bar for my 33rd birthday, and I — as is customary for my slightly narcissistic tendencies — invited everyone that I knew, so I pleaded with her she’d have the night of her life if she came to the concert. I may have been overselling it. I often oversell it.
Some hour into my set, I’d noticed a woman I swore I’d never seen before walk through the curtains into the dimly-lit listening room, along with two friendly faces I instantly recognized. As the stage lights grew hotter and my vision grew blurry, I fixated on solving the puzzle of who this gal was. All shimmering blonde and elegant posture. Of All the Gin Joints In The World and all the rest.
After 90 solid minutes of guessing and checking, gazing and glancing, I hopped off the stage to what could’ve been thunderous applause (editor’s note: I was there, and in no way in hell could it be called “thunderous”). Yet I could only hear the sound of my heart, pin-balling across my rib-cage as my eyes readjusted. My god, that is her. The gal from the bar. The gal from the swim. The dark of the room, the unexpected nature of her arrival, and the novelty of her non-work apparel caused me to see her in a different light. I asked for a cigarette and led her outside.
Covered in ink where her black dress didn’t reach, soft on the eyes with a hardness to her hands, she sold herself with a confident, pronounced collarbone that will still draw slacked jaws from Smithsonian scientists decades from now. A melt-in-your-mouth vintage pinup — an anomaly in our era — with the classic curves and calves to stand proud and stand out.
We talked for possibly two hours but more like ten minutes. I hadn’t even noticed everyone else leave. She sat there, her wildly searching eyes oddly locking on mine for the first time in what was probably ever, her prosecco-soaked voice bobbing and weaving in the moonlight, in complete command of the conversation — serving up verbal curve-balls I was all-too-eager to swing at. She does this thing when she emphasizes a point where she slowly nods her head straight up and down and stares straight into your soul, a fiercely unkind invasion of everything you ever thought you knew. Alluring and strange, devilishly gentle in its execution.
I, bleary-eyed and burnt up from bliss and whiskey shots, was no match from the start. She gave a half-smile and I leaned in for a kiss. Sloppy, no doubt. Amateur move. Another endlessly silly and undisciplined decision that we’re all guilty of making when someone flashes just the right smile at just the right moment. Just because the light’s green doesn’t mean you’re on the right road. Yet, there we sat in the waning hours of our youth, taken aback by its unrelenting reciprocation, and I was imagining fireworks as Explosions in the Sky played on a loop in my limbic system. This wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Fuck, I am doomed.
A date a month later turned into two. A night spent together that lasted all weekend. A runaway train of passion and freedom, unbounded by caution or reason or is-this-even-worth-doing.
And so when she asked me if I was sure I wanted to do this, I just assumed she meant every word. She asked me, point blank and in the plainest of terms, if I wanted her to break my heart.
So, yes, after letting her question on my balcony marinate, I stamped out my cigarette and flashed her a look that could only be described as inescapable, irredeemable joy. I placed my lips upon hers and we locked eyes again, my tongue now too tied to formulate any banter of substance, my body boiling and steam seeping out my pores.
“Hi,” I managed, some two inches from her face.
“Hey-hi,” she said back. Her smile shot through me like lightning and vanished just as quick. With a thunderclap in my heart all that remained.
Please, let life be just like this. Please, be just like this. Just like this. Just this. This.
And for the first time in as far back as I could recall, I’d felt completely vulnerable. The water is perfect. Don’t be a bitch about it.
Redbreast 12. Splash of water. And off she danced, this tornado.
“Some people,” as she lit another cigarette outside the Blackheart, gazing into the endless night, “would characterize my behavior as sociopathic.”
And from there, encircling that thesis, she touched upon Bukowski and snake-killing with the same matter of fact-ness as a live-read of the Sunday Plain Dealer. Her voice, cracking and cocksure, radiated warm waves through the Texas sky. She was endlessly enrapturing, tossing off zingers and brilliantly navigating the well-worn intricacies of Modern American couples’ dialogue.
A small-town girl raised in the State Park system, who’s life careened from book nerd to band nerd to third-wave feminism, to the metal scene to the tattoo circuit, to college, the service industry, with pit-stops in frat-houses, flop-houses, foster homes and party pads — an on-again, off-again lesbian who suckered countless half-wits into her snake-pit — she frantically and frenetically photosynthesized her environs into a traveling circus.
You want the perfect croque madame or spicy old fashioned? Done.
You want a hand-crafted prohibition-era bar-cart designed, cut and welded to spec? Or the perfect accent pillow to go with your mid-century modern sofa? With fucking pleasure.
Fearlessly independent and self-reliant, she was the rare type of human who’d stick a dime in her clutch to keep her manual transmission humming, shower and turn into a stone-cold stunner, drive you to the party, grab a machete and uncork a bottle of champagne, pour it into your glass without spilling a drop, tell you “you are so turned on right now,” then walk away before you’ve had a chance to stop yourself from sublimation. I’m reasonably sure she’s ascended into heaven on a fistful of occasions just to sucker-punch god in the face.
Battle-hardened yet all the more blissful for it, she led me on a one-night whirlwind sojourn of her favorite haunts in her hometown just a couple looks down from the city where we spilled our love. We crushed up Adderall, crushed a pizza, wandered into a speakeasy, shot Fireball in a college bar, smoked ciggs on a rooftop patio, stumbled into her sister, crashed at her pad. We lived each night a week at a time in those days. Waking up the following morning with heads and hearts pounding, soaked in sweat and caked in smoke. God, to be 19 again and furiously, madly in love and lust and other drugs.
“Sorry I drank all your bullet rye,” she posted to Facebook as we posted up at a local dive where it was Christmas Eve all year long. She charmed every bartender with a wisecrack and a wink. I find it hard to believe they didn’t drop their number for her on our check while I scuttled off to the bathroom.
“What are you cheesing about?” She asked me outside, as she blew smoke-rings in the cold, in between recounting her favorite European horror films with the kind of passion usually reserved for a political protest.
My smile was undeniable. Immutable. Irrepressible. She was talented and sharp, charming and weird, the kind of woman you find out about in off-brand banned history textbooks — the ones they’d lock up in Cold War vaults because their topics are just too damned dangerous. Lara Croft meets Martha Stewart meets Amy Winehouse meets Harriet Tubman meets Hidden Figures. How in the age of Waze and Geocaching has no one yet unearthed this gem? How did she happen upon me?
“You make me so happy,” I’d whisper to her in between kisses.
“I have no idea why, but I’ll take it” she’d reply, with a sort of aw-shucks flippancy that belied the fact that she had absolutely every fucking idea what she could do to a man. Wreck him. Leave him wet and cold. Shivering under the heat of her glow.
We’d drive around at night sometimes, just taking pictures of graffiti and neon signs long after midnight, her just telling stories of her exes, her conquests, her wild adventures across the country modeling the carefully curated art exhibit inked to her body, her views on sex and serial killers subtly unfurled over a steady diet of charcuterie and cocktails.
And she always bought the best gifts — the perfect little something to remind you of her and bring you closer to your best self. When she believed in you, you could run through a brick wall. When she complimented you, you could fly through a concrete ceiling. And when she captivated you, you could stay bolted through the floor for weeks.
“Olive you from my head tomatoes,” she drew in pen on a legal pad and stuck it to my fridge. The smiling tomato greeted me every morning as I reached for the Red Bull to work off her hangover.
“Transatlanticism” played in the rental car, as we sauntered through South Beach with the windows rolled down. It was late afternoon, and a light sunshower sprinkled on the windshield. I was finally at peace.
I’d spent the vast majority of the preceding 47 months trying to prove I was worth something, anything. I’d been fired from my previous job at a fly-by-night publishing company, evicted from my home to live in my 2009 Hyundai Sonata and — when the job I’d applied to some months later silently retracted their offer — watched that car get repossessed, leaving me homeless, car-less, and wading in a mountain of payday loan and title loan debt I had no intention or means of paying.
I’d broken things off with a gal I had every intention of marrying, after four years of all-too-comfortable togetherness, in a fiery explosion of despair and frustration, after I systematically distanced myself from her when it became fairly clear she had no interest in seeing me for me.
I’d worked my way up from the lowest rung at my job to crawl my way out of over $50,000 in debt, rehabilitated myself after undergoing shoulder reconstruction well enough to start rock climbing and run marathons, moved out of my old apartment and into my new condo, established a Swiss Army Knife of a side-career as a singer-songwriter, a freelance columnist for a prominent national website, and a branding mercenary.
I’d lost 44 pounds, started a podcast, dated around, and gradually accumulated an eclectic social circle of bartenders, musicians, working professionals and quirky degenerates I found entertaining. And, now, I had finally found love. The kind of love that keeps you awake at night, laughing and crying tears of euphoria. The kind of love that melts you the way it did as a teenager, and softens you with the easy maturity of knowing better at 33. The kind of love that leaves you breathless, wordless and reckless. By the time we’d reached the East Coast at the only point I’d never seen it before, I was an ecstatic fireball. Yes, Atlantic Monthly, you can have it all.
Our hotel was a gorgeous, white art-deco movie set, with a free happy hour between 7 and 8 p.m. I dragged her to a sports bar to watch Syracuse play North Carolina in the Final Four, in a battle of the college I attended to pursue my dream career in sports journalism and flamed out spectacularly, versus my dream college I transferred to only to flame out spectacularly again — in the process, losing my sense of self and fumbling away the only woman I’d ever truly felt completely content with. My current gal had no interest in the “sports shows.” And that was okay.
We wandered the Wynwood Walls. We aimlessly admired the architecture while listening to Hipster Cocktail Party Pandora — I still remember all those songs by heart. We careened through the Coral Gables. We went to a jaw-dropping Propaganda exhibit at a museum I called the “Wolfenstein,” where we split up and soaked it all in in complete silence.
I watched her dresses and hair blow dutifully in the tropical breeze. She gazed at me with the wild wonder of a young child perpetually unwrapping the biggest box on Christmas. And she hates Christmas.
“You make me so happy,” she confessed to me on a bridge where we stopped to take the second of just four pictures we’d ever appear in together. And she smiled from ear to ear.
I had no worthwhile reply. My brain had short-circuited and zapped me clear of sentences.
We biked from our hotel down to the Art Deco District. I can’t remember if I followed her or she followed me. And when we ended up amongst the departing cruise ships and EDM-bro day-drinkers, we disembarked and meandered our way to the pier. Her hand in mine. My blood like running Christmas lights. I could feel her heartbeat through her hand, and could feel my own in my throat.
We stared off into the endless Atlantic at Miami’s southern point, the only thing separating us from the end of the world just the comfort of each other’s company. We staggered to find words for each other as we dined upon bone marrow, sea urchin, oysters and soft-shell crab. We sipped on craft cocktail after craft cocktail at hidden gems and dimly-lit lounges. We made love in the afternoon and chased infinity through the morning light. We took free shots of rum at a Haitian dive with impossibly great food. We watched the old Cuban men throw dominoes in a bar next to a laundromat. We danced to reggae at a blacked-out underground club. We walked under the endless sun and kissed as it breathed its last sigh over the endless blue of the horizon.
We spent four days in Miami without ever really combing the beach, only scurrying onto the sand for ten minutes, just to snap the obligatory Instagram photo to prove to the 21st Century that we’d actually made it.
I think back to that moment to that final, cathartic and heartbreaking outro to “Transatlanticism,” and that brief moment of complete silence in my soul, allowing every wave of joy to topple every sandcastle of regret and rejection I’d ever felt in all my life. I think back to the cumulus clouds and endless white sand. I look back to the way her eyes glistened in the soft white light of the perpetual summer. I remember the way her hair flowed and got stuck in her lips, and the way her nose crinkled up when she smiled at me. All sense of place, space and time lost. I crack and burn at the thought of having ever spent my life before being anywhere but here, with anyone but her. My heart spills open with tears and rum and rainbows and bliss. There was no more struggle, no more pain, no more rejection, no more sadness. All that was left were endless rays of hope, sunshine and goosebumps poking through whatever was left of the guard I’d so eagerly let down, and the delineation between her and I suddenly diffused into vapor. God, let the world hurt me like this. Let angels come down and sweep us away before I awake from this fever dream and remember that life never lets us out of this place alive.
I need you so much closer.
I need you so much closer.
Sex and laughter sigh and wheeze, releasing into the ether of a nostalgic past. How we navigate the uncharted waters where the magical gives way to the mundane determines our future.
“All I ever ask,” she pleaded as she ordered us two shots of Fireball, “is for you to be true to yourself.” I hadn’t been drinking. But today, I’d have it. One last shot with the woman who still had that preternatural ability to make cooked spaghetti stand at attention with the firm grab of its arm.
Planes spend half their time in the sky gracefully descending from their peak. You only notice when the seat-belt sign comes on. When we took those shots of fireball — at 2 p.m., at a Chili’s nowhere close to where our lives had taken us, the landing gear was officially out.
We’d gradually spent less and less time together. Imperceptibly, at first. Mere regression to the mean. A return to “normal,” whatever the hell that even means. Every nuclear bond you form carries with it different charges, different valences, different intensities. But, I’d never walked this line before.
I gave myself up. I started mapping myself to her, to bring myself closer. I became a live-wire tuned to her exact frequency. I wanted to understand her, open up to her, present myself as an unvarnished work in progress willing to work with her and grow with her. What I viewed were ever-grander acts of love and calls for intimacy were ever-grander acts of desperation and calls for validation.
She gave up on me. She started voicing her displeasure and lecturing me on my flaws and internal dialogue. She told me I could never really understand her, and swatted away my attempts to open up, and my haphazard attempts to become “enough” were greeted with tepid reception at best. She worked on herself. She spread her wings and started rising on her own.
She’d come home later and later, and we’d go out less and less. Where we were once spontaneous combustion, we became smolder, then soot. I admired her for her fierce independence. She enjoyed me for my unchecked vulnerability. But when a free radical and a positive ion get together, the wearing away of intimacy is inevitable.
I started to notice the way she lit up in front of her friends. And the way she talked glowingly about her past, her friends and her ex-loves. And I started wondering how to make her even half as happy in the present, in my presence.
In addition to craving her closeness, my fear of rejection and inevitable abandonment reached DefCon-1. I fished for reassurance that it was all going to be okay. And she always told me it would be okay, that I was just being “weird, lately.”
In addition to her desire for distance, she bristled at the idea of the two of us taking turns at the wheel. Discussions of “us” turned into discussions of “me and you,” and then they turned to silence. The more the door closed, the harder I tried to open it. Like a rat pushing the cocaine button after it stopped getting its regular fix, I started pushing it harder, and more often.
“I can’t wait for the day where we’re just sitting on opposite ends of this couch, you doing your thing and me doing mine,” she told me one morning very early on as we dressed for brunch.
She’d stopped kissing me before she left for work. I stopped filtering my insecurities. She started preying upon them. My defenses wore down. Her guard went up. I turned blue. She saw red. Icarus sped into the sun. Atlas no longer had the energy to shrug.
By the time we took that shot of fireball, on a kind of Saturday we used to spend day-drinking prosecco and playing bocce under the warm sun, we were at the same bar, miles apart. And I couldn’t bring myself to know what was already known — not that I’d done anything to hurt her, or that she’d done anything to put me off — but that we could simply not coexist, nor go any further, in our current incarnation. Another life. Another time. Another way.
After our shots, we meandered to her ex-boyfriend’s wedding, where she introduced me as the “person I actively choose to spend my time with,” and even told guests she was “moving to Austin to live with this guy.” I internalized this and made plans to sell off furniture to give her the space she needed to start her life with me. My heart opened and burst into the sides of my rib-cage again. And then I saw the way she looked at her ex, as he vowed to start his adventure with his newly-minted wife.
I pondered this. I pondered her happiness in her element, and her unease with her current state, comparing it to the end of Stand By Me, where everyone vanishes, grows up and gets married, and she just vanishes. And resigned myself to the conclusion I drew … that I would rather have her look the way at me the way she looked at him five years from now, than have her look the way she looked at me right now.
There’s an old chestnut about how if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, the frog senses the heat and hops right out, but if you submerge a frog in water and gradually raise the temperature, it gets boiled alive. There we were in the water. It was perfect — don’t be a bitch about it — until it wasn’t. We were boiled alive.
The grand joke about the frog and the water, though, is that it’s patently untrue. The frogs know when the temperature rise, and hop out to survive. We weren’t two frogs in a simmer, after all.
As it turns out, she was the frog. I was the water.
“I’m not happy,” she texted me 24 hours or so after she packed four bags of her things and said she was going to hang with her friends from the wedding. “Not just with my life, but with this relationship. You say you want to make me happy, but I just don’t think that’s possible anymore.”
I pleaded for a talk, and she told me she needed a couple days. I gave her the space and the silence.
Monday turned to Tuesday. Tuesday turned to Wednesday. Wednesday turned to Thursday. Thursday turned to Friday.
I came home from work that day to find all of her things gone and the key unceremoniously placed in a padlock I keep on the balcony where we smoked all those cigarettes and spilled all those words and cheesy smiles in all those bygone months. We had a long-running joke that whoever left who first would give the other the Roku, where we used to watch all that Netflix curled up in each others’ arms. She took that, too. She left no note.
I sat on my balcony and lit up a Camel Crush. The sun was warm, and the fresh Spring leaves rustled in the gentle breeze. Everything was beautiful and all of it hurt. I inhaled slowly and tried to put all the pieces of the puzzle together.
I started with what I knew. She engaged in a covert, secretive house-hunting mission to plan her escape that would minimize the damage it did to her, and mitigate the discomfort of having to explain herself. And then I began to understand.
I remember the way she felt like she was just vanishing. The way she distanced herself from me. The way she once said, “I can’t wait for the day where we’re just sitting on opposite ends of this couch, you doing your thing and me doing mine.” The way I was “weird, lately.” The many ways she would lash out at me to drive a wedge between us. The way that all she ever asked was for me to be true to myself. And I started to ask myself what truth there was even left to me, beyond my unquenchable desire to just share my life with the only woman who still had that preternatural ability to make cooked spaghetti stand at attention with the firm grab of its arm. I remember the way the magical turned into the mundane. And how willing I was to sail headfirst into stormy seas disguised as routine cloud cover.
I thought back to Miami, and that brief moment of complete silence in my soul, allowing every wave of joy to topple every sandcastle of regret and rejection I’d ever felt in all my life, and how that was almost a year ago, now. I remember my blood like running Christmas lights, and my heart in my throat. About my short-circuited brain and inability to form words. I remember the way we split up at the museum in complete silence. I pined again for that kind of love that leaves you breathless, wordless and reckless. And I remember just how breathless, wordless and reckless I was. I remember wondering how I had wasted my life being anywhere else, and with anyone else. I realized she could never be close enough — and how that, alone, made me the one worth leaving.
I remember the best gifts — the way she made me want to run through a brick wall, the way she could make me fly through a concrete ceiling, the way she kept me bolted to the floor for weeks. I remembered the way she engaged in glowing discourse of her past loves and wild times. I remember her never knowing why she made me so happy. I thought about how no one had “found” her, yet, somehow. I then realized she never really wanted to be found. I was warmed over by the way we were once furiously in love with no regard for safety or sanity. I remember her self-reliance, her versatility, her ability to do it all with a knowing wink, in complete control of every situation. The way she telegraphed that some people would characterize her behavior as sociopathic. She had warned me all along that she would do this.
I remember the way she made me feel completely vulnerable. I remember how doomed I felt. I remember her wildly searching eyes that could never quite fix upon any one thing long enough to hold still. I remember the way I noticed her in that different light, the way it attached to her in a way it never quite used to, and in a way it never quite did since. I remember the way I always oversell things. The way I just had to get in there, because the water was perfect. The way I could only get 12 words in at any given moment before her scattershot attention would wander to the next shiny thing. The way, from the very beginning, she rebuffed my un-sanded advances with a groan, and the way, from even before that, she told me in the plainest of terms: “One day, I am going to break your fucking heart.” Sweet holy Jesus, she was right.
And at that moment … the wound began healing.
It was always supposed to end like this, the chaser and the chased. The one wrapped up in his own head, and the one who could never be seen for who she was. My eyes opened. It took her doing the unfathomable for me to understand. It took her making herself invisible for me to even approach seeing her for who she was, and even at this moment, I could not feel confident in my conclusions. I may have fallen for the devil in the black dress and the chaos magic, but the woman I loved in the end was the one who would scrunch up her nose when I nuzzled it, the one who slept with her mouth open, catching flies. The beautifully flawed woman who was so desperately human, and normal, and someone I could enjoy an afternoon in complete silence with. She was always worried she, the real woman, could never live up to the woman I thought she was. She was right … they were as different as the highlights and the full game footage, but I never got the chance to tell her that the real woman was the better one all along. I’ll live with that. I’ll live with it all.
It took her finally leaving me, for me to realize that I was worth loving as who I was, even as I realized that I was the one worth leaving for who I turned into. A peace began to rush over me.
“Some people,” she said to me once upon a time, “can’t handle their shit. They’re holding spaghetti in their hands and then all that’s left is spaghetti everywhere.” Our love was that spaghetti, because of course it was. And that’s when I remembered that there are still only two ways for a relationship to end: Separation and death. Both options are pretty devastating, the degree of sadness at the end largely dependent on two variables — vulnerability and time elapsed. And then I discovered the third variable: the degree to which you can understand. I put the spaghetti back onto its a plate, and I stopped thinking for a while.
Our lives are inside jokes — funny and meaningful to a few, but most people never get them or know them. Barring an incredible stroke of luck or genius, most of us end up the same: A few folks sitting in a church, or over a stone, talking about how great we were, how much we were worth, while what’s left of us waits to be buried or scattered around, to be eroded by the winds of history. Expectations, thoughts and memories weigh us down — they prevent us from stretching out, spreading our wings and being. It was my expectations, thoughts and memories that stopped us from being who we were meant to be.
I found myself now awash in comfort in this anonymity, in this transience, in this freedom from fretting over that which we cannot control and that which clouds our judgment. In the finding the only truths left to find.
Change, love, death and the present are the only truths we have. Everything else clouds them and makes us tragically sick. The sooner we can detach ourselves from these clouds, from the weight of tragic memories, the suffering of incessant overthinking, or the hell of high expectations, the happier we will be, the freer we will be. We will find a way to accept change, to love with all our hearts, to come to terms with death, and to be truly present here — these are the most human, most righteous and most noble of pursuits.
Everything else, all the trying and failing and wondering if you’ll ever be enough, all of it: The rest is just noise. The rest is just lies. We’re more than the stories we tell ourselves, even if the stories we tell ourselves trick us into thinking we should be more than what we are. In the end, we are ultimately left and forgotten. I’d rather live knowing that now, than die having always believed in something that was never really there. I live knowing that the people who’ve careened in out of my life left a trail of joy and meaning in their wake. She left that in my life. I hope I left that in hers, but I cannot concern myself much with it — we cannot control the way people see us, because sometimes, despite our best efforts, we may never see people for who they really are. Our lives are inside jokes. I suppose it’s on us to laugh. It’s on us to tell them.
I exhale and I smile, on my balcony in between drags of a Camel Crush. I’d do it all differently next time, but I wouldn’t have changed what’s already done. My heart is broken, but it’s still beating — louder than ever. And for the first time in as far back as I can recall, that’s enough for now.
VII. Nothing Turns Out How You Think It Will
I remember, when I was young, I wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to plant myself in a rocket, shoot myself into the vast expanse of the cosmos, and scour the stars. Then, I rode a Tilt-A-Whirl, threw up a few times, and drew up a Plan B.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that, up until pretty recently, I had peaked in high school. I was a multi-sport athlete, and an all-New York State drummer who graduated with high honors. I chilled in the homecoming court, and I would soon make my way to Syracuse University to study broadcast journalism. I was an actual Eagle Scout who’d never been on the wrong side of the law, and I’m pretty sure at the time I could be safely labeled a “Rockefeller Republican.”
I was also madly in love with this absolutely spellbinding woman — an extraordinarily smart, fierce, warm, witty girl with a big heart and flawless eyes. In the Summer of 2000, we went to the beach together, and first made love in the most romantic — and cliche — way ever. We waited for my parents to skip town, I took her out to a nice Italian dinner, came back home to make some popcorn, and then we cuddled on the couch to watch a movie we had no intention of finishing, before we drove out to a field to lay under the stars.
I had dreams of settling down with her after college, and we’d live in a beautiful suburban home, in a good-sized television market. I’d come home from doing the news and she’d come home from being a chemical engineer and doing whatever chemical engineers do. We’d park our BMWs next to each other in our two-car garage and crack open some wine. And we’d even invite our nanny to stay for dinner, after she finished tutoring our daughter in Spanish and Clarinet.
Some time late freshman year of college, I left her, to start a fling with a capricious neo-hippie from Fairfield County who was also extraordinarily smart, fierce, warm and witty, with a big heart and flawless eyes. We also went to the beach together, but when we went to the beach, we popped molly, smoked pot, played guitar till sunrise and slammed tequila shots. We took the subway into New York just to wander around unsupervised and eat pizza.
We broke several misdemeanor laws together, and when we made love, it physically broke us both — and was generally preceded by a screaming match and followed by a good cry. We couldn’t keep our hands off each other: In a library, or a movie theater, or a field of tall grass. Then she cheated on me, called me to tell me she didn’t love me anymore, and I didn’t hear from her again for several years.
The gal I initially left? The future chemical engineer? Well, she followed through and became one, moved to the New York area, bought a BMW, married a handsome, wealthy commercial real estate broker and bought a spacious suburban home in one of those school districts where they teach kids Spanish and Clarinet in kindergarten.
What did I do? Well, we’ll get to that.
I want to talk about goals. So many of them are unremarkable. From around the time I stopped wanting to be an astronaut, I started wanting a fairly ordinary life. I wanted to buy a house, get married, have some kids, make some money, get in shape, and do a moderate amount of traveling. In my own dealings with others, and in my own unfunded research, I’ve concluded these goals are fairly common across most people. (I do realize there’s a fair bit of bias in the data here, as I know a disproportionate number of people who are white, straight, middle-class and around my age, relative to the world at large.) The goals we think would make an exceptional life, are actually pretty basic. The paths to those ends may be long and winding, and they may be as varied between people as their fingerprints, but the steps taken all look pretty much the same. One foot in front of the other, each road paved in failed New Year’s Resolutions.
Where we tend to strive for the exceptional is in the quality of these ordinary milestones. A better house. A more loving, extraordinary spouse. Healthy and well-adjusted kids. Six-pack abs. Sojourns to seven continents. These are offshoots of the same basic goals, amped up by increased ambition and/or vanity, depending on how evil you think the human spirit is. Yet, even these feel somewhat ordinary in the infinite age. With the proliferation of media — print, broadcast and social — we’ve been sold #LivingMyBestLife as both the ideal state, and also as the default. There are two reasons for this:
- Advertising is exponentially more prevalent now than it’s ever been.
- It’s now harder than ever to avoid comparing yourself to your peers.
If everyone — on TV or on Facebook or in Texas Monthly — has the wrap-around porch, an app in development, or a 40-Under-40 Award, then it stands to reason that you could find yourself feeling defective and weird if you do not. Maybe rather than champagne with the girls at one of those sustainable farm-to-table restaurants with an ampersand in the name, you’re sipping scotch alone while watching Sixers-Nets and tweeting about it. Maybe that eats at you because you don’t feel very “normal.”
There’s another downside to this. This “normal” that we speak of — the one we romanticize? Because of how often we’re carpet-bombed with images of this idealized state, and how hard we aspire to it, and how normal we think that it is, we’re ill-prepared for when life deals one of its patented left-hooks to the jaw.
When we get the call from the family physician, and find out our daughter has Lymphoma, or when we see images of war and brutality beamed right into our home. And we say that this is absolutely capital n, capital n, Not Normal. Or, one day we come to find our spouse in our bed with someone we knew but wish we didn’t, and then papers come soon after and we need to find a place of our own and have our 23 year-old junior account executive teach us how to use Bumble. The idyllic utopia sold to us stands in for reality, because it feels like it should be reality, when in actual reality, reality is a lot more gritty and messy than that. Ask anyone who’s lost someone they’ve loved, or been given up for dead, or watched their family unit torn apart by drugs or mental illness or an overeager system of mass incarceration.
When you take the long view of life, the true “normal” is pure chaos. Death, adversity, illness, struggle, hunger, pain, suffering, war and distraction. These are the events we document, overcome and remember. There is never a perfect time. Pax Humana is not eternal. We will live. We will die. And in between, we will be very afraid of losing people we love — I suppose that’s another dream many of us share: To preserve our relationships as long as possible, and to lose as few people we love as possible, as late and as peacefully as possible.
I saw the woman — the pot-smoking, guitar-playing tornado in the sundress — I left my high-school sweetheart for in Brooklyn. We hadn’t been a “thing” in some 15 years or so, and we hadn’t seen each other in 12. She looked good. A little older, the years had been hard but kind, and she still had the same deep gaze and genuine empathy that drew me to her in the first place. We slammed several vodkas to avoid overthinking about just what the hell we were doing there, or what the hell we were going to talk about, or how we were going to talk about it. We moved some charcuterie around without ever really trying to eat it. Toward the end of our summit, I thanked her. She asked me why.
I ran back the years between 2002 and 2017 in my head. I’d been to two more colleges, studied two more majors, started singing and playing guitar, waited tables, tended bar, snorted coke, got arrested, took mushrooms in the desert, seen some 500 concerts, climbed some 20 mountains, visited every city in the U.S., moved to Texas, held a variety of odd remote-work jobs, got fired, lived in my car, ran marathons, learned MS Excel, started voting reliably Democratic, claimed both $11,000 and $110,000 on my 1040, became a writer, started getting paid to do some freelance journalism, got a nine-to-five in a cube-farm at a giant corporation, befriended some B- and C-list celebrities, and cheap wine and rap-metal faded into mid-grade bourbon and free jazz.
I reminisced about all my friends who I stood up for at their weddings, and about all my ex-girlfriends who never quite made it all the way to mine. I thought about housewarming party after bachelor party after baby shower, and about all the ones I saw on Facebook that I didn’t attend, and about all the times I was invited over to help young couples build a deck, remodel their kitchen, or just to enjoy some BBQ on their new deck or in their new kitchen. I think about all the times they would tell me how fucking cool it was that I had an SI byline, traveled the world and still played guitar in bars. Mostly, I thought about the slight twinge of heartache in our voices, after the kids had gone to bed and we’d all had too much to drink, as we each tried to convince the other that the grass was greener on the other side.
I snapped back to Brooklyn, 2017. I looked at the woman across from me, who once meant so much but about whom I now knew so little, and said to her, “Thank you for making me interesting.” We aggressively kissed goodbye at the table like I was going off to prison, or to war. And then I grabbed the check, stumbled into my Uber, and boarded a flight at JFK to come back to Austin. I drank more gin on the plane, drunkenly pretended I was blasting off into space the way I wanted to when I was young, and awkwardly flirted with the gal sitting next to me. We drank more gin and made out on the plane. She came home with me, and was gone before I woke up — which was just as well.
After all, I had to get to work by 9 a.m. Back at the office. Back on that grind. Back to normal. Whatever the hell that means anymore.
VIII. A Letter of Resignation
Spaceship Earth at EPCOT. It is, to the day, exactly as old as I am. We were both born October 3, 1982. We’ve been alive for 34 years, 10 months and 17 days. Earlier this year, I ran past it on my way to completing the very first marathon I’d ever run … a quite literally unbelievable feat for someone who was born with lungs that function at 53% capacity. The race took me 6 hours, 42 minutes and 25 seconds. Upon completion, I had a glass of champagne. I deserved it. This story is only tangentially about that.
Exactly half my life ago, some 17 years, 5 months and 8 days ago, I started a career which has been well documented — yet hidden in plain sight. It was an illustrious career, which netted me a great deal of satisfaction and joy. I am here today to announce my retirement from it. I’ve held a lot of jobs during that time — waiter, bartender, writer, musician, branding “guru”, marketing manager, mathematician, weatherman, sports columnist, podcast host — but none of them were my real career. I’m holding onto the jobs I still have. Today, I am firmly, unequivocally retiring from the sport of professional drinking. And, so I am clear on this, let me say the words that will haunt you, so that I may no longer be haunted by keeping them secret: I am John Gorman. And I am, in no uncertain terms, an alcoholic.
***freezes frame, steps out of it***
Yes, that’s me. You’re probably wondering how I ended up here. Well, let me tell you a goddamned story.
It’s almost my brand at this point, but, in case you’re new: I’d spent the past year or so in a spectacular downward spiral. I am, by all metrics, less healthy and happy than I was in the Spring of 2016, when I was at my absolute pinnacle. The decline was so gentle, and the zenith so high, that I barely felt real ramifications even though I knew things were getting wobbly at the top. I still (thankfully) have my job. I still have (most of) my friends. And only very few people pointed out to me that I had “changed.”
But I, myself, could tell what was happening. So I went running for answers. I traveled the country, hoping to find them. I visited old friends in old cities. I visited ex-girlfriends. I saw baseball games. I saw concerts. I drank in dimly lit bars. I pillaged my past — the people and places and activities from it — to try and rediscover myself. Often, I didn’t find what I was looking for. Even if I had a helluva lot of fun along the way. This was piece and parcel of my life writ large — a never-ending party, a show designed to entertain those who dared to watch, at the expense of myself and my health.
In April in New York, on a very long, dimly lit night, I drank in Astoria with one of my best friends, and a woman I hadn’t seen in seven years. I had been cataclysmically drunk the entire weekend to that point, and I would continue to be right up until the morning after I’d returned to Austin. But, while at the bar, I said, frankly, “Follow me down the black hole.” I knew where I was headed, because I had already been there. Aided by cognac and fernet, I found I could be refreshingly candid with them, even if that meant being unusually dark and nihilist. And that was the easiest thing to notice: my darkness. That was new. That didn’t exist before — at least not outwardly. And that was my first warning sign that it was time for me to walk away. (The dozens of empty champagne bottles in my pantry that had been building up since Christmas of 2015 didn’t ring the alarm, but the inability to hide my sadness apparently was a bridge too far.)
My most recent ex used to compare me to Mr. Peanut Butter from Bojack Horseman for my relentless positivity. And, at the time I had met her, it was hard not to be clear skies and warm sun all the time. Everything was going my way: I was in the best shape and health of my life, my career was in the perfect spot, I had some money saved up, I had a ton of good quality relationships with friends and family, and I generally spent most of my day doing things I loved to do — music, writing, running, biking, reading and learning things. I did this, I think, because I had spent a good majority of the previous year sober. You see, I knew I had to stop drinking in the fall of 2014. And I had.
I was already out of control by that point, a man so enamored with whiskey and gin that I’d blacked out on my 32nd birthday after making out with five women — none of women were the one I was dating at the time, and, frankly, she was probably the greatest woman I’d ever dated, and, yes … she left me for good the following day — and, to quote an observer, I spent a solid hour “flopping around on the ground like a dolphin out of the sea.” I quit then. And I mostly didn’t drink for over a year thereafter. I did it without broadcasting it to the world. (Mostly.)
But I remember the day I re-started in earnest — it was the day I met the woman I couldn’t bare to be without. It was an innocent sidecar on our first date, on November 8, 2015. We broke up the week before I went to New York. And, yes, I went to New York because we broke up. I drunkenly cancelled the trip I had planned for us to go to Cuba, since that was no longer in the cards, and used that money to fly to the concrete jungle where dreams are made of. And, for the first time, I was forced to reconcile with who I’d become while making peace with a past that, while wonderful, was tinged with regret. I met an ex-girlfriend to see Waitress. I met another one at a dive in Brooklyn, where I sucked down Tito’s and Soda until I was blue in the fucking face.
My darkness was suddenly front-and-center. I was confronted with it, with nowhere left to turn, because how can anyone escape themselves. I was now completely unhinged, detached from time and space and reality. I turned my drinking — as I often have, but never to the extent that I did now — into a cloak of invincibility; shielding me from consequences for my actions. Now that my tank of fucks left to give was dry, I didn’t have to give any. I started behaving … erratically. Drinking more, and more often, than usual. On an average night, some five-to-six nights per week, I would put away somewhere between 10 and 20 shots of alcohol. This has been the case for the past year. That’s not a misprint.
I was losing interest in things I once loved, and taking a liking to pursuits that could kill me if I did them long enough. Pursuits like finding my way to the bottom of a bottle — every day, many times per day. I also began numbing myself through sex, Netflix, rich foods, travel and experiences. And those were all great, because, well — what isn’t great when you’re hashtag living your best life? My behavior was Instagrammable. When I would tell people “all I do is drink until I black out, smoke until I can’t breathe, eat pizza until I can’t walk, and fuck anyone and everyone,” people complimented me on my fierce independence and brash silliness. And although I was broadcasting my sadness and self-cruelty to the world, no one seemed to get the message.
And, when those wells of distraction had run dry, or I couldn’t muster the energy to go out into the world, I began to mindlessly scroll my social media feeds — not even for the sake of connecting with people or commenting, but merely to pass the time. And I fell into a rut. And even more drinking. The quest to find the answer for the darkness became an imperative, and, arguably, the actual answer to the darkness itself. I was becoming sick and sad, cynical and weird, lazy and fearful. The walls began to close in — and then they collapsed.
Let’s talk for a minute about what being an alcoholic is really like. I sleep on an un-made bed, with no sheets on it, sheets that are balled up in a laundry basket, covered in cat vomit. That’s if I make it to bed. Most days I black out on the couch, watching Cold War documentaries for the sake of self-edification and yet almost nothing stays with me overnight. I mostly wake up wondering what year it is.
I started smoking a pack a day, for whatever reason, as if it’s not stupid enough to smoke anything at all while I — again — have 53% of a human lung. Imagine being born with COPD and then being like “nah, fuck it, I don’t care how I die, so I might as well die in the most obvious way possible, as soon as possible.”
I have, to the best of my knowledge, slept with over 200 women — 30 in the past six months. I do not know why. Maybe to beat back the inescapable loneliness. Actually, only for that reason. Had I been capable of loving myself, I probably wouldn’t need so many people to love me.
I’ve gotten too drunk on two dates in the past month — both of which were with people I actually, truly, adored, and still do. There were no second dates. Imagine, being able to find love and punting on it because fernet shots are so much more desirable than potential life-long companionship.
My house is a certified sty. Dishes piled on the counter-top. Nacho debris littered all over the rug. I should probably be vacuuming instead of writing this. I’m not. Imagine, coming home, wading through a pile of bottles and bullshit, and thinking “nah, that’s fine. The minefield is just the price I pay for living with myself.”
I have eaten five meals this week. Three of which were (full, large) pizzas. One of which was a pasta salad that had been sitting out at room temperature for 24 hours, but, I didn’t have the self-discipline to throw it out and eat something else. Imagine being so in the realm of not giving a shit that you willingly say to yourself “there’s definitely bacteria in this and this smells like dead squirrel, but, fuck it, I’m hungry and this tastes fine.” I’ve lost 10 pounds in the past six months, subsisting only on carbonated liquids that range from IPA to bourbon. Only eating when my body was literally craving a vegetable. (BTW, if you ever think, “Fuck, that salad looks delicious,” you’re probably farther down the path of an unhealthy lifestyle than you think you are.)
And so, now, here I stand: at the precipice, staring into the abyss, and realizing the time is now to turn the car around before it careens over the cliff. 17 years, 5 months and 8 days was just long enough to be at the peak of my powers. Or, more accurately, to be actively sabotaging me from being at the peak of my powers. I plan on spending the next 17 years, 5 months and 8 days — yes, until I am literally 52 years old, should I make it that far without dying from what I’ve already done to myself — sober. I am calling it a career. And, while, it had been a helluva ride to be sure, I want to stop the coaster and head to another amusement park.
I am, currently, drinking — one last set of drinks. Yes, I’ve written this drunk. I started at noon with a 512 IPA — the beer that I drank when I wrapped my car around a tree. I continued with champagne — the drink I never loved until I met the woman I thought I’d finally found everlasting love with, the one who I, inadvertently, drove away because my personality changed so very much after I began guzzling alcohol like it was oxygen. I, then, stopped at a bar to enjoy a shot of whiskey and a shot of fernet, just to say goodbye to the two spirits that put me in the highest of spirits. And, now, two beers: Avery Brewing Company’s Maharaja, the first craft beer I was ever given for free, the one that kickstarted my writing career (I started as a beer blogger), and La Fin du Monde, which is my favorite beer of all time, and which literally means “The End of the World” in French. It feels apt. Tomorrow, I go to the doctor, and I talk to her about the things I’ve done and where is left to go from here. Who knows what comes next.
Most people only write about getting sober after they’ve been at it a while, and it’s an inspirational story about self-discipline and perseverance. This is not that. This is a story about being the very bottom, holding onto the last blade of grass before you fall off the face of the Earth. This is a story that, while disjointed, and poorly written, is as accurate and raw of an account of where I am today as any of the most articulate theses I’ve written in my many years of writing. Actually, more so. This is, truly, me. Unvarnished. Unedited. Finally present. I am a fucking mess. A fraud. Not a failure, no, there is no such thing, but someone who can no longer be trusted to fix things on his own. Maybe I was never that person. I do not know.
I mention Spaceship Earth because on the day I ran by it, at the pinnacle of my athletic career, I was 205 pounds (I typically tip the scales at about 170) and drinking and eating myself to death. The night before, I had unpacked a bottle of champagne, and pounded it to fall asleep that night. I did this at 9 p.m. I needed to be awake in six hours. I ran that marathon hungover, sweating out booze as I ran through every excruciating minute of those 26.2 miles. I did it as a sort of penance, but also as a sort of call-to-action: “If I can do this in the state I’m in, what can I do if I actually tried?” I thought about that for a while, and realized I’d never truly tried at anything. The only thing I’d ever put my heart and soul into was the relationship I started drinking again for. Everything else has been a happy byproduct of just being alive and good at whatever the fuck I was doing at the time.
I don’t know what trying feels like. I don’t know what happiness feels like. I, increasingly, don’t know what sobriety feels like. I don’t know what I feel like. And, to be clear, now I want to know. I’ve spent half my life drinking — nearly every day, some days more than others — and now I wish to stop. This is my letter of resignation. I do not know what the future holds for me. I am scared. I am lost. I am unsure what my next career will be. I can only hope that it leads me to a place that isn’t where I am right now, because where I am right now feels like the literal Fin du Monde. And at 34 years, 10 months and 17 days old, that’s just too goddamn soon to say goodbye.
IX. The Machine Becomes Self-Aware
I spent a morning that lasted all afternoon holed up in a hotel room in Phoenix, pounding bottles of champagne and staring into my phone hoping the meaning of life would magically appear. I was paralyzed, crippled by fear and darkness and anxiety. What’s wrong with me? And I began to think with a very specific, urgent purpose.
Last night, as I was decluttering old inkpad files on my phone — where I jot things down like stray quotes I want to hold onto, books I aim to read, Christmas gift ideas for loved ones, groceries I need to buy and things I need to do for the day — I came across the above.
Perhaps this is news to you, but I’ve spent the past 90 days tearing myself apart, trying to find the innermost essence of my being, wondering who I really am, and where I have left to go. I’ve been pushing myself, simultaneously, to the farthest reaches of what I am capable of, living with an acute reckless abandon for good taste and good sense. This sub-chapter, and frankly the much longer one it bookends, is closed.
I’ve returned from this journey physically paralyzed, mentally and emotionally exhausted. I can go no further, and fall no deeper. Not in this form. When you take away the travel, the running, the partying, the singing, the sarcasm, the writing, the friends, the lovers, the jobs, the jokes and the madness, what is left is nothing. Yes, I’ve had “it all.” And enjoyed it less than I ever have. Here’s what I’ve learned:
What I realized, I think, more than anything, is I am incapable of being alone, and thus, incapable of getting as close to other people as I want to. I keep trying to get closer to people than I’ve earned, I keep meeting people to distract me from working on myself, and if I am not with someone physically, I have my head buried in my phone. I do those things to distract me from loneliness. When I’m just sitting, when I’m just existing, I feel completely empty. Like I’m missing something big. And so I alter the state I’m in, or bring people into that state. Always more people. Always new people. The texts. The travel. The social media. The stories. It’s all the same drug, designed to ease the existential ache of never feeling fully present, never having the full capacity to truly appreciate and understand others.
The innermost me is not much different than you, and it is certainly not exceptional. I breathe. I eat. I occasionally make things. I think we share that in common. Beyond that is anyone’s guess. I think about myself too much. I always say I will change, or am changing, but people do not change — they merely drift.
JG // 7.16.2017
I wrote those four paragraphs in a Phoenix hotel room on July 16 of last year. I have not edited it. I do not recall writing it. I do not recall its intended recipient. And, to be fair, I probably had a reason not to. I spent the back half of that trip to Phoenix blackout-faded off gin-and-sodas and shots of fernet branca. I was sliding down the most precipitous chute of last year’s tailspin into deep, dark, drunken depression. This was a dispatch from the end of the world. But where did this all come from? How did I end up here lost in a haze of booze and self-inflicted wounds? What do those words mean?
I reasoned, with unusual clarity, that at the root of my drinking and my suffering is a pathological desire to not be alone. To be wanted, needed, validated and rewarded. This checked about 80% of the boxes: My steady stream of “content” I put out on my Facebook feed. My inability to say no to smoking or drinking if someone asks me to, my pathological willingness to take on more work, go to more events, and do more favors than I can realistically handle. My propensity for flirting with almost everyone. My insatiable messiah complex. My hyper-sensitivity to criticism from friends, peers and lovers. But that did not quite cut to the root of it. The question I then proposed: why can’t I be alone?
Initially, I thought I did not like myself. But as I reasoned objectively, that wasn’t always the case. There were times when I *did* like myself very much. 2015 was a prime example. In fact, I can look back at most of my life and say, yes, I was someone I would find interesting, and decent to hang out with. But I realized I felt that way in times when I was very busy — being with people, experiencing new things, accomplishing goals, performing well at tasks, making and creating. And I like all those things about me. But baseline?
I then went to baseline. I decided to drown myself in … myself. And more champagne. I ghosted social media for two weeks. I went off-grid. And I was, unsurprisingly, miserable. But I kept thinking. And kept listening. It was quiet on the outside — and loud as hell in my head.
In the midst of that quiet, that’s when I heard it: My hyper-critical, rude, caustic and abrasive internal dialogue. The voice in my head that kept directing me: You should be doing something. You shouldn’t be 34 and single. You should be farther along in your career. You shouldn’t be such a whore. You shouldn’t drink so much. You know you shouldn’t be smoking that. When are you going to get off anti-anxiety meds? Why are you so fat? Don’t eat that. Don’t drink that. That’s bad for you. You’re unhealthy. You’re weird. You’re lazy. You’re careless. You’re a fuck-up. You’re going to ruin your life. You’re going to die. No one will remember you. No one’s going to love you. You’re nothing. You should kill yourself.
And that’s when I learned. Everything I do is an attempt to silence, or escape, the impossibly cruel and exacting voice inside my head. Sometimes this manifests itself in a good way: Travelling, pouring myself into my work, learning new things, creating music, writing, rock climbing, other novel experiences. These only temporarily silence the voice. But, at my core, I realized that’s why I drank. To shut the mouth of the asshole who lives inside my head.
I swam back up to the surface and took a deep breath. There would be no deeper insight. I finally understood why I am who I am. And, the way I’d been coping with it, was not respite — it was fanning the flames.
I openly wondered how and where it all went wrong; I sifted through every memory; I dove as far down into my psychology as possible — looking for an explanation as to how I went and lost my damn mind somewhere in 2016 and fell into a black hole that pushed a woman I loved to the point of leaving without saying goodbye. That’s when I discovered Attachment Theory, and that illuminated everything.
Attachment theory is a psychological model that explains the dynamics of how humans relate to each other. Here’s the full list of styles:
Now, let’s go back to that note. I want to focus on this paragraph in particular, and I’ve called out the crucial text:
I am incapable of being alone, and thus, incapable of getting as close to other people as I want to. I keep trying to get closer to people than I’ve earned, I keep meeting people to distract me from working on myself, and if I am not with someone physically, I have my head buried in my phone. I do those things to distract me from loneliness. When I’m just sitting, when I’m just existing, I feel completely empty. Like I’m missing something big. And so I alter the state I’m in, or bring people into that state. Always more people. Always new people. The texts. The travel. The social media. The stories. It’s all the same drug, designed to ease the existential ache of never feeling fully present, never having the full capacity to truly appreciate and understand others.
I’m no sage, no poet, no oracle. But that writing above is a textbook definition of anxious-preoccupied attachment. How do I know? Here’s an actual textbook definition of anxious-preoccupied attachment:
People with this style of attachment seek high levels of intimacy, approval, and responsiveness from their attachment figure. They sometimes value intimacy to such an extent that they become overly dependent on the attachment figure. Compared to securely attached people, people who are anxious or preoccupied with attachment tend to have less positive views about themselves. They often doubt their worth as a person and blame themselves for the attachment figure’s lack of responsiveness.
I’ll be damned. You got me. It’s no secret that I’ve loved hard, and I’ve amassed an arsenal of romantic memories that exist somewhere in the space between wistful, romantic and disturbing. A 300-car pileup of former lovers, one-night stands, ex-future-Mrs. Gormans and one-in-a-millions. I’ve publicly berated myself for mistakes that I made — and wondered how I could’ve prevented them. If only I’d never, or if only I’d ever … if only.
I discovered the presence of an abusive inner monologue — a voice that’s constantly engaging in negative self-talk, slinging some of the most profane, profound insults you could ever hear — saying things you’d never utter to even your worst enemies. It’s why I’m incapable of being alone. It’s why I’m pathologically scared of rejection. It’s why I say yes to everyone who wants me: the people I am comfortable around but not really chasing. It’s also why I become too anxious and preoccupied in my attachment style only when love is on the line. But where did that voice come from? And why has it always been so omnipresent and unbearable?
I was not allowed to be sad or upset as a child. I had a mom, who I love dearly, but who had a pathological aversion to her children not being happy, because she viewed sadness or even flat emotion — and still does, to this day — as one of many possible manifestations of ineffective parenting or her children not loving her enough.
If I was not smiling, my mom would ask what was wrong. Always. Multiple times per hour. And I’d say “nothing,” but she’d ask so many times that eventually I’d become upset and get the dreaded, “See, I told you something was wrong!”
I grew up in an environment where failures were chastised as character deficits, or signs I was pursuing the wrong things, and not as stepping stones or opportunities for growth. And the fear of failure, and a resentment of success, were (in some cases) literally beaten into me for as long as I could remember. Failure, and avoidance of it, became the central focus of my mind. I became pathologically scared of rejection and other people’s perceptions of me.
What you see is the plain text of a parent passing their insecurities onto their child — creating a generational cycle of anxious-preoccupied attachment. I don’t suppose I need to tell you that my parents’ marriage ended in divorce. I don’t suppose I need to tell you that my mom continues to ask me “what’s wrong?”
Codependency usually occurs when an anxious-preoccupied attachment style pairs up with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style. It can create a hunter-hunted dynamic that spirals out of control, with the dismissive-avoidant stonewalling the anxious-preoccupied’s continuing calls for intimacy, with behaviors that either drive a wedge between the couple, or increase the distance between them, until the dismissive-avoidant does something like pack up her things and leave without saying goodbye.
But this is all anecdotal, right? I mean … I’m just extrapolating based on a history of writing. If all this were really true, and I did have a lifelong abusive inner monologue that leaves me predisposed to loneliness, and that it was really caused by an overbearing and codependent mother, and that it would sabotage my romantic relationships only with women I truly and irrationally adore, and that I am otherwise pretty psychologically healthy, there’d be some data that suggests the following:
- I have an anxious-preoccupied attachment style with romantic partners.
- I have a dismissive-avoidant attachment style with my mom.
- I securely attach to people in general.
Guess what. There is. I took a test. It measured my attachment styles over time, with various people, and my current attachment state. I’m a little bit anxious-preoccupied in romantic relationships. It’s plain as day now. Also, as expected:
- I am dismissive-avoidant with my mom.
- I attach to people pretty securely in general.
That about wraps it up. I’ve finally solved the puzzle I first laid out when I first started writing here:
My ex-girlfriend left without saying goodbye because we were in a codependent relationship, caused by a pairing between a dismissive-avoidant partner (her) and a anxious-preoccupied partner (me). My attachment pathology stems from an abusive inner monologue, caused by an overbearing and codependent mother who herself was verbally abusive and an anxious-preoccupied parent and partner, and this pathology impacts all other romantic relationships with secure women who I view as a life partner.
The quest to understand my innermost psyche was now over. I was now free to write about other things. Or, as I said in the note that I had written to no one in particular:
“This sub-chapter, and frankly the much longer one it bookends, is now closed.”
Life plays tricks on you. It crackles and burns in the darkness. It erases over files you’d been saving. It writes over what you wanted to say. Time does that. The wind does that. The desert does that. The world roasts and the crickets chirp as you wonder aloud. Winds take the ones you thought you knew, and they fade away in the dust. You’re left only with yourself. Out there alone, among the cacti and scorpions, wandering your way around an endless abyss, praying for rain or water or civilization. We do this more often than not in deserts of our own making — what you’ve just finished reading, in this post and all of them over the past 10 months and 200 entries, is the tale of how I made mine.
So what’s next? What do I want? I would just like to know people. To have a regular, decent, deep, serious chat with someone. To feel normal and at peace. To be able to end sentences with periods instead of smileys. To not feel like I’m selling the world’s happiest snake oil in real life, and not feel the need to do a full-court psychiatric eval every time my fingers meet the keys.
There will be no more tearing myself apart, trying to find the innermost essence of my being, wondering who I really am, and where I have left to go — no more pushing myself, simultaneously, to the farthest reaches of what I am capable of, living with an acute reckless abandon for good taste and good sense. I want to feel comfortable just sitting and existing in my natural state. I want to feel fully present and have the full capacity to truly appreciate and understand others — after all, the innermost me is not much different than you, and I think that’s why we connect in this space. And I hope to continue connecting with you.
It’s an awful lot of effort and emotional acrobatics to fully understand ourselves, and that legwork is largely worth it. I do find it amusing, though, in light of knowing that when it’s all said and done, all we become is cracked landscape, withering and rotting in the heat of the desert summer, drunkenly checking out of our hotel, having only left behind stray notes from deleted scenes, and our tracks from where we dared to venture before the sun went down on us — we, us, the sum of our attachments, which for when we are dead and merely adrift, will mean nothing at all.
X. The Sea Comes Ashore
I was on a train. November 16, 2017. 8 a.m. local time. Typing on this very laptop, crafting a story about the toys from my youth. That’s when, at age 35, I first saw the Pacific Ocean with my own eyes. There were surfers — the chiseled, sun-kissed gods and goddesses I’d only once imagined, or watched on The O.C. — chasing the waves with boards in tow. I did what anyone would do to mark the occasion in modern-day America, I snapped 36 smartphone pics in the hopes I’d find the one perfect shot worth uploading to Instagram. None were remarkable. This one sufficed.
I’m in motion, on the Pacific Sunliner track just north of San Diego, half hungover from a late night spent downing dangerously delicious drinks at a Tiki speakeasy, headed toward Los Angeles to meet two dear old friends for four days of fun, soaking up the Southern California sun. The trip is part of a now annual tradition, where the three of us gather in a destination city of our choosing, building a long weekend around a Buffalo Bills road game, in a futile quest to one day watch them win. I’ve been to 22 since 1992. They’ve lost every single one of them. They lost this one, too.
But, first, the ocean. It’s a quirky curiosity that I’d gone so long without ever seeing it. I’d been to Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles all before, yet had never ventured those last few precious miles all the way to the coast. And whenever I’d try to schedule a trip out to where meeting the sea was an absolute certainty, something cataclysmic would derail my venture — a firing here, a DWI arrest there, or a first decade of adulthood spent damn near destitute and one misstep away from being cast out onto the street. In fact, that one misstep happened once. I spent the Summer of 2012 jobless, penniless and somewhat homeless, camping out in a rental car as I started a new job, the job that would one day catapult me from poverty into the upper-middle class in less than five years, from drowning in payday loans to a six-figure net worth, from Top Ramen to top-shelf tequila. It all happened so fast, it was hard to make sense of it, or internalize it, or make peace with my rise meet my life at its apex. That zenith is where our story starts … but to begin, we need to go back to the other coast, and flash back 19 months, now 106 weeks ago to the day, to when I with someone, and was someone, entirely different. In Miami, 2016, back when Everything Was Beautiful and All of It Hurt. You remember her from earlier, don’t you?
I felt a tinge of fraudulence burble up to the surface. Had I earned this? Did I deserve it? How could someone like me possibly have everything I could possibly imagine, after so many years of being nothing? I tried to put the doubt back into its proper box, but it was a bit more like trying to sweep milk back into its carton. The sensation cemented itself in the dark recesses of my mind, and would spend the next few months unfurling its tentacles in all corners of my cranium.
By the time I returned to Miami, in October 2016 to watch a Buffalo Bills game with my two friends I met in L.A., I would be engulfed in total darkness.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the 42-month bull market came to a slow crawl on that beach, and would then come to a screeching halt. By the following month, my girlfriend and I would have our first fight. By July, I’d be in a larger, more public fight, with the entire Internet.
The tweets were taken down after a mere two hours, but not before they were taken out of context, and not before I was taken to task for being the kind of over-emotive idiot that I can be in my darkest of days, when I’m downing two bottles of champagne per night and hiding bottles behind the garbage can so my girlfriend can’t find them. (Spoiler: She did.)
I can’t recall what was said: only something-something Dallas shooter, something-something righteous anger, something-something I understand why. I’ve tried to black that out from my memory, and have made no attempt to re-read what I’d written.
One thing I cannot un-remember was the sheer volume of notifications un-spooling on my timeline. I, quite stupidly, had my jobs in my Twitter bio. I, quite stupidly, didn’t realize the kind of firestorm I’d waded into. Falls from grace are never graceful, this was a belly-flop over Niagara Falls onto the rocks below.
By the time I’d mentioned it to my boss, she already knew. By the time I’d taken down the tweets, I’d been roasted by Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter. By the time I played a set at a local microbrewery that evening, death threats were being called in. By the time the sun rose the following day, the Internet had largely moved on, but I hadn’t. I had to sit with it. I had to live with it. And what was, at first, a gentle decline into morose feelings of unworthiness had detonated into a mushroom cloud of inward-directed rage and sorrow, the kind that irrevocably damaged my relationship with my girlfriend, irreversibly napalmed my mood, and irreparably ruined my reputation at work and in life. My boss asked me if I was okay, like, mentally. I lost real-life friends. Maybe by now they’ve forgotten. But I hadn’t.
I went another year without writing a damn thing about sports at all. I’m still not yet sure if I’m cleared to write for another real-life publication that isn’t Medium. And so I retreated to writing about music, away from the harsh glow of hot-take reactionaries and Republican firebrands, and I further isolated myself in a growing darkness that was only truly just beginning. If Miami was the golden hour, then this was the sunset, and what was coming would be the longest night I’d ever faced. And in the crisp cool of another corner of the world, I could feel the sun setting over the Pacific Northwest.
In a caption to a Facebook photo of the two of us, I told the world, “I’ve traveled with this woman to both ends of this great country, and I would follow her to the ends of the Earth,” but the faster I’d run to catch up with her, the farther she’d run away.
Seattle and Portland were the last two places in the United States left for me to visit. We went together — I with the expectation it would be just like Miami. From the moment we touched down, I instantly fell in love with Seattle. It was bustling, welcoming, beautiful and just the right amount of weird. Although I can say I never enjoyed a city more, I can also say I never enjoyed myself less.
My recollection of the trip is that of a boozy, food-y escapade through the Pacific Northwest, with bartenders mixing libations with beakers and torches, and sushi as fresh as the crisp, maple and seawater-infused air. The glass skyline shaded us. The museums enraptured us. But, as for each other, we didn’t talk much, except on a three-hour car-ride from Portland to Seattle, where I probed a bit too deep about the tragic awfulness of future dystopia that awaited the United States after election night, and she heatedly berated me for talking to her without showing any discernible signs of empathy, curiosity or humility. By the time we boarded a plane back to Austin, we were barely speaking. I could feel her slipping away from me, and my inclination was to try harder, to try and be better, to try and be more worthy of love. Perhaps if I could be someone that she could be proud of, then that could smooth things over: I could take up two-stepping, or learn how to build things, or develop new talents and layers of complexity, dress better, become more edgy and mysterious, or become more physically fit. Anything to prove I could be a man you could keep around as an adventure partner.
The faster I ran, the farther she’d run. And so when I decided to run as far as I ever could, I wanted her to be there with me. I had a marathon in just over three months, and there was no face I wanted to see more as I crossed the finish line in triumph. Perhaps it would be her face that would light up the darkness I now found myself encircled by. How far would I run to outrun my demons? As it turned out, 26.2 miles could never be far enough.
For a great many years — seven to be exact — I would do the same thing on my birthday. For every year older I would become, I’d write down a corresponding number of goals I wished to achieve. For the year I turned 35, I wrote down 35 things I wanted to check off.
On January 8, 2017, I conquered one of the big dragons on the list, which was to “Run A Marathon.” My history with running is checkered, as I am not an athlete and my lungs work like a late-model Yugo. But I did do it, and it was awesome, but not for the reasons you would think.
I did it at Disney World, because it’s flat and easy (by marathon standards), and I could stay with my mom to avoid the exorbitant hotel costs. My girlfriend joined me that weekend. I thought this could be a coronation of sorts, a victory lap, and a giant middle finger to my lungs and to my depression. I don’t recall any of these things being true.
What I did take mental inventory of was the feeling I got along the course. I loaded my Spotify with a 6-hour playlist of my favorite songs, and just vibed. Bright sunshine lit my face. I texted my dad along the way. I was completely at peace. There was nothing to think of except the road in front of me. Concern over money, my future, my relationships, my hashtag-legacy all vanished. And I was the most “me” I’d ever been.
At the halfway point, I stopped and high-fived other runners behind me. The bliss of being one with the road, of just doing something I loved to do in a way I never dreamed of, was overwhelming. I enjoyed every step, and when I saw that finish line, I perked up and ended strong.
I anticipated the fever dream of reaching the finish line, falling down exasperated, with my loved ones there to congratulate me, and I thought I would feel this extraordinary euphoria of having done something magnificent, something I never thought possible, and something most people never do. That moment never materialized. In fact, after I’d finished, I was mostly just done. Another check-mark in a box next to a goal. Another 100-like Instagram post. As you can see, I smiled with my medals on, but my adventure partner and I were very clearly not equally as excited about my new hardware. Those medals are now tucked away in a closet. The marathon — the medals — they still were not enough.
“You’re just like your mother,” she told me later, becoming the first human on Earth ever to tell me that. I was perturbed by this. My mother is a fine person, and also one who has a Ph.D. in guilt-tripping, and is overly affectionate, and tries way too hard, and is way too extra, and invests too much of her self-worth in whether or not other people love her.
“Oh,” I thought to myself, as I sat on the balcony smoking a cigarette after downing a bottle of champagne at 3 p.m. on a Sunday, a mere hour after she’d packed four bags of her things and silently slipped away, never to return except one time, five days later, to remove the rest of her things and drop off her key while I was at work. “That’s what she meant by that.”
“Sounds like you need a weekend in the city,” my friend — one of the two who travels with me to Buffalo Bills games — said to me after I broke the news of my breakup to our group text. Did I ever. On April 1, 2017, I booked a flight to New York for two weeks out — one of five flights I booked for that year with my bonus check from my job. I hadn’t been to the city since 2010, since before I had moved from Buffalo to Austin. This would finally be when I re-entered the atmosphere, and re-emerged from the depths of depression: I was sure of it.
We went to an arcade bar and played NBA Jam. We blasted Kendrick Lamar’s just-released “Damn” as often as humanly possible. We made small talk with a particularly enjoyable and amiable bartender at the Crocodile Lounge in the West Village. We met our other friend for a Yankee game. We drank some of the most delicious beer I could ever recall. We ate pizza. We spent a night at a Jazz speakeasy in Harlem. We met a friend from college for late night drinks in Astoria. We went for a walk in a park and ate bagels with lox. It was all so perfect. I was drunk for damn near all of it. And when I bid him adieu to catch a flight, I did so a touch bit early, to embark upon one of my trademark whirlwind mad-dashes to see everyone, as weirdly and hypermaximally as possible.
I met a friend I’d only known from the Internet for beers at a beer garden, then scuttled off to a Matinee showing of Waitress with an ex. Then met another ex I hadn’t seen in 15 years in Brooklyn for tapas.
And then, back to normal. Back to gambling away his life by hitting on infinity even though 21 would’ve won, and 17 would suffice. Just a man, surrounded by demons, betting against them and losing, long after the pit boss told me I should probably leave.
I had initially booked the trip to run a 10-mile race that weekend. But I, too afraid to take too much time off work, decided to shorten the trip so I only really needed to take off one full day of work. A Wednesday, of all days — and one I’d willingly work remotely from a variety of favorite Windy City establishments.
I was staying with an old friend, one I hadn’t seen since 2005, and only barely talked to since then. She was the type of gal I used to blow coke and make out with in the restaurant office, long after we’d cleaned up the bar and all the other employees left for the night. We saw the sunrise together. We were 22. She was also my manager, and she fired me once after she went to work one morning, forgot I was sleeping at her place, failed to wake me or bring me along with her, and considered me a no-call, no-show.
I wondered how it would be, to be reunited with someone I was once close with, then radio silent, and then suddenly face-to-face with again. I only needed to look to New York for answers. Though this was not quite that.
I woke up Wednesday morning and trucked off to a doughnut shop, then to Lou Malnati’s for deep dish, then to a Starbucks, then to a bar I once had brunch in back in October 2009, while watching the Bills beat the Jets in overtime, and in between sex with a woman I met randomly through other Internet friends. I tried to overwrite the memories. It only mildly worked.
That evening, I returned to her place, and we trucked off to Wrigleyville for a Cubs game. We went to a bar before the game, met two of her friends, took an Uber to Wrigley Field, took up residence in the bleachers, sat for two hours in a blinding rainstorm, then trucked off to a Lincoln Park bar for more drinks together. I made small talk with her brother, who I knew from my distant past. I’d been spending the previous six weeks chasing ghosts, and now I was surrounded by them. That’s the thing with chasing ghosts. You have to be dead to be fully present with them. In the darkness, it nearly happened. I was as close to dead as ever — a drunken, depressed mess of my own making, trying anything to feel something.
I had an amazing time, and, again, made enough memories to fill a small shopping cart. She was a gracious host, a gifted communicator, and every bit the warm and fiery woman I knew all those years ago. But as I boarded the plane on the return flight home, I felt as though I’d reopened a box that didn’t need reopening. An overnight in Chicago was fun, sure, but was it necessary? Was it enough? I could not be sure. I was lost in a spool of my own clouded thoughts. And so I went next to the place everyone goes when they’re lost: I went to the desert. There, I would find out just how lost I could really be.
“Tell you what,” I said to one of my very best friends and one of my favorite people, “if you want to go see Kendrick Lamar July 12, I’ll gladly go with you.” And with that, I booked concert tickets and a flight to Phoenix to see K-Dot open the Damn tour at the Gila River Center. But first, I had someone else to visit, someone from deep within my past like the gal in Chicago was, on a day so surreal it was actually 10:15 a.m. twice.
I remember she picked me up from SkyHarbor airport, all frazzled and fraught from event planning and being a mom and a housewife, and she drove me out to her prefab ranch in Mesa. She was still as beautiful as she was when we hooked up all those years ago, back in 2004, back before I drove her from Buffalo to JFK airport, high on the cocaine Chicago gal and I were doing, and rushing to race her out of town and onto a plane to Phoenix before her physically abusive ex could find her, after which I’d drive up to Connecticut to visit my ex, the one who I saw earlier in the year in New York. Yes, this where the stories begin to connect. This is where it all begins to make sense — or stop making sense, depending on how you choose to see it.
We went to her house, where I was greeted by five cats, a sink full of dishes that doubled as an ashtray, and her live-in boyfriend, the father of her six year-old daughter. This is where we pick up the story of the gal who moved to Phoenix some 12 years later. The story of that gal being the first thing I ever wrote publicly, on a Live Journal, buried somewhere within the bowels of the Internet, called “No Escape.” Fitting.
We made small talk for a few hours before I was transported by her man, sans her, to my hotel in Downtown Phoenix. There, I would catch an Uber to Glendale, to meet my other friend for drinks. She arrived all boundless energy and striking wit, and caught up over a couple cocktails before we meandered across the street to the arena. We had a blast, bopping along, rapping along, me obnoxiously high-fiving everyone within range. Strangers passed us blunts. We had an uproarious time. We met her friends for more drinks and bites at a nearby restaurant, and then we retired to our respective dwellings.
The following day, we met up again, this time for pizza, and to visit the Frida Kahlo exhibit at a museum, and then later for coffee, and then drinks at a downtown speakeasy. We played darts. We listened to Velvet Underground and Television. We changed the game Taboo into a game of Turnover — a game I pillaged from a TV show I watch, where we put a card with a word on it on our forehead and we give each other clues in the hopes that the other could guess the word on the card. We were having a good time … and then we weren’t.
We went to In-N-Out and she said she would go to the parking lot. I asked her if she wanted anything. She said no. When I got my food, she was getting into her car, and told me to grab an Uber to my hotel. I was baffled. I was crushed. And then, like I had done with my girlfriend all that time earlier, and the way my mom often does, I leaned in, thinking I hadn’t done enough. I thought wrong.
I spent the following evening with my other friend again, and we went out for pizza, and it was delicious, and her baby-daddy did all the talking, existing in his own reality, ordering for her and such, and I thought the entire time that I was, perhaps, existing as an accessory. After dinner, I went back to the hotel, promptly drank as many drinks as possible.
I woke up the following morning to no texts from anyone, and went down to the hotel bar to resume drinking until it was time for me to board my flight back home. The power went out in the city. It was pitch-black now. I was pitch-black now. The bar got nearly as hot as the 110-degree outside. Still, the beer was cold and my buzz was cool. I met another woman on my plane-ride home, one who was healthy and smart and kind, one who I didn’t awkwardly flirt with. We merely conversed, and it was nice. I momentarily forgot just how badly I wanted to escape my life; I just sat with her and smiled. And then we exchanged contact info, before I drifted deep into the night, drinking alone back at home, wondering what in the hell had just happened, or where the hell I was going to end up when all this was over — and it needed to be over soon.
I woke up, trembling. I knew today had to be the day. August 21, 2017. A Sunday. I walked over to the upscale burger joint across the street, and slammed a double-breasted hot-chicken sandwich with avocado, bacon, tomato, pepper-jack cheese and tzatziki sauce. The sloppy burger came undone under the sheer weight of my tremors. I drank a frosty IPA. I couldn’t move my mouth to talk. Only to drink. Then, I had the urge to catch a film at the Alamo Drafthouse — not across the street, but across town.
I walked into the theater, and bought one ticket to Ingrid Goes West. It was entertaining, and all too real. Aubrey Plaza’s character tries too hard to get too close to someone she admires, and brushes off most everyone else, pretending she’s too good for them, but secretly feeling not quite good enough. I drank two glasses of champagne, and ate an entire pizza. If there’s one thing you take away from this gargantuan dispatch: It’s that I love pizza.
It was a hot, sunny day in Austin. I rode in an Uber with the windows rolled down, briefly catching myself sticking my hand out the window the way children do, as if my hand was an airplane, hovering against the wind. I smiled, and told the driver to drop me off at a bar close by to home, so I could down a shot of fernet branca and sip a single-malt. I called another Uber, and on my way home, we stopped at the Sunrise Mini-Mart so I could load up with supplies: A four-pack of Avery Brewing Company’s Maharaja, the first craft beer I was ever given for free, the one that kickstarted my writing career (I started as a beer blogger), and La Fin du Monde, which is my favorite beer of all time, and which literally means “The End of the World” in French. I went home, and I began to write. You remember what happened.
I had long planned that I would retire from regular drinking activities at some point in the year. I had picked either August 21, October 3 or November 22. After having lived through what I’d lived through in the previous 16 months, I decided to hit the eject button as quickly as possible. Then I hit the publish button. And I waited.
Immediately, the texts came rolling in from concerned parties. “I’m worried about you.” Or, “You okay?” Or, “That was very brave of you to do.” Or, “I’m here for you.” And the truth is when I read those, I didn’t think much of them. I knew that in order to defeat the darkness, I would need to become the darkness. I would need to sit in the darkness. I would need to face it, without a light. This was no mere alcoholism, no. It was not that. I had to say it was that, to allow myself the breathing room to change, to come up for air, to be a little less dark, a little less everything … just, to be a little less. The drinking was not the problem. It was merely compounding it. What I needed to tackle was the why. Why did I not feel worthy of love? Why did I feel the intense urge to self-sabotage? Why could I not stop running my mouth? Why was running a marathon not enough to provide me a sense of self-satisfaction? Why was a perfect weekend in New York only a temporary relief? Why did I go to Chicago? Why did I drive her away to Phoenix, and why did I drive the other one away in Phoenix? Most importantly: How did I end up here? Drunk, depressed and alone at home, after having it all, all those 16 months ago on the beach in Miami?
I had so many questions that all felt like they had the same answer. And so I hit the eject button under the cover of darkness, I waited for the clouds to part, for the fog to lift, for the answers to come, and for — hopefully — the sun to one day rise.
One year after I’d been there last, I returned to Seattle. Partially to overwrite old memories; mostly because it was $100 round-trip on Alaska Airlines. I deplaned at 8 a.m. Pacific, and took the train to downtown. There, I dropped my bags off at the hotel, grabbed the obligatory Top Pot maple bar, and walked up the hill to a coffeeshop that wasn’t Starbucks. I sipped a cappuccino, and purchased a ticket to the next day’s Seahawks-Niners tilt. I walked to a thrift shop, then to an oyster bar. I wrecked a plate of oysters and allowed myself a glass of champagne. It was my first drink in three weeks, and I was traveling alone, and so I thought, I don’t mind the indulgence. I walked to another coffeeshop, and made small chat with a barista who loved LCD Soundsystem. I then took an Uber to the park on Puget Sound, and ran a quick 5K while talking on the phone with a friend I’ve talked on the phone to more often than all other people combined. I sipped a west coast IPA immediately upon finishing, and then grabbed an Uber back to my hotel to shower.
I re-emerged dressed to the nines, and tried to hit up a pizza joint I visited last time. They were full. I meandered to an experimental restaurant, where I had a beer and something like ostrich, before I meandered across town to a Vietnamese restaurant named one of the best in the United States, where I sat at the bar and joyously consumed one of the finest plates of food I could ever recall. From there, I walked to Cannon — a whiskey lounge so ornate, luxurious and delicious that it should not be allowable by law. I chatted up the bartender, and she passed me her THC vape pen. I chatted up the people next to me, and they gave me an edible. The bartender dropped me her name and Instagram, and told me I was unusually easy to talk to, compared to the patrons who frequent such a pretentious haunt. We talked until 2. Then I went home.
The following morning, I went to a bar where they were showing all the NFL games, but it was a Philadelphia Eagles bar, and so it was crowded and loud and caustic, and so I retreated back to the pizza joint I tried visiting the night before. I ate a full pizza. I’ll bet you’re noticing a theme.
From there, I walked the two miles down to Century Link stadium, in my Syracuse hoodie and in full Seahawks garb, and an old school Seattle Mariners cap, just to blend in. The rain began to fall. I talked to a yoga instructor from Vancouver on my left, and an Amazon employee on my right. And the seats were just perfect. Ninth row — 30 yard line.
I was awestruck and spellbound. I drank Elysian Dayglow IPA. The Seahawks won 13–9. What it must be like to watch the team you actually want to win, actually win. After the game, I hit up an Irish pub to down shots of fernet, and then attempted to hit up Cannon. It was closed. I then lugged my bags to the bar next door, made a poor attempt at eating poorly made wings, before headed to the airport to catch a red-eye flight back to Austin.
I tried to get some sleep on the flight, but I was awoken by a woman sitting directly to my right, who wanted to talk to me all night. And so we did, and it was entertaining, and everything I could’ve wanted. She then told me she was strung out on meth, escaping Alaska and her four kids from two fathers, and going to rehab. We still talk to this day.
I returned to work harboring a delicious secret. I had successfully pulled off the Picasso of my genre — a wild, 36-hour romp through a city I loved, answering the question: “What would I do if I had 36 hours to do whatever the hell I wanted to, with no one around to notice?” I drank good coffee. Ate my favorite foods. Hit up a Seahawks game. Drank delicious drinks. Chatted with new and interesting people. Ran along the water. I did what I do and didn’t feel the least bit bad about it. It was 6 a.m. by the time I returned home. And, for the first time in what felt like forever, I felt the sun begin to rise.
It should not go untold what happened immediately upon returning from Seattle. A friend offered me tickets to see Cafe Tacuba at ACL Live. I took them, realized I didn’t know anyone else who enjoyed a Mexican rock band from the late-90s, and so when a total stranger asked for one of the tickets, I happily obliged. It wasn’t until the Uber ride on my way down to the venue that I realized they were not general admission.
We met, and I informed her we were stuck together. So we made a date of it — posing on a red carpet, and in a photo booth, and I introduced her to friends of mine who were tending bar there, and we had what I distinctly remember as one of the most enjoyable nights on record. She took me home, and we continued to talk and occasionally see each other.
Another great friend of mine came into town to stay with me and go to ACL Music Festival. She met this random gal as we settled in for Solange’s set. She said, “oh she likes you,” and I fluttered with delight. There was a two-hour stretch where we saw Solange, the XX and Jay-Z all in a row. I was comfortable. I was content. And as the sky began to brighten, even as night fell upon the fest, I could feel myself becoming … myself.
It was a fanciful weekend filled with music, love and lots of laughs. The following week was my 35th Birthday, where I took the gal from the concert to a paella and wine dinner hosted by friends of mine. I was glowing, radiant with happiness, and after she said goodnight, and I went up to the bar where I normally go on my birthday, I had an extra spring in my step. That’s when I finally, finally, saw the woman who left me all that time ago without ever saying goodbye. She said, “you look cute,” and I left to go home. Still smiling.
But it was all just preamble for the trip I would take, the night before which I would meet the gal from the concert for wings. We kissed. Lightning coursed through my veins. That was our first kiss. And yet that was all the magic we made, and yet it was enough. She’d have a boyfriend soon … and that boyfriend was not me. No matter: I had a plane to catch.
I touched down in New Orleans, still buzzing from the night before, drinking Cafe Au Lait at Cafe du Monde, then doing a mad-dash between Copper Monkey and the Erin Rose to watch the Philadelphia 76ers kick off the season in which they were expected to finally be good. (Spoiler: They were. And still are.) I chatted up a cat next to me who gave me some weed, and then my mom texted me to say she had made it to the hotel across the street. Yes, I was meeting my mom in New Orleans. Why do you ask?
Because it was her 60th Birthday, and because although I initially wanted to buy her a solo ticket to Paris, she did not much care for traveling alone, so I split the difference and took her to the French-ist place in the US. We had a magical time. I asked her what she wanted to do, and she said, “Whatever you want to do.” Her funeral.
We went to the New Orleans Pelicans season opener against the Golden State Warriors. We saw the U.S. Women’s Soccer team play an exhibition in the Superdome against South Korea. I took her to my favorite bar in the Roosevelt Hotel for a Ramos Gin Fizz. We had beignets. We watched the epic Chiefs-Raiders four-final-play classic at Copper Monkey and ate wings. It was fantastic. And it was there I learned a valuable lesson about how to enjoy your family: Treat them like they’re casual acquaintances that are in town for the weekend, and just show them a good time. Some might scoff at the reasoning, but I assure you, the minute you put down your baggage, is the minute you become light enough to float through wherever you find yourself. We had a breezy time together, with zero expectations. That’s how I want to remember my mom. Happy-go-lucky, just enjoying her time. The XX played as we walked out of the Superdome. It was my second time seeing them in two weeks. My life had come to her, my life had come to New Orleans, she had come to New Orleans, and I was just where I was. And that was the important thing: To just be where you are. And as I stood there, the fog continued to lift.
I was on a train. November 16, 2017. 8 a.m. local time. Typing on this very laptop, crafting a story about the toys from my youth. That’s when, at age 35, I first saw the Pacific Ocean with my own eyes. There were surfers — the chiseled, sun-kissed gods and goddesses I’d only once imagined, or watched on The O.C. — chasing the waves with boards in tow. I did what anyone would do to mark the occasion in modern-day America, I snapped 36 smartphone pics in the hopes I’d find the one perfect shot worth uploading to Instagram. None were remarkable. The next eight days were the most remarkable in years.
I met my friends deep in Downtown L.A., staying in a fourth-floor loft staring at the Los Angeles Convention Center which was the beginning of the end for me some five-plus years earlier: before the firing, before the destitution, before the new job and subsequent rise and fall again. We hit Venice and Santa Monica. We hit three local brewpubs. We launched our podcast. We saw the Lakers play the Suns, the Kings play the Panthers, and the Chargers play our Buffalo Bills. I randomly met a woman, sitting behind me in the stands, who I still talk to. It was all so perfect — the sunsets, the laughs (my god, the laughs), the weather, the company. I felt normal and complete for the first time in what felt like forever … and the moment didn’t feel unearned or too big for me. That Monday, my friends left for the airport, and I was scooped up by a friend I met, of all places, on here. On Medium.
The woman picked me up in her car, and we drove down to Laguna Beach, where we had shellfish and cocktails on a deck overlooking the ocean, and then more cocktails on rooftop overlooking the ocean again. The view was serene; the feeling impossible to describe. I felt as though I had walked through the glass in my phone and directly inside the Instagram app.
We traveled to her restaurant, where we had more seafood. We meandered to my hotel bar, where we watched the Seahawks and Falcons, drinking Irish Coffee and chatting until deep into the night. The day was remarkable and surreal without feeling random or disconnected from the rest of my life, or maximalist for maximalism’s sake — the way so many things used to feel.
I woke up the following morning, and rented a car to drive the Pacific Coast Highway from Newport Beach to San Francisco. I rolled the windows down, and listened to West Coast rap. I was alone … and I was free. I stopped in Huntington, Malibu, Ventura and Santa Barbara … basking in the warm glow of what felt like endless sunshine. I climbed mountains. I took (so many!) pictures. I ate Korean BBQ from a little haunt in Atascadero. But what I want to talk to you about is a little place called Carpinteria.
For many years, I had a little scene from the public park on the beach in that sleepy coastal town as the background on my computer. As I meandered my way up the PCH, I sought it out. I, again, was talking to the same friend on the phone as the one I talked to while running along the Puget Sound. I wandered, quietly, up the wooden deck path toward the beach. All was still. My heart beat out of my chest.
12 years ago, when I was making $9/hour in Buffalo, New York, Southern California felt as far away from me as the moon. Now it was real. Life was real. And nothing felt impossible anymore. Nothing felt undeserved. I am 35 years old, and capable of anything I set my mind to.
By the time I arrived in San Francisco, at 10 p.m. Pacific, I felt complete. It was the first time I could recall feeling as though I could die in peace. I posted up with family, and we ate croissants from a little corner bakery in Laurel Heights. We drove to Napa, and drank beer at Russian River Brewery — my all-time favorite brewery from since I started writing about beer all those years ago. (Russian River Consecration is the greatest beer I’ve ever tasted, and second place isn’t particularly close.) We went to a mezcal bar and ate oysters. And when we woke up the following morning, we rode scooters through the winding hills Presidio and Golden Gate Park, out toward Land’s End and the Cliff House, where we settled in for Hot Toddys. That’s when the conversation took a sharp turn to Bitcoin.
A woman sitting with her attorney at the table next to us eavesdropped. I told her stories. My step-sister whispered, “Oh she likes you,” and I fluttered with delight. I dropped my number on a piece of paper as we walked out of the restaurant. She texted me later in the day. We still text.
I flew out of Oakland on Thanksgiving Day, and by the time I’d returned to celebrate the holiday with old friends, I felt as though all the parts on me had been replaced. I was calm. I was still. I was quiet. I just let them wash over me. I felt so distant from where I was mere months ago, and I realized something valuable as I turned in for the night: The darkness had faded, but the light revealed that the landscape had changed. I was once in the wilderness, a river running to the sea. Now, I felt like an entire ocean — one that finally came ashore. The restless river stopped running that day.
My dad lives in Madison, Alabama. I lived there in Kindergarten. In an intriguing quirk, it takes the same amount of time to reach Madison from Austin whether you take the Northern route through Memphis, or the Southern route through New Orleans. And so, whenever I drive there, I like to do a lap around the South.
I irrationally love Memphis. It’s the last outpost before the final four-hour trek to his house, it’s a manageable mid-sized city that seeps culture through its pores the way the Mississippi seeps through the delta mud. I have a disproportionate amount of acquaintances there, and I met one I met on Medium for dinner on the evening of December 23. We ate Indian food and talked about writing for three hours. She was charming and easygoing. And then I left to meet another friend, again from the Internet, for a Grizzlies game.
It was my second game at FedEx forum, and my first since Halloween night two years ago, before this story began. We had lower bowl seats and the home team won. We made small talk about wrestling and being “Internet famous.” And I made new friends. I felt light, and felt at home. And when I snuggled in for rest, I felt content.
Driving to Alabama, through the parts of America I never see inside my city-dwelling bubble, I’m reminded how similar we are as people: All just trying to make our way and leave our own tiny mark on the world, in our own unique way. Humans are survivors, and I believe that — when you take away all the disinformation, or systemic oppression, or cultural misunderstandings — we have a basic instinct to help others do the same. I like to believe that, anyway: It beats the alternative.
My Dad is a strong yet gentle human, a god-fearing Christian with a curious mind, married to one of the strongest and most gentle women you’ll ever meet. And I met them both for Christmas, along with her daughter from San Francisco I’d seen just a month prior, her other daughter’s family who live locally, and my sister, trekking down from Nashville. And the Christmas felt like our Christmases of old — the same music playing, the same food served, the same easy laughter that we’ve all shared for the past decade. The states may change — New York, Iowa, Alabama — but the state of mind is the same. There are no unruly expectations, nor unnecessary drama. There is no time for that when the days spent together are so few and far between. That’s how I feel about all humans, but family especially.
I packed my car on the afternoon of December 27 en route to New Orleans, a place I’ve now visited six times in six years. I checked into a cozy throwback hotel, and hit up all the places I’d been before: The Roosevelt Hotel for a Ramos Gin Fizz, the Copper Monkey for Crawfish Etoufee, the Erin Rose for shots and Abita. And when I woke up the following morning, head pounding from mixing liquors, I didn’t much mind as I rolled out of town. I drove through to Austin in less than seven hours, and immediately went to sleep. I would ring in the new year alone — eating queso and watching the Buffalo Bills make the playoffs for the first time in my adult life. I was content. I was at peace.
I ghosted Facebook and Twitter for 2018, to concentrate on writing, sure, but also to concentrate on fully inhabiting whatever space I found myself in. I wanted to live unfiltered, and experience the world the way we were meant to: as humans, not as curators or megaphones. I became quiet, except in my craft. I needed a project, for it is projects bring satisfaction. I retreated to Medium. I began pouring my every waking thought onto paper, writing about monsters that scare me. I searched for truth and stumbled upon gospel. I shared it with you because, in the end, what we share is what people remember of us.
I thought back to the beach in Miami, and remembered what started the old ball of sadness rolling, back when I had everything I wanted. In that moment, I had flipped and reversed my mantra: “Always be happy. Never be satisfied.” It was the difference between being told “I look nice,” and actually feeling beautiful. Sure, I had everything I wanted, but did that mean I was everything I wanted to be? I began searching for answers, but fuck the answers … what we really want is the story. This is the final piece of the that story.
What I found was, once you get everything you want, and you stop looking for other mountains to climb, and you’re satisfied with where you are, you begin to get restless. You begin to worry that, because now you can’t see the shore or the horizon in any direction, or in every direction, that you’ve peaked. For me, life couldn’t have really gotten any better, so I started inventing problems to solve, and becoming dissatisfied for the sake of being dissatisfied. I started making up reasons to be miserable. Thinking about everything and nothing.
Problems are man-made. They’re deficits in character that we only deem true when we compare ourselves to an arbitrary standard, or when we compare ourselves to arbitrary people close in proximity to us. I had an abusive inner monologue that dished out a fire-hose of negative self-talk morning, noon and night.
I’d become a distorted approximation of myself. I started telling myself lies often enough that I began to believe them. Until I became the shit I was full of. The road to ruin wasn’t paved in big decisions gone awry — it was paved in repeated, habitual, autopilot decisions that stopped me from sitting at the table of my life.
Of course, I am describing the dark art of self-sabotage. A coping mechanism that simultaneously laser-focuses my mind on exactly what I want, and then either actively ensures it never happens or helplessly lets the opportunity pass me by. It’s built on a bedrock of fear — a fear of either failure (rejection), or of the loss of identity that comes along with success (impostor syndrome). By engaging in self-sabotaging behaviors, I am excessively mitigating risk. And all anxiety is essentially just excessive risk mitigation. But it isn’t just the worry that was problematic — it was the behavior that I engaged in to distance myself from my emotions to help me hide your pathology from others. Behavior like drinking to quiet the inner monologue.
I was losing interest in things I once loved, and taking a liking to pursuits that could kill me if I did them long enough. I had stopped growing, exploring and dreaming, forgetting that if you stay in the same room, the same doors will open.
There are only four truths in life: Death, change, the present and love. I clouded these, by the lies I was telling myself: my memories, thoughts and expectations. They had deluded my self-image, and torpedoed my self-confidence. To build it back up, I needed to lean into truth, to fail without giving up. Confidence is a product of repetition … a product of incremental failure. It’s knowing what the fall feels like and being familiar enough with it that you can be comfortable with the risk, without needing to hedge. I would need to be humble, for to truly learn or master anything requires humility. It would suck, sure, but everything sucks at first, very few things suck forever, and overnight successes don’t happen overnight.
As I moved beyond where I was, and began exploring the corners of this country and the depths of my psyche, I began to liberate my own being. I realized, that I do not need to be what’s expected, to be what’s required or to be what I am not. I am merely enough as is. We all have our ticket to live how we choose, and choose who we aid. So, if I could tell you anything, I’d tell you to go live your life the way that you want to. You are enough, and the world needs more of you.
Life is not zero-sum, nor a transaction at all. Life is an investment, and when we truly invest not expecting a return, we bring more love to the rest of the world. In fact, our potential is still as limitless as our imagination. When we are finally able to measure our strength by how high we can lift our loved ones instead of how far we can throw our enemies, then we will have truly changed the game.
For when we reach out to heal, stand up to our bitterest demons, paint with a fine brush or build with our hands, we do so to reach outside ourselves and lasso the world closer to us. The greatest things we will ever do in our lives are those things which breathe life into the souls of others. In doing so, we can only begin to realize that the universe is not merely something that happens to us, but something that we happen to. Everyone you meet will leave you. Make sure they leave you better than when you found them.
There aren’t many rules in life: Drink without getting drunk, Love without suffering jealousy. Eat without overindulging. Never argue. And once in a while, with great discretion, misbehave. No one’s as bad as their worst act and no one’s as great as their best. The secret to life, as always, lies somewhere within the grey nebulae of moderation. Being enough without being extra. I never realized that you don’t need to be the brightest star in the sky to be seen, you only need to be brighter than the night is dark. The magic in life, lies within the ability to manifest or sublimate “enough” of these things, whether they’re emotions, states of being or people.
Yet I wondered, as I’d often done, why did I feel the need to be so extra? Extra can never be enough. I did so, because it is a pathology, one that stems deep from my childhood. I was extra to attach to people. And I did so in an unhealthy way. I would either ratchet up the intensity too high and overstep my boundaries, or — more often — I would surround myself with needy people because I grew up thinking that people who needed you were the ones who loved you the most. My attachment pathology stems from an abusive inner monologue, caused by an overbearing and codependent mother who herself was verbally abusive and an anxious-preoccupied parent and partner, and this pathology impacts all other romantic relationships with secure women who I view as a life partner.
Indeed, all throughout my life, I have felt lonely. I don’t mean like I was alone — I always had people around, which is why I wrote that note to no one in particular while back at that hotel in Phoenix — but, rather, true loneliness. Loneliness isn’t feeling like you don’t really know anybody. It’s feeling like nobody could ever really know you. And at the root of loneliness, is a fundamental misjudgment of what people want: Nobody wants to really know you. They want to feel like you really know them.
Our souls do float across the sea of life, taking on water as they go, sinking ever so slightly — perhaps even imperceptibly — into despair. What we really need is peace. Peace patches the holes in our souls and stops the leaking. Once we have peace, we will no longer need to seek happiness.
To find it: I asked what I’d like to do, what I was willing to suffer for, and what problems I wanted to solve. The only way to find peace is to densely pack your life with creations, experiences, people and memories. What matters is what you do, how you live, how much joy and meaning you smash into the sides of every waking second.
I found peace through focusing on processes, activities and experiences: things I learn, things I make, and things I do. Any sort of achievement or shallow culturally-defined institutional box I can check? They will be side-effects of the life I want to live. Once you realize nobody’s fighting your battles but you, and you’re not beholden to anyone else’s opinions, you can act in accordance with your own code of conduct. I grabbed a spiral notebook, a really nice pen, and spent five minutes jotting down everything you think would make up a “perfect day.” I wondered: What does it look like? What am I doing? Who am I with? What do I eat? Where do I go? How do I feel? At the end of five minutes … I stopped and saw what I’d written. Then, I saw where the gaps were. In Seattle, 2017, I learned how to fill in those gaps.
Life is not linear. It is not a list. It’s a blank sheet. An ellipsis. A trail to be blazed. A route to be charted. Explore. Jump. Draw. Write. Sing. Play. Laugh. Hide. Seek. You will never have more energy, more youth, more freedom. This is it. This fleeting, flimsy, fragrant world is as vibrant and brilliant and available to you as it will ever be. All money is house money. And we’re playing with all of it, all the time.
Life is long. Dreams are weird. Reality is chaos. Finding our final form means letting go of our desires, shedding our egos and breaking the concept of self in order to find the only self that is true. We cannot surf the waves, for we are the ocean. Pathological individualism is not the path to the finding our final form, but it is, in fact, a magnetic pole apart from it.
Instead, the key to being human is to connect — without attaching — to others, by cultivating three great qualities: humility, curiosity and empathy. Humility is the soul. Curiosity is the mind. Empathy is the heart. Humility is how you value yourself. Curiosity is how you value your others. Empathy is how you value the bonds between yourself and others. Humility is the soil of knowledge. Curiosity is the water that helps it grow. Empathy is the sunlight that shows us which way to bend. With these three traits, you are now free to pursue the grandest, most human mission of all: to see as much of the world as possible, and to help as much of the world suffer less. I think all we really want out of life is to feel a little less lonely and a little more hopeful.
As the clouds parted and the darkness faded, I could feel myself re-entering the atmosphere as a different species altogether. It’s one thing to go on a voyage of self-discovery, it’s quite another to discover that you’re someone else entirely.
In March of 2018, I re-entered the land of the living: I attended the SXSW music festival, started running regularly again, dating without putting to much pressure upon myself, and just genuinely enjoying the stillness and lightness of not taking life too goddamn seriously, or identifying too much with what I did with my life. I took up photography and photo editing as a project — the end results of which are what you’ve seen all throughout this entry. I began writing about things outside myself, since I had thought about me all that I could.
I’m happy now. I feel intrinsically enough. As I snuck into VIP parties at SXSW with friends of mine, or friends I’d soon make, I didn’t do so to try and win some imaginary prize, or to run up some high score in a game that doesn’t exist. No, I did so because I could, and because it is what I genuinely enjoy doing.
I no longer feel the need to voice my ill-informed opinion about anything. I made peace with being silent on social media, only speaking when spoken to, only going where I’m invited, and being fully present wherever I am. My goal is to be a light, and on days when I’m too tired to shine, to settle for being a mirror. That’s more than enough.
I still run sometimes, but only when I want to. I went on a 14-mile run in late March for no reason at all, and every blissful mile was soundtracked by a band I’d seen at SXSW the week prior.
Those friends I went to New York and Los Angeles with? We talk every week — on a podcast. About sports. Over a year since I was shunned by that media’s community. And we’ll see each other again this year, probably in Houston, to see if I can watch the Buffalo Bills lose a 23rd straight game I’ve been in attendance for.
There will be no more mad-dashes to Chicago just to say that I could go. No more chasing ghosts of people I once knew to understand how they shaped who I was. There will be no more trips to Phoenix, nor drunken notes to myself in hotel rooms, nor hanging onto people I no longer need, nor drinking just to numb the existential ache of an abusive inner critic. There will, however, be another secret trip to Seattle. I love that city.
There will be pizzas, and Ramos Gin Fizzes and periodic chats and vacays with my mom. There will be trips out west and football games and meeting more people from the Internet. There will be laps around the South, easy nights in Memphis, and hard nights in the Big Easy. And more Christmases with family, same as they always were.
There will be more silence, more writing, more festivals, more dates. But less doubt, less thinking, less trying too hard and less worry. I don’t need these things anymore; I don’t recognize these things anymore. You can reinvent yourself. You can re-imagine yourself. You can rebuild yourself. Better still, you can do all of it hidden in plain sight, so imperceptibly incremental that it hardly looks like you’ve changed at all. How do you do it?
You go places. You try new things. You write over old memories. You take everything that you want to keep with you and bring it to wherever life takes you next. You drop little pieces of yourself that you no longer need in the places they need to go. You meet people you never imagined. And you let all these experiences, humans, events and desires leave a mark on you. You’re shaped by what you’re surrounded by, but you also shape your surroundings. They are equal yet opposite forces that combine to form the self. And that brings us back to the ocean — the Atlantic Ocean, one last time.
I checked into the same hotel I did two years ago, when I had everything I wanted. The very first thing I did was nap. Upon waking, I called an Uber to American Airlines Arena, and bought tickets to Heat-Raptors while en route. I like going to games in different cities alone, it’s like eavesdropping on someone else’s Wednesday night. I made small talk with the woman next to me, who’d been a season ticket-holder since the Heat’s inception in 1989. She was sweet.
I called an Uber to return to my hotel, she was Haitian and looked a touch younger than I, and we immediately started talking about music: Kendrick Lamar, Anderson Paak, Donald Glover and Janelle Monae. And when SZA’s “Love Galore” came on her radio, I audibly gasped, “I love this song!” She looked at me, and said, “You? Love this song?” I mean, listen to it: how could you not?
She sized me up and said, “You know what? You seem cool. You wanna smoke up?” But of course.
She handed me a baggie and a piece and said, “careful, don’t pack it too full. It’s really strong.” We talked for 30 minutes about life and about Austin, we swapped Instagram info, and I hopped out the car. “Enjoy the flight,” she said to me, sounding magnanimous and profound. “Enjoy the flight,” I thought to myself. I’ll be damned if I don’t.
I spent the rest of the trip toggling between drinking espresso, running along the beach, eating ceviche, and exploring Wynwood and Little Havana. I spent an entire day without speaking English until 4:30 p.m. That’s when I ran into an old friend.
Remember how I told you I used to write about sports? In 2011, I struck up a Twitter friendship with a Miami-based lawyer who has a fairly famous husband. I met her in Coral Gables at a place I liked from two years prior. She was going to hang out for an hour. An hour turned into five. And I assure you, I was only the second-best storyteller in the restaurant for all five of those hours. She, just like seemingly everyone else I’d met at random over the past two years, was fantastic — perhaps most fantastic of them all.
I went back to the pier at the ocean, and just laid out in the sand, watching the planes fly by and people dodge the incoming waves. I drifted off to sleep for a while, before heading back to catch my homeward-bound flight. I’d felt myself melt into the beach before understanding something I’d never quite known how to articulate before — the final answer to my most elemental question, “Who am I?”
As mentioned before, I am an ocean. We are all oceans of our own making. And the ocean — the Atlantic, the Pacific, and you — is both the water, and the coasts which contain it. The ocean carves itself into the cliffs and the sand in the way the bedrock forms the boundary beyond which the ocean ceases to be. The tides roll in and out, the coasts expand and contract, and the body of water is ever-changing, even as it exists under the same name. The Atlantic Ocean of today won’t be the Atlantic Ocean of the tomorrow. The you that lives today won’t be the you that lives tomorrow. You’re shaped by what you’re surrounded by, but you also shape your surroundings. They are equal yet opposite forces that combine to form the self. We are both the liquid and the container.
My dad’s wife once told me, “Water seeks its own level.” And although I intrinsically knew what she meant, it never struck me on a visceral level before now. The self is a liquid that expands and spreads out until it careens into the sides of its container. What we are — underneath our jobs, our social circle, our lovers, our memories, our thoughts, our expectations — is water. And all these things that we think, or do, or love, or identify with, are our coasts. When we seek truth, or seek success, we too often try to change the liquid, rather than changing that which contains us. The shape of the sea changes with the waves and the tides, each crash against the shore, changing the sands, each gradual release changing the sea further. Water seeks its own level. It’s up to us to define what level that is.
I spent 106 weeks coming ashore, each wave different than the last. And each time I crested and broke, I changed a the coastline a little bit. When seas were rough and the night was dark, I thought I was changing it faster. In reality, the container was just eroding. I was cutting into what I could be. And so I waited for the storm to subside, and realized — over time — that we can all change our levels a little bit. It just takes repeated, rhythmic failure: The thing that builds confidence is the same thing that shapes coastlines. The waves fail to crest over the cliffs, but in doing so, they shape the cliffs that contain them, before the cliffs ultimately shape the sea in return.
I returned home to Austin, 11 p.m. on Saturday, April 14, and knew how different I’d become. It all happened so gradually, it was easy to make sense of it, internalize it, and make peace with my rise to meet my life at its apex. This zenith is where our story ends … but to begin a new one, we won’t need to do much. For the coast we’ll need to travel to is that which contains us, all we need to do is decide where we stand when the sea comes ashore.
XI. A Letter of Celebration
I sat in the theatre that one afternoon, already a bottle of prosecco deep, watching Ingrid Goes West. The theatre was as dark as my mood, so no one could see me choking up. I knew I was nearing the end — of what, I was not sure — and that it’d soon be time to say goodbye. That was August 20, 2017 — a year ago. I’d take an Uber home, window rolled down, stretching my hand out to surf the wind the way I used to on long summer car-rides to Canada.
I told my driver to stop at the Sunrise Mini Mart a mile from home — an unassuming convenience store with the kind of beer selection that would make a Brooklyn hipster want to masturbate onto his fixed-gear. I bought twice as much beer as I thought I needed for the evening, arrived home, and promptly drank it all. You may recall the bleakness, the profound sadness, the cacophonous fear rattling around inside the walls of those words.
I admitted to a precipitous descent into a solipsistic, surreal nightmare, an escalating titration of anxiety and depression, rocket-fueled by 18 straight months of the kind ludicrous nightly alcohol consumption that would would’ve made Mickey Mantle shy away from the batter’s box. I couldn’t go on like this. I could never. I will never make it out alive. It doesn’t matter how deep the abyss is when the ocean’s pitch black and the submarine’s taking on water with the pressure of a thousand atmospheres, and so I aborted the mission, shared that piece to Facebook, and vowed to swim to the surface.
I walked into work the following day, and could feel the kinds of stares generally only reserved for how people look at you after the death of your child. They knew. They had to know. Concerned parties offered their support. My parents called. My extended family asked what was going on. I didn’t have the energy to explain. I was too busy sobbing and self-loathing at how weak and stupid I felt — not just for the situation I found myself in, but for feeling the need to radically redesign my life at all. “It wasn’t that bad,” I’d reason. Why did I make such a dramatic show of it? Why did I need to pull the fire alarm just because I was feeling the heat?
I shuffled — and I do mean shuffled, my gait had become ragged and syncopated by then — out of the office and to the grocery store on my way home from work. I always went to the grocery store on my way home from work: I’d buy a six-pack of IPA and a bottle of Prosecco, plus a box of mac-and-cheese, a tomato, a bag of frozen peas, some extra goat cheese, a dozen eggs, a lemon and some rosemary. I would consume all that unholy mess — the booze and the recipe-less 2,500-calorie carb-bomb — between 6 and 10 p.m., play drunk-text roulette with women I wished I could sleep with or even have the courage to ask out, and spend half the time chainsmoking on my balcony. And there at the Fresh Plus around the corner from my condo was where I’d make the one change I promised myself I’d make. This one, seemingly innocuous modification to my daily routine that I hoped would lead me somewhere other than the hell I created for myself: I changed my shopping list.
I wandered the aisles in a glitchy, hungover haze and purchased the following: a green juice, a basil lemonade, some sunflower shoots, a cucumber, a jalapeno, a tomato, a sweet onion, an avocado, a bottle of olive oil and some fresh dill. And, crucially, a 12-pack of Topo Chico. “Eating healthy, eh?” smirked the cash register clerk I’d become friendly with. “Yeah, something like that,” I muttered. I cashed out and went home. At my doorstep was a present from a woman I was casually fucking at the time — a Rihanna prayer candle, more Topo Chico, and a note:
“Wanted to buy you your first six-pack. Wishing you health and happiness. Be kind to yourself. ❤ [NAME REDACTED].”
I mixed the greens into something resembling a salad, I thanked her, and I never saw her again. I didn’t sleep that night; the tremors were just too great.
At the doctor’s office the following day, I was given a prescription for anti-abuse, and I had blood drawn and my vitals taken. My resting heart rate was 104. My blood pressure was 168/124. I was 210 pounds … and diabetic. My doctor — a kind middle-aged Indian woman with a firm handshake — gave me a prolonged hug and said, “You can do this. You’re young and you’re smart.”
For the next three weeks, I took my pills, and continued eating the same thing for dinner each night. My lunches, at the urging of an impossibly sweet friend in Pakistan I met via Medium, consisted of me venturing alone to an Indian market and trying every curry on the menu. “Subcontinental food is filling, Biryani Boy (she called me Biryani boy), and healthy. You need that!” The staff began to recognize me, and after a month or so enthusiastically asked me, “So, you’ve had them all — which one’s your favorite?” “Oh they’re all delicious,” I smiled back. Indeed they were — I could feel my taste-buds returning and, honestly, what kind of monster doesn’t love Indian food? (If you are that monster, you may stop reading now.) I kept up this eating routine, and waited to feel better. My brain kept glitching. My limbs kept twitching. My stomach kept acting up. I burned scented candles at night to keep cozy and calm. The dim light and vague wafts of clean cotton put me at ease.
I did no writing. I did no running. I halted social activities and used each day for work, and each evening for rest when possible. Toward the end of the fourth week — I felt the fog begin to clear … just in time to take a secret trip to the Pacific Northwest.
In case you were expecting this to be a heartwarming commemoration of one year sober, I’ll save you the suspense: I broke my sobriety in Seattle, with a glass of champagne accompanying a plate of oysters. It was the most satisfying glass of champagne I’d ever drank, and part of the most life-affirming 36 hours I’d spent in 2017 to that point. I drank coffee. I ate Vietnamese food. I ran leisurely along the Puget Sound. I went to the most extraordinary cocktail lounge I’d ever visited. I hit up a Seahawks home game the following day. It was as if I was air-lifted into an alternate dimension and given free reign to indulge in the pleasures that would please me the most — with no repercussions, no judgment, and — even better — no-one watching. And what did I do? I unwound. The tense, terse John Gorman shrouded in darkness melted against the late-summer glow of the Seattle skyline. “Ah,” I thought to myself. “This feels … different.” Upon returning home, I went right back to my routine: sparkling water all day, green juice for breakfast, curry for lunch, and a salad for dinner. Rinse and repeat. Go slow and see how you feel.
My energy began to return. The shaking subsided. The sadness dissipated. I hit a music festival with a friend, and soaked myself in happiness. I took my mom to New Orleans. I spent 10 days in California, amongst friends old and new, absorbing as much of the ocean breeze and coastal views as my heart could conceivably hold before bursting. I developed a certain magnetism — people were beginning to notice, accept and even find me tolerable again. I could feel my body shedding the weight of stress and excess bloat. I could feel the synapses in my mind begin to turn over like a rebuilt hot rod that hasn’t seen the road in a while. And although I allowed myself to drink while traveling, I enjoyed it more. I learned how to appreciate a particularly delicious Imperial IPA, or an organic California red, or a spicy tiki cocktail served in a delightfully dim speakeasy. It’s all about balance, I’d say to myself, quoting literally nobody interesting. By reserving pleasurable things for pleasurable places, I could take greater pleasure in them. (You’re welcome for that mangled car-crash of a sentence.)
By the time I visited Memphis in December, I had lost 37 pounds. My blood pressure read 116/78. My resting heart rate had dropped to 84. And, incredibly, I was no longer diabetic or even pre-diabetic. I had the mental clarity, stability and strength to start incorporating additional healthy habits into my life — as well as additional responsibility. I didn’t seek to do so, they just sorta … happened.
I noticed myself doing things I’d never done before: tidying up around the house when I noticed a nick-knack out of place, turning lights out before I left the house, taking leisurely strolls outdoors, taking coffee meetings with old friends and new clients, learning Portuguese. And I started writing: a lot. For 35 consecutive days, I posted an essay to Medium.
I hadn’t laced up my running shoes in over a year (aside from that one run in Seattle), but on Memorial Day 2018, I went for a two-mile jog. I have run, somewhere between two and eight miles, every day since — weather permitting. My brain began to elevate beyond baseline and into something approaching a euphoric high. Sobriety — what a drug, right?
My cravings for booze, cigarettes, sex, carbs, validation, attention, human contact all subsided or significantly dropped. I could feel myself becoming unshackled by vice, untethered to my former life, unbound by self-imposed limiting beliefs. The abusive inner monologue became quiet. My brain stopped glitching.
From there, my productivity became supercharged. I kept writing ever more pointed and clear-headed commentary far beyond the scope of my own autobiography. I started playing more music. My friends and I started a sports podcast. I was voted onto the board of directors for a local non-profit preschool. I joined the congressional campaign of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as her copywriter and ghostwriter. That went well — in the understatement of the decade.
By June of this year, I’d become superhuman: I began speaking Spanish and Portuguese in casual conversation and on bilingual group chats. I volunteered for another congressional campaign locally. I wrote “About Us” pages for the $75B technology conglomerate I’m proud to work for, and the 75-kid non-profit preschool I’m proud to help steward, and prouder to say I’m serving as secretary of and interim marketing chair. The podcast started clicking. I entered into a little partnership with curio.io. I started full-scale branding work for a local Artificial Intelligence startup. I hit the four-day ATX Television Festival with a press pass gifted to me by a client. I started yoga. I started meditation. I began to date again — even some of the women I was, not long ago, too ashamed to bother to ask. I received a [REDACTED] at work that caused my jaw to drop to the fucking floor. And it’s only snowballed from there.
All of the sudden, I started feeling like I’d been beamed in from an alien planet: an April trip to Miami relaxed and reinvigorated me. I’ve become kinder, more confident, clearer in my conviction, more reliable, less erratic, more blissful and fulfilled in my day to day. I feel level. I feel grounded. I feel centered. I feel … sexy. (That feels weird to say.) And the world — no really, the world — has, impossibly, started to take notice.
People who I admire — people who’s names you might even recognize — began making contact. I have a surreal Rolodex of successful, ambitious, intelligent and empathetic friends all over the world now (except Antarctica, because I don’t yet speak Penguin). Yes, John Gorman the sad-sack drunk became John Gorman the change-maker and global brand. Who is this new man? Who is this man who actually takes the time to groom his beard, iron his shirts and match his shoes with his belt? (I’m going to leave out the part about my sudden preternatural ability to turn both men and women on with my words and the avalanche of DM-slides that have ensued, partially because it’s not super relevant, partially because I still can’t believe this is a thing, but apparently that’s a thing, and I’m not mad about it.)
So this is what the kids are calling the “glow up,” I guess. The fog is gone. The rage is gone. The cruelty is gone. The darkness is gone. In their place is a profound sense of pride, satisfaction, calm, grace, humility, curiosity, confidence and humor. Personal and professional success. Friendship and community. Altruism and activism. Opportunities and adorable people falling into my orbit like life-giving planets circling a planet that up until recently was a cold, barren wasteland far from the warmth of the sun.
On August 20, 2017, I decided to wage a war for my own happiness. I declared in full view of the world how sick I was of living the way I was living, and embarked on a quest to change. And I fought that battle on all fronts. I had had enough of everything, I set fire to it all, and rebuilt my life from scratch. I did it all slowly.
I’m thrilled. I’m ecstatic. I’m over the moon. My energy, my work, my life are all zooming through the sky like a rocket. No, I don’t have any transformational before and after photos. No, it hasn’t been perfect. No, I haven’t fallen in love and don’t have engagement or baby pics. I don’t have any of the commonly used markers that signal that I’m a goddamned responsible adult or someone you should admire or give a shit about. I’ve even fucked up a little bit along the way, and allowed myself the space to reserve judgment and treat myself with compassion. And I know that at any time, this can only be taken away from me if I’m not careful. I’m aware of the precarious nature of my current perch, and I own that.
And I also get that the entire world is burning and sucks and so there’s something tone deaf about screaming to the world “life is better than ever!” when there’s babies in concentration camps and women are being sexually assaulted and democracy is in flames. And I get that I’m a straight white guy and I have all the cheat codes so of course life is just fine and I should check my privilege and the fact that life sucked so bad a year ago is a “me problem” and a waste of the winning hand I’m repeatedly dealt.
But, you know what? Fuck all that. Today, I’m going to let me have this. I’m going to let me have this one, well-earned, hard-fought victory — a battle won behind the scenes, under the cover of darkness — a victory that’s been 12 months in the making. Yes, you can change your life. Yes, you can reinvent yourself. Yes, you can become a better person … if you want to. All it takes is one small change — a salad, some sparkling water, and a willingness to allow yourself some time to wait for the right things to come your way. That one small change can cascade into something wondrous, joyous and damn near perfect.
Today I’m celebrating. This morning, one year later, I took an aimless drive to nowhere after hand-washing my car. The sun was shining and the weather was very much the same as it was all that lifetime ago. And I drove with the windows rolled down, stretching my hand outside to surf the wind the way I used to on long summer car-rides to Canada. The peace is real. The road is leading someplace. It’ll go where it’s supposed to.
I was born October 3, 1982. I’ve been alive for 35 years, 10 months and 17 days — and yet I’ve never felt more alive than I do right now, in this moment, as this person I’ve unwittingly become. I’ll toast that … right after I finish making this salad. And board this flight to Paris, to finally see the same ocean from another coast, instead of the same coast from another ocean.
XII. Darkness Falls and Darkness Fades
It was a Thursday. I was at a Butch Walker concert in Austin. He is, in fact, my favorite singer-songwriter. And while the concert was, in fact, amazing, my mind was short-circuiting.
Earlier that day I was in London — the final city of a whirlwind 20-day world tour that covered nine cities on three continents. I had been awake for 47 straight hours. I blamed jet-lag and a flight delayed by seven hours at the last minute. Something more sinister was brewing.
Itwas another Thursday. I was home alone in Austin. I laid out a knife, some liquor and some pills. I contemplated taking my own life. My mind was a raging wildfire — engulfed in total darkness. That was just two weeks later.
How did I end up here? How did I fall so far, so fast, from the euphoric heights illuminated on August 18, 2018, in such technicolor detail?
I began to investigate. It was so many things. Jet lag, sure. Lack of sleep, sure. Post-vacation blues are quite common and so well-documented it has its own Wikipedia page. I was unaware of this looming monster — and this was no ordinary vacation.
Alcohol withdrawal from three weeks of binge-drinking is a no-brainer recipe for glitching. Forgetting my Xanax in a Madrid hotel room exacerbated matters. I wasn’t drinking enough water. I couldn’t sleep, so I continued to drink myself to sleep at night. I wasn’t taking care of myself. I was barely eating and started eating even less.
I felt isolated and lonely. The nature of the work I do here brings people around the world very close to me, but puts those very close to me a world away. Everyone wants to ride a roller-coaster. But you wouldn’t buy one for your family sedan. And so friends never get too close to me, and potential lovers get scared off.
Also, I fell behind at work. I fell behind in my non-profit work. Or at least I felt like I fell behind. I was nowhere near as far behind as I felt I was. But, then again, it’s the perception that’s the pathology, more than actual events.
The news, additionally, has been a grease-fire. Everything’s burning at the same time. We’re hurtling toward the darkest period in American history at the speed of light. I scroll through the seething rage on Twitter. I read Facebook with mist in my eyes. The Internet allows us to consume infinite profound dread, and the limitations of the human vessel only allow common people comically finite resources to combat it.
Any one of those things may not have been enough to send me over the edge. All of them, though, did. I went from Butch Walker to day-drinking with a butcher knife on the counter in 14 days. I cried out for help on Instagram. I admitted my failings later on Facebook. I wanted people to know. I still want them to.
The darkness left my nerves frayed, frazzled and fucked. I was by turns numb, anxious, fearful, catatonic, miserable, erratic, unhinged and unfocused. By the time I called a long-time friend and lover to disclose my demons, I’d become a drunken, maddening mess — an antithesis shell of the triumphant soul I had been not three weeks prior. That was a Monday night.
Embarrassed, mournful and upset at what transpired the night before, I woke up on Tuesday and ran six miles. “Not one more fucking day of this,” I said to myself after, as I started to clean my “depression mess,” which makes my condo look like it was hit by an F5 Sharknado. I immediately called my primary care physician, scheduled a psychiatrist appointment, and reached out to a therapist.
Wednesday was my birthday. I drank with friends at a Happy Hour from 6–10p.m. … one last hurrah at age 35. One last woozy, boozy evening for me after a month full of them. Then I went home and took a bottle of champagne to the dome, passing out on the couch at 4 a.m. after drunk-texting half the known universe.
It was a Thursday. I was at the doctor’s office. She said, “Have you ever tried Lexapro?” I shook my head no. I’ve never tried anti-depressants. “You need the max dosage.” I said, “So be it. Let’s go. And, also, I’d like that pill you take that makes you throw up when drinking. I do not want to drink. And an early refill on my Xanax, please, for the inevitable withdrawals.”
And that was that. It was a Thursday. Three weeks after the darkness first fell. After my demons I line up against finally brought more blitzers than I could block. Depression doesn’t care how great your life is going. It doesn’t care how good you look on “paper.” It just shows up and blows you off the mountain. The mountain I spent 13 months climbing to previously unreachable heights. I should’ve known how precarious that perch was.
Five weeks. That’s how long my latest depressive episode lasted … 37 days in total, with my birthday (October 3) being the pivot point. It was, by far, the shortest on record in my life. Because I have been documenting and measuring my entire life since before the age of 5, I can run you through the list of every depressive episode since. Here is that list:
- July 1987 — May 1988
- August 1993 — May 1995
- November 1998 — August 1999
- January 2001 — April 2002
- October 2003 — March 2004
- January 2005 — December 2005
- January 2011 — January 2014
- August 2016 — September 2017
- September 2018 — October 2018 (current)
How do I know this one’s gone? I’ll tell you.
After a glitchy morning, the clouds parted in the afternoon: some Mexican food, a reasonably productive workday, some rainy-day afternoon snuggles with a woman, and a delicious dinner and storytelling with a client/friend. I went to bed peacefully. I woke up leisurely. The negative inner monologue receded back into the distance — a far-off rumble rather than an all-consuming funnel cloud. I felt calm. Light. And I realized the measures I put in place were beginning to work. And quickly. What was so different about this time?
Upon realizing I was cratering, I told people (through writing and conversation) what was happening in real time.
As an added measure, I started taking Lexapro. The maximum dosage. I’m told I won’t see the full benefits for another 4–6 weeks, but I’ve already noticed one big change:
I’m now sleeping. Over eight hours a night. To give you some kind of indicator has to just how extraordinary that is, I’ve been tracking my sleep with my Fitbit since December 22, 2015. I average five hours of sleep per night, and have had exactly zero sober 8+ hour sleeps since I began tracking. Since October 5, I’ve topped that figure nine times. That’s a huge deal. Perhaps chronic fatigue and burnout played an unseen role in blowing me off the mountain top.
The fight for my happiness, I’m afraid, will be a lifelong battle, with very few days off allowable. I took three weeks off and it thrust me into the most intense period of darkness in my life. Thankfully, that period was short. I’m not sure what it cost me, it may take weeks to step outside and survey the damage done (I get very needy, angry, bitter, flaky and sad in times like these, generally costing me things like opportunities and relationships, although I think the impact at this time should be minimal), but I think with the full-court press I’ve deployed, I’ll be back scaling the heights I’d never reached before by the end of the year — which would be poetic and perfect, since this year has, even with the five-week blip, been by far the happiest, most rewarding, and most successful of my lifetime. Second place (2015) isn’t even particularly close. But I want to tell you about one final weapon I’ve been brandishing in the fight for my happiness. Something you’re familiar with.
I’ve been writing about my fight for happiness. Why? Because I wanted to:
- Name my feelings.
- Process them.
- Candidly, wonder how weird I was for feeling them.
Naming my feelings helped me process them. Processing them helped me find ways to treat the negative and maladaptive ones. But I want to talk about the third thing for one second.
As my blog-space has grown, and more of you around the world began to read me (which, it’s fucking weird to think about, still) I began to realize: I’m not that weird. These thoughts and feelings I have seem to have struck a chord with you, and they seem to be common, relatable and worth exploring.
On the day I admitted to the world I was going through my depression, I was overwhelmed and overcome by the outpouring of support and love from friends and strangers alike. Some of you quoted my own lines back to me in comments and DMs and texts. Some of you bravely shared your own stories of depression with me. Some of you just checked in to see how I felt. I was in awe. I still am.
Writing on Medium started as a way to name, process and find my way out of a very dark period in my life. All that work ended up literally being one of the ways out of the next one.
We’ll be back at this again soon. There are new stories to tell. New feelings to feel. And a brighter sun looming on the horizon.
XIII. How to Change the World
I want to share a tiny tale about how to change the world. A lot of people think that changing the world means something grandiose. That you have to be some kind of Steve Jobs-ish visionary, or a militant hustler like Gary Vee, or an artistic force like Kendrick Lamar. And, indeed, those people do change the world. But there are so few of them, and chances are that those people are not you. And that’s okay. I’m not anyone special, either. But I did have the opportunity to do something pretty special that I’d like to share with you now.
Now, this post is a little different, in that I’m going to both beat my own chest a little bit (I know, you’re used to the self-deprecation and existential ache, so this could be a bit of whiplash), and also be a little bit topical, because I’m going to tie this story back to the events of the day, happening now in Washington D.C.
I first came across a certain congressional candidate through Brand New Congress in November 2017, while she was an organizer and educational coordinator moonlighting as a bartender to make ends meet. I knew from hearing her speak and reading her core policy tenets that she was the one — the first candidate in my lifetime I unanimously agreed with, and who spoke to me the way that she did. (Like a real human who really cared.)
I signed up for her newsletter right then and there. I donated to her campaign and she personally called to thank me. (She could do that back when she had 500 Twitter followers, which feels like forever ago but was really just last year.) I was in for the long haul from that day forward — a journey that reached it’s jaw-dropping apex today, as by now you’re all very much aware. Who knew an insurgent candidate in a congressional race in one of the smallest (geographically) districts in the U.S. could transfix an entire nation?
In the end, only 15,000 people voted for her in the primary — roughly the population of Leander, TX. But that was 5,000 more votes than her opponent garnered, and a star was born. But that’s not how you change the world. That’s how you get elected: get more votes than the other guy.
Changing the world requires three things: developing good ideas, refining a set of skills, and getting people to believe in you. For the candidate, her ideas were the core tenets of her campaign, her skills were abilities as an orator and organizer, and it was her genuine empathy and fiery tenacity that got people to believe in her.
In the end, she wasn’t about getting 15,000 votes so much as she was about getting the attention of the political establishment and people sick and tired of living in a world where freedom, truth, justice and prosperity are either inaccessible or unequally distributed. Safe to say she’s doing that. So where do I fit in?
As I said, changing the world requires three things: developing good ideas, refining a set of skills, and getting people to believe in you.
My idea is that an Egalitarian republic is possible, both in our institutions and inter-personally. We can be kind and fair, invest in others, and share our wealth and our success. I believe that life isn’t zero-sum. That our purpose in life is to ease the burden of suffering — both for others and for our selves.
My skill is storytelling. It’s been honed and harnessed through years of working in total silence. I started writing at 25. Didn’t get paid for till age 30. Didn’t make a damn dent in the internet till 33.
There were lean years in there. Really lean. I was sleeping in a rental Jeep in a Wal-Mart parking lot just shy of my 30th Birthday, trying to make it in a city that had already rejected me the first go-around. Safe to say I’ve rebounded from that precarious point in the six years since.
Lastly, getting people to believe in you. Jim Valvano once said “the greatest gift you can give someone in life is to believe in them.” I’ve gotten no opportunity given to me without someone first believing in me, and I’ve offered my ideas and skills to no one I didn’t believe in. And so for the campaign, I did what I could: send postcards, call voters (in English and Spanish — bilingualism is another skill I’ve learned over the years), and basically tell everyone I could about this 28 (now 29) year-old in New York who had the courage to do the unthinkable.
Then came a call for a copywriter. Wouldn’t you know I jumped at that chance. I was set up for an interview. Her creative director asked “so, why you?” And you know what I told him?
“I’m one of two global brand copywriters at one of the largest companies in the world (I told him which company, I’m not telling y’all, though I bet you could figure it out), I’m one of the 100 most-read writers on Medium, a board secretary at a local non-profit preschool and a freelance writer and brand consultant. I’ve been published at SI, HuffPo, Thought Catalog, Business Insider, Scary Mommy, The Mission, and so on. My words are all the walls at JFK Airport, and have been printed in FADER Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and the Boston Globe. And less than six years ago I was homeless.”
I wasn’t bragging so much as I was impassioned about my work and the opportunity in front of me.
“Sounds like a no-brainer,” he told me. “You’re in.” And so I got to write ad copy, emails and policy pillars. For a political campaign. A winning campaign. One that sincerely made actual history. I believed in the cause enough to do that. They believed enough in me to let me. We literally changed the world, and I got to play a tiny role, and I will take pride in that for the rest of my natural life.
Changing the world doesn’t require you to be an activist, or an inventor, or an artist, or a politician. It merely requires a good idea, whatever skills you have, and the gift of someone else’s belief in you.
All change starts small. Sometimes while you’re moonlighting as a bartender. Sometimes while you’re writing for no one while living in a Wal-Mart parking lot. But if you have a good idea, and you keep growing and applying your skills, and get enough of the right people to believe in you, you can go to congress. You can be on the front page of the New York Times. You can start an Egalitarian movement. You can just receive tiny notes from around the world about how you inspired someone to be a writer, or a better person, or decide not to kill themselves. (Thank you for those, by the way, truly. I’ve met some of the most fascinating, most awesome people here, and I appreciate you reaching out.)
I ain’t nobody special. I don’t come from money. I don’t have a ton of it. I’ve never written a bestseller or dropped a charting album. Hell, there are nine people with my name in Wikipedia and I’m not one of them. I could never run for congress (I have shitty credit and a criminal record, so, I’m out). I’ve never won an award. I’m not even considered a “thought leader” in my own field. I’m someone who likes to write words, living in a one-bedroom condo in Austin, who agreed with, and believed in, someone enough to volunteer to write words for her. That’s it.
So whatever you are — whoever you are — use your powers for good. Develop your ideas. Cultivate your skills. Get people to believe in you. You never know who’s lives you’ll touch, who’s path you’ll cross, or where life might take you next. Maybe the halls of congress. Maybe.
XIV. The Overview Effect
I remember sitting in Paris with a Filipino nun at a cafe patio outside the Cathedral of Notre Dame after 8 a.m. mass, enjoying a croissant and an espresso, chatting mostly in broken Spanish about god and colonialism. It was August. A Sunday. Pigeons clucked and hounded us for crumbs.
I was alone — somewhere near the beginning of a 23-day mad-dash through 10 cities on 3 continents. She asked if I had stopped believing in god, why would I go to mass?
I’d woken up at 6 a.m. that morning, the overcast light of the sunrise enticed me to lace up my sneakers and go for a run. I hadn’t so much journeyed to the Cathedral so much as I just happened to pass it by on my way to nowhere in particular. I walked inside because, well, it’s just what you do. It just so happened that mass started in five minutes.
“I was in the neighborhood. I doubt I’ll ever have the chance to do it again. Belief or not, it is still my culture (I grew up Catholic on both sides of my family, with a whole contingent of French immigrants on one of them), and it felt right.”
I felt at home in a house of worship for the first time in half my life. I felt at home in Paris, alone, talking to a total stranger from half the world away, with whom we shared little in common except a current coordinate in space-time and a taste for soft French bread. It was there I began to see how singular every human’s journey could be, and how small concerns like nationality, career and religion can seem. We are all these things, yet we are none of them. Life out of context is still life itself.
She left before I did. I watched the sun peek out from behind the clouds, and the misty Paris morning fill in with vibrant color, sound and warmth. The pigeons and people cluttered the streets. Selfie sticks like swords in Lord of the Rings battle scenes.
Some people accumulate things. I accumulate places. I travel a lot. Often to new places. Often alone. Some people find that profoundly lonely — I find it profoundly exciting. I like exploring and discovering.
One of the rare, cool treasures of this world is finding yourself in a city you’ve never been before. Gazing around in wide-eyed wonder. Drinking in the sounds and scents. Conversing with strangers who’ll soon become friends. It’s an adrenaline rush for me.
I could wander this Earth forever. Writing things. Learning languages. I’d hike through parks and eat my way through town. The grand cosmic joke is how limited we are by our lifetimes, and how large our planet is by comparison. There’s so much to see and experience. So many people to meet and stories to tell. And so I accumulate places. Places and people are possibilities. I’m open to them.
Over the next two weeks, I’d visit Marseille, Barcelona, Tangier, Lisbon, Porto, Madrid and London. Traveling mostly by train. Meeting up with people I’d only previously known from Medium. “This world is small,” I’d think. Over and over. Leave it to my sister, to whom I’d been texting my fits of existentialism, to drop this nugget in the chat window: “The farther we go in the world, the smaller it becomes.” My sister said that. Not me.
There were times along that trip where I felt as though I’d blacked out: I was tapping into the infinite. I was pulling the lever of the slot machine and coming up triple-7 over, and over, and over. And with every new hashtag-life-goals checked off my hashtag-bucket-list, and with each new realization that I’d managed in less than six years to go from sleeping in a rental Jeep in a Wal-Mart parking lot, $57K in debt and without health insurance, to a six-figure-netting voice of a global brand, popular essayist, and quiet wordsmith on board the most sweetly subversive political movement of the 21st Century, I stared down from the lofty perch I unwittingly found myself atop — far beyond the expectations I’d ever set for myself, or expectations that were set for me, career-wise, having literally lapped the field from which I’d sprouted, a world-trekking, flame-throwing quasi-philosopher with one of the world’s wildest resumes and weirdest Rolodex — and asked, “So, what now?” And, when I couldn’t find a suitable answer, and scrolled my Facebook feed and saw pics of friends in love and their seemingly happy families, asked instead, “What’s the point?” Not so succinctly.
Sometime around my eighth glass of wine on a rooftop in Porto, I penned this:
This life is largely hell. We’re born into this world, without our consent, and we are subjected to an endless parade of loss and suffering. Everything we love will die. Everything we hope for refuses to materialize. All we can do is try and transcend that, and hope our efforts are “enough.” I love what I do. I love my life. I feel like my heart’s in the right place. But it is a lonely, and mostly aimless journey. It exists outside the realm of “normal,” and outside the realm of possibility. I struggle to find people who understand it. I struggle to be a decent friend, worker and citizen. I struggle to feel like what I do makes any damned bit of difference. It hurts. It’s never enough.
I want something else. I want peace. I want hope. I want love. I want to feel like I’m not sprinting just to keep up, like I don’t need to be exceptional to be likable, like I can just exist and feel ecstatic for my own existence’s sake. And yet the only way I can do it is take it bigger — whatever that means anymore.
I am afraid I will die alone, or never find lasting love, or never find somewhere to belong. I am afraid I will never find someone I feel comfortable sharing all this with. And so: IG confessionals.
I should be okay. I’ve had it easy(-ish). I’ve done everything I’ve ever wanted to. But I’ve raced to the top of a mountain no one else is climbing, and screaming “did you see THAT?” to absolutely no one. People love *reading* vulnerability. No one wants to really know it.
I will never be the father or husband my parents or society want me to be. I’m too “weird.” I question too much. I’m always asking all the questions that don’t need answering. I’m always oversharing. I’m always too “unstable.” All I have is running, writing, and the thousands of miles left untraveled and words left unwritten. It’s all so much. It’s still not enough. And I wonder when it ever will be.
Icame home. Tired. Nerves frayed and frazzled. And I crashed as hard as I ever had, at any point in my (to date) 36 seasons on-air as more slapstick comedy than award-winning drama. And I sank into existential nihilism.
“The world seems so small now. It’s so boring. There’s so much else out there. And yet I just want to rest, and not feel compelled to explore it all to find adventure and peace.”
I began to get angry and resentful: at America for being such a needlessly Puritanical and Draconian society, at other people for conflicting with each other over the smallest of things, at the “conscious community” for constantly selling a bill of goods that — although allegedly rooted in the “source” and the “universe” — still wasn’t thinking big enough, or taking context into account. “No one is 100% responsible for their own happiness,” I would posit.
And then I would curse the social justice activists who would yell loudly and miserably into the abyss, who didn’t seem as though anything other than a perfectly Egalitarian society across race, gender, sexuality, religion, class and upbringing would allow them to crack to a smile. “Why can’t people just relax, and enjoy a sunrise or a croissant?” I would say, loathing the other end of the binary that seemed to assume that everything is context and happiness is a product of it.
Life is not binary. Happiness is not binary. I concluded that I think we are responsible for own happiness: 51% of it. Enough to be a majority, yet not enough to pass a bill without a filibuster.
With everything feeling so small, I again jetted to San Francisco over Thanksgiving break. There, I roundly whipped myself back into tornado form, just enough to scare off the good friend who guided me around in Paris in the first place, and then just enough to fall in lust with an old friend and co-worker I hadn’t seen in over half a decade.
Private wine tastings in Napa and Sonoma, Russian River beers by the gallon, cheese plates and modern art museums, riding scooters and hiking beaches, legalized THC and experiments with DMT. Bourgeois resorts, top-shelf scotch and the Golden Gate bridge. Food. Family. Friends old and new. The question would come up again: I’ve made it, right?
No. What I had then was an optimized life. I’d spend my time and money doing almost entirely what I wanted to do, and almost nothing I don’t. But that’s only one piece of becoming the self you want to be. There’s another piece. It sucks more. It involves doing what you don’t want to do. The hard stuff. The stuff that strengthens you.
I had capped out. I could do no more. I could enjoy no more. I hyper-maximized my every moment, running up the score in games I knew I could win, while struggling to take the field against my toughest opponent: myself. To find what I need to work through instead of around, I went inward, to understand the technicolor tales of surrealist cacophony.
I stockpiled some edibles and psychedelic mushrooms into my suitcase and headed home. I was bored, restless, searching. For what?
I gobbled mushrooms and began to think. I’d think about life — what it means, how to spend it — and fall short of being able to understand it. There is no goal. There is no final level. There is no meaning. We are tiny genetic marvels and mathematical miracles haphazardly scattered around a speck of space-dust.
I’d think about culture and context — how it shapes us, how we shape it — and often wondered if we are doomed, or if we are ever able to truly extricate ourselves from that which contains us. Perhaps we are all marks or tiny devils.
I began to absorb so much information from the world around me, and from truths found by looking inward and reading, I’d perhaps come to the greatest truth about myself. I will share that with you now, since you’re here.
“I am an approval-seeking missile. It underpins everything I do.” It leads me to stretch myself too thin, latch onto people I shouldn’t, prevent me from standing up for myself, stop me from putting myself in situations where I could be rejected, truthfully expressing what I want (or even thinking about it). This course, has its benefits: I have great relationships with a wide swath of people. I am very productive. I am very likable. I can consider myself cultured, agreeable, curious and come through for people at the drop of a hat.
But I wouldn’t be telling you this if this was a good thing. This is, of course, a very bad thing. It leads me to sacrifice my core values (candidly, I didn’t know my core values until this year), fall into codependent relationships with people who need and use me (or vice versa), say “yes” to things I don’t want to, and share my innermost demons publicly instead of to people close to me.
I thought about how to jump off that pathological treadmill, as the world now seemed smaller and farther away than it ever had. And then it went dark.
I started thinking about what was left to look forward to. And the answer I kept returning to is, succinctly, nothing. My goals, to the extent that I had them to begin with, didn’t excite me much anymore. I’m not motivated by money, or a bigger house. I didn’t anticipate finding lasting love or making a family. I don’t see any mind-blowing accomplishments waiting on the horizon. I didn’t think I was going to solve the puzzle by working harder or being more productive, when I was already always “on.” And, of course, everything nationally and globally was — and is still — turning into a grease-fire, and within a half-decade or less we’ll be violently engulfed in a wave of super-fascism, and while we all kill each other over food and medicine, the elite will laugh from their fortified compounds as they aim at colonizing Mars. And then climate change will surely kill what evil can’t.
I had done what I set out to do. I wrote things. People read them. I ran a marathon. I traveled. I made some money. I sang songs. I ate good food and listened to great music. I stayed out way too late. Had my heart stolen and broken and felt alive the whole time. Even became a cat person.
But, like, what else? I don’t anticipate being an uncle. My parents will die. I’ll get old and weird and lonely, and my body and mind will break down. Society will fray and burn. I doubt any Buffalo sports team will win a title. Then, death. God, the U-Shaped correlation curve between perspective and happiness. If I had a stack of papers to throw into the air at the time, I would have.
We spend so much time on this rock, trying to fit into a mold. A societal mold. Or a familial mold. Or a professional mold. Of what success and happiness should look like.
That if we only do x, y and z, we will receive a, b and c. That effort is wasted energy. I’ve returned today from the mountain top to tell you what else to do. I went there because I know I’ve spent my fair share of energy wasted.
No one — not your family, not your boss, not your lover, not your friends, not society — can define your life for you. Only you can. Only you can synthesize what’s around into something that brings you joy, peace, health and prosperity. You do so by finding your deepest truths, then unearthing your root pathology and sandblasting it so you can eliminate what holds you back from living your truth.
For the longest time, I didn’t know my truths. Then I thought I did, and it turned out I was wrong, because after dislodging my root pathology, I began to realize most things I thought I knew about myself were lies grafted onto me to mask my root pathology. Suddenly, things began to make sense.
I consider the things I’ve done, the things that have happened to me, the things I’ve learned, to be gifts. They have given me all the information and emotion I have needed to be here, now. And here, now, is pretty good.
Health, wealth and happiness aren’t one-size-fits-all, because your truth isn’t. Your truth and mine could be quite different. But I find once you discover yours, and once you discover what’s blocking you from living it, you can reenter your life freer, happier and fuller than you were before you left.
Life gives you gifts with every breath you take. If you’re living your truth, all you have to do is accept them. And when you do, it won’t matter what else you get.
Sometime around the Super Bowl, 2019, I zoomed about as far out as I could, having now hit on infinity long past the time the dealer ran out of cards to give, still wondering how none of them added up to Blackjack. I looked back at the world from which I’d now felt completely untethered. I thought about what I was fighting for. What I was struggling for. What I was asking for. What I was working for. And this is what I concluded:
Life is objectively meaningless. There’s nothing out there. No “calling.” No god. No higher power. We are not living in a simulation, and none of this is preordained. It’s just space-time, energy, and the empty abyss of the cosmos. Here we are, stranded on a rock in the middle of nowhere, paying the electric bill if we can afford to. And yet, that is every reason why it’s important to fight for things that do matter. Ideas matter — equality, justice, wisdom, peace, happiness, freedom, dignity.
They matter because humanity has shown, time and again, that these are ideals worth striving for and, even better, momentarily achievable. The entire world isn’t starving, burning, or drowning all the time, everywhere. These ideas are worthwhile because, although they’re human constructs, they’re guide-stars that propel us all toward a world that’s less meaningless. They’re places to find purpose. It’s about the work. It’s about the contribution. It is, ultimately, about the preservation of the species, and about adding value, in ways that do the most good with the least harm.
Perhaps, when searching for meaning, we are asking ourselves the wrong question. Instead of “what’s the meaning of this,” we should ask “what’s the value of this?” That’s calculable: good-minus-harm. It may not quench our desire for a divine creator or a lifelong pursuit, but it’s a start.
I began to understand the value of viewing life from such a widescreen perspective: I began to realize that although everything we value is cosmically small, and life is cosmically short, it is this sort of infinitesimal nature within all of us and each of us that makes it all worth fighting for. Maybe we can’t be 100% responsible for our own happiness. Maybe we won’t grow up to be President, or a millionaire. Maybe we won’t be in the top 1% in any of our given professions. Maybe we won’t get married. Maybe we won’t procreate. And yet, in service of a greater good, or a set of ideals, there is still much to tend to in our own gardens — no matter how little acreage they take up in the end. If the land is arable, nurture it. The worst that can happen is it bears fruit. Maybe that sounds quaint. I don’t think it does. I think it’s all that matters anymore.
At that moment — and that moment was recent — I watched my entire life fold in upon itself. I’d reached a kind of singularity, where my various creative and professional and personal pursuits all combined in one extraordinary series of moments that is so hard to quantify or describe succinctly that I won’t. Just know that there’s been an extraordinary exploration into just how far my passions have taken me. And that I’ve been emotionally and mentally overwhelmed. Excited beyond belief. It’s all happening now. And it all came so close to never happening. I’ll explore just a taste of it here.
It was after midnight, Austin time. A co-worker and I, and a friendly stray we picked up, left an exclusive SXSW party, and walked six bustling blocks to a local music venue I’d played at before, back in my past life as a traveling troubadour, weaving through waves of woozy people.
I had a badge. They didn’t. And so I did as I always do. I told them to get out their IDs, I flashed my badge at the door one more time, and casually said “they’re cool. They’re with me” with all the confidence of someone who was just drunk-texting about arranging a call Monday to discuss writing some Green New Deal messaging, because I had literally just drunk-texted about arranging a call on Monday to discuss writing some Green New Deal messaging. We walked right through.
And at 1 a.m., after having nudged my way toward the Green Room to get a soundbite from the artist, Har Mar Superstar — a man who couldn’t look less like he sounds — took the stage and blew the doors off the venue. The man preened, triumphantly, and for 30 blistering minutes, he sang to scrape the skies, soaring and searing.
I thought to myself: It is never too late to be who you were meant to become. You are never too weird, or too quirky. You can never dream too big, or think too big, or try too hard. No matter how big a swing you take, no matter how trite your goals may seem to anybody but you. And if you stay true to yourself, do what you love, talk — and be kind — to everyone, and consistently impress people, doors will open up for you. One day you might find yourself on a stage, in the spotlight, fist in the air, victorious.
I felt that night in my soul, man. And then it was gone. I gave a soliloquy in my Uber home. “I have no idea how I’m going to process all this.” I’d returned to Earth. There are now new horizons. Bigger things and better times ahead. I want so badly to tell you all of it. But I’ll need a beat to let it all soak in.
And that’s when it hit me: that this moment, deep into the night, watching a preposterously dressed 70s porn-stache sing like Freddie Mercury meets Wilson Pickett, at a mid-sized venue in my adopted hometown of Austin, closing SXSW, was something else: These were my final precious moments of anonymity. My first quiet moments back on Earth, before stepping out of my spacecraft to be greeted by throngs of people wondering how it all went. This moment was, as Churchill famously said, the end of my beginning. The mission may have ended, but the ride’s just starting.
It’s rumored an astronaut once looked out the window of his spacecraft, peered down towards Earth, and said, “every war and injustice, every law passed and fortune made, the whole of human history and progress, all right there, and if I cover it up with my hands, it’s all gone. Really puts things into perspective.” This phenomenon, I’ve found out, (thanks “One Strange Rock” on Netflix) has a name: The Overview Effect. Per Wikipedia:
It is the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, “hanging in the void”, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. From space, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide people become less important, and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this “pale blue dot” becomes both obvious and imperative.
It took me six months to fully grasp what I’d been experiencing: a profound cognitive shift, an expansion of the mind and of experience, of first feeling the abyss and the void, the meaninglessness and quaintness of it all, before understanding that if this is all that matters, then this is all that matters. From detached apathy to untethered empathy.
Maybe we were meant to die. Maybe life is merely an interlude within the larger narrative of universal order. Maybe humanity is a bug the cosmos will fix in the next round of beta-testing. Maybe all this means nothing, but if nothing matters, then everything does.
If so, perhaps it would help to live a life of dignity, empathy, humility, curiosity and integrity. We could laugh more, learn more, feel more, aid more. Do more good than harm. We are stewards of this spaceship Earth. We should take care of it. And each other. And maybe enjoy the ride a little more. It could end at any time.
I believe it’s important to broaden our horizons. To see life from as many angles as possible. To experience it with a beginner’s mind. To take ourselves out of context and ever-so-slightly change the fabric of ourselves and of the places we go. To meet new people. To make new memories.
My world is much different now than it was the last time I was here. Much has changed. And I imagine when I retrace the places that shaped me, I’ll see them and feel differently. Everywhere we go shapes us a little bit, and so we shape it. I love the way the last six months have helped shape me, and all the places I’ve been since. Here’s to new memories and new horizons, and to wherever they take us next.
XV. 30 Years of Depression, Gone
So the coast shapes the water, the water shapes the coasts. These are the equal yet opposite forces that combine to form the self. I believe we are, within approximate boundaries, birthed by nature and solidified by nurture, still amorphous and malleable — each wave imperceptibly alters us with each successive crash. Memories are sand washed out to sea. The maps we draw to chart our terrain, distorted by our own projection and myopia as all maps are, become the seafaring stories we tell ourselves about our selves.
Within our souls lie secrets. Secrets we keep from ourselves. Truths buried at the bottom of the sea by trauma and the tales we tell ourselves. The restless, raging ocean roars above — altered and unnerved. We float above the trenches. Sharp, stinging suffering erodes into dull, aching melancholia. Our stories become our truths. Our maps become the territory. The sea comes ashore: inevitable as change itself, yet individual as the breathing vessels of blood, brain, and bone we can’t abandon. And in the ocean of my self, this is how it all began.
For the better part of three decades, I have struggled with the twin-barreled blast of depression and anxiety. I don’t remember when it started. I don’t remember how. Around the time of the Gulf War and the Buffalo Bills’ Sisyphean Super Bowl run, our classroom sent handwritten letters to Western New York troops serving overseas. I remember, even now, claiming my life was like the stock market: finally on the uptick after years of depression. Yes, at age eight. This memory is seared into my brain.
I took the letter home to finish, and as my mother read it, she accosted me: “Johnny, why are you writing things like this? Your life is not that bad!” And, to her credit, she was right — my life was not that bad, yet my impression and assessment of it was. Depression cares not for objectivity. Emotion pays reason no mind. Just two years later — a fifth grade graduate, on my final day of school before moving some 176 miles down the I-90 from Niagara Falls to Utica — I was voted “Most Happy” by my classmates. It was all a ruse.
I smiled because I got sick of being asked “what’s wrong?” and being unable to formulate an articulate, defensible answer. Better to be the life and the light than to be abandoned and admonished for your darkness. That was, with rare exception, my default programming from that point forward: Smile and people will feel good. Sit stone-faced and they’ll inquire. Joke and folks will dig you. Express your tumult and folks will joke about you, if they even notice you at all.
As an adult, major depressive episodes raged on six separate occasions, resulting in seven arrests, two DWI charges (neither stuck), $57,000 in toxic debt, a credit score in the 300s, 47 trips to emergency clinics for “heart attacks” (panic attacks), three stints in outpatient rehab, two evictions, an extended era of homelessness, waxing and waning alcohol and drug abuse, and a kind of bitter, spiteful anger that emerged only when the smiles could bury it no longer.
I dropped out of college. Twice. I transferred schools. Three times. I’d been fired from every job I’d ever held, often after less than a year in my role. I was perpetually broke. I was also perpetually flirtatious, often without understanding just how nonreciprocal the advances were. My six long-term relationships started blissfully and devolved into anxious insecurity, overzealous attachment, and a forgoing of autonomy within six months. I was sexually promiscuous while single, sleeping with somewhere in the ballpark of 300 partners, half of whose names I still remember, and some 70–75 of whom still adorn my Facebook friend list.
My only moral compass, or gauge of appropriate and healthy behavior, was “Will this make someone mad?” I walked on eggshells. I drank to parade on them instead. And yet, I continually hurt and angered people, let them down, and drove them away. I knew it was my fault, and yet I knew it wasn’t me. Deep down, I still believed I was different than my rotten, broken core. Deeper down, I merely wanted to believe I could be different. I had no idea if my behavior was a manifestation of my mental state, or if my behavior amplified my rage and sadness. Both perspectives, I now believe, were equally true. The coasts shape the ocean, the ocean shapes the coast.
Despite my best efforts at self-sabotage, I began to turn my life around not long after moving from upstate New York to Austin, Texas. I secured steady employment as a copywriter at a Fortune 500 global technology conglomerate. I’d always loved to write, yet never studied it in school, nor held a writing job. I still work there — seven years later and counting — and after nine raises and three true promotions, I’ve climbed as high as any writer can in my position. I only half-jokingly call myself their “Chief Storytelling Officer.” This is not only the longest-tenured, most lucrative job I’ve ever held, it is my favorite place I’ve ever worked, and the friends I work with are as radiant and compassionate as anyone I’ve ever met.
In the summer of 2014, I started (infrequently, for the first three years) writing for Medium. In the spring of 2017, to process a particularly swift, harsh, and unexpected relationship termination via move-out ghosting, I began examining and exploring my life in ruthless and filter-less detail. I wrote my findings here. I began to do the emotional labor and deep self-reflection I’d been neglecting for so long. I grew by leaps and bounds as a writer and person. I found new levels of joy, developed my first-ever moral compass and value system, and cultivated a self that was true. Much of it by accident, as a means to exploring other horizons.
By the end of 2017, 50 followers became 5,000. Since then, 5,000’s become — literally, as of this very moment — 40,000. The opportunities and experiences this site has offered me are incalculable. I’d spent over a decade blogging for absolutely no one; I assumed I always would. I even met my current adventure partner here. And, yes, my co-workers are some of my biggest champions and most fervent readers.
I dug my way out of debt, started running and biking long-distance races, carved out a serviceable side-career as a singer-songwriter, started a podcast, became secretary of the board for a local non-profit preschool, and since early 2018, I’ve had the unique and unparalleled honor of occasionally writing policy, copy, and communications for the campaign and congressional office of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I have a nest egg now that, assuming an 8% rate of return until age 70, will make me a millionaire — even if I never contribute again. For an anonymous nobody, I sure seem to have one of the world’s most global, diverse, witty, and eclectic friend Rolodexes. I’m in great health. Last year, I spent a month in Europe — in what I termed my “victory lap.” I’d made it out of the darkness and built a life I could be proud of. This was the proof. This was the end-zone celebration.
And yet, just a week after returning, at the zenith (or, more accurately, the indefensible depths) of the Kavanaugh hearings, and just two weeks after appearing on a local Austin television station to talk about my first suicide attempt, I set out a stainless steel knife and an entire bottle of Xanax with the intention of trying again. I almost did. Yet that gave me pause: How could I be so sad, lonely, and angry? This life I have now is such a blessing. What gives me the right — nay, the audacity — to give it up? How ungrateful can one man be? If I can’t be un-depressed now, then when? And how?
I spent the next six months engaged in an all-out assault on fixing my feelings: Lexapro helped a little, yet the side effects included lethargy and the occasional 14-hour nap, so I discontinued its use in January. I ran when I could. I made a point to seek out social engagement in real life. I saw a therapist and a life coach. I made dietary changes and lost 40 pounds. I mostly stopped drinking, instead taking THC and CBD for creativity and relaxation.
Equally important, I resorted to turning off the news. I don’t need more information on how badly broken we are as a society anymore. All additional information seems gratuitous. Unnecessary additional trauma distracting me from my ultimate goal: radically reimagining society. What I do doesn’t solve societal collapse, but it allows me to process it better and adapt to it better, so I can make it better.
In December, I spent a week microdosing psilocybin, where I discovered my root pathology: I am an approval-seeking missile, and all self-destructive behaviors I engage in stem from leaning in too hard for validation (and the subsequent exhaustion-rooted neglect of basic hygiene and upkeep when no one’s watching and nothing’s on the line). The coined term for this phenomenon, “Millennial Burnout,” is too cute and undersells the severity to which I experience it.
I began to uncover layers of pathology. In doing so, I realized at my root, my depression and anxiety — as well as my oversharing, confessionals, defensiveness, self-sabotage, and passive-aggressive system of over-promising and under-delivering — stem from a validation addiction, fueled by anxious attachment, rooted in buried trauma, and activated by associated triggers: rejection, dismissal, underestimation. I hadn’t yet climbed out of the darkness, yet the sun was rising and the clouds were beginning to part.
Still, I felt underwater at work, overwhelmed with life, and burnt out from our current kleptocratic techno-dystopia. So, in early March, lacking focus and finally willing to confront my scatterbrained paucity of goal-directed behavior and executive function misfires, I started a daily low-dose course of Adderall. It gave — and still gives — me the clarity and drive I desperately needed to begin to lift myself out of erratic and scattershot solipsism. It was the first glimmer of hope I’d had since the storms first descended upon me.
March 2019 was, by all accounts, the single greatest, most rewarding and life-affirming month I’ve ever had slogging around this space-rock. I felt shot out of a cannon. What was once a six-month flat-line, precipitated by a swift and visceral free-fall into darkness, evaporated with an equally astonishing and complete rise back to our regularly scheduled programming. The depressive episode was over, but the series was still in production. And that’s the thing with depression and anxiety: even when you’re happy, you know you’re still not okay.
“Have you thought about ketamine?” My friend asked me as we engaged in profound discourse in her couch.
“Oh, FUCK no,” I replied, flashing back to my days in the Syracuse University freshmen dorms watching friends sob, rock back and forth, and generally look as put-together as drifters pushing shopping carts full of mannequins.
“My best friend runs a clinic in Austin. Her husband’s the doctor. It just opened. I hear incredible things about it, and it might just give you the results and relief you’re looking for.”
I listened. I Googled the website. Illumma. Damn, what a beautiful name for a ketamine clinic. “Find your light,” the tagline read. “That sounds promising.” I read no more about exactly what ketamine did, how it worked, how the clinic administered it, or any research as to its effectiveness or side effects. I wanted my experience to be completely uncluttered and unburdened by expectation. I scheduled my first appointment for March 27.
I walked into a discreetly marked and unassuming clinic in a ramshackle office park. The cheerful receptionist greeted me. I filled out some paperwork and she ushered me back to the infusion room.
They sat me down in a cozy recliner, stuck me in front of a TV playing nature scenes — beaches, mountains, grasslands, coastlines, and so on — and soothing music. They hooked me up to some monitors and an IV, asked me a few questions about my general mood and other medications, then gave me a rundown of some of the adverse experiences I might encounter. (Frighteningly intense hallucinations, ruminations on painful or traumatic events and thoughts, nausea and blurred vision, cognitive impairments.)
I began to ask myself, “Whoa, whoa, whoa… am I really sure I need to go through all this? I’m fine. I feel fine. I’m better now than ever. Really?” But there I was, in the chair, the needle already lodged into a vein in my right forearm. My doubts and fears didn’t much matter anymore.
They told me to “throw out all that outside bullshit” and “set a good intention.” I didn’t come prepared, so I decided I would just try to relax and have fun. They started the infusion. There was no backing out now. As the nurse left the room, leaving me alone with the medical technician, she wished me good luck.
I replied, “Enjoy the flight.”
My history with psychedelics — which ketamine technically is not; it’s an anesthetic with hallucinogenic and dissociative properties — is checkered and limited. I’ve done acid twice, in 2001 and 2002, and found it profoundly unpleasant. I’ve done psilocybin four times — in 2002, 2003, 2010, and 2018 — and it’s been hit or miss. I only like doing it in a tranquil outdoor setting or in the comfort of my own home. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was aiming for better, so when I felt it start to take effect, I unwound and kept an open mind and positive outlook.
After about 10 minutes, I got very cold, and then very warm, and then very sleepy, and then I woke up hyper-alert. The chair began to breathe, and the natural wonders on the screen began to morph and dance.
The technician came around to check my blood pressure. I called out to him, “Ayo, mate. This shit’s weird ain’t it?” “Sure is,” he replied. Then he tagged out of the room and the nurse tagged in. So I thought, at least.
“You ain’t the same person. I see what you did there, all smooth like.”
She replied, “You got us!”
The room began to darken and melt away, and I just watched the TV, completely immersed in waves, grasses, and birds. I began to laugh at the preposterous nature of it all. It’s Wednesday afternoon. I should be at the office writing corporate brand messaging. And instead, I’m on a mystical, medicinal journey, traveling through time and space, disembarking from coherence altogether.
Halfway through, I began telling jokes — many of which I’ll never remember, MST3K-style — through the remainder of the session. The nurse cried laughing, and so did I, and she later confessed her face and abs hurt for the next two days. “This is fascinating… and easily the weirdest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” I told her.
The infusion lasts one hour from beginning to end. When my time was up, they flushed me out, and I felt woozy yet pleasant. “Did you dissociate?” the nurse asked me. Dissociation is the goal of ketamine infusion therapy.
“I have no idea,” I replied. “How would I know?”
“It’s really hard to explain how, just… you’d know,” she stated. “So, we’ll bump you up in dosage for next time.”
They called me an Uber — after infusion, you are definitely not in any shape to drive — and I meandered home. For the next four hours, I felt small electrical charges dancing around my head. My brain was tired, yet my mind was awake.
This was the first of six solo flights to a place I’d never been before, a place unlike any I’ve ever felt or witnessed. I still had five more sessions scheduled. I had no idea what would happen next, or where this mission would take me, yet I felt hopeful. I just needed to remember to enjoy the flight.
The second infusion, on a Friday at 10:30 a.m. CST, was not the perpetual giggle-fest of the first. I know that sounds disappointing; it wasn’t. It was disarmingly more profound and beautiful.
Throughout the hour-long flight to god-only-knows-where, I said hello to my best friends in New York, dropped in on my childhood home in Buffalo, and explored the Pacific Coast at every place I’d ever seen it, and some I haven’t yet.
I saw France — both Paris and Marseille — today, and in 1950, when my family still called France home. I stayed there, in my pageboy cap, floating over the ornate row houses that stretch as far as meets the eye, as the accordions played and I ate baguettes at a cafe with my Papa — dead since 2003 — as a young man.
I, very briefly, found myself understanding something so ephemeral, so ethereal, that for me to attempt to distill it would be to tell you what color I see when I hear a drumroll. Some vision, some sensation, some unknowable emotion appeared out of the abyss, and then vanished into the void.
Halfway through — approximately, anyway, as the concept of time felt moot and indefinite by that point — I felt the harmonious nature of humanity wash over me. When viewed from where I was stationed, which by then could not have been Earth, this felt so vitally important to nurture. I remembered that we, as people, are both the coral and the reef itself. I’d written before about “The Overview Effect,” but that was a mere thought exercise — this was something else entirely.
I don’t know if it was my visions of France amplified by my French roots, or just an extension of my perpetually adventurous astro-spirit, yet during my experience I was reminded of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry — one of my favorite works of art ever created.
I remembered why I’d identified so heavily with the novella in the first place: an inquisitive young man, a journeyer, crash-lands on Earth, observes human nature and its myriad complexities and cruelties, and realizes that it makes him profoundly sad. I know that feeling well.
Yet, armed with my words, forged and weaponized over years of intentional (and semi-compulsive) cultivation, I felt less morose. I began to understand, in the most minuscule of senses, what I was just beginning to see. To catch a greater glimpse and articulate it in detail, I knew I needed to go back.
The infusion ended. “Did you dissociate?” The nurse asked. “I’m not really sure,” I replied. “Well, your resting heart rate dropped 25 points over the course of the hour, so you must’ve went somewhere.”
Again, although clocking in at just under an hour, I felt like I’d been gone for days. But upon returning, I’d never felt here. Returning home. Grounded in the present. Aware, awake, and alive. I took a nap and when I awoke, I felt light. And ready to continue my quest.
That evening, a line uttered by the desert fox from The Little Prince marinated in mind: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
“That’s it,” I thought. It wasn’t a “what” that I’d fleetingly observed while infused at all. It was “how” I observed it. For the first time I could remember, I saw rightly. I saw with my heart.
By the third infusion, we’d throttled up the dosage again, and sorta dispensed with the logistics, and the memories of the exact experiences and visions became foggy. Ten minutes from the words, “let’s start the healing,” I was already seeing Janelle Monae’s likeness carved into the rocks under a waterfall before the rest of the cast of Black Panther joined her. I distinctly recall screaming, “Wakanda Forever!” I have absolutely no business screaming, “Wakanda Forever.”
I started conducting the hallucinations like a symphony, narrating them with all the grandeur of a sportscaster calling the World Series, or Ed Harris’ character in The Truman Show, commanding, “Cue the Sun!” My nurse, from a distant planet but almost certainly sitting right next to me, said, “Hey, you don’t have to overthink this. Just take it all in.”
I then began to witness a procession of great activists, stateswomen, and civil rights leaders from human history — Malcolm X, Gandhi, Mandela, Maya Angelou, Cesar Chavez, Kendall Jenner (kidding), Elizabeth Warren, and (of course) AOC — and began to understand, on an emotional plane that overshoots the academic level at which I’d only previously understood this — that all that’s come today comes from all that’s come before, and as all things must pass, so must we always find ourselves fighting the same battles forever and ever, until the lesson is learned.
I emerged from that realization inspired, empowered and with a newfound sense of gravitas where rage and anger once resided. Where we are, now, as a human collective, is further along on the continuum of progress, yet no closer to achieving it. The moral arc of the universe is long, and bends toward justice, but that bend is fraught with fractious regressions, pauses, and misfires.
Reality is an operating system (OS). It’s a social contract, composed of a mutually agreed-upon consensus between its users and developers — and we are all users and developers — and a composite sketch of all varying disparate experiences, perspectives, and wisdom.
Life is data. We all capture it — whether we try to or not. It’s in all that we say, feel, touch, eat, experience, witness, strive for, succeed at, see, sense, and create. I thought about the various ways we think and process this data. And the metadata (thought about thought) feels yet incomplete, because what we really need is a way to meta-feel. Something even beyond empathy, should such a lofty ideal exist anywhere in even our most optimal capabilities. That — and perhaps only that — will distill ourselves to our purest, most collaborative and cooperative essence.
Our perception is the User Interface. Our emotions are the User Experience (UX). In all that we create, learn, experience, and share, we create this UX, using the OS to do so. Boiled to its most elemental, our only occupation as humans — at home, at work, at play, in public, in solitude, or abroad — is to create the best UX possible for ourselves and for others. It is our moral, professional, and personal obligation.
I now believe there are multiple realities occurring simultaneously — not that we are in a simulation, no, it’s all very much real — yet the many permutations are merely browser tabs. Our paradigms and stories are the algorithms and scripts we run daily, in service of creating the most optimized UX.
I began to formulate a new framework for identifying evil: people who, out of malice or neglect, create UX that does more harm than good. That’s one postulation. Here’s another: Our societal breakdowns occur because Java and C++ and Ruby on Rails and so on don’t talk to each other. These are ideological and rhetorical clashes, overwriting the simple truth that we all want the same things, and our seemingly profound disagreements are largely over how to most efficiently or effectively code the ideal end-state, and the elements that comprise that ideal.
We need a code that’s more universal. Something that translates. A baseline truth we can harness to break down data silos and make UX optimally consistent across all platforms. To appropriate the parlance of an American technological innovator, “The value is in the seams.”
There is no real way to express what I learned, or how I began to feel. I cannot accurately nor effectively depict what I was trying to iterate or execute. Even the words I just wrote feel incomplete, and only mere centimeters away from tumbling over the cliffs of incoherence. I do know this: I peeked inside the mainframe of existence itself, and began to understand how I, we, they operate. What drives us. What satisfies us.
“Did you dissociate?” The nurse asked me as I came to my senses in the recovery room.
“I believe so,” I said.
“You’re not there, yet,” she replied again. “Really — you’d know.”
I started infusion therapy to cure my depression. And, at the time, I thought, maybe that’s happening. And that’s nice if it does. And yet, what I became determined to do was solve the puzzle. Understand the hardware. Make it all run the way it should.
I want to know. I need to know.
Less than 15 minutes after I left the clinic, I called up my partner, who works in technology but, like, in the actual nuts-and-bolts of it, not in the brand copywriting sense.
“Babe. I need to tell you something. It’s major. You’ll never believe what I saw…”
It was a Friday. And a damn fine Friday. I was looking forward to driving from Austin to the Metroplex to visit my boo. But, before that, I was excited and anticipated something beyond even the monumentally jarring experience of two days prior. I gave myself a pep talk: “Today is the day I dissociate.” I could feel it. I craved it.
We’d been building to this point. Ascent 1 was a giggly and bizarre trip around the world. Ascent 2 was a meaningful and poignant travel through time. Ascent 3 was a sci-fi journey inside the machine. I had high hopes for Ascent 4. Within an hour, I would explore somewhere else, and experience something else, altogether.
It started the same as it always did. Some warmth. Some laughter. Some room-melting. Some chair-breathing. Some third-eye-type stuff. And yet, within a scant 20 minutes — or however long, that timestamp is an estimate based on it having felt like 53 hours — I went somewhere I never expected. I went… down.
I could see myself now, viewing the reality OS we know as a two-dimensional plane: a wafer-thin atmosphere buffering a sort of meta-reality, enveloped by a dark abyss of nothingness, monitored by scientists in lab coats. And I just laid there, in what I would guess most closely resembles a cross between an MRI machine and one of those gentle immersive Disney rides, where you meander in a coaster-type apparatus from themed room to themed room to nature to outside and so on. Specifically, the flume ride in the Mexico installation at EPCOT.
I meandered uphill, slowly approaching the end of the track, the end of the ride, and the end of the world. I peered out into the abyss and tried to remain calm as the lights flashed and the room vanished around me. The ride pushed me out over the edge, and I left the rational universe behind. I dropped — approximately thousands of meters, without resistance or fear — off the plane of existence itself, free falling for an eternity through glass floors like a comic-book villain, until splashing down in what felt like the South Pacific. My eyes remained open. Yet I could not see, hear, feel, or sense. I laid, lost like baby Moses in a reed basket, as the waves wandered below me.
[Test, test] “Am I dead? Hello? Are you there, dog? It’s me, ketamine.”
I washed up onto the shore, swaddled and cradled in a comfortable hammock within a canoe, floating, drifting, and gently rocking into a luxurious lull. The sky was a violet twilight, and the ocean was a midnight blue, reflecting the light from above. The crescent moon danced with the stars and the sun. The waves lapped against the coast. A gentle breeze rustled the trees and soothed me into a blissful, unadulterated, unfiltered, and unbound peace.
The ride began to move again, even more leisurely than before, and I wondered what I’d discover. I floated from room to room, the sets changing each time, waxing and waning and melting and shape-shifting. The warmest, brightest, sweetest colors I’d ever seen unfurled before me.
In this space, the boundaries between me, you, life, death, body, surroundings, mind, and soul vaporized, sublimated, disappeared completely. In their place: a fluid, amorphous hyper-projection laid out in a dazzling sea of light and color.
Lord almighty, the human mind is wondrous, and capable of just shy of the infinite. I knew this — I have a psychology degree — and yet I’d never experienced it myself, and, therefore, never truly understood it. I, for the first time, felt the weight of depression (not a depressive episode, no — as we discussed seven years ago when you first began reading this essay, depressive episodes are merely flare-ups of a condition that always exists; they are the occasionally months-long asthma attacks of the mind — but the actual dark tinges that let me know I’m “not normal”) recede into the darkness.
All was still. I felt nothing. I smiled. I was free. My beautiful brain, finally unshackled from three decades of anxiety and insecurity, unlimited in its own imagination, was free.
“You dissociated, didn’t you,” the nurse asked me as I re-entered the atmosphere.
I grinned, yawned, and smiled again. “Absolutely.” And I stepped out into the bright Austin sunshine.
Four hours later, I set off on my three-hour drive to stay at my lover’s home for the first time. Three hours after that, I turned onto the last street, less than five minutes before I’d arrive at her place. Suddenly, my 2009 Hyundai Sonata died.
“Oooooooooh! What could this be?” I gently and curiously inquired. I sure didn’t know. I’d had this car for a decade and it’d never died before.
“No problem,” I smirked. And I leisurely pulled onto a side-street, parked along the curb, called my boo to come collect me, and AAA to drag my sedan to a garage just up the road. My partner arrived. We kissed and we snuggled. The tow-truck did what it did, then we hopped into her VW to drive two blocks.
Maybe compared to the technicolor vibrancy of the previous vignettes, the preceding tidbit seems mundane, but it was a powerful moment for me. At no point since the second my car conked out on me did I ever lose my cool, blame myself, lament my plight, or plunge into a sea of self-loathing and rage. Not for lack of trying:
“Babe,” I said.
“I know you are, baby,” she reaffirmed.
“No, I mean, like… what happened back there. It’s like… it’s like my mind kept trying to go to a negative place, and it kept short-circuiting on the way.”
“No, really,” I said. “It’s like — and look, this is going to be one hella weird and specific analogy — if you grew up in a household where you kept the trash can under the sink, whenever you go to someone else’s house, you instinctively open and reach inside the doors under the sink to throw out your trash.”
“Well, imagine every time I tried to worry, or get angry, or get down on myself, I was reaching under the sink to throw out my trash. And then I looked, and the trash can wasn’t there. It was, like, next to the fridge or something.”
“Yeahhhh, right?! And, get this! This is the best part… and when I opened my hand, I realized I wasn’t holding any garbage at all. And so I’d shrug and laugh and say, ‘Of course!’ and think something positive.”
“Holy shittttttt,” she said in her breathy voice that conveys rapturous fascination. “That’s huuuuuuuuuuge!”
She opened the door to her house. I stopped in the kitchen to drink Topo Chico and take a few pulls from my PAX Pen. Then, we meandered to her bedroom, I laid on her perfectly cradled bed, swaddled and cradled like I was when I first came ashore, as the dim Edison bulbs glowed like the crescent moon. We made love and fell asleep, holding each other like two weighted blankets rolling on ecstasy. All was still. I felt nothing. I smiled. I was free.
Earlier that day, I went off the page, out of the frame, somewhere impossible. When I came back, I wasn’t the same. I found the void where the irrational and imaginary numbers play. I found the asymptote. The origin point. I found the Soul Meridian: the warm glow of your essence between the front of your cerebral cortex and the deepest cave in your heart.
For the next five days, I never left that place. Nor did I want to — I was calm, happy, blissed out. And in no rush to do anything. I was free. I. Am. Free.
Something profound has healed within me. I am not sure what. But, for the past six weeks or so, every day I wake up a little lighter, a little freer, and a lot more confident than the day before.
It could be the new boo. It could be the new meds — of all things, 2–4x daily 5mg doses of Adderall. It could be all the exciting opportunities in front of me. It could be the twice-weekly ketamine infusions. I’m not sure. I’m not even sure if this is permanent. But it feels permanent.
I have to say this, because I don’t want to undersell it — it’s just too damn important: My depression and anxiety have entirely disappeared. Not in the sense that I’ve overcome my latest episode, but in the truest, most holistic of senses — even the dark tinges of sadness and worry that accompany me everywhere are gone.
I imagine, should I ever disclose this publicly, some prick will chime in, “you’re fucking bipolar.” Well, if that is in fact the case, I should’ve crashed by now. From the unthinkable heights I’ve reached? I’m way, way past overdue.
My mom told me, “I’m so worried when you come down from this, you’re going to want to kill yourself again.” And I replied, matter-of-factly, “Not this time.”
Six months ago, as I returned home from a month in Europe and put a bow on the greatest 12 consecutive months of my life (September 21, 2017 — September 20, 2018), and the preceding five-year uphill slog from my darkest days to my finest hour? That was an ending. This? This feels like a beginning.
This evening, my brain even tried to queue up a panic attack — sitting in stopped traffic, in my Sonata, driving home from Dallas, on I-35, at night, just past halfway home, the exact same scene and conditions of my first-ever panic attack, around 8 p.m. on November 13, 2011, commencing a run of over 100 panic attacks over the next seven years — and it failed. The page result came back: “404. File Not Found.” Instead, I breathed deeply and said, “It’s cool. I’ve got nowhere to be.”
I have never felt like this before. I’ve never felt so self-assured. I’ve never felt so sturdy. So steady. And yet so ethereal. I’m not sure how this portends for the future, yet the present is highly unusual with respect to how space-time seems to have slowed down about 20%. Life feels not just suddenly manageable, but damn near easy. I wish you could feel this. I wish you all could feel this.
I walked into Ascent 5 more nervous than usual. I thought, “What if I don’t need another one? Everything is so perfect right now.” I jittered in the chair as they hooked me up.
“Hey man,” the technician alerted me, “Your blood pressure is 176 over 112.” (The exact numbers escape me. They were much higher than my usual 115/75.) “That ain’t normal. You drink any coffee this morning?”
“Yes sir,” I replied. “My usual two cups.”
“Alright. We’re going to need to keep an eye on you, and if your blood pressure spikes, we’re going to need to slow down or even stop the infusion. Just try to relax, man.”
I can’t imagine hearing anything that would relax me less. But I tried. They gave me some Benadryl to take the edge off. They kick-started the nature videos. They flipped the switch on the IV, and the bag began to empty.
From the beginning, something felt off. I twitched and felt a tinge of dread. But I reminded myself of something I’d learned in Boy Scouts as a kid back in the ’90s: “If you’re lost, stay where you are.” I repeated this to myself via whisper, as I revisited my discovery of the Soul Meridian from Ascent 4. It worked, I breathed a sigh of relief, and the room began to melt all over again… but this time, where I ended up was a marked departure from even my previously unparalleled grand departure off the planes of existence.
On April 12, during Ascent 5, at 175 mg, I explored the other side. The other, other side. I found the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns. I spent almost an entire hour in a parallel universe that bore no resemblance to the one we live in, nor the ones I’d visited before. Time was gone. Space was gone. The lines between self and environs melted and sublimated. I dropped below the OS of reality, passed the chasm between software and hardware, and wandered into the inner machinations of consciousness itself.
Much of what I experienced was fiery. It was hot. The colors were ember — not dark, nor particularly scary, either, but intense. My teeth started to grind and chatter. I locked the arms of the recliner in a vice-grip.
As I closed my eyes, I noticed instead of the coastlines and forests and calming colors of garden-variety ketamine-trip hallucinations — to the degree that any of them could be called “garden-variety” — the world felt industrial, dark, metallic, silent. I spied strangers silently going about their day-to-day — stoic, faceless, and completely uninterested in my very existence.
I termed this location the “minus-world.” The term draws its origins from Super Mario Bros. It’s an underground (underwater, technically) glitch level that cannot be finished. One where you’re doomed to lose all your lives by either running out of time or being killed by your enemies. And my enemies wasted no time appearing.
I began to confront things I felt I had forgotten. People I’d hurt. People I’d wronged. People who’d hurt me. People who’d wronged me. Traumas of every degree, gradient, and sub-genre stretching as far back as preschool. My brother who severed contact with me five years ago. Friends I’d let down. Bosses who’d fired me. Drugs I wished I’d never done. Drinks I wished I’d never drank. Decisions I made and regretted. Decisions I never made and regretted not making.
I was not scared — I gazed at them right in the eyes, and forgave them right in the moment. I forgave myself, too. “It’s okay,” I told them. “You are free.” And then they would leave, or I would leave. Determining who “leaves” during a ketamine trip is a bit like trying to choose which half of the car you want to drive while the other half is a boat. I rose in a grain elevator I didn’t willingly enter, and I escaped the minus-world as it crumbled and roared behind me. Safe.
I laid in a hammock feeling fully safe, loved, and supported as I wandered through various aspects of my life’s work and various places I never thought I would visit. Watching events unfold all around me. Set pieces moving quickly like a NASCAR pit crew working on Broadway. I remained calm. The colors began to brighten, and the sun began to shine.
I remember watching a scroll unfurl across the sky saying, “Congratulations, you made it!” Cartoon birds held ends of it in their beaks. Balloons floated into the sun. I found myself happy in that moment, like I had just set the high score in an e-Sports tournament, except as a six year-old. And then I dropped from the frame.
I caught myself free-falling, except the speed and fury was ratcheted up to “extinction-level-event meteorite.” I burst through the map. I saw split-screen hallucinations composed of people, pictures I’ve taken, and places I’ve been. Occasionally, and with increasing frequency and intensity, they bled into each other, until everything swirled into an indecipherable mixture. The free-fall was over, and I launched into eternity, screaming halfway between the atmosphere and the multi-verse at the speed of light, my face frostbitten from breaking the wind.
And then it just stopped. All was dark, calm, and silent. I floated through space, and found pure consciousness. I discovered the essence of life itself. I held the enormity of existence in a series of visions that were mosaics of what had been before, and what was yet to come. I kept reminding myself to breathe — if only to remind myself that I was still actually breathing.
My body, already numb besides my disembodied head, ceased to exist. My skull opened up, and my actual brain projected out onto a landscape. I saw mountains, gardens, forests, oceans, beaches, hills, meadows, rock formations, and deserts. And every time I refreshed, I noticed something peculiar: One area — roughly 10–15% of the total land area of my brain itself — would grey out. Leaves would wilt. Trees turned to stone. Grass turned to ash. “No, no, no,” I pleaded in my mind. “No!”
Yet even then I had a charming sense of humor, often saying, “What’s that shadowy place over there?” like young Simba in The Lion King, looking out over Hyena-Land, or whatever they call that particular city-state in the Pride Rock kingdom.
For the first time, I saw my brain for what it was and is: the creator, the container and the controller. All of the travel — through time, space, reality, dimensions — and I realized I’d never gone anywhere. It all existed in my mind. I am the Wizard, the man behind the curtain, the curtain designer, and Emerald City itself.
It was insane, and jaw-dropping in sheer volume. What I’m telling you is barely 1% of what I saw. It felt like it’d lasted forever, and then it was — mercifully, graciously — over.
“Hey John,” the nurse said, “Your blood pressure shot way up, so we had to dial it back today. You still got the full 175, but we had to throttle down and make it last an extra 20 minutes.”
I hadn’t the wherewithal to form a response.
“Just don’t drink any coffee or take any Adderall next time. You’ll be fine.”
“Okay,” I said, as my head spun and did backflips between dimensions.
I rode home in an Uber with a man who reminded me of one of the dude-bros from Party Down South — the Confederate Jersey Shore — who wouldn’t leave me the fuck alone. I damn near hopped out. I just wanted to — and, 30 minutes later, went to — sleep.
When I awoke, my mind felt like it had been doused in jet fuel and set ablaze. It danced, sparked, crackled, and roared… and when I would rub my head, my fingers would leave what felt like a vapor trail. I was perplexed: “It was so perfect before. Please, please, please don’t end like this.”
Thankfully, there was one final journey on my mission. I needed to stick the landing in the worst possible way.
I went into the final infusion with just one intention: finish the job. After making sure I ingested no stimulants in the 24 hours prior, and sleepwalking into my appointment, and being cleared for takeoff with normal blood pressure, the nurse asked me, “You want to go 200 today?”
“That’s a nice round number,” I responded. “Sounds perfect. Let’s get all the way weird.” We selected a seven-hour “Earth From Above” 4K drone video, set to even soothing and beautiful ambient music, and we began.
There was no ramp-up. Almost immediately, I began to marvel uncontrollably. I was moved in a way I had never been before, fighting back tears through irrepressible joy. I was able, for one full hour, to live multiple lifetimes, to gape in astonishment at the complexities, beauty, and wonder of humanity and nature.
The entirety of human, organic and inorganic existence; the history of civilization; the unabridged story of my life and my family; the innermost workings of my mind; the totality of everything, all playing out on different astral planes, blending into and later folding in on each other in a kind of multidimensional mosaic — untethered from and ungoverned by the rules of possibility.
I finally understood, after absorbing as much data as I ever would in 60 minutes of run-time, why my life unfolded the way it did, and just how much a debt of gratitude I owe to the universe that produced me. And then I went even further: I was able to, for the very first time, meta-feel — to go beyond empathy, beyond synchronicity, beyond universality. I found the skeleton key to existence just on the other side of consciousness. I detached from rationality, from imagination, from fantasy, from narrative, from context, from concepts and numbers too massive to calculate or understand. Only then was I ready to receive what I learned next. Only I was the one who would tell me.
I stepped onto a stage and stared out into an endless sea of faces I knew well, and strangers I’ll never meet. I tapped my microphone amidst the eerily calm silence of the infinite. I began to speak.
“We are all here for the same reason: to live — fully, happily and well.
To surrender to our selves,
to trust that we will be cradled, safe, loved and supported,
and to do the same for others so that they may feel the same trust in you.
A life well-lived is guided by love and bliss,
A desperate tango between the ephemeral and the eternal,
wrapped into one transient yet transcendent vessel.
This vessel is your body, yet it is also our humanity.
It is meaningless, yet it is all that we have left, and that’s why it matters.
The infinite and the infinitesimal are contained within us,
and although we are many, we are also one.
We are a harmonious, extraordinary ecosystem of life and light, both in the known realm, and in the unknowns that lay on the other side of magic.
Our only job is to harness that magic, hold it all in our heads and our hearts, and synthesize it into something more beautiful than we first found, and release it into the wild, where it can live on forever — where the universe can harness that magic again, and pass it on into eternity, so long as eternity exists.”
I quietly stepped back from the microphone and walked off stage — not even looking out into the crowd to understand if they got it. It didn’t really matter. I’d said what I needed to say, and learned what I needed to know. I smiled. And then I wept in silence.
The final vignette saw me rise from the depths of the minus-world with a silent, salient resignation. I thought — yet mostly felt, as thought was largely rendered impossible — I am dead, and yet I am still mercifully, beautifully me. This sensation of death was as comforting as my life has ever felt. I was content and at peace, with nothing left to prove, nowhere left to go, and no one left to impress — only things to appreciate, places to explore, and people to care for and look after.
I left the plane of imaginary numbers and strings and streams of data, and I ascended into a white, plush coffin, where I laid and stared through a crack in the lid as my friends, family, and role models peered inside — not crying, or even sad. They were waving, smiling even.
The coffin then tipped upward, the doors opened, and I stepped beyond the warm embrace of the people I care about, and into the gentle white glow of tomorrow. Everything I’d ever felt, thought, touched, seen, loved, known, learned, or done swirled around me, and the scene faded to a gentle sky blue.
I opened my eyes. The waves crested against the shore. A serene ocean of deep blue lapped against me as I sat on a blanket, staring out into the mighty and endless abyss. I was greeted by seagulls. My adventure partner leaned on my shoulder.
“You ready?” She said.
“Absolutely,” I replied. “I’m so glad you could make it.”
“John… John… wake up, John,” my nurse said sweetly. “I can’t believe it. You… never said a word. What happened?”
“I saw everything.” I paused to collect myself, and spoke with a measured, impassioned and hushed gravitas I’d never spoken with before, and likely never will again.
“Thank you so much,” I said, on the verge of tears. “That was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever done.” I waited in the recovery room, my mind floating through space-time with all the grace of a majestic crane. I called my Uber, I opened the door, and I stepped beyond the warm embrace of the springtime Texas mid-day sun, into the gentle white glow of tomorrow.
My life is not trivial anymore. It is a gift bestowed upon me by 15 billion years of eternal light, made possible by the space-rock I call home, protected by the passion and power of all those who came before me, and invested in by the friends and family who believe in me. On April 14, 2019, I rose from the dead to tell you life is extraordinary, that it’s an investment and a legacy, a dream and a reality, data and insights, love and grace and feeling and hope. I liberated my soul and, for the first time in my memory, I am free.
Thirty years of depression. Gone. In six hours, over just 16 days. It hasn’t returned. My brain — my Soul Meridian — just isn’t wired that way anymore. The weight of it all, evaporated into the unknowable ether. I am light. I am alive. I am a soul in a vessel, renting space in this form for as long as it allows. That is all I am. And yet — that’s not all I have been, could be, can be or will be.
I am here, now, merely to live — fully, happily, and well. I have surrendered myself, and I trust that I’ll be safe, loved, and supported, and I’ll remember to make others feel the same. This is all that I have left to do in life, and this is why life matters so much.
In this journey fueled by love and bliss, in this desperate tango between the ephemeral and eternal, in which we contain and bear witness to both the infinitesimal and infinite, we will transcend our body and humanity one day.
For what are we but — should we choose to lean into that which unites and inspires us, rather than that which divides and attacks us — a harmonious, extraordinary ecosystem of life and light, both in the known realm, and in the unknowns that lay just on the other side of magic.
I am blessed to have been gifted that magic. I am honored to hold it all in my head and my heart. It is my sincerest hope that I shall never squander it, lose it, or waste it, but rather synthesize it into something more beautiful than it was the first time I witnessed it.
I sigh. I press “publish.” I remember I am constantly in beta until my final breath, when I’ll release it all into the wild, where I hope it can live on forever. It does not belong to me. It does not belong to you, either. It belongs to no one. And, so, it is on all of us to learn it, share it, nurture it, cultivate it, and appreciate it. And when we are finished and our final breaths are drawn and all is still, we’ll pass it on into eternity, so long as eternity exists. Then, and only then, will we be truly free.
Thirty years of depression. Three decades of pain, trauma, suffering, struggle, swings, heartache, cruelty, mediocrity, inconsistency, sadness, fear, anxiety, regret, spoiled chances, dreams left undreamed and deeds left undone. Gone in a blink. Vanished. Never to assume the same form again, even should it return one day.
There’s damn near nothing left of the man I was, beyond memories that grow more distant by the millisecond and the warm embrace of people I keep with me; nothing left of the life I knew before I dared to dream that my self deserved its freedom.
I found sovereignty in the amphora and malleability of my soul. I cultivated this self — my values, my beliefs, my passions, my commitments, my support system — from scratch, and said “yes” to it all so that I could build boundaries strong enough to say “no” to the rest.
My projections and myopia are different now. The stories I tell myself aren’t true anymore. I have no secrets. I’ve unearthed my truths. My map is not the territory. And here in this vessel of blood, brain, and bone I can’t abandon, I’m ready to watch the sea return to shore.
And, in the ocean of my self — remixed and remastered and new for 2019 — this is how it all began. So the water shaped the coast, the coast has shaped the water. The seas are calm now. All that’s left is an endless horizon underlining the bluest sky I’ve ever seen. I look forward to exploring it all, and I can’t wait to show you what’s beyond the ocean, on the other side of magic, where all who dare to venture return as someone else.
Thirty years of depression. Gone. In its place, John Gorman is all that’s left. I was here all along. Did you see me? I waved.
The world is lighter now than it’s ever been. I am energetic, yet not impulsive. I am satisfied, yet not bursting. I am feeling things I cannot recall feeling.
My brain, out of sheer force of habit, keeps trying to send me into panic, or worry, or dread, or sadness. And it keeps saying “everything is good.” I find now that I just do hard things because they don’t seem so hard anymore. It’s been huge for me.
I’ve been prescribed a ketamine nasal spray. I do one dose in each nostril before bedtime. Only once — sadly, during a night out in Denver, in the company of one of my favorite people in the world, who I had only first met the night before — has it caused an unpleasant reaction. I threw up in my mouth after eating a bite of pizza, and the heartburn gave me agita, and the surprise turned me just-north-of-unresponsive, and the mix of altitude and moderate amounts of alcohol made me dizzy. I called an Uber and went back to my hotel. Within 30 minutes, I was fine again.
I experience no other side-effects beyond occasional short-term memory lapses, which — for those who’ve known me — weren’t all that uncommon in the first place. Hell, listening to me search for the rest of my sentence is damn near a spectator sport.
I know the sample size is small. I know I’ve only been on this current course for six weeks or so. I know before waving the “Mission: Accomplished” banner, I need to wait. I have a “booster infusion” coming up on May 24, to stave off any kind of rebound effects. Like the Fast and the Furious, I live my life 200 milligrams at a time.
Life feels so impossibly good right now. Colors are brighter. People are kinder. Thoughts are clearer. Feelings are warmer and fuzzier. It almost feels like cheating… almost. And then I remember just how hard I worked to get here. Something I’ve fought for. Something I’ve only dreamed about. I earned this.
In the nine weeks since I first noticed the sun in my life start to rise, I have been left in slack-jawed awe more often than not. So much good has happened. So much has changed.
I know I must now go forth and live the life I never knew I’d live, tell stories that must be told, and do my part to save this burning world and protect its broken people, but for now — if you’d kindly allow — I’d just like to stay here, just for a bit, rest, and enjoy the view. It’s every bit as beautiful as I’d imagined, greater than imagination itself.
XVI. This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things
It was February 16, 2019, just shy of midnight. That’s the night she picked up the phone, and dialed a 512 area code. It didn’t go to voicemail. It went to a man she’d been reading on Medium.
I said “hello.” It would be 8 hours before our call would end — only because we both had to go to work — and just over two weeks before we’d meet in real life, when she’d say after reading the things I had written, about all the lovers I’d lost, that she knew what she was getting herself into, yet still wanted me anyway.
She’s endlessly fascinating, yet not at all shiny. Ultimately, the best loves are just two people who like each other the same amount, and express it in the exact way the other wants to receive it, without compromising or blurring their senses of self. That’s her. All other words feel superfluous. I could write a million pages about her, but here’s all she’ll get.
A local taco chain, a fast-and-loose approximation of Mexican cuisine, in Waco, Texas: Where all legendary romances begin. I’d been struggling with overwork. She’d been craving to see me. She had the Adderall. I had the charm. … Check that: she had the charm. I was simply there — a man with a passable amount of sex appeal, an endless parade of witticisms, and a burning desire to peer beneath the surface of the woman I came to adore from her voice and words alone.
She’s, almost certainly, reading this right now. In fact, she probably already has. After all, it’s how she found me … approximately 14 months ago, she read a particularly lengthy piece of mine and remarked to herself, and, presumably to others, “One day, I’m going to come on that man’s face.” Eight months later, she’d grab firm hold of my attention and whatever else she wanted.
She left a particularly witty comment on one of my Instagram posts I’d crafted from a pub in San Diego, on a record cold night — the only warmth I felt radiating from her words accenting and accentuating my own. “Who. Is. This?” I remarked as I read her impossibly entrancing and disarmingly provocative commentary. I was instantly drawn. I hadn’t a clue where she lived, or what she looked like. I just knew she was worth it. Risk? Fuck risk. Caution belongs to the wind. I belong to her.
It wasn’t long before we eased into casual phone calls — and, by casual, I mean our first vocal sparring match lasted upwards of eight hours, ending only because it was 8 a.m. and we both had to be to the office at 9. That night, I found out she lived in Dallas. I lived in Austin. A mere three hours away. Striking distance.
I couldn’t stop listening to her: her crackpot theories on how the world does, and should, operate; her gorgeously off-hand and flirtatious zingers that sublimated into pure sex; her deliciously bizarre vocal mannerisms that eerily echoed mine.
We stayed up all night quoting Thomas Paine and whiteboarding a messaging architecture for the Green New Deal. She’d apply coding language and logic to every analogue existential problem, and dust off her solutions with the same cocksure ease as Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting, without any of the smug arrogance.
Where some men are able to pace themselves — slow and steady wins the race — I zoomed just a hare faster. I unwrapped her like a toddler unwraps the largest box on Christmas.
I wish you could listen to this woman think. I mean, really, I wish it was audible. I could hear it … the dry ice emanating from her ears as she put two and two together to make a number none of us had yet calculated, but made more sense than a mere four ever could.
In late February, as I’d traveled to Boston and New York and lamented being busier at work than I’d been in the entirety of my 36 years roaming spaceship Earth, she offered to mail me Adderall. Upon my return, I noticed it hadn’t arrived. “Fuck,” I exclaimed. “I have no idea how I’m going to get this all done.”
“Wanna meet in Waco?” She asked on Wednesday, March 5, at 1:00 p.m. “I can be there by 4.”
I breathed a heavy, lusty sigh. “Yes, absolutely.” And at 2:30, I hopped in my Hyundai Sonata, took my creative review call from the road, and drove 90 minutes to meet her halfway.
I arrived first. I ordered a Topo Chico and some queso, and waited, my heart pounding like quads in a drum line. I scrolled through my phone, when I heard a confident, charismatic voice bring my ear to its knees:
“Is this seat taken?”
I turned to my left, and a woman with the most luscious locks of wild ginger, a fuzzy feather coat and obnoxiously opulent sunglasses rolled up next to me like a B-list celebrity at an L.A. brunch. I stared … smitten … spellbound. We embraced for somewhere between 30 seconds and 14 hours.
The dialogue was more than easy, more than natural, it was autonomic. We ping-ponged between pun-offs and punditry, we locked eyes when emphasizing either an important point or an impossible-degree-of-difficulty sexual one-liner … all points were taken, all invitations were accepted.
I couldn’t stop laughing. In every romantic interaction, I’d always been saddled with being the funny one. I didn’t have to on this night. This woman, this radiant, wildly intelligent, insanely witty firebrand, had impeccable comic timing … the kind you couldn’t teach in improv troupe. The kind every awards MC wished they could crib from. I giggled until I sobbed. I mostly just sat slack-jawed, awing over how I just so happened to find this diamond in a rock-bed of zircon.
We nuzzled. We nibbled on each other’s ears instead of the tortilla chips. 4 p.m. turned to 5 p.m. turned to 6 p.m. turned to 7.
“I need to go,” she said, some two hours after we should’ve given up our bar stools. We walked to her car.
I climbed into her passenger seat to kiss her goodbye. That goodbye lasted another four hours. We ravenously embraced and locked lips with each other, our chests beating out of hearts, and I recall the sapphire in her eyes reflecting off the moon as I sighed in genuine appreciation for all that she was, and all I knew she’d become.
“I’m … “ I stuttered, about to say something preposterously presumptuous, and singularly novel in my own lexicon. “I’m done looking. I’m just done. I’ve never been this sure. I want to fight this. I want to tell you I’m not ready. I want to tell you I’m not certain. But I am. I’m yours. Take me.”
She gazed at me with a glassy-eyed longing as I caressed her cheek. “Ditto,” she said. “So. Much. Ditto. I’m yours.”
And off we went. Her back to Dallas. Me back to Austin with eleven 20 m.g. doses of Adderall. Both of us toward somewhere just north of ecstasy.
My panic was more than palpable — it was inescapable. There she was, idling in her foreign mid-sized sedan, gazing adoringly at me from her rolled-down driver-side window. “Hi!”
I’d just returned home to clean my F5-Tornado of a condo. She was about two hours too early. I began to short-circuit, the way I often would when I’d finally be revealed as a fraud … a non-adult, a less-than-functional human who can’t take care of himself.
“Hi!” I fawningly reciprocated through gritted teeth of dread. “Come on in!”
As we meandered up the staircase to my place, I prepped her. “Hey, so …” and I, frazzled, frittered and tremored, sweating in the cool spring dusk. “… this place is a total disaster.”
“I don’t care,” she said in between voracious lip-locking with me, slamming me against the door I didn’t care to open. I caught my breath. She stole my heart.
“Okay,” and I unlocked the door to my own dismay and shame. She had no real interest in looking around. Within minutes, we were writhing and thrashing around in my bed, passionately expressing the glowing adoration that words simply could never capture. We sank into each other like two weighted blankets rolling on ecstasy.
We set off on separate tracks the following morning at South-by-Southwest (SXSW). I slipped into a film screening to attend — Knock Down the House, during which I took great delight in giving director’s commentary to my plus-one due to my quasi-involvement in the events on screen and loose friendships with those in the cast — at the local throwback theater. She bellied up to a branding workshop several blocks away, meeting one of my great Internet friends several weeks before I even would.
When we reconvened later in the afternoon, she — gorgeous yet badge-less — expressed a desire to watch Tim Ferriss Q&A Michael Pollan about mental health applications for psychedelic mushrooms. I — armed with a Platinum pass and all the factory-setting confidence of a mediocre white man — grabbed her hand, cut the line, and darted into Ballroom D like the CEO of whatever-the-fuck-I-wanted. We sat close to the last row. She clutched my arm and giggled, “Oh my god! I can’t fucking believe we’re here!”
I smiled, sighed, then fell asleep. I was half-wasted, half-woozy from several consecutive nights of seeing both 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. as nap bookends. Upon waking, I popped an Adderall, chugged some water, and led her on a mad-dash through all my old Austin haunts.
I whisked her into an Irish pub at which I regularly used to play music and was still cozy with the owner. He sought me out, shook my hand, said, “Shot?” And I happily obliged. “Two Deep Eddy Ruby Reds.” He filled our cups well past standard pour. We clinked glasses. I told her stories of my rough-and-tumble years (editor’s note: so, like, 2017, then) when I used to down double-digit drinks on stage in between performing ham-fisted mashups of several 2 Chainz tracks, “Hotel California,” “Backseat Freestyle,” “Baby One More Time” and the Pokemon Theme song. (editor’s note #2: this is fact, evidence of this exists, and, no we won’t be pointing you to it.) We chopped it up.
“Great to see you, Johnny boy!” the owner smiled and shook my hand again. “We gotta get you back in here!”
“Ayo, lemme know!” I said, leaning in for our patented Lebanese bro-hug.
We then wandered farther up the road to a cocktail lounge where I’ve logged more hours than I have at any reputable workplace that’s ever cut me a check. I played music there. I hosted open mics there. I ran SXSW events there. I was friends with the owner, 85% of the bar staff, and a plurality of the regulars. I even met my last adventure partner there. I ordered a shot of fernet for the staff, a Hendricks-and-soda for me, and a Tito’s-and-Tonic for her. We took our drinks outside and sat next to each other on an upscale picnic bench, as my wasted ass chain-smoked in a way I hadn’t done in 2019 before or since.
Yet, I couldn’t stop staring at her eyes. Those deliriously enrapturing sapphires glistening in the March moonlight under the Texas stars. We giggled. We piggy-backed off each other’s jokes. We enveloped other people’s conversations with a graceful, intentional aggression you just couldn’t coach in a Dale Carnegie class. We broke character(s) only to kiss. Often. Like we were searching for the antidote inside each other’s lips.
“I really like her,” my bartender friend whispered to me as I settled up. “She’s a keeper.”
“Oh, I know,” I replied, as I gazed longingly in her direction, cheesing like six year-old at her own surprise birthday party, misty-eyed and heart fluttering several thousand meters above the troposphere.
We called an Uber, and she expanded upon one of her patented unified theories: “Succinct Expression,” she called this one, which … I refuse to butcher it for you here, and some day I’m certain it’ll be a world-famous Ted Talk, and so I’ll leave the details vague so she can swoop in and clean them up long after both she and you have forgotten me.
We panted and moaned all the way up the stairs. I opened the door to my (still not quite clean) condo, and we made love so hard, my bed drifted some two meters from the wall the headboard was in theory supposed to lean against. She curled her soft, soothing body against me. I cradled her in my arm. I kissed her forehead, lulled into a peaceful full-night’s sleep.
I didn’t dream at all — didn’t have to. No conjuring within my cranium could possibly match the security, love and support I felt with her nuzzled up against me. I was invincible. I was unstoppable. And I was home.
Good lord, you couldn’t have drawn up someone more tailor-made for me if you’d used AI-driven algorithms and machine learning to conceive her in a lab. Devilishly and darkly funny — surreal, morbidly so — and appreciative of both my quintessential strains of humor: acerbic sarcasm and disturbingly awful puns. A powerful, clear communicator who never minced words yet never abandoned tact. A body with curves so dangerous the yellow roadside warning sign suggests taking them at 10 m.p.h. or less (as if I could ever be so disciplined).
She was a self-confessed geek who could, in no particular order: paint, weld, drill, code, draw, build. A world-class systems admin, software developer, deployment consultant, trainer and speaker. She dispensed an uproarious half-baked idea every hour, and a so-crazy-it-absolutely-cannot-fail fully-baked idea damn near every day. Conversation came easy. She came easier.
She’d been married before. Dated the man for five years. Tied the knot and kept it taught for an additional six. She escaped a mushroom cloud of codependency, inequitable distribution of financial, domestic and emotional labor, and the kind of turbulent traumas you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy. That union produced a child — a delightfully witty and whip-smart firecracker with fire-engine red hair and an affinity for rainbows, unicorns, pigs, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and the color pink.
She settled into another relationship — a just-recently-finished on-again, off-again romance to a handsome tech genius with a daughter of his own, his and my partner’s child around the same age and fast friends. I met him, and her daughter’s father, within 20 minutes of each other, during my first voyage up to the Metroplex.
I’d never dated a woman with a child before. I was, admittedly, anxious. I wanted so, so badly to be the type of man the daughter could trust, look up to, and enjoy spending time with. I wanted to strike the perfect balance between “definitely not your dad” and “positive influence with wisdom and jokes to spare.” I fell for her almost as quickly as I fell for her mother, and she quickly warmed up to me. During one trip down to my city, she drew a stick-figure drawing in marker of her, my cat, my partner and I. I hung it on my fridge and kept it there. As I recall, that’s what you’re supposed to do.
When her father would come to pick her up, she would run to give me a hug and kiss, and I would embrace her and say “have so much fun!” And then I’d feel this strange tinge of fullness I’d never before experienced in my life. “What are these feelings?” I would think to myself, as she offered me the last of Girl Scout Cookies or cheered when I’d play her guitar, and my Grinchy-ass heart grew 12 sizes that day.
I had the chance to be a role model and occasional problem solver (common problems included: where’s my favorite stuffed pig? when did I drop my blankie?) for an impressionable, charming, and positively brilliant young woman, without any of the not-necessarily-wanted hassles of infant diaper changing or vaccines. I would read her bedtime stories — in my series of silly voices at first, until she gently coerced me into, “no … no … in your real voice, John!” Well, okay, then. I did my best impression of Audible, and she’d fall asleep in between us before we tucked her into her own sleeping space.
I was also honored to calmly, without expectation or judgment, just exist in my partner’s space … at her convenience, at her suggestion, and whenever I could, without any appreciable pressure. And vice versa. She would come down to say hello for the weekend, sometimes with her daughter to watch the bats fly away at dusk out from under the Congress Bridge, as I’d watch her eyes widen and gap-toothed grin light up the night sky like a crescent moon as the 1.3 million Mexican Freetails blacked out the dusk.
I’d done long distance before — from 2011–2014, I partnered up with a woman in San Antonio, a distance of some 80 miles down I-35 — and knew how quickly a location stalemate could fuel resentment. I’d learned my lesson, and so we laid out the ground rules right away: I would never ask her to move to Austin; she would never ask me to move to Dallas; and, knowing we wouldn’t be able to rendezvous more than three weekends per month, our relationship would be ethically open, so long as we told each other any time we strayed. She did once, and — as promised — she told me. “I slept with my ex,” she confessed one night laying in my bed.
“It’s okay!” I replied. “Thank you so much for telling me,” and we talked about some loose ends before we made love until we both fell asleep, blissful, satisfied and exhausted.
We also wouldn’t have a wedding, or a marriage, or another child together. I was perfectly okay with this. We workshopped an idea where we’d have, instead of a wedding, a “pre-divorce party,” where instead of a wedding, we’d host our friends and family for a roast, with our bridal parties as the roasters, and the officiant as the MC. We figured a live music venue would be the perfect spot. We’d cater tacos from the place we first met. We’d start with the ceremonial signing of the “Terms and Conditions,” which would be the riotous — but absolutely necessary — wedding vows you all wished you could write yourselves, the two of us hyperventilating from laughter as we outlined the various agreements worth including.
I’ve often said, and I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument to contrary, that romantic partnerships don’t require a laundry list of checked boxes to be successful — she checked them anyway. Yet, ultimately, the qualities that made us work portended the ease with which we’d settle into each other’s orbit: We adored spending quality with each other, we liked each other about the same amount, we expressed our feelings toward each other in the way the other preferred to receive them, and we were equal parts insatiable and unstoppable between the sheets. She didn’t teach me these lessons explicitly — I’d written about them before — so much as I took note of why she, of all people, so captivated my soul I required a retina-scan to retrieve it back.
My previous relationship ended in disastrous fashion: I came home from work on Friday, March 31, 2017, to find my partner’s things missing from the house, with no note to say goodbye, no warning it’d be over, no talk to signal the finale. She was there … then she was gone.
Desperate for answers, I parsed through my thoughts and the narrative arc of our love, and attempted to recount it in a way that helped the insensitive make a modicum of sense. This started a two-year voyage at Medium down the spiral staircase of the inner recesses of my mind, in which I spilled my guts out onto a glowing white screen, before pressing “publish” just to see how off-base I was. I could sense I was getting closer to finding the absolute truth: the skeleton key to becoming a partner. I kept thinking, writing, iterating, and practicing. Each new answer, each new revelation, each new strategy, yielded a new question, and I followed the foxhole until I reached my soul’s inner core.
Sometime around December, after a particularly lucid batch of magic mushrooms taken during my annual visual quest, or planning session, I’d reached what I’d thought was the root pathology underpinning all my relationship failures: I am a validation-seeking missile, desperately scouring for love, attention, grace and compassion because — due to an abusive inner monologue — I was unable to provide those things for myself.
I had boundary issues, and to illustrate them, I’ll use a self-created parable about the difference between a plate and a cup:
If you dump water onto a plate, the liquid rolls at warp speeds to the sides and, if you’re not careful, over the edge. The water bounces off the plate’s flat surface and ends up elsewhere and making a mess, and should you accidentally splash water toward a plate, it’ll retain liquid not intended for it. Point is: the plate has to work extra hard to keep hold of the water it needs, and can too easily hold water it shouldn’t have to.
Whereas, if you pour water into a cup, the liquid conforms to the shape of the glass, spreading to the vertical sides. The water’s retained within the cup’s cylindrical shape, not a drop is spilled when poured correctly. and should you try to splash water into a cup, chances are you’re going to miss the inside of the vessel. Because a cup has sides, it doesn’t need to work as hard to retain water, and it does a commendable job of keeping liquid out that doesn’t belong. The sides of the cup are boundaries.
Up until 2017, I was definitively more plate than cup. I had no boundaries. I either attached myself too close, too often, with too many potential — or actual — partners, or I’d team up with someone needy, because that’s what I thought signaled someone who loved me and genuinely cared for me. I was, with the clarity of hindsight, someone with major boundary issues. Through writing and carefully-sourced interviews, I learned much of this maladaptive behavior stemmed from a series of early childhood micro-traumas that only became more pronounced and exaggerated as I grew older and into my teens and early 20's.
Most of how we view crafting boundaries is fundamentally backwards. We don’t create boundaries by saying “no” to more. We build them by saying “yes” to ourselves. By ensuring we’re always doing, having or becoming enough of what aligns with our soul’s true north, we fill our cup — *ahem*, pardon the pun — to the brim with things that serve us, so we aren’t tempted to let in things that don’t. I scaled back my responsibilities at work, and in my side-jobs. I spent the six months (September 2018–February 2019) saying yes to only myself, along with calling for several other all-out assault measures on my mental health.
I attended therapy with a licensed counselor, a life coach and a psychiatrist. I tried Lexapro. I ran regularly. I cooked most of my own meals. I drank water.
I also embarked on a quest to understand on an even deeper level just how much buried trauma I could uncover. I tried ketamine infusion therapy in April 2019.
During each infusion, I could see my life and the systems that provide it context with the kind of clear-eyed precision I’d been lacking in a previous iterations.
I began to confront things I felt I had forgotten. Traumas of every degree, gradient, and sub-genre stretching as far back as preschool. My brother who severed contact with me five years ago. Friends I’d let down. Bosses who’d fired me. Decisions I made and regretted. Decisions I never made and regretted not making. Even my ex who moved out without ever saying goodbye. I gazed at them right in the eyes, and forgave them right in the moment. I forgave myself, too. “It’s okay,” I told them. “You are free.” And then they would leave.
As I continued my course of treatment, I was reminded of one of my partner’s most astonishingly accurate explanations for life:
“Everything is all just data,” she’d say to me. “We all create it and capture it, and — in a vacuum — it doesn’t mean anything. It’s up to you to give it context and meaning.” If everything is just data, then we can bend the insights, and calibrate our emotional reactions to them, to serve us in a way that best works, we can solve problems more clearly and quickly.
Something profound had healed within me. Every day, I woke up a little lighter, a little freer, and a lot more confident than the day before. And I became exponentially more goddamned grateful for my adventure partner. Finally, after over 36 years, I could finally give my best to a woman who truly deserved me at my best. I could unequivocally say I felt fully safe, loved, and supported.
I found the strength to say “yes” to myself so I could build boundaries strong enough to say “no” to the rest. The world became lighter than it’d ever been. My life took off. Codependency had vanished along with my approval-seeking Achilles’ heel.
I was reborn — feeling a sense of ease, warmth and empathy I’d never felt before — sharing it with a woman who not only reciprocated that ease, warmth and empathy, but grew as a human along with me, as we planned a trip to Europe together on our way to see the Rolling Stones in Houston.
On August 16, 2019, I made my first three-hour trek back up to Dallas for the first time in five weeks, to see her for the first time in 19 days. August had been a particularly breakneck month for me, with weekend trips to Denver and Los Angeles for work. I was over the moon to finally return.
It was her daughter’s birthday, and I packed a t-shirt, some unicorn socks, and a book for children about becoming politically active and inclusive. It was my first time buying a present for the daughter of a woman I was in love with.
I arrived at 8:30, her daughter spending the night her grandma’s, and I kissed my lover like I’d never kiss her again immediately upon entry. We sat on her couch and talked, I passed her a PAX Pen I’d gotten for her in Colorado, and some other party favors we planned on enjoying together. We laughed. We told stories and jokes for two hours, before I could see her eyes begin to glaze over and stare longingly off into the distance.
Silence. And then she started.
“So … I think it’s time to transition our relationship.”
I cocked my head and my ears perked up. “Ohhhhhhh?”
“Yeah …” she paused as if to signal an unusual gravitas — the most serious she’d ever sounded.
“So, I fucked up when I slept with my [handsome tech genius] ex,” she told me. “And I realized I’m still not over him, and I want so badly to be over him, and I realized it’s not fair to string you along while I’m still processing that, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that unless I’m able to spend time alone … and I’ve never, ever spent time alone.”
I sat in stunned silence, the color retreating from my skin, leaving me nearly translucent, and I nodded like Robert De Niro in those old Scorsese mob thrillers when he’s coming to terms with plans not going as … planned.
“Wait, so …” sentences became calculus. “You’ve never spent time alone?”
“No,” I’ve always been a girlfriend, a fiancee, wife, a girlfriend, a friend-with-benefits … something. And I realize now unless I take time to myself, I’m never, ever going to conquer codependency.”
“You didn’t come off as codependent to me, I didn’t think,” I reasoned.
“Maybe not to you,” she said, “But I could still feel it, and I could especially feel it with my ex, and I hate it. Listen … I love everything about you. You are a remarkable man. An amazing man. I love being friends with you. I love talking to you. I love everything you do and everything you do for me.”
“I … fail to see the problem?”
“Listen … This is why I always end up with emotionally unavailable men. Because when I finally find one who actually is emotionally available, I get scared.
“I don’t know if we moved too fast in the beginning, or if we said ‘I Love You’ too quickly, but I could just feel myself getting triggered. My avoidant side. Add to that my feelings I still haven’t processed, and I’m just … I just can’t. We can’t be in a romantic relationship. We can’t have sex. Not until I figure things out.”
I sat there. Flat-lined. She stared at me, tears welling up in her eyes.
“I am so, so sorry. You must hate me.”
I thought about how I would’ve handled this in the past. I thought about all the reasoning I would’ve done. All the desperate attempts to convince her otherwise. All the self-loathing I would’ve felt. All the times I would’ve raised my voice or felt my blood boil. All the worst-case and what-if scenarios I would’ve played out in my head, or the alternate theories I’d concoct to convince myself that somehow, if I would’ve just done things a little better, or tried a little harder, or made no mistakes, that I could’ve prevented this all from happening. Then I saw her cry. I could see her, truly feel her hurting, and I gave her a hug.
“Is there anything I could’ve done differently? I didn’t think I was needy or clingy at all. Was I? Any constructive criticism for … next time?” [Whatever “next time” means, in this case.]
She paused, sniffled, wiped her eyes and shook her head. “No … no. This has nothing to do with you. You did nothing wrong. You are amazing.”
I sat, limp and lifeless, perplexed and puzzled, for 45 seconds that may as well have felt like 45 days.
“Is there anything I can do for you?” I asked.
“I don’t suppose I could have a hug?” She replied.
I finally was able to raise my voice above a mumble. “Of course you may.”
We embraced for ten minutes. I didn’t want to let her go, but I knew if I’d learned anything from all the growth, the writing, the therapy, the time spent with her, that pushing too hard or reasoning or pleading would not be the path to changing her mind. There would be no path. Sometimes the magic just runs out for no reason other than one of the two parties involved just can’t seem to conjure it up anymore.
In six months, we never fought. We never had a disagreement. We never got upset with each other. We never failed to follow through on a promise. We never had bad sex. We never ate a bad meal. We never made plans that fell through. We split emotional labor as close to evenly as any couple I’d ever been a part of. We never saw each other too often. We never blew up each other’s phone. I couldn’t think of one thing … not one thing that went awry. It was the best … and then it was just … gone.
I gingerly stood up. “Well, I guess I should probably go then,” I told her, as I looked around the house for what I was certain was the last time. I packed up my things, and told her to keep her daughter’s present and the little goodies I left at her place.
“You sure you don’t want them?” She asked me.
“No. They don’t come with conditions. I meant them when I got them, and I still do. They’re gifts. Not loans.”
I turned to my left, and a woman with the most luscious locks of wild ginger, a cozy summer shirt and denim jeans curled up next to me like a grieving friend I could no longer touch. I stared … crestfallen … spellbound. We embraced again for somewhere between 30 seconds and 14 hours.
I wiped her tears as she sobbed. I mostly just sat slack-jawed, awing over how I just so happened to find, then so quickly lose, this diamond in a rock-bed of zircon.
I zipped up my suitcase and headed out the door, into the warm summer night, her misty sapphire eyes glistening under the moon and the Texas stars. She hugged me one more time.
“Thank you so much,” she said.
“For not yelling at me.”
“Why would I yell at you?”
“I don’t know …” she said, “Every guy I end things with does.”
“Well … I’m not those guys,” I said.
She squeezed me even tighter. “I am so, so incredibly grateful for the time we had together.”
“Same,” I said. “So much ditto.”
She sighed and released her arms from around me. “So. Much. Ditto.”
And off we went. Her back inside. Me, just as the first night we met, back to Austin with eleven 20 m.g. doses of Adderall. A fitting bookend to a story with more blank pages than words.
I breathed a heavy, lusty sigh. And at 11:30 p.m., I hopped in my Hyundai Sonata, fielded a friend’s call from the road, and drove 190 minutes to my condo … finally clean after all that inner work I did to become a better man; a much better man, who, after meeting his match with a much better woman — two years and change after his previous relationship ended in disastrous fashion — still couldn’t manage to avoid the same sad, surprise ending that started this process of self-discovery on Medium in the first place.
I came home from Dallas on Saturday, August 17, 2019, to find my partner’s things still inside my house, hear her say goodbye inside my head, after no warning it’d be over, and no talk to soften the finale. Home. Here. Again.
And so I’m back: a man with a passable amount of sex appeal, an endless parade of witticisms, and a burning desire to peer beneath the surface of the next woman I’ll come to adore. She, still, has a firm hold of my attention and whatever else she wants. It’ll take a beat before that grip fully loosens up, and that’s okay.
Just three hours ago, I was there. Now I’m here.
And then she was gone.
XVII. How I Became A Writer
People ask why I write so candidly and transparently about my life. The truthful answer is: I don’t know what else to do. I’ve already been doing it for a decade, and it’s how I make my money. Starting a new vocation doesn’t appeal to me. I like to avoid high-risk, low-reward effort at all times.
And so I just kept doing it, until I got good at it, and then it got popular. Which — if I may be so blunt — knowing there are people out there who revere my writing, about my life, is really fucking weird.
There’s simply no playbook for how to handle a sudden elevation change in status and stature in this community. It’s spectacularly surreal to hear someone call me their “favorite writer.” Especially when I didn’t go to school for writing, didn’t start until age 25, and didn’t get paid to do it outside of a corporate copywriter job until 35. You fuckers are giving me a complex. (Thank you.)
This whole moonshot into the realm of unsolicited compliments, conferences, speeches, publications and junkets flips the narrative I’ve built in my own head … on it’s head. I merely thought I was fine. I just did it because I liked it. My writing’s better (and more profitable) than my music, sure, in much the same way that a Sonata can scorch a Prius over a quarter-mile, yet, for a long time, I was often actively told my work was actually bad.
Every ex I’d had, until my most recent (we’re still great friends), thought my writing was shit. And, I won’t kid you, that shit cut pretty deep. Deep enough that I stopped writing altogether while dating them, because the idea of doing something that actively turned off someone close to me was a fate worse than a fortnight in a gulag.
For what felt like an eternity, up until about early 2017 or so, I had a burning desire to be heard. I felt a need to be seen. My early explorations were puffy vanilla GaryVee remixes (Vee-mixes?) — clickbait-y, self-righteous hackery. I was, candidly, quite full of shit. I looked in the mirror and realized, in no small or uncertain terms, that I was the shit I was full of. My tenor in writing was discordant with the tone of my life.
I was sharing the wrong parts of myself — and losing all sense of boundaries and perspective — I was a self-help-y bro-flake on the Internet that nobody wanted to read, and a deeply drunk and depressed d’bag in real life that nobody wanted to know.
I was caught up chasing life’s small pleasures — sex, booze, cocaine and retweets — rather than really enjoying life’s small things — sunsets, skylines, lobster rolls.
Of course, back then, I was far more insecure in myself, and mapping myself to someone else’s opinion of me is a classic personification of an anxious attachment disorder. Which, later on, became the opening salvo in my stories of personal growth and societal criticism you read on this site.
So I wrote about the monsters that scared me. And, like the very best monsters in all the most thrilling films, the monsters we fear the most are the demons who hold us under their possession. Mostly, I started down that journey because I was lonely, and the idea of talking to people in real life scared me — especially when none of my Oxfords were ironed, and I was too busy quoting Earl Sweatshirt lyrics to actually be present in a conversation about whatever the fuck people watch on television.
I made sure as I navigated the murky waters of the Self-Help Content Industrial Complex not to issue bold proclamations of a moral high ground. Instead, I based (and still base) all my work on a fundamental admission: I have a disease, and I’m actively working on treating it. I leaned in, got dark and gloomy and — importantly — vulnerable in my word-wrangling, and that’s when the shit seemed to click.
Here we are now. Here the fuck we are. Still not giving a fuck about SEO or personal branding … much to my agent’s dismay. Still telling my deepest, darkest truths. And, in future pieces, I can tell you all about the good friends I’m letting down because I can’t seem to just get my shit together, and the time in L.A. when I blacked out and managed to irrevocably ruin relationships with two dear friends in staggeringly shameful ways. The truth’s all that matters. The rest is just marketing … And what a time to bring truth back. Because whereas creativity used to be a distillation of the truth, pretty much all creativity is marketing now.
Creativity used to be whoever created the site “Fuck Yeah, Sharks.” It’s so innocently subversive, approachable and remarkably human. A meditation on nature’s awesome power and beauty, and our inability to fully understand it beyond superlatives and cussing.
Creativity was once Facebook. You could draw on someone’s wall. You could come up with quirky names for yourself. You could send up your political views, and play off-brand Candy Crush-style games.
Creativity was once Twitter. You could pretend you were a couch, or an elevator in a New York investment bank, and say some really, really bizarre shit that people would let marinate a bit, and find amusing.
This wild-wild west of Internet Content no longer really exists. We’re all our real selves — should a real self even exist. I’m not quite sure it does anymore.
I imagine what we really are more closely resembles distorted, homogenized pictures of our ideal selves. Our real names and real pictures now stand-in as avatars for a certain ethos. Humans as entertainment channels. People as brands — art directed, airbrushed, photoshopped, Instagrammed approximation of ourselves at our very best. Forget ‘Nique, We are all The Human Highlight Film now. And the better the camera, the more powerful your social “presence,” the better the life.
Our friend list, photo albums, blog posts and shared links are all carefully curated to represent and reflect ourselves at our most desirable, most likable, most True To Ourselves(TM). And, occasionally, in that rare peek behind the curtain where we post a candid of ourselves — or a confessional blog post — where we explain the virtues of vulnerability and authenticity, even those pieces are edited to death and/or given an unvarnished black-and-white sheen to reflect the starkness and seriousness with which we wish to be taken.
And in all of this positivity and championing and over-caffeinated cheer-leading about meandering through life’s mundane maze of self-improvement and habit-building, we aim to spin whispered moments into rallying cries. Lord almighty does this fall flat. This is not finding beauty in the boring. This is projecting beauty in the boring. This is not finding joy in the everyday, this is broadcasting joy in the everyday.
Nobody is as happy as they appear — not even me. Nobody is as successful as they are for the five minutes out of the 24 hours each day at which they peak. That 483-like profile picture — the best of the 61 selfies they took in that ten-minute span, washed in the Lark Filter — is canned validation bottled in a vacuum. This is not reflection, this is distortion. We’ve moved from awareness to art direction.
Turning our Smartphone into a screening app through which we can exhaustively filter, delete, edit and tune out the life we used to see through our own eyes and process in our own hearts is the opposite of awareness. It’s performance art. Except without the art. We need to stop trying to use our minds and our phones as tools to enjoy our lives. We should just be.
Plus, we’re caught on a mill of making merely being awake and aware feel like more work than it used to be. Somewhere, we stopped telling people to say “thank you,” and start “practicing gratitude.” Somewhere, we stopped telling people to “shut the fuck up” and started telling people to “practice mindfulness.”
To simply be aware, and not to alter, is the truest path to cultivating love and vulnerability, and the quickest escape hatch off the hamster wheel of hustle-culture and “the pursuit of happiness.”
I examine my feelings about my work and the work of my peers on various social platforms, and I often wonder what story we’re trying to tell the world about ourselves. What picture we are trying to paint. But, most importantly, why we feel the need to paint that picture at all. And then I remember why I write: I started down this journey because I was lonely. I think it’s possible we all do this to feel a little less lonely, and maybe a little more permanent.
And, yet, I’m not sure any of this works the way we want it to. I examine these repeated attempts to connect, and I feel a profound empathy for all fellow creators and influencers … even the ones I find most egregiously inauthentic and skewer in my own work.
Our lives are inherently lonely. No one can ever really know the 24x7, underneath-the-skin version of you. The sharing that’s meant to bring us closer to others actually removes us further from intimacy.
Our lives are also inherently transient, and everything feels more important than it is. Our lives are tiny and random, like bees or sharks. By leaning into our misguided belief in our own exceptionalism, we’re oddly burying ourselves in a sea of sameness and monotony, and it’s become impossible to gauge what’s truly big from what’s truly small.
It becomes harder and harder for us to trust what we see, but rather than consciously question what’s in front of us, we bury our beliefs and laugh off our own skepticism — either losing or feigning interest in absolutely everyone and everything.
Read anything, anywhere, by popular self-help bloggers. Look at all your favorite tweeps and IG-influencers and YouTubers. It’s all become monochromatic monotony, dressed up in the trappings of quasi-art, as the Venn diagram between brands and people continue to blur and overlap into concentric circles.
It is through our own deluded sense of self-worth, our ego and our ambitions that we convince ourselves our lives are these grand, big things worthy of parades and newspaper clippings, or six-figure Instas and viral blog posts. Instead of creating art, we’re creating objects aimed at others’ envy or reflexive appreciation.
I wonder if obsession with participating in, and lording over our own micro-empires in, the grand Shareable Content Marketplace(TM), leaves us all a little more broken than we could be — poorer in spirit, enslaved to our egos, stagnated in our growth, obsessed with our image. I wonder how many suffer from this sickness, this deficit of virtue, this misappropriation of our grandest truths: love, change and the present moment — all three of which stem from awareness itself. I know I did. I know sometimes I still do.
Perhaps I am just lamenting awareness as a dead technology, or thinking that perhaps reality is now just too impermanent and lonely to deal with anymore. I don’t know much beyond what my mind witnesses and the moments that scald my heart.
And so I suppose my writing is no longer shit. It better not be, anyway — I just quit my day-job and I need to eat and afford medicine — but I have fun making it, in spite of all the mental-traps and side-eyes I give myself for occasionally feeling and fearing I’ve ventured too far into solipsistic exhibitionism. I do it because I like to, and because this is the only way I make sense of the Earth.
I don’t care what it does in the Shareable Content Marketplace(TM), although I now have a vested financial interest in the endeavor’s success — yet I don’t need much money to find peace. My happiness is not material. I can’t get it or achieve it, and it’s not exclusive to me. My only life goals are to see the sun often, and drink my coffee black while it’s out. And then drink my whiskey straight under the stars. My writing is how I pass the time in between.
Still, not everything that I do has to be competitive, not everything is a contest to be won or a truckload of likes to be garnered. These are misguided Western values cloaked in capitalism, barbarism and vanity, and I’m simply more interested in creating art and decoupling truth from marketing.
The real and the true are who we are. The unreal and the lies are what we present. I aim for what I do and who I am to be as holistically aligned as I can. I won’t always succeed, but that’s the aim, and the ask I have of all who create things. After all, love is awareness and acceptance of our whole selves and others; love is not an artfully stunning engagement photo.
The only way we beat back the twin-barreled firing squad of loneliness and impermanence is by embracing that awareness and acceptance, letting it flow through us and out of us, staying healthy and doing things that matter to us, with the people we love. That’s how we live a full, if tiny, life.
You are not the person you were. You are not the person you will become. Untethered from the weight of the past and the future, the present is all we have. Which means who we were, who we are, and who we will be never really exist outside of our own memory or ego. I suppose what’s why I write so candidly and transparently about my life … to convince myself of my own very existence.
This is who I am, now, and that I is very different from the I that I was, and will probably be different from the I that I’ll become. Those same monsters don’t scare me anymore, and I have new demons to conquer. Yet every iteration of myself still yearns for the same things: connection and feeling like what I do means something. I write because it’s the best way I know how to feel less lonely, and how I try to achieve my own trite version of immortality. I write to prove I was here.
So to see it take off like this, to be someone’s “favorite,” to ride this whole moonshot into the realm of unsolicited compliments, conferences, speeches, publications and junkets … it’s incredibly validating and meaningful and humbling. It means that it’s working. It means I exist. And that keeps me going, which is — more than anything — a relief. Starting a new vocation doesn’t appeal to me, and even if it did, I still don’t know what else I’d do.
XVIII. Be Your Own Hope
As you know, I think a lot about space. It’s a leitmotif in my writing canon, yet it goes deeper than merely being a kid who grew up with the shuttle.
You see, explorations into the cosmos represents more than just the stimulation of a child’s wonder. It represents the fulfillment of human possibility, cooperation, ingenuity and aspirations. One could even argue the peak of American existence was the moment a half-century ago when Neil and Buzz raised our flag upon the moon.
The Space Shuttles were a staggering (and, twice, tragic) achievement. They allowed us to peer deeper into the vast expanse of the universe than we ever could, and to reflect back upon ourselves as a fragile, lonely, vibrant vessel adrift in a cold, black, endless night. We broke the chains the gravity. We left the only atmosphere we know of that could ever sustain us.
When people commit to missions, and commit their brightest, most collaborative and most compassionate minds to their successful completion, we can lasso the infinite, and solve for the unknowable.
In space, there are no borders. No races. No currencies. Time as we define it ceases to exist. Space is measured in time. Time is measured in light. There are no absolutes. No sounds. Just pockets of mass, energy and matter. Most of it invisible, yet infinite in scope.
The ideals of “aspera ad astra” and “for all (hu)mankind” have been lost. Science. Wonder. Cooperation. Pride. Discovery. Innovation. Wisdom. We could use so much more of all these things. We need that same spirit that let us walk on the moon, leave the solar system, take a picture of a black hole and of damn near the origins of the universe itself, to solve the existential threats of today, illuminate the possibilities of tomorrow, and unite us all in service of all intelligent life on Earth — and wherever else our imaginations take us.
That spirit is a light we rarely see anymore, yet it’s a light that’s never stopped shining, and it’s easy to find if you know where to look. I’ll explain.
Let’s start here: Everything is a paradigm. We cannot fully divest ourselves from context. For as ruggedly differentiated and actualized as we portray ourselves to be, we do not exist fully outside the collection of environs that contain us.
There are few absolutes. Perhaps none at all. For as much as we say things like “that’s just the way it is,” or “that’s how it’s always been done,” if you zoom the lens out wide enough across space-time, you’ll find relativity and malleability everywhere.
To some people, that’s discomforting: to people who value things like tradition, culture, binaries, ritual and habit, the prospect of nothing set in stone and perpetual wholesale change can be scary.
I find peace in transience and in transition. Nothing is forever, linear time is a human construct, change is a universal truth, death and rebirth are as inevitable as sunrise. It’s beautiful. Every moment is a singular, self-contained event. Might as well appreciate it. There is nothing to fear beyond the forces of ill and evil.
I’m in a transitional phase now — in something like a cocoon. My motion is slowed, yet I’m morphing in previously unthinkable ways. And from this quiet place, I’m able to see things differently and more gently. Most of us are just doing the best we can within the constraints of our paradigms, but our mere existence changes each paradigm imperceptibly — perhaps even significantly.
Progress is perpetual. Even the slowest movement is still a relative distancing from what was once before. We are always in beta. We can always reinvent ourselves and our societies, if we’re daring enough to do so.
Progress doesn’t always make sense to other people. That’s okay. When you build yourself, you’ll go through phases as you evolve. They’ll say, “you can’t build a glass post-modern skyscraper on top of a brick gothic revival highrise.”
You know what? Pay them no mind. You can only stack bricks so high. If you want to stand out and reach the stars, you’ve gotta do things differently. It might look weird at first, but they’ll get used to it … And so will you.
Success. What does it look like to you? Big house? Lots of money? Perfect body? Happy family? However you define it, and whenever you can find it, if you got it, you hold onto it.
For me, success is not, nor never could be, an end state. It’s an equilibrium. It’s when all the things you’ve worked for, all the growth you’ve done, and all the people you’ve met all converge into a state of being. A deep confidence that no matter what, you feel safe, loved, supported and hopeful.
It is, of course, a fickle and fleeting thing. We’re not always successful (literally full of success). Our time eventually runs out. But as long as we’ve got air in the lungs, we have a chance to make every day a little better and little sweeter than the last one. There’s always new people to meet. New challenges on the horizon. New places to go.
I don’t have that big house. I don’t have a trust fund. I don’t have a six-pack. I don’t even have kids. But I have success. I have everything I want. Everything I’ve ever wanted. I am lucky. I am grateful.
One of my favorite singer-songwriters, JJ Grey, once said in an interview: “For me, it’s all about power versus force: Force is any time you try to do something, and power is when you let it happen.” It’s stuck with me ever since, yet I feel like I’m only now fully embracing and understanding the magnitude of the thought.
Humans have two great desires (beyond mere survival). Satisfaction and Belonging. Satisfaction is a sense of “enough.” I’ve done enough, well enough. I have enough. I’ve eaten enough. You get it. Belonging is a sense of “home.” I feel at home here, or with you, in this space, or doing these things, with these people, etc.
You ever met a satisfied person who feels like they belong? They’re fantastic to hang out with. They share. They’re simple. They’re confident. They laugh. Conversely, most pathological behavior stems from chronic dissatisfaction, or feeling like you don’t belong anywhere.
American culture is sick because we actively convince our populace that either they should not be satisfied or belong. Both conditions run counter to what makes the capitalist engine run. We convince people they have new problems to solve so they buy this thing — so they’ll go to Jared, lose those last 10 pounds, or spend $1300 on a phone every two years.
We’re all stressed, angry, lonely. It’s not enough to enjoy our pursuits, we must publicize and monetize them. It’s not enough to be a craftswoman, we need to be a #girlboss. We used to live the good life. Now we’re #livingourbestlife. Our friends are brands. Culture is one big highly immersive advertisement. It’s championship-or-bust when most of us would be cool with a playoff birth more years than not.
The expectations placed on individuals are so sky-high — you can always be more, be better, never settle, never quit — and so stratified (think of how much higher men and white folks need to reach to feel satisfied, and how much higher women and PoC need to reach to “belong”), that it’s inevitable we’ll all break down out of frustration or exhaustion. All to justify extreme costs of living, and the lack of basic empathy in policy and our institutions.
If you’re dissatisfied, or you feel like you don’t belong, I’m willing to venture a guess it’s not because you suck and you’re socially irredeemable. It’s because you’ve been told you suck and you’re socially irredeemable by a culture that holds it in their best interest to have you believe those things about yourself. The engine must keep turning.
I now dream of a simple existence. I don’t mean a trite one, or an anonymous one. I mean one that’s wholesome, unbothered and unhurried.
Earlier this year, I took my mom to a lake in the middle of nowhere, and we took a canoe out into the middle, and while it was hot, I just enjoyed the silence. I don’t get many moments of silence anymore. Waves lapping against the boat. The whoosh of a crane. I was giddy at the erasure in my mind.
I want to eat a crisp apple and taste it. I want to walk to the store. I want to sip an espresso. I want to belly-laugh with friends. I want easy conversation, easy love, enthusiastically consentual sex. I want to cook my own meals, and create good things that endure long after my name’s been forgotten. Sunsets. Oceans. Simple. I’m 37 now, and while that’s not old, it’s old enough to become cynical. I believe I’ve become exactly that, but toward exactly the right things.
I’ve grown tired of the senseless cruelty of modern American Life — working ourselves to death to escape the throes of debt, take-downs from strangers, viral content that creates no lasting value, rampant systemic injustices, and the lies we tell ourselves to keep the whole malfunctioning enterprise humming to the benefit of almost no one. It’s as breakneck as it is broken. Being alive here, now, is it’s own form of low-grade mental illness.
I was, for a long time, spectacularly acerbic, fiercely ambitious, and darkly sarcastic. I’ve also been by turns, bitter, angst-ridden and snippy, fueled by determination, slights from others, past traumas, rejection in myriad forms, and proving the doubters and haters wrong. My jokes, mean-spirited. My writing, sophomoric. My behavior, abusive to myself and others. My self-loathing and bleak worldview intertwined in a desperate dance.
These things just aren’t always true anymore. (Aside from when I drink on certain medication I’ve since learned I shouldn’t, with cataclysmic results), I’ve evolved into something approaching reformed innocence, depth, compassion, peace and hope at baseline. That doesn’t make my outlook less bleak, it just means I’ve transcended it on some level.
It’s been this shift that’s fueled my newfound quest for quiet: ways to detach myself from the digital world, step off the ambition treadmill, and, ultimately, reconnect with things that exist outside the realm of staring into screens, consuming indigestible volumes of dystopia, motoring through unholy amounts of work, and shaking off a pressing need to reply to more people than I can conceivably reply to.
Earlier this year, I ventured with my partner to a North Texas ranch half-detached from the continuum of space-time. I don’t love my adopted home-state’s vegetation, nor it’s small towns. I’m not a country boy. I’m a city kid at heart. And when I get away, I prefer things like mountains, forests and coastlines. Even the desert. But, sometimes, I stumble across golden pockets of ranch land that look like windswept fields of Americana. You can practically hear the dinner bells and the wind chimes jingle on the front porch after the screen door slams. Lonely trees that farms forgot.
Here is where the still happens. You can hear your own voice say something other than “you should really finish up on …”. It says, “remember what it was like to just feel the breeze on a summer evening? The drizzle in the soft glow of the sunset?” And then your partner wraps her arms around you and gives you a big ol’ kiss for no reason except because it feels good. The gate to the horse barn opens. You remember, for the briefest of moments, that you’re human. That you’re alive.
I’ve cocooned and calmed down to avoid crying — yeah, I’ve become a man who cries, and fuck you for judging me, a good cry is cathartic as fuck — at our own futile efforts to beat back the perpetual fire-hose of inextricably linked causes and symptoms of horror, poverty, rage, corruption, collapse, tragedy and cruelty.
I sometimes find myself raging in frustration at just how much I feel compelled to do vs how much I feel like I am actually accomplishing, and just how little even that Delta means in the grand scheme, especially when we’re enveloped in atrocity at every turn.
I often find solace in work itself: the ideas, the brainstorming, the conversations with people I work with, the ways I help solve pressing problems and the way we both feel after a job well done. Ultimately, it’s really the connections I make with people who exude warmth and humanity that make this life worth it.
I won’t lie when I say it’s hard to be alive right now, and even saving small corners of the world feels Sisyphean on some level. But then I laugh, enjoy a meal, or hear “I love you,” and I feel better. And I think, “hey, it’s beautiful out today,” or “that was some damn good coffee,” or “damn, that human is really special.”
People often give the trite advice to “practice gratitude” for the little things. I bristle at it. I already appreciate the hell out of so much. People also say “stop thinking so much.” I bristle at it. I’m not one to bury my head in the sand.
More important to me is asking myself, and imploring others to ask themselves: are we really willing to settle for a world from which the only refuge is to be grateful for what little good actually remains, or to insulate ourselves from the litany of bad that engulfs it? I know my answer. Yes, I appreciate what’s good, and that’s why I aim to work tirelessly to spread so much more of it.
Nearly two years ago, as I started writing copy and messaging for the Ocasio-Cortez congressional campaign, I scribbled a line into a spiral notebook: “Be your own hope.” I keep it on a magnet affixed to my refrigerator.
“Be your own hope.” That’s the work. That’s the point of everything. That’s when life opens all the way up.
If you can harness the power of your own soul, and lean into what makes your heart sing, and lean even harder into the fear that paralyzes even the best of us sometimes, you’re capable of finding joy in the process of discovering an open-ended universe — one that doesn’t cater to you, nor to all people equally (and we really, really need to fix that) — that is just begging to be explored. Sometimes, you’ll find that universe within yourself.
I think a lot about how I can’t tell the difference anymore between where I end, and where the rest of existence begins.
I think of life on several spherical planes now: I’ll list them here for clarity, and in doing so, I’d like you to picture those cut-out diagrams of the earth from geology, where you could see the inner core, outer core, mantle and crust.
1. Psychological (inner core): Who am I? What’s happening to me? What am I thinking, feeling and doing?
2. Interpersonal (outer core): Who do I surround myself with? What are we like? What effect do I have on them and how are we connected?
3. Sociological (mantle): How do I fit in to the larger picture? What example am I setting for the social fabric? What impact do systems have on me and vice-versa?
4. Anthropological (crust): How do I relate to humankind as a whole? What is my legacy? How do systems predict my behavior and how do my behaviors change systems?
5. Cosmological (universe): LOL we are specks of dust in an empty abyss of space-time. 1–4 don’t matter. And that’s why they matter.
Today, as I float adrift, alone, all the planes swirl together. Everything I am, everything I do, perceptively or imperceptibly changes the environs around me, and they change me. It’s an infinite feedback loop. The same is true for you.
Things can be how we want them to be within ourselves, if we’re willing to divest ourselves from the center of the universe, and just think of ourselves as an outpost radiating warmth from our cores, with gravitational pull. It frees us. Even if we’re not free. Too few of us truly are.
I am free. I move through life uninhibited now, and I’m able to make an impact far greater than I ever thought possible. I don’t know how it happened. Scoff if you want and say, “John, I do believe these are manic delusions of grandeur caused by copious amounts of hallucinogenic dissociatives.” Maybe you’re right.
But that grandeur starts by never forgetting life is ephemeral and infinitesimal. Only then can we ascertain the eternal and the infinite. They’re one and the same. As are you and I. As are all humankind.
That word: Humankind. It is a collective, yet it is, at it’s most molecularly distilled, a compound word. Human. And kind. And so to define it is to define its elements: what does it mean to be both human, and kind?
To be human, surely, is to be one of our species. Ambitious yet fallable. Important yet imperfect. We exist upon several planes: as a wholly contained spirit within and of ourselves. As an individual branch of our collective whole, as a mere naturally occurring wanderer around this spec of space-rock, a relative coordinate in the vast continuum of space-time.
To be kind, is to be kindred, to be a relation to that which is within us, along with us, among us, apart from us, before us, after us, and above us. And to value those relations. Uphold them for the truths that they are. Truth is relative? Well, that is not to say truth is malleable, it is to say that these relations are the truths themselves. We are mere conduits to them.
We are the spiritual, the individual, the interpersonal, the cultural, the anthropological, the astronomical. We are what we experience, what we radiate, what we share, what we learn, what we know, what we represent, what we embody. May they align. And they only do, truly, if all humans are kind. Within the fragile gravitas of our own transience is the permanence we seek. Suffering is temporary, yet also perpetual, and life lasts forever — when we die, our eternity does with it.
And so it is what we leave behind, how we shape the planes within we emit our essence, that ultimately rings eternal. It is that kindness — as a spirit, a person, a relative, a citizen, a visitor, a slice of matter — that makes us most human.
Satisfaction and belonging. These are humans’ primary and most elemental desires above mere survival. They drive all goal-directed behavior and our the core tenets of our both self-interest and altruism.
Everything we do — good and evil, food and sex, growth and suppression are aimed at moving the needle along the continuua of satisfaction and belonging, either for ourselves or for others.
Same with everything we feel — love and hate, security and fear, joy and melancholy. They’re data points along these continuua.
Moreover, satisfaction and belonging overlap in points and affect each other. When we belong, we feel a bit more satisfied. When we’re satisfied, we feel a bit more like we belong.
I think a lot about what satisfies me, and what makes me feel like I belong. Many of these things are obvious: sharing and connecting, experiencing the full Spectra of what our world has to offer, making food and “art”, learning new skills and ideas. Maybe these do it for you, too. Your mileage may vary.
I hope to cultivate a greater sense of both satisfaction and belonging — not just for me, but others, too. These are the senses that are life-sustaining, life-affirming and life-fulfilling.
Perhaps that’s all we were meant to do in our short window as breathing, beating, beautiful entities in the cosmos. Sure beats ruminating over existence’s inherent randomness and meaninglessness … Although I stop short of calling life “worthless.” I believe it’s priceless.
After all, once it ends, it ends. And we can’t press pause or rewind. And, at our peaks — when we’re satisfied and feel like we’ve found where we belong — we’d all give everything we have to preserve and maximize the lives we’ve been gifted, wouldn’t we? I’d like to think so.
Life feels big now. Widescreen. Enormous. Like all the stakes are in play. It’s beautiful, exciting and terrifying and none of it hurts. (To paraphrase Vonnegut and also, ummm, me.)
Coach and first-ballot dago Hall-of-Famer Jim Valvano once said, “god must’ve loved ordinary people, because he made so many of them.” And I always loved that. It gave me great comfort knowing my painfully average ass was gonna be in some good company: life was meant to be lived humbly, radiating joy in small moments, peace in a world gone mad, strength in the hour of darkness.
We all have an inner light. It’s the sun in the climate of our souls. From birth, we are conditioned to block it out: building mountains to trap cloud cover, land-locking ourselves to weather extremes, tempests and dreary days, cold snaps and whistling winds. We don’t become jaded so much as dark.
I’ve always been dark in spots. Occasionally pitch black. 75 and sunny? That was on the other coast. However, dark was not how I was made. I was built to shine. So were you.
The inner light is what keeps us constant. It’s what’s always there — we just may not see it. We always think if we change the weather — a new house, car, partner, job, hobby, diet — we’ll change the climate. That is simply not so. As Counting Crows once sang, “you can never escape, you can only move South down the coast.” You cannot change the climate by changing the skies … You change it by changing the earth.
To quote Jimmy V again, “every day, ordinary people do extraordinary things.” I am very ordinary now. I’m ready to let my light shine. And, if I can’t do that, the least I can do is be a mirror. After all, other people deserve to see themselves glow.
“A lighthouse doesn’t run all over the island looking for boats to save, it just stands there, shining.” It’s one of my favorite quotes, and it‘s from Anne Lamott — who, if you haven’t read her, please do, her work is gorgeous. I think about this quote a lot, too, and what I think it means. It’s been freeing, enlightening, meaningful, fun and rewarding.
Lately, I haven’t had to chase folks or put up with anything I haven’t wanted to, and instead I just relentlessly kept working on me. Shining my light, a little brighter each day. The boats starting coming. By the boatload. (Terrible, Gorman.)
Yes, I’m also super lucky and privileged to be able to do this. Very few people are truly free to just shine as bright as they want to, in any direction they choose. I have that freedom and I’ll try to use it wisely, for as many mistakes as I’ve made and continue to make.
I hope one day we reach a point in humankind where everyone can be the brightest lighthouse they can be. Where everyone can be a beacon of hope for themselves and for others. Where everyone can bring in boat after boat.
The incandescent beauty of life lies within the connections we build with others. When we band together to achieve the impossible, to laugh with reckless abandon, to be present for each other’s tears, and shine a light their darkest moments.
Existence is about belonging. About holding space for those who roll out a welcome mat for you. About opening your heart, downloading your mind, and watching the brightest flowers in your garden blossom and glow.
A world without love, without shared communal grace and support, is senselessly cruel. Perhaps that’s what the powers that be want, but true power is realized through service, strength and sacrifice. Extending an arm. Climbing the ladder together. Absorbing the view from the top of that mountain. Connection. Love. Belonging. Growth. Bliss.
May your future be as bright as your potential. Life is fleeting, ephemeral, tiny and tragic. Your life is short, precious and priceless. Live with that very sense of urgency.
All we have is now. When we forge new connections, cultivate kinship, celebrate differences and see our likeness in others, we transcend the finite and drift toward the divine.
Dim your wattage for no one. Don’t go chasing boats around. Just … If you’ve got something bright in you, let it out. You don’t have to be the brightest star in the sky … just brighter than the night is dark.
Be your own hope. That’s the light that beats back the darkness in our deepest selves and the monsters in our midst. And, if you can’t be a light, be a mirror, so that others can see themselves shine.
We need that same spirit that let us walk on the moon, leave the solar system, take a picture of a black hole and of damn near the origins of the universe itself, to solve the existential threats of today, illuminate the possibilities of tomorrow, and unite us all in service of all intelligent life on Earth — and wherever else our imaginations take us. That spirit is a light we rarely see anymore, yet it’s a light that’s never stopped shining, and it’s easy to find if you know where to look. You already have it inside you.
We’re not immortal. Life is not easy — in fact, it’s brutal and painful. The tides of civility and decency ebb and flow. But for as long as your light can stay shining for others, we can beat back the darkness, warm the endless winter that awaits us, and light up the currents that flow through forever — far from where we reside, long after we’re laid in our final resting place. Even as breath becomes air, light lives forever.
XIX. A Letter of Exploration
When they write the book on my life — or, rather, when I do, since if there’s one thing the world needs, it’s another psuedo-success story autobiography penned by a mediocre white dude who felt more important than he actually was — they’ll inevitably spend several chapters trying to process exactly what the hell happened to me since I started writing my life down on paper. It’s its own book. It’s its own movie. Hell, it’s its own genre. (Says the man with delusions of grandeur to the seven people who read to the end.)
There was a time, not long ago — two years ago, more or less — when things looked hazardously bleak. I was strung out, burned out, from a year-long bender of booze, sex, late nights and untapped potential. I’d been thrashing, aimlessly, across the country, guzzling wine and whiskey, numbing my heartache and anguish — distracting myself from it in increasingly debauch fashion. Distancing myself from who I was and who I thought I’d become. Maybe you read it. A lot of you did.
I somehow managed to keep a corporate day-job and live a wild, rock-and-roll lifestyle that toggled between sad nights alone playing drunk-sext roulette with randoms and epic nights out taking shots while playing mediocre 2 Chainz covers on acoustic guitar. It was hedonistic. It was hell-on-earth. It was fun as fuck, until it wasn’t.
I decided I’d had enough. I’d been trapped in a toxic relationship with myself, and I left my abuser. I cleaned up. I got clearer on what I wanted. I grew a conscience. I stopped writing mournful missives and started penning mission statements. “There’s more out there,” I thought. “I just need to find it.” And after a slow, steady sojourn through the end of 2017, I hit my stride the following year.
Within 12 months, I’d climbed to the top of a previously unreachable mountain, in an ever-escalating series of treks up from my basecamp. I’d scaled new heights in my writing and work, got highly involved in crafting the messaging that shaped a modern political movement, and finally tasted the sweet nutella of success. I got to my rightful place: happy, healthy, with enough money and on a path down which I could run, comfortably, forever. I commemorated and celebrated my newfound freedom with a victory lap through the Mediterranean, and an anniversary post of sorts.
From there, the yarn would unravel, as I persistently nagged to myself, “now what?” I’d find myself increasingly desperate, panicked and overwhelmed by various sadness and societal ill, until, faced with my own demons and unable to calm the roar of a consistently short-circuiting mind and body, I decided I’d rather escape the prison of life itself than spend another sick, sad minute suffering despite scaling the summit of all I’d dared to dream.
The skies opened up. Aware, I put down the knife. I put back the bottle. I sat and sobbed. “If I can’t be happy at the peak of my success, then something is broken and I need to figure out why,” I wondered, searching for answers and methods on how to “fix this.” I felt like a fraud for bragging on finding so much joy merely a month before, and then watching it implode like a coliseum accidentally built on a minefield. I was raw, crestfallen, and I’d cry on the phone to no one in particular, for no reason in particular. I lamented myself. And then I went looking for help.
We’re two years out from the drunk and depressed me of Resignation. We’re one year out from the end-zone Celebration, and equal-yet-opposite suicidal swan dive. We’re here. We’re now. And we’re at it again: One final entry into the Letter trilogy. One more mountain to climb. And there’s always another mountain to climb.
Today, we’re going to talk about the single greatest stretch of my life (this one), and why it had absolutely no shot at lasting any longer than it has, and what lies ahead instead.
I am, objectively, as healthy, wealthy, successful, notorious, happy, clear-eyed, calm, confident and committed as I have ever been. I say that in permanent ink. There is no comparison. August-September 2018 (when I peaked and then cratered) was a mere warm-up for what we have here, in the way a roller-coaster is a warm-up for the moon landing.
First, there was what I call the “Capital-U” between September and March, where my mental health dropped of a cliff and flat-lined before launching all the way back up, and then in each successive month since, my life ballooned into something transcendent, some several orders of magnitude above even my highest of previous highs.
I’m riding a wave that’s more tsunami than surf: a calculated, orchestrated, six-month burn of all my reserves to see just how far into shore I could crest, how high I could shoot into the star-spangled night, and how many obstacles I could obliterate in my way.
I staged an all-out assault on my life-goals, my career, my community impact, and my mental health. I went to therapy. I took psychedelics. I wandered the country. I dove into the mechanisms and systems underpinning America, humanity, love and the self. I wrote. And wrote. And wrote some more. I burned as hot and as bright as I ever would … the way astronauts throttle the thrusters to prepare their spacecraft for a seamless re-entry.
I made it five-and-a-half months out of six, and with the end of the mission in sight, the spacecraft ran out of juice. I write this knowing its over. Knowing the fuel’s been used up. Knowing I have not an ounce left to give. I’m coasting on fumes to the finish line — my life about to permanently change into something altogether different. Something I’ve wanted. Something I’ve craved. I’m here to tell you what I’ve learned. I’ve returned from space, and still I intend to go back.
I’ve spent my years writing about depression, anxiety, insecurity, mental anguish, heartache, delusion, impostor syndrome, survivor guilt, intergenerational trauma, abuse, substance abuse, negative self-talk, illness, sadness, shame and guilt. I asked myself, “what’s broken?” And then I’d ask myself, “Why?” And then I’d ask, “How can I fix this?” And then I would go out and do it.
But while you’ve been reading the pieces and watching me morph, I’ll bet you never asked yourself how it happened: how I went from sad-sack alcoholic anxious-attaching whiny fuck-boy with big words to this current iteration, some poles apart from that vintage. And the truest of true answers is this:
I’m better now because not only did I write everything you’ve read here, but because I read it all, over and over again, until I internalized it. Until it took. I memorized my own lines. I wrote what I wanted to believe about myself, and read it until I believed it. Dissatisfied with the Self-Help Industrial Complex, I wrote the life advice book I wanted to read. Then I read it … and it worked. I drank my own Kool-Aid, and it’s Purplesaurus Rex and it tastes delicious.
The healing, growth, acceptance, compassion, mindset, self-love, grace, empathy, iteration, adaptation and joy I experienced were literally written into existence — conjured out of thin air. I painted the stars I used to guide me on my way to where I wished I could go. I wrote my own treasure map, hiked to the “X”, planted the loot I told you I’d find, and now that blueprint is available for anyone else to use in their life’s journey, should they want to.
I am, unrelentingly, satisfied with who I’ve become, how my life’s turned out, and what lies ahead beyond the horizon. Yes, satisfaction and belonging — I have both in spades. What I’ve yet to fix probably can’t be fixed, and as a friend of mine who’s a therapist confesses to me constantly, “all I want to do is tell people ‘stop trying to fix it and just accept it for what it is.’” The juice that’s left to be drank just isn’t worth the squeeze anymore. There’s no shame in being okay with just being okay. Most people never get there.
I am not perfect, life is not perfect, yet I feel more good than bad. I have my sad moments, but I no longer feel depressed. I still have my triggers, but I know them and can prepare for them. I get sick and burned out, but I don’t do it to myself anymore. My main points of contention are where my priorities and those of a sick, declining society don’t see eye-to-eye. I’ll dive into those clashes here.
In an era when there’s more than enough for all to thrive, we weren’t meant to work this hard to survive.
In an era when all recorded human knowledge is accessible via tap of a screen, we have no idea how to handle such an avalanche of data, suffering, tragedy and truth.
And those are instructive, because those themes inform my next explorations. First, a personal anecdote to set it up.
I ended up back in the hospital yesterday afternoon. At around 11 a.m., I felt my body just finally give up and give out. I was tired. Nothing could keep me awake. And I stopped being able to think, focus, move, work or talk. I thought I could get through it, but I finally said “enough” and went to the Dr who told me to go to the ER for a possible stroke. I wasn’t afraid, I just felt abnormal and wanted to make sure everything was okay.
I’d been running on fumes for weeks, plotting ways I could scale back, trying to free up time, and digging in for one final prolific burst to make the scale-back possible. I’d been telegraphing this for a while. I succeeded in setting a hard date to open myself up, but to do so, I was like that con-man perpetually doing “one last job.”
I deactivated Twitter. Turned down 2 massive freelance projects. Started taking an hour a day to myself. Listened to ambient drone music. Ate mostly salads alone. And, finally, I resigned from my day-job effective Sept 6. The light at the end of the insane tunnel grew brighter.
But life refused to cooperate. I was needled, still, at my day-job, more than ever. All my giant freelance projects had huge due-dates this week. Work churn has been white-knuckle. And while I knew this would not be forever, it still felt endless in its relentless assault on my energy levels and sanity.
I had scans done and tests taken and your man over here is, of course, quite healthy, but the writing is on the wall: I’m not meant to work this hard, which I already knew. And, candidly, if I may, you probably aren’t meant to work as hard as you do, either.
We’re all killing ourselves and missing out on truly living, to make shit people don’t need, to solve problems that aren’t real, so people can buy things to feel better about themselves. You’re not selfish or lazy for wanting to work less: you’re sane. It’s the world that’s gone mad. I don’t apologize for wanting to do less, but better, and neither should you.
We read self-help life-hackery until we’re blue in the face, about ramping up output, supercharging our productivity; obtaining ripped, six-pack abs and chiseled biceps; makeup tutorials and digital photo filters to beautify ourselves into catfish-levels of disfigurement; we gamify dating profiles and manipulate mates into love; we earn and burn and optimize and pulverize ourselves into molten bone for the sake of … for the sake of fucking what?
Extra money? We’re all in debt.
Greater health? Life expectancy’s in free-fall.
More happiness? Depression and suicide are skyrocketing.
What the fuck are we even doing anymore? You tell me … are all these strategies, growth-hacks, mind-games, advice columns and systems working out for you? And if not, then, for who? Life advice isn’t complicated. I’ll rattle off more free nuggets for you.
Hustle culture is a killer. Internalized capitalism is the seventh circle of hell. We lionize the busy. We admire the productive. We value sweat equity. And that shit has got to stop. The system is broken. Not you.
Stop trying to live your best life and take comfort in living a great one. There’s ways to do that which don’t involve sleeping three hours a night, working sixteen-hour days, spending 90 minutes a day at the CrossFit box, starving yourself or doing vegan, paleo, keto, or whatever-the-fuck-fad-diet backed by psuedo-science is all the rage at the moment. Some of that shit works. Militant adherence to any of it is its own form of mental illness.
Stop blowing up at strangers on the internet because they don’t pass your arbitrary standards for ideological purity. Stop telling people who don’t believe in god that there is a god and He loves you. Stop needlessly, senselessly cutting down people who show up at 9, leave at 5, take leisurely walks, hug their kids and make love to their partners. Stop shaming people for spontaneous travel or for refusing to helicopter-parent. Vaccinate your kids. Get enough sleep. Handle heartaches and hoodwinks with grace and class. And, you know … maybe don’t be a fascist who builds or endorses concentration camps.
Go outside. See the world. Schedule dinner with friends. Have more (and better) sex. And, either move to a country that doesn’t kill it’s labor force to line the pockets of billionaires, or demand your home country do better. No one lies on their deathbed wishing they spent more time in the office, and you weren’t put on this beautiful speck of space-rock to argue on Twitter and struggle with the electric bill.
So, what the hell happened to me? I realized I’m just not who I thought I was. And so I stretched as far as my eye could reach, out into the yonder beyond the Boeings, to discover how far I could go.
I loved, deeply and completely, and lost it, swiftly and sadly.
I worked myself to the bone, so that I can ease into a blissful, healthful semi-retirement at just age 37.
I searched, relentlessly and in psychedelic fashion, to heal my depression and anxiety, and found the cure to be simply treating myself with the same grace and compassion I give to others.
I wrote words, read around the world, that helped change lives and shape a modern movement.
I did all that. I zoomed to the ends of the Earth and beyond to find that I can be home wherever I choose. I’m untethered now. Free, at last. Nothing but the wide-open expanse of the warm sun and unpaved road ahead of me. What waits beyond the horizon is the rest of my life — a life I’ll spend telling stories and writing thoughts until they’re crystallized as a book or anthology of sorts — a pen-to-paper exercise in literally writing what lies ahead, building the road-less-traveled as I drive it, synthesizing my own happiness and success out of my own imagination, dreaming it until it’s done, iterating until there’s nothing left to add or take away.
My legacy intact, I roundly reject and walk away from the futile gasps of this Kafkaesque capitalist hellscape, this scorched-earth Sisyphean quest for ever-better, ever-more, and ever-more-cost-effective. I don’t need a better body, a thicker wallet, or a sharper mind. I have enough money. My vitals are excellent. I have more good days than sad. I have what I need and want what I have. My machine is self-aware, self-healing, and there’s nothing left to fix that’s worth fixing.
The horizon beckons, the frontier is open, and this spacecraft is cleared for takeoff. And, over the course of this writing, I’ve successfully distanced myself from who I was and who I thought I’d become, so today I could look back, laugh at my former self, and tell you I actually made it. I can’t say precisely where I’m headed next, for reasons both personal and professional, but my future is incredibly bright, and — best of all — I wrote it all into existence.
Maybe you read it. A lot of you did. And that’s what kept me writing.
Thanks for that.
XX. The End
When this all began, I started a quest. A quest to figure out how, and why, everything in life was going so wrong all at the same time. And, in parallel, a quest to rebuild a burning ship with only other parts on board, while turning said ship around. And, document my findings for people to read. You were all witnesses. You were along for the ride.
I said all the words I needed to, really. I discovered a great many things — about humanity, about myself, about the very nature of life and reality. I cannot say I am now wise, or “woke,” but I can say that I feel lighter, calmer, and freer. I can say that I am happy. I can say that this quest, while not entirely finished, is at a suitable stopping point, and is now worth reflecting back on.
The time spent writing has blown by, but the time spent thinking felt like decades. As the clouds parted and the darkness faded, I could feel myself re-entering the atmosphere as a different species altogether. It’s one thing to go on a voyage of self-discovery, it’s quite another to discover that you’re someone else entirely.
You can reinvent yourself. You can reimagine yourself. You can rebuild yourself. Better still, you can do all of it hidden in plain sight, so imperceptibly incremental that it hardly looks like you’ve changed at all. But you’ll know. I now do. So how do you do it?
You go places. You try new things. You write over old memories. You take everything that you want to keep with you and bring it to wherever life takes you next. You drop little pieces of yourself that you no longer need in the places they need to go. You meet people you never imagined. And you let all these experiences, humans, events and desires leave a mark on you. You’re shaped by what you’re surrounded by, but you also shape your surroundings. So the coasts shape the ocean, the ocean shapes the coast. They are equal yet opposite forces that combine to form the self. This is the key finding (that’s why it’s in bold, of course), and the central thesis of my writing — a decade of dying in plain sight, to be reborn as the man I’d become.
And that’s the final piece: you document it all. You say all the words you need to say, to all the people willing to hear them. And you do it your way. Unfiltered. And, largely, unedited. Your communication with the world is your impact on it. It should mirror your true self as closely as possible. That’s what I’ve tried to do here. I hope it’s worked to some end. You’ve been unwitting passengers on the Ship of Theseus. A pirate ship … as it were.
What I promised, long ago, was a vast, unfurling story of my trials, travels and insights taking place in my time spent aboard. All the sex, booze, airplanes, oceans, spaceships and open roads fit to print. I won’t much be painting any new pictures, but I will chronicle the events in a narrative form that gives them order, weight, context and the proper level of detail. You’ll learn how I lived, and how I killed myself so that a new me could flourish. A decade of dying — day after day — to stop myself from winding up dead.
Consider this entry the end of that story. Life was once as great as it ever was, and then it wasn’t, then it was, then it wasn’t, over and over, into infinity. If you zoom the lens out far enough, there’s no narrative arc at all: some days I feel great, some days I feel bad, most days I feel something in between. That’s all life will ever be, for all of us — forever and ever, amen. We live. We learn. We fuck things up. All we can do is decide when to start, and know when to start something else. My story is merely a snapshot — a chronicle of where I’ve been. In the end, I’m not sure what I’ve learned, or if this means anything at all. Yet, perhaps you’ll feel differently. Some of you do.
It’s time to put a bow on that story to close the book on it. For there are new thoughts to think, and new things to write about. The decade that took me from Buffalo to Austin, from a Wal-Mart parking lot to the halls of Congress, from Miami to Seattle, from sea to shining sea, from alcoholism to sobriety, from destitution to wealth, from anonymity to notoriety, from death’s door to a marathon finish line, from hypochondria to hypermaximalism, from the ire of the right wing a darling of the left wing, from magazines to ketamine, from self-help to please help, from love and loss to more love and loss, from a guy who was good at numbers to a guy who got pretty decent at words, and all the way back and mixed all around until the swirling mess just became inpenetrably messy, is over.
My 2010s are over. The ship’s returned to the same harbor from which it first set sail, here, alone, wondering where to next. And, although she’s burnt and broken, and the magic’s all run out, she’s good as new.
Love you. We’ll do it again soon.