I’ve been sad a lot in my life, but not like this. I can’t write. I almost certainly won’t finish writing whatever this is. In fact I’m already hating everything about it, including the font. I can’t feel much except grief. I’m drinking at a rate I haven’t in a couple years, even though I’m acutely aware of how far from acute my mental faculties are. So, I’m drinking myself if not to death, at least to stupid.
The sadness is heavy and ubiquitous, like the meds that make mental patients portable. My family is still nice to me but they’re getting alarmed, and impatient. If their next mood feels like resignation I might have to start looking for a bridge.
Meanwhile I’m unpredictable; one minute weariness and monosyllables, the next bitter harmful energy.
It has occurred to me more than once that one of my online friends might be able to help. She wrote a beautiful account of her near check-out and posted it on facebook. I’ve thought of it every day since I read it, and the thought is, “Her number’s in my phone, so if the question goes from why not to how, I’ll call.”
Which is a lot to put on a person whose voice I haven’t heard in going on thirty years. I remember her from when I was doing stand up comedy back in the 80’s. We might have had a few conversations. I thought she was really funny, and hot. Not intimidating exactly, but almost, with the kind of swagger that said, ‘you can laugh or just stare, I’m good either way’.
To be clear, she’s now trained and employed at helping people in crisis. So, I’m not saying, “My plan is, before I climb onto the ledge I’ma call a comedian I haven’t seen in 30 years.”
I’m depressed, not demented, and I’m still punching. This is not a suicide note.
I just got off the phone with both of my sisters and part of each conversations was me assuring them that I’m not about to harm myself. So I have a little respite, because doing the ultimate harm right after those chats would be really rude. I have slapped myself in the face pretty hard, but not today, which may not sound like progress but it’s better than punches.
Back to comedians: I learned a long time ago that none but a tiny few actually have that swagger on the inside. Which makes those who can pull off the outward show that much cooler, and more poignant. Good comedians are masters of the moment, and they know better than almost everyone, that those moments of gasp-worthy mirth, earned, as it were, before a firing squad, are like heroin. They never feel quite as good as the first one, but they must be pursued, because the alternative is appalling. That’s a hard way to live. I had some gigs, and some offers, but I opted out, because I feared that if I stayed it wouldn’t end well.
So when I read her piece I recognized a kindred soul. She’s someone who has stared in a mirror and felt hopeless, but lived to become a good, compassionate person. Her brand of humor is still gleefully profane and inappropriate, but now she also helps people, even those who may not deserve it, for a living.
I have gotten to age 60 and it has almost never been a matter of ‘feeling good about myself’. At best it’s been, “Well that went pretty well, but I’m still a coward, liar, fraud, failure”, and back to coward.
But then I go out for a drink with my wife, our son or daughter, or all three, and we talk about this and that, and they’re frank and profane, and hilarious and really good at their jobs and we have a lot of shared memories, some glorious and some that suck. But on one of many such days it might be enough for us to sit side by side in, say, a sports bar in Harlem, without having to speak at all.
The truth is It’s been a long time since I felt this bad. I was 22 the last time I really thought how easy it would be to just roll to my left and expire on the sidewalk six floors down. Recent days have conjured memories of that young man, who was born when his father was sixty one.
My dad was a charismatic, deeply scarred person. Born into a wealthy Scottish family in Paisley, Scotland, he was very young when his parents suddenly divorced, and his mother took him and his sister to America.
Despite the fact that his mother’s shocking decision to leave her philandering husband, set the course for the rest of my father’s extraordinary life, he never forgave her, and did not attend her funeral. She is buried in a cemetery near Los Angeles.
As a young teenager he was determined to get out on his own, so he lied about his age, enlisted in the British army, and was sent to Canada to become a fighter pilot in the era when military aircraft were made of wood, canvas and sheet metal. Accounts from more than one source name my father as one of only three in a group of over twenty prospective pilots, to survive the training. During that terrible conflict my father saw action in Europe, both on the ground and in the air. He killed enemy soldiers, and watched his comrades die.
Between the wars he went to college then to the Wharton School, and began a career. But when WWII happened he answered the call by joining British Intelligence, and served as a spy for the allies. His adventures during that conflict were just as dangerous and traumatic as in the first so-called ‘great war’.
I am the last of his six children from two marriages to well-born American women, the first of whom died suddenly, leaving him with three adolescent children. Two years after his first wife’s death he married my mother, who was less than half his age. In 18 month intervals they had my two sisters, and then me. It all looked effortless and grand, but the man I grew up with was an increasingly confused, angry, alcoholic who dressed impeccably, drank and smoked elegantly, and was haunted by memories of glory and trauma.
By the time I was old enough to have a conversation with him, he didn’t have, nor was he interested in, modern opinions.
If you’re the last child of that guy, you’re more than a little bit unlucky. As dementia began to take over his mind, my father ached for eras long past, while discerning what he could of the present via his much younger wife’s cogent but sheltered understanding of what was happening during the decades at the end of the American Century.
I was ten years old in 1968 so I barely witnessed the tail end of ‘the sixties’. A decade later disco started to ruin everything, and for my yet to be committed sins, I was sentenced to grow up in the 80’s. No wonder I’m appalled by the very bad movie we’re living in now, since I’m partly to blame for it. My generation had a chance to revive lost idealism and renew the spirit of rock and roll. But cocaine, AIDS, Ronald Reagan, and disco happened instead.
In the two days since I started writing this, the Malaysian boys trapped in the cave have started to be rescued, the Trump administration has done the bidding of the baby formula industry by adamantly opposing breast feeding, and the entire country has been sweltering in record high global warming induced heat. Also migrant mothers and their children are not only still being held in separate gulags(some of which are run by for-profit companies), but ICE doesn’t even know which children belong to what families.
So why shouldn’t I be depressed?
And that’s exactly why I need to snap out of it.
We all do. Heroism, wisdom and compassion are all around us, people like my facebook friend do good work on behalf of critically unhappy people, because they’ve been there themselves.
If you have shelter, shelter someone. If you have money, spread it around. If you know someone who seems depressed, they probably are. Write down a story about them. Call them up. Offer them soup. If they don’t like soup, offer stew, or spaghetti, or a ride to rehab.
Thanks for reading this. I feel a bit better.
One thought on “Afternoon Demon Redux”
Thank you, old friend, for having the courage to share this. It is heartfelt and powerful (and beautifully written– never say you “can’t write” because you can). Thought of you this weekend when I was up at Brantwood Camp again. You are, in fact, never far from my thoughts. You have my number as well. Soup, stew, and/or spaghetti are always on the stove. Call me when you’re back from your Scottish meanderings. With love– Nick