My friend Andrea, who is a good and kind person, is participating in a Facebook meme about flowers. It’s a nice idea: Breakup negative posts and images with a pleasant flower. This, like so many Facebook things, comes with a catch: You’re suppose to post a flower if you press the “Like” button on her flower. I liked Andrea’s flower, less for the flower but more for the person who posted it and the idea of putting something nice into the world. But I don’t do chain letters, so I’m posting a flower for Andrea — my very favorite, a dusty miller or centaurea cineraria. But I add no requirement that you post a flower. Just enjoy it or scroll on by.
Robin Williams died Monday. Authorities said took his own life. He was 63.
Williams struggled with alcoholism and other addictions. He also struggled with mental health issues. His publicist told the Los Angeles Times that Williams was suffering from depression in recent weeks. It appears the depression took his life.
Twice in my 39 years, I’ve been to an emergency room with suicidal thoughts. I could have very easily taken my own life on both occasions. For whatever reason — blind luck or divine inspiration — I reached out for help instead of killing myself.
My late mother struggled with mental health issues in her life. My dad tried to get her help, but he always felt guilty. He grew up on an Iowa farm during the Great Depression and loaded ships as a Navy seaman during World War II. To him, psychiatry was akin to witchcraft and asking a therapist to talk to his wife meant she would be confined to a room with padded walls and straightjackets for the remainder of her days.
I want to believe we as a society are more enlightened about mental health than we were when I was a boy. But I worry that people still think padded asylum cells and violent criminals when mental illness is discussed. We are not far removed from a time when Tom Eagleton was shamed out of being a vice presidential nominee because he sought treatment for depression.
Mental illness is a broad spectrum of ailments, but it is all rooted in one thing: The brain is an organ — just like the heart or liver — and sometimes it malfunctions. In exceptionally rare cases, it means people cannot function at all. But in most mental health cases, the disease is simply something that we live with day to day.
I am diagnosed with persistent depressive disorder and general anxiety disorder. The clinical words simply mean I sometimes get very sad or very scared, sometimes both, for long periods and greater intensities than I find tolerable. I control it with medication and therapy. Most days, that’s enough. But sometimes my brain doesn’t work right.
I get very depressed. I work every idea out to its ultimate outcome, which is usually slow, painful death. I feel disgusting and loathsome, even though I have a wealth of family and friends who would tell and show me otherwise, I am unable to feel anything but misery. Panic attacks feel as if my skin is itching on the inside. Everything is an emergency and I can only focus on negative thoughts.
Sometimes, not often and certainly not every day, those thoughts turn suicidal. I am in pain and the only way I can get out of it is to die. The times that I have seriously considered suicide, I don’t really want to die. I want relief. Of course one can’t feel relief when one is dead. But when your brain isn’t working right, it becomes all too easy to forget that.
Robin Williams apparently lost sight of that sometime Monday. The world lost a great entertainer to a disease that affects about one in 10 Americans, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control.
My second set of parents, the retired east Des Moines hairdresser and printer, would be hesitant about me writing publicly about my mental health problems. They would worry, rightly so, that people would look at me differently or treat me as lesser or perhaps a dangerous nut who will run amok at any moment.
People do react differently to you when you struggle and are open about it. But I talk openly about it amongst my colleagues, on my blog and with my friends, family and sometimes my sources when reporting stories where the revelation is relevant. I talk about it not to brag about it or complain in a “woe is me” kind of way.
I talk about it because mental illnesses are really no different than high blood pressure or diabetes – other health problems that can be fatal. And that’s what suicide really is: the fatal heart attack or liver failure of depression and anxiety.
I talk about it because people who suffer, my fellow travelers, need to know they are not alone. As my friend Bill McClelland, the great St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist, once told me: “We are all walking on the thin ice.”
I talk about it because people need to hear from those of us who suffer from the illness that sometimes it is a daily struggle, but most of the time we survive and even thrive. But it is a scary thing. Because I have been to that place Williams visited, with the instrument of my death in my hand, and thought there was no way out.
I found another way out. Williams didn’t.
That Williams lost his fight and I’m still fighting isn’t a measure of character, strength or determination. My cancer just went into remission. Williams’ got stronger.
Mental illness is often a brutal, cruel fight against your own thoughts. And one gets so tired, so very damned tired.
I don’t have any more answers or magic solutions.
But I have a bit of advice: Put as much kindness into the world as possible.
If one measures kindness by laughs inspired, Williams left one heck of a legacy for us to follow.
- 30 -
My back is sore. My legs hurt. I’m tired of carrying this heavy load.
The burden I refer to is books. I have too many of them. The shelves of my overstuffed (and very cheap) bookcases sag beneath the weight of my books. Nearly every surface in my home serves as a holding space for books.
Paperbacks are jammed into the entertainment center behind the TV. Books pile up on the coffee table. There are a few in the closet and a few more in the nightstand. I bet if I looked real close, I’d find a few under the bed.
But I’m too scared to look under there. I saw “Monsters, Inc.” Nobody wants to be surprised in bed by John Goodman and Billy Crystal.
This book problem becomes particularly acute when one moves, which I’m doing this week.
Confession: I have not read all the books I own. I have not read most of the books I own.
I have, for example, a Christian Bible. I keep it out of respect for my parents, particularly my late father, who went to a great deal of hassle to make sure I passed confirmation at the First United Methodist Church in Winterset when I was a boy.
I’ve looked up things in it. There are lots of Biblical references in society, especially made by politicians. I like to look them up and see if they say what I’m told they say. But most of the time the language is very dense and often vague. So, no, I haven’t read it cover to cover.
I watched “The Ten Commandments,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and “The Bible” on TV around Easter every year when I was a boy. I know it’s not the same, but I understood those.
A very nice Methodist minister I knew gave me a guide to prayer when I graduated. I picked through it once in a while when I’m feeling desperate, but I didn’t understand the supplementary materials any more than I did the main text. But I keep both, just in case.
I have a very nice hardback collection of Plato’s dialogues. I haven’t read it, either. It makes less sense to me than the Bible. It was given to me by a philosophy professor I had at Drake University. He and his wife, who was the provost at the time, wrote a very kind dedication upon my graduation.
I briefly considered cutting out that page and putting the book in the pile to sell to the used bookstore. But that seemed uncouth. So the book went in a box.
Other books, however, were less fortunate. “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens, three books by James Joyce and a collection of Ernest Hemingway short stories were all sold. These are books I bought because I thought it was important to have them. I thought writers had to read these kinds of books to be writers of any promise or ability.
But I never read them. I’m not sure Joyce is even written in English. I bought those books because I wanted to impress a girl in St. Louis. Her former boyfriend quoted Joyce. She’s married now, not to me of course.
And, well, most of the people I know who regularly quote Joyce are kind of snobs. I can’t become a snob if I don’t read him and, thus, don’t quote him. So I got rid of those books to improve my character.
My apologies to Dickens and Hemingway, whom are often regarded as canon by people who call a writer “a man of letters.” I get more out of the collections of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Anyway, I like those books.
I could never really get into the machismo Hemingway or the Victorian-era Dickens. I loved, however, the “Doctor Who” episode in which the Doctor and Rose meets Dickens. I have that on DVD. I’ll probably watch it before I read a page of “Great Expectation.”
People often give me books by Bill Bryson, the Des Moines, Iowa, native who moved to England and writes books admired by nearly everyone, save me, who prefers Ross MacDonald and Joseph Wambaugh. So a couple Bryson books, both gifts, were sold off, hopefully to land in a home where they’ll be read by an admirer rather than an ignorer.
My bookshelves are heavy with good intentions. There’s an acclaimed book about the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. I bought it at the suggestion of a colleague, who said it was excellent and showed everything the public thinks about that day is a lie. I bought the book used. It was sold with no additional mileage. It struck me as too depressing a topic to want to scratch through while relaxing at bedtime.
I always meant to read “Ball Four” by Jim Bouton. It was the classic insider tell-all about life in the majors. Mickey Mantle reportedly wouldn’t talk to Bouton for years because Bouton revealed Mantle as a drunk. It seems kind of innocent in retrospect, doesn’t it? Entire books are written about all kinds of horrible things done by baseball players and other athletes these days. Being a drunk wouldn’t even rate an item in the celebrity news.
A copy of James Clavell’s “Shogun” won’t make it to my new home. I’ve never been one for epics, but I have the NBC-TV miniseries based on the novel on DVD. I think that’s probably enough feudal Japan for me.
I kept “Summer of ’49″ by David Halberstam, which I bought as a paperback from the racks at Montross Pharmacy in Winterset. I read it on long baseball road trips from Winterset to Nevada. I felt the hot sun on my arms and fell in love with the New York Yankees as they beat back the Boston Red Sox on the final game of the 1949 season.
I had several books by Charles Finney, who writes about time travel. I was impressed by the title of one book collection: “3 By Finney.” The guy had the same last name as me. Maybe I could write three novels. But its doubtful. I never read “3 By Finney” or any of the others.
For years, I owned a guide to being an action hero. I bought it one night after a writing class I took with my friend Syd Spink. We laughed uncontrollably under the section that advised what to do if you’re wrongly convicted of a crime and sent to prison. Advice included: “Take a lover if you need to. Do whatever it takes to survive.” But I never really read it more than that.
Of course, there are books that will always be with me. “Nobody Asked Me But … The World of Jimmy Cannon,” by the great columnist Jimmy Cannon, was given to me by the best teacher I ever had, a journalism professor at Drake. I was struggling to come up with a column idea one week. He picked up the book at a used sale. It was a revelation. I keep it close, a reminder of the great teacher and the great writer. That’s the book I save in case of fire.
Collections of columns by Mary McGrory, Mike Royko, Roger Ebert and Andy Rooney all made the cut. Most of my comic books and graphic novels make the trip. Yeah, I know they’re books with more pictures than words, but people who say that have never enjoyed the sublime pleasure of Jack Kirby’s kinetic art with Stan Lee’s prose in something as perfect as “Captain America No. 105.”
So I culled the collection, not as much as I probably should have and certainly not as much as my movers would have wished I had. But there are fewer books headed to the new apartment.
I would like to believe I’ll be content to enjoy the books I have — especially those gone too long unread. But I ordered a collection of Hunter S. Thompson works just this morning. I don’t think that cleared shelf space will stay vacant long.
- 30 -
“I’m having a bad day,” I complained to my friend Memphis Paul, the co-founder of this blog.
I had him on speakerphone as I went through a drive-through window. I ordered a strawberry-banana smoothie. It’s one of those beverages that sounds healthier than it really is. I ordered it anyway.
My brain is in knots, I explained to Paul. Sunday night, I became obsessed with something and my brain wouldn’t let it go until almost 8 a.m. I ended up taking a sick day.
The obsession was a paperback book. I wanted to read a few chapters before I nodded off. I couldn’t find it. I tore up the apartment. I looked in all the usual spots. I finally found it wedged between my mattress and the wall. By the time I found it, my heart was racing and I was so angry I could have chewed nails.
I was in the midst of a panic attack. I didn’t recognize it. I was slow to take my medicine to abate the symptoms. And thus I ended up tossing and turning and staring at the ceiling until it was almost time for work.
The causes are varied and complex. The bottom line is sometimes my brain doesn’t work the way it should and the emotions I’m feeling don’t match with the reality I’m living.
I tried to regroup during the day. Then a malingering depression settled in like a thunderstorm. All the usual thoughts — how worthless I am, how stupid I am, how poor a human being I am — rattled my brain.
Finally, at about 8:30 p.m., I managed to rise from bed and go out for some food, including the aforementioned smoothie.
Paul, my good friend, listened as he usually does.
He replied in his mild Tennessee drawl. He recalled an incident a week or so ago when I had him on speakerphone in the car. I had spilled my smoothie on the passenger-side mat. I cursed as I beat the mat against a tree to get the milk and ice off the rubber surface.
Paul then asked me, “Did you manage to get inside your apartment with your strawberry-banana drink?”
In fact I did, I replied.
“Well,” he said, “that is progress.”
I love my friends.
- 30 -
Time travel is possible, in a way. Sometimes when I catch a whiff of Aqua Velva after shave, my mind floods with memories of Dad 1.0, who used the product. For an instant, I can almost feel the prickly edges of his mustache as he gives me a kiss goodnight when I was a boy. He’s been gone 26 years, but one whiff and I’m adrift in the time vortex.
This happens with chance encounters with old friends and loved ones, too. I often snarl at the social media age, but I celebrate the connections it helped me revive with my friends from Winterset, classmates I had to leave for reasons too complicated to detail here.
Last week I had the chance to interact with a couple of those classmates. This was all done in 2014, of course, but there was a strong flavor of childhood there. One classmate, who I estimate was my first crush, wanted my helping looking up some federal court records. I was happy to oblige. She’s married with children, a breast cancer survivor and as beautiful as ever. What I remember about her was that when I we were in middle school, she would always let me dance with her during mixers. That was really sweet, and for an overweight and awkward boy, it was terrific thing. I will remember that the rest of my life.
I commented on another classmate’s photo of her garden, which to me looked more like a farm. We chatted briefly by message. We were in the same church confirmation class. She was sweet and kind. I remember her as an excellent singer. She’s married with children, too, but I always value an exchange with her. Life is fleeting and our time on this earth is eventually forgotten. When I left Winterset, I was afraid all my friends forgot me. But they didn’t. And some have said very kind and tender things about how they remembered me.
So for those two fine people, and to all those whose lives have touched mine, and whose lives I have touched, I offer this 1994 song, “I’ll Remember,” by Madonna. It was the theme for the underrated film “With Honors.” Thank you all for being my friends, and enjoy this song.
Today’s Morning Mixtape is dedicated to my friend Nicole. She is a fellow traveler on the road of mental health struggles. Living with mental illness isn’t easy. The dialogue has changed a lot in my lifetime. Yet, still, if someone admits to mental illness — in my case dysthymia and generalized anxiety disorder — people still look at you like your about to defecate on the salad bar or take hostages at the Jamba Juice. The brain is an organ. Like many organs in the body, it sometimes malfunctions. People with high blood pressure take medicine. People who are depressed take medicine. Sometimes the medication works. Sometimes it needs to be adjusted. People say dumb things to people with mental illness, like, “just cheer up.” You wouldn’t say to someone with diabetes, “Hey, think good thoughts about your blood sugar.” But enough of that. I asked Nicole to pick a song for today’s entry because we fellow travelers have to respect one another. So here’s “Crime Scene, Part 1″ by the Afghan Whigs. Enjoy.
The Fourth of July is Mom 2.0′s favorite holiday. She was born July 1. She isn’t one to celebrate herself, but she goes all out for the nation’s birthday. For nearly 40 years, she’s hosted a picnic for family and friends at her east Des Moines estate.
It’s a classic Americana set up: picnic tables in the garage and a buffet of turkey, pork, potato salad, coleslaw, pork and beans and a variety of desserts, including homemade ice cream. It’s her big deal of the year. In the 23 years I’ve been apart of Parents 2.0′s family, I missed this party just once — summer 1999 when I worked at USA Today.
I am not a particularly patriotic person. I think blind loyalty is dangerous. I’m the type of person who thinks that a raucous crowd rooting for the home team is just pitchforks and torches away from being a lynch mob. That’s how I am. Some would say it’s a gloomy, isolationist view of things. But that’s me. I like to be the lone dissenter.
One of the things I try to do on the Fourth of July is remember that the day isn’t really about what I think. It’s not even about flags, fireworks and red, white and blue bunting. It’s about Mom 2.0. It’s her day.
She works so hard to prepare this picnic. And the whole day is dedicated to her doting on her loved ones. She hardly sits to visit. She’s always making sure someone got something they needed. I think it is probably her favorite thing to do in the entire year.
Attendance has dwindled in recent years. Families splinter as they age. Children grow up, marry and have more children. People drift in different directions, geographically and emotionally. There are feuds over silly things that last longer than they should because of pure stubbornness.
Still, a core group of us show up each year and enjoy fellowship of whatever ties brought us together. I’ve brought friends to the event over the years. All of them have been impressed, not just by the delicious food, but that there are still moments like Mom 2.0′s party.
This country moves at a frantic pace. Tweet this, check this, rush here, hurry there. But at Mom 2.0′s party, the world slows down for a couple hours one day a year. It’s just people talking and eating on a summer’s day in the middle of America. It really is a beautiful thing to observe.
I may be a cynic, but I am moved by this event. It reminds me that it is very easy to find reasons not to like things, whether they be holidays or songs. But every song is somebody’s favorite song and every holiday is somebody’s favorite holiday. If you can see this thing you don’t particularly love through their eyes, it softens you a little, opens up the world.
For example, I went to college with a great photographer named Mindy Myers. She loved the Grateful Dead, which is one of my least-favorite bands.
I put a quote from a Dead song in the campus newspaper after Jerry Garcia died. She clipped it out and put it on her bulletin board in the office. She was going through a tough time and she said it was just what she needed. I still don’t care for the band, but when I hear them, I am remind of Mindy and that makes me smile.
Likewise, I am not going to drape myself in the American flag and shout “U.S.A.!” during World Cup matches. But I will always love the Fourth of July because of Mom 2.0.
So with that in mind, here is one of my favorite patriotic songs: “Real American” by Rick Derringer. Enjoy this song and enjoy the holiday.
Thursday was my 39th birthday. I wrote a weather story for the paragraph factory. I took a long nap after work. I had a quiet dinner alone after work. The waitress brought me a slice of cake. I thought it was a gift, but she charged me $6 for it. It’s true what they say: You can have your cake and eat it, too, but there’s no such thing as free cake. Here are 39 other lessons I learned in my 39 years:
1. The delete key is my best friend. Many of the worst problems I’ve had in my life can be traced to a failure to judiciously use the delete key.
2. Mrs. Liechty was right: My laziness in learning grammar, spelling and syntax did haunt me for the rest of my life. Conversely, Mr. Hickman, I have not used trigonometry for a 39th consecutive year.
3. Naps are terrific.
4. Keep your feelings close and your mouth shut. They can get you into trouble and, to be frank, most people don’t give a damn what you think.
5. It’s always a little bit about the money.
6. Peace and quiet are highly underrated and increasingly scarce.
7. American football is a brutal, violent game that takes a terrible toll on the boys and men who play it. Yet, I still love it. I am not sure how to reconcile this, but I keep watching and that makes me part of the problem.
8. Most of the world’s problems cannot be solved and the amount of time I spend angry, upset or frustrated by them diminishes with each passing year.
9. The waitress is only flirting with me for a bigger tip. She is in no way interested in me or my life.
10. Everybody is a little bit kinky.
11. The world would be a much better place if everyone would leave everyone else alone.
12. There is no such thing as closure. The things that hurt the most in your life will always hurt. You will just become more accustomed to that pain as a part of your life. “Closure” is a word used by people who are tired of hearing you talk about your sadness.
13. Never work for free.
14. People are given one button to push in this world. They will jealously guard that button with their lives, but often never push it. Yet, if they have the opportunity to push someone else’s button, they will hammer it until they pass out and mock the person who lost control of their button.
15. Love is never enough, but it helps.
16. I like to look at beautiful women. People argue this makes me a sexist creep or a sex-crazed pervert. They might be right, but I still like to look at beautiful women.
17. Nobody is all one thing all the time.
18. Cynicism is a perfectly reasonable response to society.
19. Always appreciate the classics: the Beatles, peanut butter and jelly, iced tea and “M*A*S*H” reruns.
20. The Internet has collected all the knowledge in human history in one place searchable by devices we have in our pockets, yet it has somehow made us dumber, more shrill and overrun with delusions of grandeur.
21. Don’t blog about your job.
22. Mental illness is not something you cure. You treat it. You cope with it. You make peace with it. Some days are better than others. But some days are very bad.
23. Reading is wonderful. It really doesn’t matter what you read or how you read — printed copies or digital devices. Just take time to unplug from the fear machine and its amplified stupidity. Enjoy a single story one-on-one.
24. I am a lot more sensitive than I would like to admit.
25. I am lot meaner than I intend to be.
26. I worry I am going to die broke and alone.
27. Most of the things I worry about everyone else worries about, too, but they seldom talk about it.
28. I don’t really want to talk about it, either.
29. Don’t blog about your job. That’s right. It’s on here twice. Don’t do it.
30. I like to remember things how I remembered them, not necessarily how they were.
31. Reconnecting with people from your past is a mixed bag. Sometimes you revive a dormant friendship and it is terrific. Many times you quickly discover there was a reason why you stopped talking to this person. Approach with caution.
32. I don’t always instantly know how I feel about everything and I am suspicious of people who do.
33. Television news is a massive fear machine designed to make you feel weak, sad, terrified and powerless.
34. You are free. The rest is detail.
35. Discussion of politics and religion is almost never worth the hassle and headache. Avoid it.
36. Sometimes, even with the best of intentions and tremendous effort, it just doesn’t work out.
37. Sometimes it does work out, so go hard on every trip to first base.
38. To quote Kurt Vonnegut: “Goddamnit, you’ve got to be kind.”
39. Forgiveness and redemption are real and they can be had. This isn’t just a religious concept. Everyone screws up. Everyone falls down. What matters is what you do when you get back up again.
I still listen to the radio in my car. This is largely an awful experience. Commercial radio wears out the same set of songs until I cringe at tunes I once loved. This happens whether it be an oldies station or a channel that plays newer music.
The AM dial is crowded with hateful talk shows who convince us ever public servant is little more than a smash-and-grab robber. Worse, there is sports talk radio, which collectively makes us stupider, with the exception of Tony Kornheiser, who used to be a newspaper man and, as such, probably read something that wasn’t a box score in his lifetime.
Some people tell me to listen to National Public Radio, but I tend to hear it as just a less shouty, more snobby Rush Limbaugh for a different group of political extremists.
But in the foul offal clogging up the dial is KFMG, a community radio station. It’s on-air personalities are all volunteers. Listeners pay for the content through donation. And on that radio station, you’ll hear things that you don’t hear elsewhere. I often hear Aimee Mann on KFMG. She’s one of my favorite artists. And I’m often exposed to new artists there, too.
That’s what happened with this song. Earlier this week, I was at Angelo’s, my favorite restaurant. I heard a song I liked. I tried to download Shazam, the smartphone application that can tell you what song is playing. I didn’t get it done in time for that song. Fortunately, I had the app on my phone when “Shelter Song” by Temples played on KFMG the other day.
(The DJ had dutifully introduced the song, but I didn’t pay close attention until I realized I really liked it.) This much I do remember about the DJ’s introduction: He said the tune sounded as if it came right out of 1967. He’s right about that. I enjoyed this song. I hope you do, too.
This pending move is really getting me down.
As moves go, it’s a small thing. I’m changing apartments. The place across the hall has termite damage. They need to fix the walls in my place. I can’t stay while they do the work.
The door-to-door distance is probably less than 100 yards.
I hate moving. Most people do. It’s awful. Pack up all your stuff. Move it. Unpack it. Try not to die of exhaustion and frustration. Hopefully nothing you really care about will be broken.
My hatred for moving is long-standing and probably a little deeper than is psychologically healthy.
When I was a boy, my family lived in a nice ranch house on Lynner Drive on the northwest side of Des Moines.
My parents grew up in Winterset and I guess he always wanted to return there one day. He found a big, redbrick ranch home just west of town.
The house had a lot of problems. Buying it and fixing it up broke my parents financially and probably contributed to my dad’s failing health in his final years.
My brothers and sister all helped with the move. It was grueling, tiring work because my parents had accumulated a lot of stuff in their lives.
They survived the Great Depression. A lot of people who lived through those hard times had trouble throwing things away. “You never know when you might need it,” was the mentality.
Today, I suppose, we would call it hoarding.
My dad was a salesman. He had lots of samples, everything from paper plates to enough tools to fill a hardware store.
We lived in the house west of Winterset for about six years. It seemed like we never quite settled. Every room in the house had unopened boxes of stuff.
I resented the boxes in my room. They weren’t my things. Why did they have to be there? But they were.
The basement was worse. The center of the finished downstairs had boxes stacked to the ceiling. It would have made a great space for a dance floor. Instead, it was a warehouse.
The same was true in my dad’s office, which had boxes piled in a great pyramid in one corner. Once, I climbed the stacks of boxes just to see what there was to see. I found a box of old long-playing records, Glenn Miller, the Four Seasons and the like.
I pulled out a couple records and went to our record player. It was a jukebox-style job from the 1970s, with an 8-track player and lights that flashed with the music.
The jukebox was buried under boxes, of course. I managed to get it plugged in and played some of the sides. It was too big a hassle to get the record player going, so I gave up.
My dad got sick and died. My mom and I moved into town. My brothers and sister sold off a lot of the stuff in the boxes that were never opened, but not all of it.
Our garage was filled to the ceiling with boxes. And boxes were in the downstairs den, the furnace room, at the bottom of the basement stairs and in my mom’s room and the laundry room.
Again, it never felt like we settled in. Everything was in transition.
My mom fell downstairs and died. I moved again. I lived with a family in Winterset for seven months. That didn’t work out. I moved again.
I finally settled in east Des Moines with Parents 2.0. There I unpacked in a big way. I stayed up all night getting my room just the way I wanted without any boxes. I must have liked it. I stayed for 10 years.
I only lasted two years apiece in Omaha and St. Louis, but I always moved all the way in. I’ve had three address is in Des Moines. I’ve filled out every corner with my stuff, but never any boxes, except the odd one or two in the closet.
Now, I’m moving again and I’m coping poorly with the prospect. I decorate my home just the way I like it. Every wall has some pop culture memento. Everywhere I look, I’m looking at something I like.
My home is a great comfort to me. It’s my safe space. It’s a quiet spot in a noisy world, certain in a sea of uncertainty.
This move isn’t that big of a deal. Intellectually, I know that. But emotionally, I look around the place and think, aw, geez, I’m going to have to pack all this up soon.
It feels like a really great Etch-a-Sketch drawing that’s been swiped by an ornery sibling.
You’re watching in horror as they’re about to shake it and wipe out your beautiful artwork.
And the only thing you can do is start over.
- 30 -
Why is it everything you buy these days requires scissors, a knife and blasting caps to get out of the package? I just want to use the thing I bought, not go into demolition.
A phrase too seldom used in the English language: “Batteries included.”
I have a chemical imbalance in my brain. It’s called general anxiety disorder. I suffer from panic attacks.
When it acts up, I feel fear. Sometimes the fear is response to stimulus: a mistake made at work, a social faux pas or an overindulgence.
Sometimes there is no reason for the panic. It just settles in like a thunderstorm inside my skull. My doctor gives me little yellow pills. They usually work within about 15 or 30 minutes.
Once in a while, though, the panic gets past the pills. That happened Monday night. The panic set in about 9:30 p.m. and just sat on my chest until around 3:30 a.m.
I tried to nap. The panic usually subsides when I sleep. It didn’t work. I dozed, but I could feel the tightness in my chest, the restlessness and uneasiness. It was still there when I woke up.
The worst panic attacks feel as if my skin is itching on the inside out. This was not one of those. This was a lesser variety, but still exhausting.
I struggled to concentrate on the TV show I had recorded. I tried to mindlessly watch sports highlights. But everything seemed irritating and unsettled.
I dimmed the lights and turned on the fans. I tried to imagine myself pitching a baseball. I thought about dragging my cleat along the rubber atop the mound. I thought about the feel of the baseball on my fingertips. I could almost smell the dirt on my hands.
I imagined the fan blowing the hair on my arms was actually a gentle breeze on a calm, cool day at the park. I could hear the gentle rustling of the crowd chatting.
I never got around to throwing the ball. I never do. It’s just a technique I use to try and calm myself down. It was only partially successful.
The worst part of panic attacks are the thoughts. Every thought is carried out to its most gruesome conclusion.
For example: I ate pasta for dinner. That’s bad for my blood sugar. I’m going to have to have my feet amputated. I will die broke and alone in a wheelchair at a county hospital.
Sometimes I think about killing myself. I think about jumping off a parking garage. This is all in my head, mind you. No actions are taken.
Usually I am able to brush those thoughts off without much trouble. I want to feel relief, I remind myself. A dead man cannot feel relief.
If the thoughts get too noisy, I call my therapist. He’s an excellent therapist. He is a former U.S. Army Ranger. He is direct, thoughtful and quick. A few minutes with him on the phone is enough to get me back into acceptable condition.
It didn’t go that far Monday night. Like I said, it was a milder version of a panic attack.
Once I had a panic attack where I got a song stuck in my head. It was summer 1999. I kept hearing the song over and over again, each replay getting louder and more shrill. I thought I was going to have to stick an ice pick in my brain just to end the torment.
That was a bad night. I didn’t know what panic attacks were then. I wouldn’t be diagnosed for another two years.
I write about this not to terrify my friends and family who might read it. Sometimes that happens. They get sad because I am not always happy. But most people are not always happy. They might pretend to be, but they’re not.
To them, I say that I am OK. I manage this problem. I’m not going to die from it. Nothing bad is going to happen. I take pretty good care of myself in this regard. Part of the reason I do is because you being a part of my life makes me stronger.
It’s no different the high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Mental health problems are just like other medical problems. They can all be fatal if not treated, but most days, for most people, they don’t amount to much more than taking your medication on time.
I don’t write about my mental health problems as a plea for sympathy, either. I am who I am. These problems are a part of me, but they are not all of me. Yes, I struggle. But most people do with some kind of problem or another.
But I write about this because most of the dialog about mental health is about very extreme cases: people who are severely disabled and unable to function or people who have committed crimes.
That’s understandable. The dire end of the spectrum needs our help the most. But most of us live in the great, wide middle. I am able to work most of the time, but sometimes I have sleepless nights like this one. Sometimes I’m edgy and rude. But generally I live a full life with family, friends and adventures that interest me.
I write about this because I know there are other people like me out there, who have bad days in their brain. I write this as a message to my fellow mental health travelers: It’s OK. You are not alone.
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I’ve started swimming again over the Memorial Day weekend. That’s when my apartment complex pool opened. I like to swim. It allows me to exercise without my girth damaging my knees.
I swim mostly in the evenings. I do it to avoid crowds. I am middle-aged, fat and not particularly proud of my body, especially with my shirt off. My apartment building is near a college campus and most of the residents are young.
Many of them are young, beautiful and in great shape. Some of them are law students. I try not to hold that against them. Anyway, I am a little embarrassed to swim around the beautiful people. So I swim in the evenings or at night.
I say “swim,” but mostly I run or walk in the water. The resistance is good for my legs. The water is cool enough I don’t go into fugue sweats the way I would on the track. I do some bicycle kicks under water and a little shadow boxing for my upper body.
After a good 30 minutes or so, I stop and float on my back. I let the water form a seal around both my ears. All I can hear is my own heartbeat and the gentle motion of the pool.
This is my favorite part of the swim. I stare up at the night sky and watch the clouds drift. I try to determine what phase the moon is in. Dad 2.0, the east Des Moines printer, used to tout one of the benefits of camping was learning what it felt like to be outside when the sun came up and when the sun came down.
He’s right. There is a particular sensation to the world when the sun rises and falls. It’s difficult to describe, but if you’re taking the time to observe it, the moment is usually very peaceful.
The world is a noisy place, I think, even here in Iowa, where we move several steps slower than our friends on the coasts or in the big cities. This is probably a function of getting older, but everything seems to be more complicated — maybe unnecessarily so — than it used to be.
I needed a clock for my living room. For years, I used the VCR. But the VCR is analog and my TV is digital. This means the picture looks bad. So I moved the VCR into my bedroom, where the analog TV — the big, old, square tube — is. But I missed the clock in the living room.
I thought this would be an easy fix. I wanted a nice digital display. I wanted it mostly because the presence of a clock would remind me to take my pills at night. (I really am getting old.) The first store I stopped at had a half dozen varieties of clocks. None of them were cheaper than $20 and all of them did things that I didn’t need or want.
One clock synced with U.S. Naval Observatory’s Master Clock. Both Dad 1.0 and Dad 2.0 were Navy men, the first in World War II and the second during the Vietnam War. I am a civilian and always have been. I didn’t see the need for my timepiece to be militarized.
Another clock projected the time onto the ceiling in bright blue. I would be sitting across the room from it. Projecting it on the ceiling wouldn’t be very useful to me. Another clock had a night light. Another had five different alarm settings.
Most of the clocks connected to smartphones. They could play music and set alarms and possibly send text messages. I don’t know. The were all things I with I didn’t need or want. I just wanted the clock, the part that told time.
I was so frustrated at the first store that I just left. I went to a second store, Radio Shack. I go to Radio Shack from time to time because this is a place I trust to simplify complicated tasks. I told the clerk I wanted a clock. He led me to the shelf with the clocks.
He started his sales pitch. They had the clocks with the smartphone hookups and other do-dads. I stopped him. Don’t you just have one that tells time and nothing else? I asked him. He pulled a clock from the bottom shelf.
This one has an alarm on it, he said, but you don’t have to turn it on.
That will be fine, I said.
But this other clock has a USB charger and it’s on sale, he tried.
No, I’ll take the more expensive clock that does less. It’s come to that in this world. I have to pay more to get something to do less. It’s like paying an extra dollar to the hamburger joint so they’ll leave off the onions.
I am fairly pleased with my new clock. But then I got some bad news. My property manager called and said the walls of my apartment have termite damage. I would have to move to another unit in my building.
I was crushed. I hate to move. I have a lot of books and toys and posters. My home is a clutter pop cultured museum. It’s a large womb where everywhere I turn, I cast my eyes on something pleasant and calming to me. It’s the way I like it. Now I was going to have to move.
Years ago, I was in a training session with a sleazy human resources guy. The session was called “Change Management.” He said we all fall on a curve. Some people are “change agents,” people who cause change. Some people are “change neutral,” which were most people. And some people were “change averse.”
This was bad according to the sleazy HR guy. He believed change was good. I disagreed. Sometimes change is good. Sometimes its bad. My aunt recently went from thinking she was healthy to learning she has cancer. That was change. You would be hard pressed to find anyone in the family who would describe it as “good.”
I take disruptions to my living space very personally. I moved more than I would have cared to as a boy. I like to set my roots deep. I have been known to work to the point of exhaustion to make my new space as livable as my old space.
And I am middle-aged now. So I have more stuff than I need crammed into every corner of every closet. This was going to be a terrible hassle. My mind reeled with the annoyances ahead.
So I went to the pool. I put out of my mind thoughts of changes, complicated clocks and the pending move. The only moving I did was to float. I stared at the night sky and let the silence take over.
- 30 -