My favorite comedian, Mike Birbiglia, suffers from REM Sleep Behavior Disorder which means that he acts out his dreams instead of their just happening in his mind. It has to do with the neural pathways that paralyze the body during sleep malfunctioning. He shares about this in his comedy special Sleepwalk With Me as well as a book, a Broadway show, and biographical film. Some of these sleepwalking episodes resulted in injury and one almost killed him (defenestration: the struggle is real).
Just last night I dreamt that several Target employees and other shoppers kept pressuring me to us the Target delivery flatbed truck (which I’m pretty sure is not a thing) since they doubted my ability to fit everything I bought into my old Saturn SL1 sedan. Challenge accepted.
If I lived with REM Sleep Behavior Disorder, I can imagine waking up this morning to discover the oven is meowing and it turns out that I managed to fit a shit ton of random items from all over the house in there along with our one remaining cat, Onyx, and I let him out and he walks off like nothing weird happened and I take a deep breath in relief that I wasn’t dreaming about cooking.
I don’t suffer from REM Sleep Behavior Disorder, but I did have one episode that gives me a glimpse of what it is like for Mike.
Dabbling in domestic violence
I met my wife, Trish, in college. She was one of the many fine people I met when I started doing improv comedy and then added Theatre as a second major to English. One night, she and I were asleep in the tiny twin bed I had in an on-campus apartment. I had a dream about being bullied in high school, being held against a wall by two assholes while another (let’s call him Dick the dick) got ready to start punching me. In the dream, I snapped and head-butted Dick in the face, proud of myself for fighting back. Fuck that guy.
I woke almost immediately, as I almost fell out of bed, and saw Trish leaning on one elbow, facing me, her face covered in blood. It took a few seconds to realize what had happened. I’ve never been a good fighter. I’m still not. In this particular case, I had aimed a head-butt at Dick and hit Trish instead, which is just gushing with FAIL (and blood, since I had broken her nose).
Now that I think about it, if Trish had been wearing a helmet, she would have been fine. So, it’s just a little bit HER fault, right?
NOTE: This is a joke about how STUPID it is to blame victims of assault/abuse/violence. So, let’s knock that shit off, yeah?
When I went with Trish to the on-campus health clinic, the staff kept asking her if she was safe, suspecting she was the victim of an abusive boyfriend. Trish recounted to me later that it took her a while to convince them it wasn’t like that at all. You see, it was totally Dick’s fault.
Trish had to explain several times to the staff at the clinic that her boyfriend, Mark, was not abusing her. It was Dick the dick who was a dick to Mark, and Mark was finally fighting back against Dick the dick and Mark was asleep when he mistook Trish for Dick the dick and, thinking he was breaking Dick the dick’s nose in triumph, broke Trish’s nose instead by mistake. Could happen to anyone, really. I can’t imagine why they had trouble accepting this narrative.
Reactions from our friends hit Trish and me in different ways. You see, Trish, like all our friends, thought this entire situation was hilarious. They would make jokes and Trish would genuinely laugh while I retreated further and further into myself. I didn’t find any of it funny.
I had a really hard time forgiving myself for hurting Trish. Looking back, the dream had likely triggered some trauma from the high school bullying I endured from Dick and his friends. Combine that with having a terrible temper that I had worked so hard to gain some manner of control over and this entire incident was just a total shitshow for me. I still can’t laugh about it like Trish or anyone else can.
Food, folks, and fists
Meeting Trish’s family was harder for me than it otherwise may have been. I felt more pressure to make a good second impression since my first impression involved lots of blood. Trish’s paternal grandmother actually came up to me and touched my nose with her fist the first time I met her. Which, as I think about it, is pretty funny, actually.
If you follow this blog with rapt joy, you will have noticed that I typically wrap up with important connections and shit like that. I don’t have any for this one. My Depression has been super bad this past week and I needed to vent. I just wanted to write and share something. It helps me.
It’s been over a week since we surrendered our three cats Athos, Porthos, and Aramis to the Humane Society in Woodbury MN. If you follow this blog with rapt joy, you have all the background you need. If this is your first time here, welcome. This post will make more sense after you read Surrendering Cats: Pre-game Show » Can’t Juggle (cantjuggle.com).
There were a lot of tears as we ushered our three MusCATeers into carriers. The cats were pretty vocal that they were not pleased to be going on a trip that wasn’t on any of their calendars. We gave our daughters a few minutes to say goodbye. When it was time to leave, it was really hard to squeeze out, “We need to go.”
My wife, Trish, and I then took the cats to the Humane Society. Trish drove since I had already taken my OH Shit! meds (to help when I am having a spike of anxiety/panic) and they make me drowsy. We had decided as a family that Paige and Evelyn would not join us so that we could complete the surrender with as much efficiency as possible.
I don’t feel up to sharing much more about this trip. It was hard. It was heartbreaking. The people at the humane society were so compassionate, understanding that we were surrendering members of our family. That helped a lot.
The end of the terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad cat pee and shit reign of terror has been profound for me. That particular situation, which was triggering so many feelings of being trapped (the main theme of my childhood trauma), is so much better. I feel pretty certain that it was standing in the way of my climbing out of my current bout of depression and anxiety.
The tarp we had covering the pool table (that was one of the regular pee spots) ended up slightly less waterproof than we expected. So, when I removed that tarp to throw it away and put a new one on (since we still have one cat and cat claws can damage the felt), there was a big spot of pee in the center of the table. We got the table recovered (this past Monday) and since there is no longer pee happening around it pretty much every night/day, I feel like the pool table is available to me again. I haven’t had the energy yet to play, but I will eventually. The thick vinyl cover we’ve been waiting for finally showed up yesterday. So, we’re done with the tarp.
Saying goodbye to Athos, Porthos, and Aramis was difficult AND necessary AND the healing is under way. I have had a few instances of going into our living room wanting to pet whichever of them was on the sofa or loveseat… We’re recovering as a family. A slightly smaller family. But a family.
Sarah McLachlan was not at the Humane Society in Woodbury MN when we got there. The likelihood of her surfacing was not high anyway.
Disclaimer: This post is going to ramble. Even more than my usual posts do. I decided to keep it that way because it honors what’s going on inside my brain right now. I usually go through several drafts of my posts, editing/re-writing as I go. But I’m not doing that here.
I’m NOT an early riser. It’s 5:30 am as I start writing. I’ve been awake for a while and finally decided to just get out of bed and be done. It’s the day we are surrendering 3 of our cats to the Humane Society. If you follow my blog with rapt joy, you will have read Cat Pee, Suicide, and Bananagrams » Can’t Juggle (cantjuggle.com). If not, welcome. That post has background info that makes this post make a bit more sense.
We are keeping Onyx, who accidentally scratched my left cornea several years ago (an injury I still feel, especially when the scar tissue decides to get ripped off and it’s like a fresh wound). From this anecdote, it would seem like the secret plan for a cat to stay with us is to scratch me in the eye. But that would be inaccurate. Just coincidence. I REALLY hope Onyx doesn’t scratch me in the eye again as it was agony. Onyx does consistently use the litter boxes in the laundry room, though. We see him go in there.
I want to blame my poor sleep on the emotional strain of a 75% decrease in felines at our house; it seems the most likely cause. But that “it’s because you say goodbye to Athos, Porthos, and Aramis today” label just won’t stick properly, like a Post-It note that somehow missed getting the sticky part. Quick shout-out to 3M: That’s not a quality issue I have encountered with Post-It notes or even the generic versions. But I have encountered the occasional Puffs Plus with Lotion tissue that somehow dodged getting lotion. That is a shitty experience: you expect the soft caress of a tissue with a hint of lotion on it that doesn’t aggravate your nose and instead you get a dry, rough tissue that feels more like newsprint than something you are SUPPOSED to use on your face. Total shitshow.
I’m going to miss the cats. My whole family is. I just heard my wife, Trish, in the kitchen for the last early-morning feeding she’ll need to perform. Porthos, the fattest of the bunch, demands it. He actually hurls his massiveness at the bedroom door over and over until she gets up. When I was still sleeping up in the bedroom rather than the spare room in the basement (due to my Anxiety), that banging he caused startled the shit out of me and drove me nuts. “We need to ride it out, ” I would say. “He keeps doing it because it keeps working. If we ignore it, he will eventually stop.” And then she would point out that “You can’t really train cats that way.”
And I would remind her of Mercutio, a cat we had that died several years ago. It was in our old house. We kept our bedroom door open (which is not good practice; a closed door can save lives in a fire) to make it easier to hear if offspring were up and stuff like that. When we first got him, Mercutio had a habit of jumping up on our bed RIGHT NEXT TO MY FUCKING HEAD and scaring the absolute shit out of me. I ended up developing amazing reflexes to grab him with both hands then throwing him to the floor (even from a dead sleep); not hard enough to hurt him, but hard enough that he wouldn’t like it. It took a couple weeks for this training to take hold, but once it was over, he never did it again for the years we had him.
Through experimenting with putting one cat at a time in the bathroom in our basement, we were able to determine that Athos was not the prime culprit in the terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad cat pee and shit reign of terror. Porthos gets the blue ribbon for that. We ended up keeping Porthos locked away for a few weeks. It was so much better for me. Easily an 85% reduction in “accidents” around the house. So, it proved that Porthos wasn’t the only one and put the idea of just rehoming Porthos and keeping the other musketeers out of the question. A couple weeks ago, we decided to let Porthos out of the bathroom since he was pretty miserable in there all alone. So, I have been trapped by all the exquisite nastiness of cat pee again for the past few weeks. Which has been hard for me, but less hard for Porthos.
I feel the need to apologize to Athos for pinning so much blame on him. Not that I treated him differently when I though he was the pisser in chief, but just that it turned out to be wrong. I have been petting him a lot in the past several weeks. He has this habit of sticking his tongue out and back in over and over when a scratch his back in a few particular places. It’s adorable. I found this sweet treasure last week. Part of me is pissed that I didn’t find it years ago instead of just before surrendering him and never seeing him again. But I’m trying to be happy I found it at all instead. I could have missed it. And I would have one less thing to smile about. I realize Athos may never read this, but it makes me feel better to express it anyway.
The “surrender” of Athos, Porthos, and Aramis makes me think of “Sweet Surrender” by Sarah McLachlan. DAMN, but that that lady can sing. And that makes me think of her song Angel, which is about the death of Jonathan Melvoin (of The Smashing Pumpkins) of a heroin overdose but was used in a commercial that Sarah did for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). It’s a beautiful song for sure and I can see why they chose it. But at the same time, my brain is like, “Can you IMAGINE if cats did heroin!?”
We never gave any of our cats heroin. Please don’t give cats, or any other pets, heroin. Or yourself, actually. Heroin is not good for anyone, in my opinion.
Wouldn’t it be cool if Sarah McLachlan was at the Humane Society in Woodbury, MN this afternoon when we are there? That would be cool. But it seems unlikely.
My feelings today are complicated. While I will miss these adorable, funny cats, I get such a sense of peace knowing that I will be able to once again live in a house that doesn’t reek of cat pee. We need to get some flooring replaced (yes, it was that bad) and do a deep clean in other places before we’re really done. But the first step is getting the culprit(s) out of the house. As of this evening, this step will be complete. It’s also the first step in healing the hole in our hearts that will be left behind once the cats have gone to live somewhere else. We can’t get past it until it happens.
While I typically don’t give advice, I have a few tips here:
Avoid getting scratched in the eye by a cat (or any other animal for that matter).
Please close all bedroom doors at night.
I’m not sure what kind of shape I will be in this evening. I do plan to share how I am feeling AFTER we say goodbye to Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. But that may not happen for a few days. So, I’m getting this post out now. Writing this is helping.
I’m feeling overwhelmed by some family stuff today, so I thought I would spend some time thinking about a happier, easier time in my life when my oldest brother introduced me to the Nashua Public Library. I want to note that while this post is based on actual events, there will be some dramatization as I only really remember the broad strokes. Any similarity to persons, real or imagined, is intentional but may not be 100% accurate. Nashua, NH, is a real place, but has changed quite a bit since I was there. It’s still about an hour north of Boston, MA.
This post includes references to bicycles and libraries. And books, I guess. And a river. The Nashua River, to be exact. And a bridge across that river. Neither the river nor the bridge are major players here, but details help flesh things out, yeah?
Note to self: Stop rambling and get to the damn story.
My oldest brother, Gerry, played lots of roles in my life growing up. He taught me a lot of things, including how to throw a baseball and football (not at the same time), how to play basketball, how to ice skate, how to play several card games, etc. He was sometimes my guardian (not in a legal capacity) when he took me on bike rides and also lots of fishing trips. He was often my tormentor as well, but this is a happy post, so we’ll leave that alone for now.
The adventure begins
I forget how old I was, maybe 6 or something like that. But one day, Gerry came to me and said, “Let’s go for a bike ride. I want to show you something.” Being the youngest of three boys, I was always eager when either of my brothers wanted to spend time with me.
Gerry and I got on our bikes and rode down our street, Chandler Street, to where it ended at a t-intersection with Canal Street right across from the Sanders building (big defense contractor, I think). I use “down” both in the colloquial sense of heading in a southerly direction and the fact that Chandler Street had two significant hills. The neighborhood was, and still is, referred to as French Hill. We lived partway up the northern hill on Chandler Street so the first chunk of our journey was downhill quite a bit.
We banged a right on Canal Street, eventually riding past the apartment building my mom and I would eventually move to when we lost our house to foreclosure in my teens (not going into this right now; happy post, remember?), until we came to Main Street and hooked a left.
A quick terminology note
In Nashua, there was no turning. No one turned. It simply wasn’t done. Whether you were in a car, on a motorcycle, on a bike, on a Big Wheel, or even just plain walking, if you changed course in a right-hand direction, you “banged a right.” If you changed course in a left-hand direction, you “hooked a left.”
The grammarian/writer in me wonders why one needed to even specify the directions at all since the words “bang” and “hook” are already different. But I was not consulted at the time. And I’m not sure if this linguistic idiosyncrasy is still in place in Nashua since I have lived in Minnesota for over 20 years. Just trying to keep it real.
The adventure continues
Main Street heading south took us over the Nashua River across the Main St. Bridge. Apparently, city planners were not rewarded for creativity. After a few blocks, we then hooked another left and headed up the hill on Park Street, a process that required me to get off my bike and walk it since I didn’t have the pedal power to make it all the way up; and the zig zagging up a hill that increases distance but allows for a shallower angle of descent was not an option as we were limited to using the sidewalk.
At the top of the hill, I was out of breath, tired, and thirsty AF as this was a pretty long ride for me at the time (a little under 1 mile). But when Gerry brought his bike over to the rack, and motioned for me to do the same, locking them together, I figured we were close to what he wanted to show me.
The main entrance to the library had these tall, heavy doors, as I remember. In my memory they a dark metal or perhaps wood. Recent pictures I can find online today show glass front doors but I don’t know if my memory is mistaken or if the library just has the wrong goddam doors and they need to fix it. There’s just no way to know.
A new world of treasures
As Gerry led me into the library, there was this smell that I can’t forget. Oddly enough, it smelled like books. Like when you open a book that may not have been opened for a while and there is a kind of sweetness to it. It smells so inviting. I still get hints of this smell when I go into libraries today, but not nearly as strongly.
The main desk was right in front of us, a large wooden countertop that went on and on in both directions. Behind that counter were the library staff helping patrons check out and return books, answering questions, and many other duties. Checking out books required one of those hand stamps, because this was back before libraries, at least this one, were digitized. It was magical.
Off to the left was the card catalog: rows and rows of little drawers of index cards, each corresponding to a volume in the library. It was still based on the Dewey Decimal System, as I recall. I had not learned that system yet, though. I also had not learned what a total fucking asshole Dewey himself was. I’ll let you look that stuff up on your own. Again, this is supposed to be a happy post.
Off to the right, as I recall was the multimedia section containing racks of vinyl records and albums with headphones for listening. No computers, for sure. This was the early 1980s after all.
Wrong treasures, dude
As I marveled at these new-to-me surroundings, I realized that Gerry was repeating my name with gradually increasing volume, trying to recapture my attention. He had banged a sharp right immediately upon entering the library and I had missed it. There was an alcove there. He gestured to have me join him. He leaned down toward the wall as I approached, but stood tall once I reached him, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, and an air of absolute contentment.
Gerry had brought me on this journey to share with me a treasure. That I may know of it. That I may share in its wonder. That I may pass on this knowledge to those I deem worthy. There was a small stepstool next to it, which Gerry pulled into place with his foot. Without it, due to my size, the treasure would have been quite literally beyond my reach.
I stepped up onto the stool and leaned forward. Gerry pressed the button on the right of this magical device and the most delicious, ice-cold water hit my lips. Like the smell of the library, the water had a hint of sweetness to it (I don’t want to think about what that was). I drank and drank; the smell of the books forgotten; the soft thuds of the hand stamps behind the desk forgotten.
“Remember this bubblah,” he said, as though passing on the greatest wisdom. This device, if you have not gleaned via context clues, is known in most places, I believe, as a water fountain or a drinking fountain. But in Nashua and the surrounding area, they were known as bubblers, or, more properly pronounced, “bubblahs.” There was one on the other side of the doors, that you could reach by hooking a left as you entered the library instead of banging a right. He motioned across to that left one, “That one sucks. THIS one is always like this: ice-cold.”
The journey home
When we were both satisfied, he led me back outside without even a glance at the books or any other vessels of knowledge the Nashua Public Library kept preserved within its walls. ANYONE could go there and get books and stuff. But our purpose was life itself.
As we biked home, I felt like I was changed. A new person; one equipped with the location of the finest drinking water known to humankind.
Riding a bike down Chandler Street is glorious. Up, on the other hand, is fucking awful.
Throughout my childhood, I went back to the library many times. Each time, I banged a hard right on the way in and drank from that glorious bubblah. There were even times when I went to the library and there were books involved.
I haven’t been back to the Nashua Public Library in decades. And even if I did, I don’t think I would have the courage to drink from that bubblah. The idea of drinking from a public water fountain today makes me feel ill. I think it’s one of those “remember when we were kids and used to do this and OMG how did we not die” kind of things. Lawn Darts. Driving around in the back of my dad’s van on folding lawn chairs.
But I enjoyed that bubblah while I could. And Gerry was right. It was always ice-cold.
CONTENT ADVISORY: This post contains words that people may find offensive.
CONTENT BONUS: This post contains words that people may find offensive.
In his comedy album Class Clown, the late comic genius, George Carlin, gave a monologue he called The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television. Those words are as follows:
There is an OUTSTANDING two-part documentary about George, his background, his life, his pain, his comedy, his genius, and more called George Carlin’s American Dream, directed by Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio. I highly recommend it.
George loved language. And he often had jokes or bits built around language, English in particular, and its idiosyncrasies. I feel like George is part of my inspiration for my own jokes and puns, which also are often built around language and using words in different ways, etc. I get some talent in this area from my dad, who loved to make puns while we watched TV or movies or played games or just made our way through life. That is one of the aspects of my dad that I loved. There were some aspects of my dad that I didn’t love, but this is not a Daddy Issues post, so I’ll leave it there for now.
This section will make sense further down. But for now, just take from this section that there are words that Society sometimes refers to as “bad words” that we are expected to refrain from employing in polite conversation… Fuck that.
No Lifebuoy for me
Growing up, use of swearing/curse words wasn’t a huge deal in our house. It’s not something we did constantly, but the occasional slip or strategic employment of “impolite” words didn’t get us in much trouble. I certainly never had to have soap (Lifebuoy or any other brand) in my mouth like Ralphie in A Christmas Story when he let loose an F-bomb, the “F dash dash dash word.” This is one of my favorite movies, by the way. We watch it as a family every year and still laugh.
Vaillancourt is a French-Canadian name and is somewhat common throughout New England and parts of Canada. My brothers and I are the first generation of our family to be brought up speaking only English. Both my parents were brought up speaking French AND English. My dad got a kick out of teaching me how to curse in French from an early age, making it necessary for me to be extra careful in French classes in school…
Do as I say, not as I … say.
My wife and I both swear/curse when we’re not really thinking about it. We made some extra effort once we had kids, but the results were mixed. Let’s just say that one of us, and I’m not saying who, showed only a modest decrease in swearing. One of us has been told by our children that she swears too much. But I’m not saying who. At this point, our youngest is now 15 and for the past few years, we haven’t bothered too much with our own swearing.
In fact, in our house, context appropriate or really funny use of swear words is not only encouraged but appreciated. One of our favorite stories from Paige’s (our oldest) early life was when we were potty training her. She was sitting on one of those tiny potty chairs we had in the bathroom. She was quiet a for bit, thoughtful, then she looked up at my wife, Trish, and said, “We don’t say fuck dammit. We don’t use those words.” Trish and I ended up discussing at the time where she would have learned this phrase. I confessed to her just the other night that… yeah…. I own this one. This is on me.
“I’m so proud of you!”
My youngest, Evelyn, has never been much of a swearer. Swearing tends to make her feel embarrassed. About a year ago, I was in my basement office and heard a THUD from upstairs in the kitchen. There was a few second pause, and then I heard Evelyn shout “FUCK!” She came down to my office for something a little while later and I asked her about it. She said, “Yeah…. I stubbed my toe and mom gave me the green light for an F-bomb.” I beamed at her with sheer delight, “I’m so proud of you!”
My main antidepressant, Effexor, appears to have a possible side effect of changing the focal distance of one’s eyes. For me, it moved that distance further away, so, to see letters clearly, I need to hold whatever I am reading further away from my face. This often results in clearly seeing that the letters are too fucking far away to read. Perfect. Some of this could also be age as well, but it really only started when I started taking Effexor. Anyway, as a consequence, I have reading glasses; just over the counter ones; no prescription. I tend to only wear them when I am alone since looking at anything more than a foot away while wearing them is blurry as shit and that instant transition fucks with my equilibrium and even leads to headaches.
Last night, Trish, Evelyn and I were playing Munchkin, a super fun/funny adventure card game. I wasn’t wearing my glasses due to the transition issues mentioned above. At one point, I looked down at a pile of papers that were sitting on the table next to me and just started laughing. Here is the exchange that followed, to the best of my recollection.
Trish: What’s so funny?
Me: I just looked down at this (pointing to a page of text) and I could swear it had the word “tits” in it.
Evelyn started laughing with delight.
Trish: (looking over at the paper) That’s the school district newsletter. Are you suggesting the school district newsletter has tits in it?
Evelyn’s laughter kicked into a higher gear.
Me (in my “principal making an announcement voice”): Show your tits at Homecoming! … SPIRIT! SCHOOL SPIRIT! Show your SCHOOL SPIRIT at Homecoming!
Evelyn then lost her shit. She was now into that phase of laughter where you can’t breathe but can’t stop. Her laughing fit continued, only gradually decreasing over the course of the next few minutes. OUTSTANDING.
A little help
In Munchkin, your character fights monsters. There are cards you can get that add bonuses to your combat power like armor, weapons, and other silly things. In a fight, you add up all of your bonuses and compare result to the power of the monster you are fighting. If your power is greater, you win the fight. If not, you can try to run away OR you can ask another player to help you, adding their total combat power to yours. Often, the helper will request, or your will offer, some share of the treasure as a reward for the help. I have sometimes just asked for a hug. Other times I have demanded treasure for NOT helping the monster. Whimsical, yeah?
Evelyn ended up in a fight she could not win alone. Since my power added to hers would result in victory, I offered to help. My wife, whose character was even more powerful than mine, also offered to help.
Trish: I’ll help you for one treasure.
Evelyn (to me): What do you want?
Typically, I would ask for a treasure. Not this time.
Me: I don’t want any treasure. I just want to hear you say the word “tits.”
Evelyn started losing her shit again. Which. Was. Excellent.
Trish came to her rescue by saying she would help for no reward. Evelyn ended up letting Trish help her instead of me. My master plan (improvised, but still) to get Evelyn to say “tits” was foiled by the pottiest mouth in the house. Motherfucker.
We, as parents, are teachers, too, regardless of our profession(s). As with anything else, the power of words is based so much in how they are used. ANYTHING, including words, can be used as weapons. But they can also be used in more positive ways to bring humor and joy. In our house, we’ve taken the position that there are no “bad words.” There are just words. And Trish and I are fucking delighted to help our offspring learn to use them well.
I’ve been thinking about advice a lot lately. We are bombarded with advice nowadays, whether from TV commercials or news, internet ads, social media “influencers,” radio personalities, neighbors, family members, or even a friend’s ex-husband’s Roto Rooter guy Vince. Since pretty much every situation has more nuance than is visible to me, I find myself trying to avoid giving advice. Any time my brain starts to build a statement that includes “you should do X” or “you need to do Y” it raises a red flag for my internal editor (yes, I have one… he drinks, though) to take a closer look before releasing that statement into the wild.
I have come to realize that advice often includes so much baggage or subtext that the advice-giver may not have intended, such as judgement, stereotypes, unfair assumptions, or even overestimations of the recipient’s combat prowess. I have often been on the receiving end of advice that, while well-intentioned, ended up being of little to no benefit, or even causing harm. I have also been on the advice-giving end in situations that did not go well. As I typically do, I am going to discuss this in the context of a personal experience.
The Trojan Horse
You can look this one up on your own if you need to. I could summarize this reference here but I really feel it is so well understood that it is not necessary. So, I’m gonna go ahead and skip it.
It’s my blog. I’ll do what I want.
I’m a recovering Catholic. I was an altar server back when they were called altar boys because girls were not allowed to do it (which changed, at least at my parish I grew up in, toward the end of my tenure). For those who are not familiar, altar servers help the priest before/during/after mass (typical Sunday services) and other services (some services are not technically masses). These duties include lighting the proper candles before the service and extinguishing them after the service. It also involved things like fetching various objects for the priest in during the service. I was an altar server from the age of twelve (I think) until I was eighteen (I think). I actually enjoyed it for a long time.
I want to pause here for a moment to share that, although I have shared that I have a lot of childhood trauma, and I now share that I spent a lot of time around Catholic clergy (priests, etc.), I was not a victim of the abuse that has been so well documented. In general, my experiences with the clergy have been positive ones. That said, the fact that I feel it is important for me to stress this is not a good thing as far as the Catholic Church is concerned. Understatements are fun, yeah?
I believe it was the Easter Vigil (the service held the Saturday evening prior to Easter Sunday), late in my altar server career. There were four altar servers for important services like this, and we each had some special duties to perform. I was what we called the Master of Ceremonies, which generally meant that I would be focusing on the most visible duties like holding the prayer book for the priest during key parts of the service. As it was a special service, I and my fellow altar servers were wearing red cassocks rather than out typical black ones we used for ordinary masses.
There was a point during this service all lights and candles in the church were extinguished and the only light came from a fire in what you may call a Holy Hibachi that the priest was blessing and which would be used to light the special Paschal Candle for the coming holy year. The parish photographer took a gorgeous photo of this showing just Father Dan, the flame, and me holing the book for Father Dan with everything else in total darkness. I have no idea where that picture went or I would include it here.
I’m realizing that most of the details above aren’t really important to this story. But they are helping me paint the picture again in my mind, so I’m gonna go with it. It’s my blog. I’ll do what I want.
Just as we were about to start the procession into the church that marked the beginning of the service, Scott, one of my fellow altar servers, who was probably at least 6 feet 2 inches tall, leaned down to me, and said, in a grave, insistent voice, “If you ever fight a ninja, don’t pull down his mask. He’s got a blade in his mouth he will spit at you and kill you.” Having dispensed this profound wisdom, he then nodded to himself, as though a sacred duty had been discharged.
This exchange, as you might expect, raised several questions.
How did Scott come by this valuable information?
Was there a ninja problem in or around Saint Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Nashua, NH that I was unaware of at the time?
Given what I knew of ninjas as deadly assassins, what made Scott think I would be alive long enough in a ninja fight to take an action like pulling down my adversary’s mask?
Did this advice apply to The Hamburglar as well? Different style of mask, but still, better safe than sorry, yeah?
[stammering sounds of starting but not finishing any words] What?
I was not able to ask Scott any of these questions because the service started immediately after he finished, and I think this was my last experience as an altar server. I forgot to ask him after the service and I never saw him again. I hope Scott had the wherewithal to heed his own advice and avoided this great blunder in all of his own ninja fights.
I am not sure why this particular memory has stuck with me for all these years. It could be that it was the only direct advice I ever received on ninja fighting. It could be the timing of the advice. It could be a lot of things. But whatever, the reason, his heart or his shoes, he stood there on Christmas Eve hating the Whos… Note to self: Delete this last sentence before you publish.
Assumptions and judgements
No matter how hard we may try to avoid it or even deny it, advice we give is pretty much always built upon a foundation of assumptions and/or judgements we are making about the recipient(s) of our advice. We may do some work to turn at least some of these into reasons to justify to ourselves that we should be giving the advice, but I don’t feel that any advice can be totally assumption-free or judgement-free. Assumption and Judgement are pretty much always there, hidden within advice, even if we can’t see them. You looked up the Trojan Horse already, yeah? Didn’t want to assume.
Here are some assumptions and judgements, based on my own experiences, that can be problematic during the advice-giving-receiving process.
The recipient is “other” in some way and therefore needs to take action to fix or overcome that otherness.
There are SO MANY examples that fit here. And SO MANY of them involve folks with power slapping labels on folks without power and then blaming the labelled for their problems. The main thing I try to think it about is what makes me think my would-be advice recipient needs advice? Some common judgement pitfalls here are:
Anyone with less money than we have is lazy and just needs to work harder.
Anyone with a mental health challenge is weak and just needs to suck it up.
Anyone that is fatter than we are is unhealthy.
The recipient has reason to give a shit what the advice-giver has to say.
I, for one, summarily dismiss any “advice” from folks who claim to be “wellness” experts or extoll how they or their products/services are endorsed by Goop.
The fact that Dr. Oz is a cardiac surgeon makes it SO MUCH WORSE that he spreads health misinformation since he KNOWS it is bullshit but spreads it anyway. The average moron on TikTok or Instagram can claim at least some amount of ignorance here. Dr. Oz can’t.
The recipient is capable of taking advice at this time.
I have learned through experience that when my oldest daughter storms into her bedroom and slams her door, choosing this moment to give her advice on any topic is not a fruitful endeavor.
Someone who is actually on fire is unlikely to be able to take advice on any topic.
The advice is constructive, new information to the receiver.
A depressed person doesn’t need you to tell them to keep their chin up, upper lip stiff, hopes up, or any other vapid bullshit. We have heard it all before. It is not new. It is not helpful.
A fat person doesn’t need you telling them what to eat or not eat or to be reminded that they don’t look like you. We have heard it all before. It is not new. It is not helpful.
The recipient will see the advice as a well-intentioned attempt on the advice-giver’s part to be helpful.
All of the above items in this list make it VERY difficult to provide meaningful, helpful, well-timed advice that will actually have a positive effect on the recipient.
This often leads to friction between the advice-giver and the recipient, culminating in an exasperated, “I’m just trying to help!”
Applying assumptions and judgements to Scott
The recipient is “other” in some way and therefore needs to take action to fix or overcome that otherness.
This particular pitfall, while it applies with tremendous frequency at large, does not apply well to my example with Scott. But I chose the example with Scott anyway because it is funnier than some of my other options. It’s my blog. I’ll do what I want.
The recipient has reason to give a shit what the advice-giver has to say.
I remember Scott as a decent fellow. Still, he had provided no prior reason as to why his advice on tactical decisions for fighting ninjas should carry any weight. So, Scott literally missed the Mark on this one.
The recipient is capable of taking advice at this time.
I this case, I was emotionally just a little nervous as I was about to enter a church full of hundreds of people and I had duties that were highly visible. But I wasn’t in a highly emotional state that would have prevented me from receiving advice. So, I guess Scott got this one.
The advice is constructive, new information to the receiver.
I was not already aware of the particular danger in attempting to unmask a ninja (during combat or even during more mundane activities like drinking pina coladas or getting caught in the rain).
I had never thought about how I would fight a ninja in general, much less pulling down the mask of said ninja as a worthwhile combat tactic, so I’m tempted to give this one to Scott.
However, the constructiveness of this advice presupposes I had the necessary reflexes, attributes, skills, and/or equipment that would allow me to survive a ninja fight long enough to take ANY action whatsoever (I am not counting bleeding, dying, etc., as actions on my part).
Given that, I will give Scott only partial credit here.
This event with Scott took place before the Internet took off so there was not a “How to survive a ninja attack” resource easily at hand. I looked up “How to survive a ninja attack” on the Internet just now and the results were more entertaining (and numerous) than I expected.
This is more of a testimonial than advice, so I think I’m good.
The recipient will see the advice as a well-intentioned attempt on the advice-giver’s part to be helpful.
Since, as I have shared above, Scott was a decent fellow, I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one. I have no reason he expected me to take this advice poorly, particularly when there was at least some outside chance that it could save my life. Thank you, Scott.
Giving advice has consequences that should not be taken lightly by either the advice-giver or the recipient. Advice can change lives, but not always for the better. It is not hyperbole to say that there are people who are dead today because someone that had no business giving advice did so anyway and people believed them. If you find yourself tempted to give advice, take my advice, and think long and hard before you do.
I’m having a hard time today. I mentioned it on Twitter but that seems too transient a platform to rely on for helping others feel less alone when they need it. So, this very brief post will just have a list of thoughts going through my head right now.
It is not a character flaw to be unable to function due to a mental illness/disorder, to “can’t” as I sometimes refer to this.
It is OK to can’t.
There are probably people you care about that are can’ting right now.
I am can’ting right now.
Despite how it may feel, can’ters are not alone.
I am safe.
If you can’t, please know that you are still worthy of love and compassion and that the world is better with you in it.
I am on medical leave from my dream job at Microsoft for a while. My Depression and Anxiety have been acting up for months and I burned through my paid-time-off with little to show for it. The whole grin and bear it thing, even it if helps, just doesn’t lead to long term stability. I am super fortunate to have medical leave via Short Term Disability as an option along with a manager and team at work, and a family at home that care about me.
Concentrating and focusing are both really hard right now. And I find blogging about my experiences helpful, not just for myself, but for the possibility of making someone else’s experience even a little bit easier. With that in mind, I have decided to share some of what I do for my own Self-Care. I’m not up for tackling anything heavy, so I figure this is a win all around.
There are some ground rules and expectations I want to set before I go any further.
That fact that these things help me DOES NOT mean they are going to help you.
I have ZERO desire to become some sort of social media Wellness Influencer.
I will not be asking you to buy any tonic, tincture, salve, balm, or poultice.
Anyone that claims to have a “sure-fire” cure for ANYTHING when it comes to mental health is almost certainly trying to take advantage of you.
Since my mental health challenges include quite a bit of social anxiety, I am going to focus on self-care I use that does not require direct interaction with other humans.
Han shot first.
I have a long history of playing video games, all the way back to the Atari 2600. As far as console games, I later moved on to Nintendo, Sega Genesis, PlayStation, and XBOX. The first computer game I played/loved was Wizard’s Crown which was a fantasy role-playing game (RPG) for the Commodore 64. That got me hooked on RPGs. I love the process of turning a powerless character into a hero across a compelling story line. In recent years, I have focused mostly on playing games on computer rather than a console.
Here are computer games I really enjoy and find helpful when it comes to self-care:
Activision Blizzard, the creator of the Diablo series has been in the news for the past year or so regarding sexual harassment and a toxic work environment for female employees and their response so far has been a shit-show. I had pre-ordered this game, an updated version of my favorite game of all time, before I learned about any of that. Since playing this game does not involve any additional money to play beyond that original purchase of the game I had already doled out, I still play it.
I was a long-time fan of World of Warcraft (WoW), another Activision Blizzard game, as well, which requires an ongoing subscription to play. As soon as I learned of the terrible circumstances described above, I cancelled my WoW subscription and uninstalled the game. Activision/Blizzard as it exists today will not get another dime from me.
Microsoft is in the process of acquiring Activision Blizzard, which gives me hope for the future. Perhaps, once this is finalized, and if I see real, profound proof that working conditions have improved for ALL Activision Blizzard employees and the management and other personnel that perpetrated/allowed the behavior/discrimination are out the door, I may consider WoW again.
I don’t really have a note that I wanted to put here, but the other games have one so I didn’t want Neverwinter Nights to feel left out.
I find playing these games both relaxing and fun. They offer a valuable distraction and diversion that helps me set aside my Depression and Anxiety for a while. None of these games require ongoing demands for fast fingers and reaction times. My ability to take out a Zombie in the games above is more about my character’s skills rather than my own. When I am struggling with Depression and/or Anxiety, and energy is hard to come by, this aspect makes playing these games a viable option more often than not.
I’ve only gotten into listening to Podcasts in the past year or so. While I listen to several podcasts, this post will highlight the ones that I consider part of my self-care. All of them provide me with a great balance of teaching me something new and making me laugh. To avoid pushing these podcasters toward jousting for my affection, I have listed them in alphabetical order.
Honest, humane conversations with top artists, entertainers, and experts about what it’s like to live with an interesting mind. No shame, no stigma, and more laughs than you might expect from a mental health podcast.
You’re Wrong About is an American history and pop culture podcast created by journalist Michael Hobbes and writer Sarah Marshall. It has been hosted by Marshall since its inception; Hobbes also hosted until 2021. Launched in May 2018, the show explores misunderstood media events by interrogating why and how the public got things wrong.
I find that taking time for myself is a vital part of my mental health. I understand that I am saying this as a straight, white, male living well above the poverty line, allowing me to benefit from large servings the privilege our modern society (at least in the United States) can give out. Not everyone has the means, time, opportunity to avail themselves of all the same things I have access to. I long for a world where EVERYONE has access to the resources they need, be that medical care, education, adequate food, a safe place to call home, and even just a damn hug (if they want one) once in a while.
It is not common for me to start a post by citing the United States Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, but here we are. Assuming I do this right, my choice here will make sense shortly. I hope.
S5.4.2 Each convex mirror shall have permanently and indelibly marked at the lower edge of the mirror’s reflective surface, in letters not less than 4.8 mm nor more than 6.4 mm high the words “Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear.”
I’m not sure when this was added to these standards. I was going to do a little more research to determine that. Then, I came to several realizations one right after the other:
I don’t give shit.
You don’t give a shit.
Acknowledging when this requirement was added to the standards has no bearing whatsoever on this post.
Given the above realizations, including the enumeration of these realizations here provides no value but I did it anyway.
I can be a real jackass sometimes.
There’s science behind why convex mirrors can give you the impression that whatever you see in the mirror looks further away than it is. You are more than welcome to look that up. But I’m going to continue.
A giant bag of dicks
A few years ago, I was on a leave of absence from my job due to my Depression and Anxiety being a giant bag of dicks. I should share a little background here and since it worked so well above, I’m going to use a List.
Depression is a dick.
Anxiety is a dick.
“Depression and Anxiety” does NOT equal “Depression + Anxiety” in the way that having “two apples and three plums” means you have (2+3=5) five pieces of fruit.
Rather, it is more like Depression to the power of Anxiety (or vice-versa); each one making the other “a lot worse.”
Whenever something is troublesome, having “a giant bag” of that something is “a lot worse.” Since having one hornet nest is bad enough, having a giant bag of hornet nests would be a total shit-show.
Thus, Depression (which is a dick) and Anxiety (which is a dick) yields a “giant bag of dicks” rather than “two dicks.”
My oldest, Paige, had her learner’s permit for driving, meaning she could legally drive with either me or my wife in the car with her. She was playing Cello at the time and took lessons from an amazingly awesome music teacher about ten minutes away. Since the giant bag of dicks (see above) made being around people REALLY HARD and uncomfortable, I went with Paige to her lessons, but instead of going into the teacher’s house with her, I sat in the car trying to read, usually with at least some success (trouble concentrating is a pretty common symptom of giant bags of dicks).
It was lovely weather at the time so I sat in the passenger seat with the windows down. The music teacher lived on a pretty quiet street so it was wonderfully peaceful. I was having trouble reading so I put my tablet down and looked out the window, my eyes drawn to the side-view mirror. I still shudder and get waves of super intense emotion and shock when I recall what I saw in the mirror that day.
As I have shared before (see Trauma, EMDR, and the Kobayashi Maru Test » Can’t Juggle (cantjuggle.com)), my mother suffered from Bipolar Disorder. And she struggled a lot. For decades. And when she was really having a hard time, even when she couldn’t form the words or the noises necessary to scream in aguish and exhaustion and rage and sorrow and defiance and surrender, she had this look in her eyes that I can only describe as screaming. Despite the countless times I saw my mother’s eyes scream, I didn’t realize what it was until a particular day (years after her death) when I was sitting in my car outside a music teacher’s house.
As I looked in that mirror, and saw my eyes, the rest of my face changed to be my mother’s face. But the eyes were identical. It looked just like how you might see a transformation in movie. My face faded out, except my eyes, and suddenly I was looking at my mom. My eyes were screaming in aguish and exhaustion and rage and sorrow and defiance and surrender. No. That’s not right. OUR eyes were screaming in aguish and exhaustion and rage and sorrow and defiance and surrender.
In that profound moment, I realized how much I had in common with my mom in a way I never had before. In that profound moment, I realized how alone my mom had been most of her life. How much pain she was in. How much she needed someone on her side in a way that actually felt helpful to her. In that profound moment, the decades of compassion that my mother desperately needed but was denied descended on me without mercy, pummeling me, like someone was beating me with a… well… a giant bag of dicks.
I wrote a poem. Honest.
A few days after this, I wrote a poem about this experience. I infused it with anguish. I infused it with transformation. I infused it with newfound compassion. I called it Eye Scream. And I lost it. Can’t find it anywhere. As I was writing this post today, I came to several realizations one right after the other:
That poem was actually pretty damned good.
I was proud of it.
I don’t need a poem to share this experience or what I took from it.
I don’t need to enumerate these realizations here but I did it anyway.
I can be a real jackass sometimes.
For so many of us, when we see/hear about/experience something we deem to be “bad” or “suboptimal” or “wrong,” our reaction is to want to find someone or something to blame for it. It has to be somebody’s fault. Often, we end up pinning all this blame on some individual or group of people we seek to marginalize or exclude. There are places to pin some blame for what my mother went through, perhaps, but at the moment I feel like providing a list (lots of lists today, yeah?) of someones and somethings that were decidedly NOT at fault here in any way:
The Infield Fly Rule
People named Chet
My oldest brother’s hamster, Ginger, that I used to throw across our porch
I need to point out here that this was a thing I did several times. I was really little and kept wanting to hold Ginger and SOMEONE kept letting me hold Ginger despite the inevitable throwing of Ginger across the porch when her tiny claws tickled my palm and I was afraid she would bit me. So, there is actually some blame that comes into play here. But not related to my mom.
The Solid Gold Dancers (look it up)
A call to action
I try to focus my posts on my own experiences rather than trying to push anyone to take any particular action. I am going to diverge from that just a little here. I still have such regret that I didn’t give my mom the support she so desperately needed. I don’t blame myself, but I can’t help thinking about the profound impact it could have had for my mom if I had treated her with more empathy. She’s gone. I can’t change that. I found compassion for her in the end. But she wasn’t there to feel it. THIS FEELING SUCKS SO MUCH YOU GUYS.
If there is someone close you that you have trouble finding empathy for, my call to action for you is to take a moment to think about what they may be going through. Try to see the world through their eyes. Try to see what they see when they look in the mirror and how it might be affecting them. After all, as I can tell you from my own experience, you may just realize: Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.
On May 12th, 2022, I came within a hair’s breadth of committing suicide. On May 14th, I came even closer. In all the years I have been living with Depression and Anxiety, I had never before had strong suicidal ideation. It was an occasional passing idea that was very easy to redirect and/or dismiss. I can’t say that anymore.
OK. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I feel like we should establish some context. This post is going to be a bit longer than my posts have been in the past, so you may want to use the bathroom before we get started.
I love my family. And they love me. Some of this is going to paint portraits of my wife and daughters that is not fair to them. I want stress that I know that this will be the case and that I feel I need to do it anyway in order to capture what it was like to be in my brain during these events. I feel like it is necessary in order to really show what a lying fuck Depression can be.
Content warning (not a joke)
In all seriousness, I feel obligated to put a content warning here. I am going to go into some detail about what I was thinking (as much as I was able to think) and feeling during some periods where I felt suicidal. Some of it will be pretty raw. I am sharing this in the hope that it will help someone. Perhaps you, dear reader, have never dealt with anything like this yourself and have trouble even imaging what it might be like. Or, perhaps what I share here will resonate with some of your own experiences and help you feel less alone.
If you have dealt with suicide and/or find discussion of that topic triggering or overwhelming, I would encourage you to skip this post. If you need to close out of this and go watch some cat videos or something, please feel encouraged to do that.
If you want to read the parts of this post BEFORE I really get into the suicidal aspects, I will place a marker in this post before I get into heavy stuff. If you need to eject, stop reading when you see this further down:
WARNING: HERE THERE BE DRAGONS
Please do not put pets in the microwave
We have four cats. I never had any cats growing up; my dad hated them. We had a few dogs (one at a time), and several hamsters, and some fish. My wife, Trish, is a cat lover and our dog preferences didn’t align, so we ended up with cats. You see, my wife is just a little over five feet tall and tends to shy away from dogs she can’t punt in self-defense. I, on the other hand, don’t want any dog that would fit in a microwave as they tend to be high strung yippers that annoy the shit out of me. Before you freak out, please know that I have never placed a live animal in a microwave and implore you to join me in keeping microwaves “pet-free.”
But I digress. Several years ago, we had two black cats, Onyx (who already had this name when we adopted him as a kitten) and Isis (whose name when we adopted her was Holly… but we have a friend named Holly, so rubbing Holly’s tummy and the idea of Holly pissing and shitting in our basement laundry room was just weird AF, so we renamed her Isis). Our thumb-wielding (cats don’t have thumbs… look it up) human friend, Holly, appreciated this. The cat formerly known as Holly didn’t care… she was a cat. All she cared about was sleeping, eating, knocking objects onto the floor, and quietly plotting the downfall of humanity. You know. Cat stuff.
After several years, Isis developed several health conditions with poor prognoses and was clearly in some discomfort, so we had her gently put down at our vet’s office. It was a mixed bag. We were heartbroken that Isis wouldn’t be around anymore, but simultaneously glad she was no longer suffering. Also, given there was one less cat plotting the downfall of humanity, we all became a tiny bit safer. You’re welcome.
We can haz more cats?
When we lost Isis, I made a deal with Trish that we would keep Onyx, but that we wouldn’t get another cat. In the meantime, my wife sent me pictures of cats available for adoption with some frequency. But I stood firm. For a while. Eventually, it made sense to have one more creature plotting the downfall of humanity where I could keep an eye on them. Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer, and all that. There was a nearby cat shelter that found itself in the care of a litter of newborn black kittens. I agreed with Trish that we could go look at them, knowing full well that my “we’re not getting another cat” stance was in grave jeopardy.
A super sweet woman greeted us at the shelter and led us into a room with several cat toys, cat furniture, some bowls of food and water, and three tiny, but beyond adorable black kittens. As soon as I saw them, I thought of Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, The Three Musketeers. Goddammit. At that moment, I knew that the cat-count at our house would be increasing rather dramatically. On the bright side, I felt like I kind of maintained my “we’re not getting another cat” stance since “another” usually implies “one” as opposed to “more than one.” You see, we didn’t get one more cat; we got three. So, yeah. I didn’t cave. Don’t take this away from me.
I don’t know the chemistry behind it, but cat pee is nasty AF. For the past year and a half (at least), one of our thumb-less darlings (again, cats don’t have thumbs… we’ve been over this) has decided that litter boxes are not for him. We are pretty sure that the perpetrator of these crimes is Athos; classic Athos, amirite? I took it upon myself to try different things like putting litter boxes in different rooms throughout the house in the hopes that it would help. The result? The adorable fucking asshole would pee and shit RIGHT NEXT TO the litter box. Seriously. Like inches away, totally close enough to make it clear that it wasn’t accidental spillover but an actual commentary on the powerlessness of the human species: “Who’s got no thumbs and doesn’t give a shit about your thumbs or your stoopid litter boxes? This cat.”
The end of my rope
For about a year, I felt like I was the only one struggling or dealing with this situation. And as time went on, the number of non-litter box locations Athos used throughout the house grew. I would complain about it and entreat my ladies into cleaning it up frequently (my back issues make that really hard for me to do myself).
By November of 2021, I couldn’t take it anymore. The issue kept getting worse and I felt like the only person taking ANY action on it was me. As the person in the house the least attached to the cats (I really enjoy them but, if you recall, cat pee is nasty AF and nothing was getting better), I told them that I can’t keep living in a house the reeked of cat pee. THEY needed to step up and figure it out. MY solution, which promised a 100% chance of success, was to get rid of the cats. If they didn’t like MY solution, then they needed to find another one. There were promises about staying on top of the cleaning and plans they would implement to try to get Athos to start using the litter box again.
The end of the end of my rope
In February or March, I called another family meeting and was much more forceful that things needed to change and that if they didn’t change the cats would have to go. There were promises about staying on top of the cleaning and plans they would implement to try to get Athos to start using the litter box again (sigh).
The end of the end of the end of my rope
Meanwhile, I was sharing these challenges with my therapist, Ashley, and how nothing I was trying was working and I was getting more desperate to make this problem go away and my family still wasn’t helping. Since you follow this blog with rapt joy, you no doubt read in Trauma, EMDR, and the Kobayashi Maru Test » Can’t Juggle (cantjuggle.com) that a theme of a lot of my childhood trauma is being trapped (sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally, often both).
At this point, there were only two rooms in my house where I could go that didn’t stink of cat pee: the spare bedroom in the basement I have been sleeping in for more than 2 years (my anxiety makes the proximity of sharing a bed with someone, even my wife, REALLY uncomfortable) and my office where I spend a LOT of time as I work from home and play computer games and write the occasional blog post. And even in my office, sometimes the stench will waft in from under the door as Athos will pee all around the pool table right outside that door. And often there would be several puddles that would sit for days until I can finally get someone to clean it all up. And the pool table that we got, in part, as a useful coping mechanism for me, essentially became a giant fuck you to me because it is pretty much ALWAYS surrounded in cat pee, making me unable to use it. We keep it covered with a tarp whenever we are not actively playing to protect the surface from not just cat pee, but from their claws, etc.
WARNING: HERE THERE BE DRAGONS
Thursday, May 12, 2022
On Thursday, May 12, Trish was 3 hours away at a leadership conference for librarians that she helped organize (she’s good like that) and was scheduled to be home by 6pm the next day. My oldest daughter was at work. My youngest daughter was at school. I was home alone working in my office (which is in the basement). My Depression had been acting up a bit for several days, but I was coping.
After getting to the end of the end of the end of my rope, I finally ran out of rope. The sensation of being trapped descended on me with white hot intensity. I couldn’t take it anymore. I had pleaded TWICE with my ladies to do something about Athos and the cat pee and there was occasional cleanup (which often required badgering from me) but no real progress over a period of months. I felt betrayed and worthless and more alone than I have ever felt in my entire life. I felt profoundly trapped both physically and emotionally.
I was being CRUSHED by a sensory overload that is rather like hearing noise that is so loud your brain cannot process it other than to know it is there and it is way too much to deal with and your whole body just becomes a horrible place to be. I NEEDED that sensation to end. One way or another, I was done.
It took MASSIVE effort for me just to get up out of my chair and leave my office and go stand outside for some air. I was in more danger than I have ever been. I was very much in crisis and calling for help would have been a REALLY good idea. This is REALLY easy to say in hindsight, though. At the time, I was so overwhelmed that my limbic system (pretty much the most basic and primitive part of the brain that can turn off higher reasoning and logic) was in control. I literally COULD NOT call for help. I could not form the thoughts necessary for that to happen.
We keep all of our medicines (my wife and both of my daughters also live with Depression and Anxiety) in a plastic toolbox in a closet on the main floor of the house. For the protection of my daughters, that box has a combination lock on it. A combination that I know since I am the one that refills everyone’s pill packs every Saturday night for the coming week.
There is A LOT of medicine in that box, you guys. I could open it. And I could take all of the medicine and it would be hours before anyone would be home. Or I could sit in the garage with my car running and wait for carbon monoxide to put me to sleep. The only type of reasoning that occurred was a stipulation that, whatever I did, I didn’t want it to make a mess that my family would have to clean up. So, no cutting or anything like that. Thoughtful, yeah?
A little before 1pm, after I had been spending a few hours avoiding the hall closet where the medicine box is as well as the garage where my car is, using coping skills as well as I could, it was getting harder and harder to fight but I was still hanging on.
I still couldn’t form the thoughts necessary to call for help. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to make it until my youngest came home from school a little after 3pm. There was just no way. I was slipping away and the terrifying thing is that I wasn’t scared. That’s not good.
Then my phone buzzed, indicating I had a new text message. It was Trish asking me how I was doing. That was the opening I desperately needed. That text was just enough to trigger a little bit of higher brain function, allowing me to tell her I was not doing well. At all. That I didn’t want to be here anymore. That I wanted to stop being. Period. She immediately called and we chatted for a bit, which really helped. It allowed me to release some of the pressure that was building up inside me, pushing me toward the medicine box or the garage.
It is not hyperbole to say that text and the conversation that followed saved my life. I was far from OK, but I was still here.
I implored Trish not to come home early from the conference as it was so important to her and she worked so hard planning and running it. I also asked her not to call the Police for a wellness check on me or anything. I just couldn’t handle the prospect of having to deal with strangers, particularly since the result would certainly land me in the hospital. I had visited my mom several times when she was hospitalized for her depression when I was a kid and I saw how miserable it was for her and I wanted no part of that shit. Win or lose, I would play from home. Not a good choice, but again, thinking clearly was beyond me.
Trish called me a few hours later and we talked some more. I still wasn’t doing well, but I was not in crisis anymore. I felt safe. Ish. We agreed that we would talk more Friday evening when she got home; just the two of us before sharing with our daughters.
Friday, May 13, 2022
As luck would have it, I already had an appointment (via Zoom) with my therapist, Ashley, on Friday morning. I shared everything. It felt really good to release more of that pressure. I was not in crisis at that point and was able to look back at the events of Thursday with some amount of insight and prove to Ashley that I was not in immediate danger. She and I agreed that it would be a good plan to have the hard conversation with Trish on Friday night that the cats would have to go; that it was vital for my safety. Then Ashley made me promise that if I felt any signs that I might be heading in the direction of self-harm that I would call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline or 911 before my limbic system took control.
Trish and I had that hard conversation Friday night. It didn’t last too long because it was really hard for her to deal with given the strong emotions involved. She said she wouldn’t be able to go through it twice (once alone and then again with our girls), so we stopped.
I felt safer having her home.
Saturday, May 14, 2022
Since my oldest had to work in the late afternoon, I called everyone together for a family meeting in the early afternoon. I couldn’t craft a good way to build up what I needed to say so I just started with saying that I almost committed suicide, adding that I had plans that would have succeeded, without sharing what those plans were. My daughters’ reactions were silent shock. I then reminded them of the “I’m trapped” theme of so much of my childhood trauma and that the situation with the cat pee was triggering that bigtime and the I had tried multiple times to get someone in the house to actually help with the situation and no one would do much no matter what I said or did and that the cats would have to go on June 1st unless there was substantial progress on the situation and that my life was LITERALLY on the line here.
They both started crying as I finished. Intellectually, I KNEW that they were more worried about me than they were about keeping the cats. I KNEW that my saying the cats needed to go was just the final bit of pressure that caused them to give way; to no longer be able to contain the emotions they were trying SO HARD to keep in check. I knew this. I can’t stress this enough.
Depression, though, is a dick. While I KNEW it was not true, I told them how heartbroken I felt that they were more upset at losing the cats than they were of losing me and I stormed down into my basement office and locked the door. I sat at my desk, stunned for a bit, hearing the barely audible hum of conversation taking place upstairs in the living room where my family was reeling from what just happened.
I started opening private browser windows and doing web searches for Drug X overdose amounts, trying to determine how much would be enough. Then the same for Drug Y. And Drug Z. Again, we have A LOT of medication in that locked box. I then remembered that the medicine box is upstairs in the hall closet.
To get to that chemical cornucopia, I would have to leave my office, go upstairs, make it past my entire family, grab the box from the closet, and make it back down to the office with the box so I could take as many pills as I could, and do all of that without any of them noticing and intervening. Calling attention to any of this would result in a trip to the hospital, which, again, I was determined to avoid.
I actually berated myself for not having moved the medicine box ahead of time. This is one instance where my limbic system, inhibiting higher reasoning actually did me a solid. Go figure. I was too emotional and too overwhelmed for the kind of planning (like moving the medicine box beforehand) it would have taken for a successful suicide. And I didn’t want to risk an unsuccessful one. So, I was fucked-saved.
Note: “Fucked-saved” is a really good word for a screw-up that averts disaster. I want a nickel every time someone uses it. Thanks.
That emotional pressure still needed a place to go, though. So, I looked to the two paintings my daughters gave me this past Christmas. I keep them on the wall next to my desk. I look at them often every day. But on Saturday, Depression told me these wonderful expressions of love from my children were lies. I took them down from the wall and put them in my trash can.
When Trish came downstairs a few minutes later, she tried to open the door, but found it locked. She asked me to unlock it and I said NO. She told me the girls were heartbroken and blaming themselves for almost losing me. I couldn’t hear it. I was too far gone.
A few minutes later, my youngest knocked on the door and asked to come in. I unlocked it and sat back down. She had clearly been crying and was terrified. Before she could utter a sound, I pointed at the paintings in my trash can and spat out, “Take that back.” She started to speak and I held up my hand, adding more venom to my voice, and said, “TAKE THAT BACK AND GO!” She reached down, grabbed both paintings and fled upstairs.
I have never felt like more of a failure than I did at that moment. Being a good dad is such a huge part of my identity. I have tried so hard for my daughters’ entire lives to be supportive and caring. I have made sure to tell them how much I love them, how proud I am of them, how much I LOVE being their dad and sharing the world with them; the kind of affection I seldom experienced in my own childhood. I felt like I had just thrown all that away… literally.
Not a minute later, Trish came into the office saying that Evie just ran out of the house and asking what had happened. I was stunned again, unable to move. She asked if I was safe and I shook my head NO. Then I left my office and went upstairs. My oldest was crying and immediately came up and gave me a massive hug, telling me she was so sorry and that she loved me so much. This was quite a big deal since she had stopped being a hugger years ago. I told her I loved her too and felt strengthened by the hug I desperately needed.
When she let me go, I walked out of the house to try to find my youngest. It was a warm day, about 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26 Celsius). I was wearing fleece sweatpants and a fleece sweatshirt. I’ve also been very sedentary for the past few years given the toll Depression and Anxiety have taken on me, meaning I am WAY out of shape. AND I was definitely having a mental health crisis. Nevertheless, I started walking around the neighborhood which, in hindsight, was not a wise thing to do. I spent about a half hour searching, my steps getting harder, shorter, and slower. By the time I made it back home, I was close to passing out from overheating on top of everything else.
I all but collapsed on our sofa. I felt absolutely certain that I had just alienated my youngest. That I had broken her in a way that could never be repaired. That it was one of those moments that divides your life into BEFORE that moment and your life AFTER that moment. I tried to get my emotions in check, distracting myself by trying to find constellations in our popcorn ceiling. That helped. It is a coping skill I had learned in Dialectical Behavior Therapy. By focusing on an object or a task, it can help you shift out of the overload state of an emotional mind into a calmer state, allowing your reasoning/logic centers of your brain to come back online. I don’t know enough constellations to for those efforts to bear the fruit of actual discovery.
My oldest was able to reach her sister via text and learned she was a at a park and safe and just needed to be alone. That helped a lot since my Depression was trying to make me believe she had gone somewhere to hurt herself (or worse). She came home about 20 minutes later and walked past all of us and into her room, closing her door.
After about 15 minutes, I went and knocked on her door, getting a barely audible grunt in response. I went in and sat in her desk chair, staying silent for about ten minutes, hoping she would talk to me. She didn’t. She just lay on her bed facing away from me, sniffling now and then and ignoring me. I managed a barely audible whisper to tell her that I had been hurting really bad when I did what I did and asking if she would talk to me. She sat up, but still wouldn’t speak. I asked her if she wanted me to leave and she nodded yes.
I went back down to my office, exhausted, hurt, heartbroken, feeling like an utter failure. I knew I needed to give my youngest some time and some space. I knew I needed some time and space. I ended up playing a game with my oldest, lamenting that I felt like I had broken her sister; that I had pushed her away forever. My oldest assured me that wasn’t the case. That here sister just needed some time.
A few hours later, I texted my youngest, asking if I could come talk to her. As soon as she said yes I went up into her room and told her how sorry I was for what I had said and done with the paintings. That I had been hurting so bad and had been in such a dark place that I just lashed out and how ashamed I was for failing her like that.
She told me that she had been trying to stay strong for me when I said I had almost committed suicide, and as I KNEW, my saying the cats had to go was just the straw that broke the camel’s back*. I thanked her for talking to me and went to leave. She, like her older sister, had stopped being a hugger years ago. But as I turned go, she asked if I wanted a hug. All I could say was OH MY GOD YES. It was such a relief. I started to feel like I could be whole again.
* No camels were harmed in the creation of this post.
Around 11:30 pm, my girls asked if I would play Bananagrams (a really fun word game) with them. It was much later than we ever START playing a game. I was exhausted but I felt it was important to go play with them. None of us said it aloud, but it was a clear moment in which we all demonstrated to each other that we were going to be OK. I will never forget it, nor all that led up to it.
By the way, I have a bachelor’s degree in English (and a solid vocabulary) and my oldest daughter graduated from high school last year. My youngest is currently a high school freshman (9th grade). We played two games of Bananagrams that night. My youngest CRUSHED us both times. It was awesome.
My daughters spent all day Sunday and part of the next few evenings doing a massive cleaning up of cat pee from all over the house. The difference it made has been huge. My wife and my daughters started giving Athos some calming medication we got from the vet in the hopes that it might help him stop going outside the litter box. I really do hope it works. Given how he has defeated our previous attempts to get him using the box like his brothers do, I shudder to think what he could accomplish without our watchful eye; humanity would be in peril.
As for me, I’m feeling better. We got a new combo lock for the medication box. My wife has that combination, and I don’t, which makes me feel safer. Sometimes it’s tiny things like that which end up keeping someone around. I am seeing my therapist weekly instead of biweekly for a while. And my psychiatrist increased the dosage on one of my medications to take the edge of stress and help me deal with adversity a little better.
I feel like the idea of using medication as part of treating mental health challenges carries its own stigma on top of the stigma of having mental health challenges in the first place. There are misconceptions on both extremes with some people thinking that medication will solve all your problems and other people maybe seeing medication as way to avoid dealing with your problems. Not everyone gets the same amount of benefit from medications. I know, at least for me, though, the benefit is huge. We all have challenges we deal with. Medications don’t change that, but they do make it a little more fair. If I may liken life to juggling, my medication doesn’t juggle for me; but it does let me use both hands.