Your heart is a muscle the size of your fist, keep on loving, keep on fighting, & hold on for your life
Trigger Warning: Suicide
This story is overflowing with music; but it is the silence between movements, between the breath of a single beat, that defines who I am. If there is one thing you can be certain of, it is that I experience this world through my emotions. This has its foreseeable downsides. There are times where death breathes so heavily down the back of my neck I could tell you what it had for lunch – others still where I am so deeply in love with everything around me that I am overwhelmed by my inability to love as is demanded by my inner landscape. Take all this with extra sauce and a dash of chili, if you will, for I make no promises that what will be delivered here is be of notable substance.
Before going much further, there are a few things I’d like to clear up. I often regard my feelings and actions with unwavering scrutiny. I live equal parts expectations of greatness and finely aged apathy. I could die happy today given all I’ve accomplished: I speak three languages and play multiple instruments; I was ranked second in America for swimming, have been in a successful band, and have lived in five countries. I have somehow managed to live an utterly wonderful life while still being convinced that I am terribly boring. But this is for younger readers who possibly feel the way I have felt for so long. There is so little time and so much of it is awesome.
I was born in a relatively rural, though boringly suburban, area outside of Richmond, Virginia, USA. My childhood was happy, barring a few unreasonable childish fears. Once, upon returning from work, my father informed my mother that he was losing his voice. It is my earliest memory of significant tragedy and I wept (I mean really wept) until my father quickly explained the phrase to me. My mother was an avid reader, present and interested in me and my brothers’ educations. I was, and still am, exceptionally shy. I’ve learned to compensate, but still feel somewhat weighed down by an old–naïvity I can’t quite trap under glass. I have learned to observe it nonetheless, but have been undoubtedly shaped by where I grew up.
The degree of innocence I experienced growing up is to be expected, but that changed as I grew two feet in about a year. My parents used to maliciously sneer about hormones during middle school and we fought nightly. I like to think my memory betrays me here. In sixth grade, I drafted my first suicide note during spring break. I somehow managed to stay afloat for years to come. What felt like a unbearably deep cavern of sadness now seems not more than shadows on the wall. It would be many years until I would learn the language necessary to get the help that I needed. While this may come across disjointed and too quick, it serves as an introduction for the recurring melody.
On September 11th, during my sophomore year of high school, my father was diagnosed with brain cancer. He died two years later on May 9th, 2009. It has been so long that he finally speaks in my dreams. So long that I can barely remember his voice or mannerisms. So much of my life before his diagnosis feels like a dream. A space once inhabited that is now off limits after having awoken.
In the wake of my father’s death, I found two things that help me when the weight of life has all but flattened me. I began to play guitar the week he died; something he had rarely done, but had always left me in awe. I also started writing. These two outlets were perhaps the only things that kept me alive after he was gone. There is not a day where he is not on my mind and there is not a week where I do not feel some hot wind echoing from behind me. This is not to say that it was a smooth miracle of discovery.
A little over a month after my father’s death, I took a large handful of a friend’s anti–depressants. In the moment what I wanted was to get out of my head for an afternoon. In reality, I was having trouble holding my life together. By the time I went to bed dervish fractals were dancing against the dark of the blinds. A seizure woke me in the early sunlight of the following morning, something akin to a fork-in-a-socket-alarm-clock. Within a week, whole patches of day fogged against the mirror of time. I had a friend drive me to the doctor, who happened to be a family friend. In short, it’s a miracle I’m still here. I survived a 12-week regimen of pills in a single swallow. While I’m not one for determinism, it says something about one’s place in the world to continue to wake up after something like that.
I have returned to that dark cave of sorrows following my father’s death on multiple mental benders. It’s unclear whether or not I’ve fully seen the shadows for what they are. In university I suffered a great deal by way of my own depression and anxieties. So much of it did me no good and I like to think I am perhaps a touch stronger because of it. I learned the language to ask for help because my girlfriend at the time gave me an ultimatum and I’m a sucker for love. I spent time in therapy and eventually began taking a small dosage of daily medication. There is nothing wrong with this and never will be. Being functional and staying alive takes priority over everything else. I am grateful to the woman who helped teach me the language to describe the shadows on the wall of this cave I’ve become so familiar with.
There are times where I wish I would have talked more openly about the great depths of my own suffering. I keep it locked up most of the time because people haven’t listened or because I worry about judgement that might be passed. However, I’ve been trying to take more risks recently. As much as I tend to isolate myself, because it’s easier than dealing with the discomfort of being shy or hurting, writing and music cannot make darkness disappear indefinitely. Connection is the remedy that heals. Sometimes it’s as close as you can get with open wounds. There is love in the light of connection. Be mindful of this. Remind yourself often.
Ironically enough, the deep love I feel for things around me can be a problem of its own as well. Sure, (I have gotten myself out of a sixth month depressive episode by focusing on writing joy at the edge / sometimes I’m able to write love until I am out of whatever strange new shadow I find myself under). Other times I want to cry from the overwhelming awe that I find in the world. The last days before this most recent vacation, Winter Gala included, I found myself overwhelmed by the love I felt for my new home, for the incredible human beings I get to teach, for my coworkers and the family they’ve built at the school. I could write an entire article about the role of beauty in the world. It’s where some reason for tomorrow still exists, singing a song while your trying to sleep.
Finding wonder and gratitude every day is so crucial for not being weighed down by the world. This is what howls electric in my still-pumping heart each day when I come to school. If there is one thing I can do in the wake of my own suffering, it’s to try and help others. If I can make one student or coworker laugh or smile each day then maybe, just maybe, I can help others come more quickly to the same conclusions I have reached. One of my main goals as an educator is making sure that students figure out things I wish I had so that they can navigate the depths of their past, present, and future better than I have.
If you’re a student and reading this, know that it gets both better and worse, but that it will get better if you can find the strength in your heart to get help that is actually invested in helping you. If you’re a colleague reading this, I’m alright these days, except when I’m not. Each day is another poem in the book and another song sung. Each day is a choice to survive. If you’re a parent reading this, know that I’m keeping an eye on your students and I’m doing my best to support them. Kind reader, I hope that you’re okay. If not, you can find me in 514. My door is always open. I am always here for you. Perhaps you’re in a cave of your own. Why not step out for a while, together?