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The Flesh and the Blood

Brief history of a loser

DRUGSTORE DREAMIN'

It’s hard to speak for anyone else. I only know what is pressing for me, and the pressing issue lately, at least since the beginning of the new year, has been depression—a depression at times so severe I’ve been suicidal. I try to be careful when talking about suicide. It’s easy to get melodramatic about these things. So I try to keep to the facts. And I think if I am honest with myself, keeping with the facts, I believe some of my recent behavior is dangerous. Somewhere on this timeline of depression, which reaches many, many years into the past, I’ve gone from thinking about suicide in an abstract way—like saying it would be okay to die, wistfully, the same as one might talk about a trip to Cancun or the Bahamas—to envisioning real, specific scenarios, and determining what I’d need to do for those scenarios to become a reality. Kind of like what I did last Wednesday night.

It was a couple hours past midnight. I was supposed to be sleeping, but instead I was surfing around the internet–Facebook, specifically. I’d slipped into a rare mood and was clicking through other people’s pictures. First it began with my immediate family: my sister had just recently given birth to her very first daughter, named Tenley, and around this time had also acquired a new digital camera. So of course the number of photographs of this new addition to our family was pushing a million, all of them having been posted to Facebook, all of them ridiculously, obscenely cute. From there I meandered and followed the rabbit hole down—browsing through her friends, then friends of her friends, until the profiles were unfamiliar, the faces of strangers. As the minutes fell off I kept clicking through these photographs, these random lives: families clustered together at the holidays, faces sunny and glowing, smiles crooked and tipsy, in the background Christmas lights spread over the darkness like soft, unfocused constellations; vacations to Disneyland or Tokyo or Paris, France and all the happy drunken parties with friends. Soon I’d begun comparing lives. These people who I’d never seen before—their lives looked so much fun, so warm and friendly. Mine wasn’t like that, had never really been like that: my mother is proud of raising what she calls “a family of lone wolves.” I’m not so sure about that. I just call it dysfunction—a family that lives in the same city and hardly talks to each other except during holidays, when the invisible pressures of familial obligation are felt. Viewing these Facebook photos of lives better than my own, I became moody, negative. It was close to three in the morning and all I found myself wanting to do was self-destruct, shut down, so my mind would finally be quiet. I witnessed myself getting into the car, driving toward the glowing oasis that is a 24-hour, open all night Walgreens, drifting past the whooshing automatic doors into sallow, fluorescent light, walking among the rows of Shake Weights and pull-up bars and countless other As-Seen-On-TV products—as if it were all part of a waking dream. Then taking a bottle of hard liquor—something like Captain Morgan, which I prefer to drink straight—down off the shelf, knowing the entire time, as my fingers closed around the glass neck, that this was it: I would be doing this tonight. As in, bon voyage!, setting sail: returning home and drinking myself stupid and maybe setting my meds on the counter in one huge multicolored cloud of pills and taking them, too.

I’m writing this now, so obviously I chickened out somewhere. I don’t drink for this reason. I admit to being afraid. I am so used to, so comfortable with, self-hatred I can get to that place no problem: it is an easy, familiar feeling, like slipping into an old, weather-beaten coat. But even there—depressed, suicidal—even in those places is a part of me who doesn’t want to go. There is always some little part who wants to be persuaded out of the terrible things the other part of me is intent on doing. But that little part seems more like a whisper these days. It gets more and more quiet each time I have one of these episodes. The other part of me is dumb and inexperienced. He’s never drank himself into a slurred, vomity amnesia. Often he wishes he could, but he’s responsible, he does what other people would say is the right thing to do; he tries to be what everybody else considers an upstanding citizen, an adult. The fear I have stems from this inexperience, these stupid qualities of mine—simply, I am afraid I would accidentally drink and med myself into respiratory arrest, coma, and be gone without fully intending to.

GETTING TURNED AROUND

The mirror in my bathroom is divided into three vertical panes, and they all open independently of one another. For convenience, I suppose. For the vain among us who still want two-thirds of their reflection available as they hunt around for the Tylenol or Pepto-Bismol. Me, I just amuse myself with the design of the whole thing. In the mornings and late at night I’ll stand there brushing my teeth and align my head with one of those dividing lines in the mirror so it bores down the middle of my face and splits me into left and right halves. I do this almost every day. And while the automatic toothbrush buzzes against my teeth and my mouth becomes a frothy slop of Cool Mint, I’m looking inside my eyes, jumping back and forth across the mirror’s black divide—left eye, right eye, left eye—thinking. Most times I know what I’m thinking about. Mundane stuff: have to write a paper today, or test today, or pay bills today. But sometimes it’s hard to find the words. I know the weight of what I’m thinking then, the texture of it—sometimes it becomes an image, a memory clipped and set to run on an endless loop: it is a sadness beyond words. A sadness that has been with me for many, many years, shaped by the days, shaped sometimes into weapons I use against myself. And that is what those Wednesday nights are about: they are the nights when the house gets too cold, too dark, too quiet, too alone, and I go looking for my weapons.

I do not always know how I arrive at this place—depression—only that I know when I am there. Last Wednesday, the most recent episode, had actually begun pleasantly. I was making a comeback: in the weeks prior no longer waking nauseated, but actually rested, energetic—I wanted to do things. Mundane as it sounds, I wanted to clean the house, wash dishes, do laundry. Somehow doing those things puts me in a better mood, helps me feel good about myself. Tired, but like I had accomplished something, however small and cosmically insignificant, that needed to be done. Later, I had time for a couple personal activities—a few hours writing creatively and then reading for pleasure. By that night I had veered the other way. A couple hours after midnight I was imagining that above scenario—drifting into the Walgreens like a drug-addled zombie, purchasing my pick of liquor for the night, going home and getting blasted. Nothing anybody said, nothing I’d seen or overheard, had set me off. More that I felt lonely and angry at my loneliness, angry at how I’d arrived at that point in my life, regretful of all the wrong steps taken. Like so often in the past year, I wanted to disappear once and for all.

THIRTY AND NO CAREER

Often it feels like I only woke up about three years ago, on my thirtieth birthday, and saw life—what it had been, what it was now, and, most importantly, what it was going to be—for the first time in tearful, aching clarity. I’m becoming more useless by the decade: the kind of labor I did as a young man I can barely do now; physically I’m not the same. After eight hours of continuous walking my feet, ankles, knees, and hips ache, and as the work week stretches on it only gets worse. The pain is cumulative. Sixteen hours is no longer enough time to rest and recoup for the next day. And it’s even more difficult to handle mentally. Maybe I’m softer, weaker, but now work looms like a dark cloud over my days. It never goes away. I think about the drive in, whether that’s a short ride across town, or several miles outside of the city where the buildings slump and get smaller and the hills tumble and rise higher, where it’s all just roaring highway, and I find myself wondering how I should feel—what the default setting should be. When the road clears a bluff or a copse of trees and the land falls away and reveals a sprawling warehouse or factory plant and the buildings are all fallen in shadow, black and terrible, because it’s only six and the sky’s just a cold bruise—how’s it supposed to feel? When the job is so menial that by shift end you feel less intelligent, like your IQ has dropped ten, twenty points in eight hours time; when you’re out of options and need this job, this pay that isn’t ever enough, and can’t quit, can’t give your boss the middle finger and tell him to fuck off, loathing the thought of your co-workers, defeated like you, the thought of another shift, another chunk of your life building products or providing services you couldn’t give a fuck about—is it really surprising a person might want to kill himself?

I was an EMT on February 1, when my life made that jump from age twenty-nine to age thirty. I remember thinking, This is my career now, and feeling satisfied. Pleased. Little did I know I’d quit. That, a few months later, in the lightless hours of May 1, when I should have been rooting through the ambulance, checking for all necessary supplies, checking the oil, tire pressure, the lights and sirens, I’d instead be on the interstate, headed back home.

I walked out. Wasn’t my plan, but I’d actually walked out two minutes after first arriving. I remember the night. It was almost ten, warm and still. After a heavy and bitterly cold winter summer was now finally close. I ducked under the half-open garage door and breezed past the ambulances and wheelchair vans, entered the station and made the short trip down the hall to the lounge where the shift computer was located. As I was keying in my name and password, I heard my partner, Arch, in the kitchen talking to the other guys on the night crew about the call he and I had went on the night before. A call that kind of got out of control.

Initially, we were dispatched to a nursing home for an older man who reported trouble breathing. I don’t remember the specifics, I only know it turned out to be a false alarm. As we were putting the airway bag and other equipment onto the gurney, preparing to leave, we were flagged down by a person on staff for another gentleman with chest pain. This turned out to be the real deal. He was an older man, about seventy years-old. Things were happening so quickly, and I was so sick with adrenaline, that I don’t remember much else about his appearance beyond the general observation that most people that age start to look and feel as though their skin is tissue paper. I was always afraid by touching, even softly, I might cause them to bleed. We quickly assessed the man, plugged him into the monitor and waited until it was clear he had some s/t elevation on his ECG. He wasn’t having a heart attack at that moment, but still complained of some discomfort in his chest—in the neighborhood and close enough to take seriously. It was my first heart attack call. I’d worked there as an EMT for six months and it was actually my first anything-serious kind of call. At best, I was rusty.

Now, there is something very frightening about rushing toward an unknown destination. Imagine a country road at night. No streetlights whipping by every third or fourth second, no orange splashes of light to remind you the road’s still there, a fifty feet ahead; no city light except for what twinkles on the horizon. If you’re lucky there’s the moon. The entire time I worked this heart attack I was following my partner’s lead. I didn’t feel so bad about that. He was the paramedic, after all—he was supposed to be in charge. But I did feel bad when it became clear I couldn’t even give our patient his baby aspirin in the correct way. I had offered him one tab at a time, mutely suggesting he simply take them—however he was to interpret that—and it took my partner not-so-subtly telling me to go faster, to stop wasting time, to just give the old man his goddamn aspirin and make him chew it.

The reason my partner had been in the kitchen, hunched over the table recounting this tale the same as one would a ghost story over a campfire, is because I couldn’t get anything right that night. Not only had I been nearly in absentia during the heart attack call, only slightly more useful than the room’s seventies-brown wallpaper, I’d also managed to fuck up the drive to the hospital. And this is where driving to an unknown destination becomes terrifying. Imagine, again, that same lightless road in the dead of night. Now imagine tearing down that lightless road at eighty miles an hour, siren going, red and white staining the air, a never-ending sensation of your gut collapsing in on itself because of the secret knowledge, the silent horror, you have that you don’t really know where you’re going. Sure, getting to the hospital is the easy part. In general you might know where you’re headed. The hospital might even look inviting from miles away, where it sits comfortably on a hill. But the closer you get and the higher the buildings loom, you realize the hospital’s a pretty big place, sprawling over several city blocks. And it is then that the terror grips you, or at least me, because:

1. You’ve never been to this particular hospital before.

2. It’s a pretty fucking huge hospital.

3. You realize the emergency entrance could be anywhere.

4. You also realize, in dire situations like this, when information is needed and information is not available because he’s in the back of the ambulance treating a heart attack patient, cosmic law dictates the blood red emergency sign will be hidden in plain view and / or the entrance will be opposite your current location.

I did manage to find the ER, eventually. Though at the time I was so anxious, so choked of adrenaline, so needing my partner’s experience and reassurance, that when he yelled from the back, What are you doing you’re going in the wrong way! I stopped the ambulance dead and attempted to reverse out of the single lane drive, toward where I wasn’t quite sure—toward anywhere, wherever was correct, wherever lurked the right way. This, all while a small cluster of nurses watched, arms folded, from the emergency bay doors.

What in the hell are they doing, must have been the question of the moment.

I recall having another ‘wake up’ moment then, realizing how idiotic this was, that, right way or wrong way, nothing mattered as long as we arrived with the patient. But by then I felt about three feet tall, like a fumbling, slobbering idiot in an EMT’s navy blue getup.

So, two minutes after arriving that warm, gentle night in May, I left the station. Gave up being an EMT for good. I no longer had the respect of my co-workers and could not imagine working with the same three men who had been in the kitchen, dishing out stories of my spectacular fuck-ups. In truth, the walk-out was a long time coming. The job had been my first experience in any health care setting. I hadn’t yet learned medical terminology, and I was truly learning on the job. By the time I quit my last name had become synonymous with dumbass.

After that experience, needing money for food and rent, I exiled myself to a string of menial jobs, doing whatever in order to survive. Quickly I realized I was back where I’d started, all those years ago. Thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three, working alongside kids out of high school. Wasn’t long before all those negative thoughts returned. Every day, I found myself wanting to check out, to say, Fuck this I’m gone.

THERE WILL ALWAYS BE WEDNESDAY NIGHTS

Last Tuesday, the nineteenth, I sat for an interview for admission to a Radiology school in my area. The interview was the culmination of a month’s long application process. Mid-February I had to complete a general assessment known as the Keystone Exam. The hopeless romantic I am, I’d decided testing at 5 pm on Valentine’s Day was the best shot at seeing as few people as possible. Last thing I wanted was to test in a suffocating room with ten or twenty other sweaty candidates. As it turned out, aside from the program director and myself, only one other person—a young woman—showed up. Briefly, as we sat hunched over our tests with sharpened no. 2 pencils, I glanced to my left at her and wondered if this might have been fate, our paths crossing like this—could it have been a starry love in the making?

Last Tuesday, the nineteenth, I sat at a thick, mahogany table with three interviewers and for twenty-seven minutes struggled and sweated my way through eight essay questions in the form of, “Describe a time when you were openly criticized by a supervisor or another co-worker and explain how you ….” Much of the experience is a blur now. Only a few moments stand out with clarity. Like when they concluded the interview and we all stood from our comfortable, plush leather seats. When they guided me out through a door behind where I had been sitting. Then the stark realization and embarrassment I had, wondering if the sweat on my back had infiltrated the cotton-polyester fibers of my shirt and exposed me for the uncool, shaky-handed fraud I was. And later, rushing toward the elevators with the desperate hope that I would not hear them chuckling behind the door.

Last Tuesday is all it takes: wanting an opportunity desperately enough to obsess about it later, to spend the evening and the next day counting the myriad ways you fucked up. That’s how I get turned around. That’s how I find myself thinking about some pretty bad things. That’s when it’s Wednesday night and I’m sitting around reading or watching TV and not seeing or hearing any of it, instead seeing myself from some floaty out-of-body perspective, drifting into a Walgreens at two in the morning with a mission: buy alcohol, drink myself dead. I want to claim ignorance here, that I don’t know why I have these desires, but deep down I think I do. I think I know very well what’s going on. It’s just that there are so many small issues, like little tiny cuts—individually they are harmless. But together the blood just comes and comes. The focus is often only myopic. Anything larger and it seems too large, something that hides, cannot be seen in total. But I think of that lightless country road and it’s speed without limits, eighty miles an hour or more in one terrifying downward direction.

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