It’s like that last bike ride.
It is Labor Day, the sun past setting. Labor Day is cordoned off, a liminal world unto itself separate from the before and after it separates. But there’s no big sky religion here, only the mundane profane of a day rich white men terrified of Communists moved from May to September. Dogmatic leftist historians may fume, but this move is an inadvertent gift. We now have a day to celebrate the end of summer that is a transition in itself. Inside this day nothing is solid. Everything is being formed.
I can’t remember which summer it was–fifth, sixth grade, because I was really dreading summer being over and the next day being school. I was riding my bike around Norwood [Elementary School], around the playground and down along the treeline that led to the creek. I just rode around, looking and thinking about how everything was going to change. When it started getting dark I went home. I remember pulling up into the driveway and realizing this was the summer’s last bike ride. No more summer bike rides–there wasn’t any more summer to have them in. And that was it for summer!
I am on the phone with my oldest friend. A new job starts for me tomorrow, and it could not be more like that time when our ages were just in double digits: night descending with finality, every moment a world. This is more or less what he said…more or less. We both know the feeling but in recounting it I want it to be even more than it was. I was listening, then and now. I was hanging on, just a little.
He finished that bike ride and went in, and after the pile of crisp new school supplies was checked and the last moments of Hee Haw ignored, he was in bed, staring at the ceiling. I was too.
Since February or March sick tickles have sizzled inside my arms, sweat drenching the bed nights, fatigue settled over me in the classic leaden suit, the strange not-quite-headache sensation I describe as “helmet head” but with the helmet inside the skull–these all have settled in this muscle or that connective tissue, rummaged around a while, and then left. It was never bad. It never upset me, but I noticed. I could have been more B-movie about it: So. We meet again. Instead I kept going to work and writing evenings and weekends and made sure to not skip vitamins.
Last year’s heebie-jeebies have been nowhere. Thanks, little pink pills. You get in the way of what little blue pills are supposed to superinvigorate, but I’m told those wouldn’t be a good idea. I won’t argue with a good trade. But the weakness, fatigue, zip-zinging lightning in the arms that once was everywhere: that must go. Doc and I talk. Doc says: Mmmm. I offer that Bactrim worked great two years ago: it cleared up nights of sweat-soaked bed in three months, four tops. She flips through lab slips. You taken Flagyl? It’s even better.
I have taken Flagyl. It’s a mean one. It pulls no punches in getting the job done: biting hard into nerves, striding across the blood brain barrier, cleaning out the mind. 2004 was the first time, when I was desperate and only knew I was sick. I could hardly move, the pills came down so hard. A couple more tries after that, though only certain about 2010, the date on the remaining pills. That was easier, but still tough. I appreciate toughness. Sometimes that’s the way it has to be.
I wait until the job ends, not wanting to be incapacitated. I give in to the modern impulse to check the internet and find warnings of a first-week honeymoon before Flagyl takes the gloves off. The pills are such a plain white disc they could be placebo pills: a little powdery, one side blank, the other stamped with F 500. They go down easy.
The first minute
New Year’s Day is perfectly placed: an entire day to recover from at least staying up late. It also provides a still place for anxiety to pool for the new job starting the next day.
January 2, 2013 was grey and not too cold, but a shock from the previous day’s brilliant sun. The job is here, the one to pull me out of the dark, thin months of the previous fall (even though half of them, too, were full of sun). I don’t want a job, but need a job. I need a place to go that is not my head.
The job did what it was supposed to. I realize now for one of the few times in my life, I used a job more than it used me. At the end, everything changed: the project cancelled, people let go. Everyone is sad or flummoxed. I thought it would make things easy, but I am one of the few arranged to keep going. No thanks, I tell the shocked woman. It was calm to tell her, though some anxiety came after. It was time to be free. There was nothing to worry about. There still isn’t. Mostly, I don’t.
My mother has always had pills: vitamins, mostly, and then various antibiotics or anti-inflammatories for her allergies, “pleurisy”, and other complaints. During the Eighties War on Drugs these never registered as The Enemy. Why should they? The TV constantly hawks pills, mostly for pain. I realized the difference was the TV pills just dimmed the pain a little, if at all. They never made you feel good. The Calvinist zeitgeist approved.
Now my parents are in their 70s and, like all older people, are walking pharmacies. Blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, a few others I don’t know: and that’s just my dad. My mother, with her host of indefinite aliments, has even more. To travel, she transfers pills from the labeled pharmacy bottles or over-the-counter packages to zip-seal sandwich bags.
I think it was middle school when I first called my mom’s pills her junk, her doctor her pusherman. I’m your doctor when in need. My father said something unappreciative once. They might have said more if they knew the Curtis Mayfield song. I was my parents’ main boy, thick and thin. I’d never get mixed up in that stuff, I’m sure they thought, but Nancy and white suburban neighbors pumped the air thick with fear.
By and large, I have shunned pills. I barely tried anything in college, and didn’t understand drinking’s appeal. (I rarely drink now.) I was reluctant to try antidepressants. Since being sick I have cycled through many antibiotics, antiprotozoals, antifungals and antivirals, pills and capsules of interesting colors. MDs would be horrified, but the pills have no promise of fun. One makes pee orange, but that’s about it. The antidepressants make you crazier before they show the upside, if they have one.
Benzodiazipenes have the soft teeth of need. I understand why there are songs about them, why they engender fear. I have a bottle of them–exactly one–and I take them as directed. I don’t play around. I don’t wait for kids walking up the street to the high school to lure them into iniquity or to see what they’ll trade. In fact, I now realize my last refill was for half-strength pills: pale sunshine half-milligram instead of faded pistachio one milligram. For the past couple years I’ve been snapping the stronger ones in half, leaving the other half for another night, or reserve. I’ve been good about it. But I don’t forget. I can’t. Missing the evening dose means no sleep, and I’ve got to sleep.
Am I a junkie now? My psych nurse therapist counsels a half-milligram is nearly nothing. The hardest part about prescribing benzos, she says, is the stigma. People won’t take them. They fear being hooked. I’ve been hooked on sleep meds before. I’ve gotten off before. It could be argued I’m not off now because I am lazy. Sleep is more important than virtue.
Work in the woods
Labor Day faded out with the double-whammy Sunday letdown it always has, at least when I’ve had school or a job. Every elementary school weekend had its last milling walk with fellow stragglers to the end of the block, its last trip out to the garage, that last bike ride. After that, it was 60 Minutes and steam from Sunday dinner, then making sure everything was ready for school. The end was the sound of the TV down the hall and looking out the very black windows, the darkness thin and empty. Now is the same when the next day is a new job. Ten o’clock A.M. may not be the crack of dawn, but is still inside the walls.
But the job did not come. Bureaucratic inertia prevented the proper triplicate form being stamped in the correct ink. I am awake in the fractured headache reality that comes with never really sleeping, and by the time it’s figured out there’s no job to go to, I am too much awake.
Awake and alive and a free man yet. Tuesday, September 3, 2014 was astronomical summer’s most productive day: farther into a new chapter, farther into a next batch of Twitter stories, more on this blog, attended writing group where I focused through the coffeeshop’s Eighties pop and a giant, friendly man’s single-finger huff-puff typing to write a little bit more. I even mopped the floor. Twice long, the day’s length stretched out like as a child: the day keeps going. For once as an adult, I had more time.
All week returns to me, but I never get back to Tuesday’s double living. Relief doesn’t wake me in summertime excitement like it did in elementary school, ready to see what’s out there. I know everyone is back at school or work, and it’s uncomfortable. We are well-trained.
What is a life for?
Therapy is good for many things, including restoring a sense of surprise.
I do not have a gotcha therapist, she explains. I’m not asking open-ended questions for you to guess at and get wrong. I am like Carl Rogers, here to get in it and wrestle it with you. There’s no point in being a spectator in your own life.
Resolved: I am not doing enough, have never done enough, can’t do enough. This is the topic we have stumbled into. Why didn’t I write these books I supposedly so want to write a long time ago? Why have I been a wanderer, confused, doing well at everything I don’t care about? All that potential I had to live up to lies deflated in a pile of receipts.
For months, we talk about this. My fragile mental state then fixated on all my intractable failure. She was adamant, but still a therapist: like Jeopardy, every challenge was a question. Are you really a failure? Who’s telling you that? More important, why are you still asking the question?
Rembrandt painted and drew thousands of works, big and small. Vermeer made at most sixty-some paintings. Who is better?
Every couple weeks in her pleasant office looking out on the rhododendrons, she repeats herself. I need it. You were doing the work you needed to be doing. You were learning what you had to learn. We all learn these axes of good/bad and right/wrong, but the problem is for a real life they aren’t helpful.
I’m not doing it right. It’s all wrong and always has been. Well, there’s lots of alcohol you can drink. Drugs you can take. You can watch American Larynx and Swamp Idiots and whatever else it is people stay up and watch. You can learn to be way more self-destructive than you are. She says something I don’t quite remember, but something like: You have that artist’s eye and you won’t settle for the surface of things. That’s a great gift and a curse too. I get it. But don’t think you’ve wasted your time. Nobody’s watching. Nobody’s judging. Nobody but you.
For months, we rehearse the same play in her little closed-off stage. Then, a little at first, then all at once, the play changes. The little closed-off stage is too small. The sky no longer threatens to come crashing down. It’s not so much that I’m not asking those questions any more. It’s that the the play that asks them is no longer interesting, and I have left the show.
I had exactly one date with a woman who also wrote, though more professionally than I have. We talked a couple hours. She was nice. She was making changes, testing her freedom. She said: not writing is still writing.
What is a life for is the same as the answer 42 in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books. The entire mental world that question-answer drama implies is only one narrow possibility.
Big and small
No choice in red or blue. Taking red doesn’t wake you out of the mass dream to the horrible truth, nor does the blue keep you oblivious. Both represent a grasping at freedom much of the medical establishment doesn’t believe in. People go broke over these pills, and doctors have been threatened for prescribing them. These pills are no abdication or escape. They make an extra pair of hardscrabble hands hands for grabbing, wresting, pulling through.
Red pills on empty stomach. Blue pills require food. Blue pill with breakfast, and red pill mid-morning sometime. Evenings are the red pill some time before dinner, if I remember. The blue pill is more natural to fit in.
The reverse is no calamity–just 20-30% less is absorbed. Now, in the future I once did not believe was possible, I’m more cheap than desperate. Ten years ago there was desperation, the pills taken with slavish devotion to their needs. I held them in tight fingers and drank plenty of water. I never thought they wouldn’t work so much that I didn’t want more punishment for doing it wrong.
The job makes it easier. Blue pill with breakfast, red pill around ten or eleven, before lunch. Red pill before heading home, blue pill whenever I eat. There is a third thing I’m supposed to take on an empty stomach three times a week, and that’s trickier. I don’t feel desperate about it. I eat a lot of vegetables and whole wheat bread and consider that a likewise effort.
Everything is temporary. The job was grabbed in a moment of worry about money, and I work for money and not much else. Leaves will lighten as the days thin out, and the bright fall sun will shine even though I am inside. I’d probably be inside without the job, peering into a different screen, doing my work instead of the Man’s. So far, the Man pays better. He probably always will. I’m not sure how hard I’ll work for myself.
Mornings I write down notes from dreams, and things become clear. A third through a first draft, it’s as good as I should hope. It’s better than the two books I wrote twenty years ago that you will never see.
Jonathan Evison wrote six novels. Three of them he took deep into the forest, dug a hole, and buried. He was doing the work he needed to be doing. His latest three he has not burned.
Even when I am not writing, I am still writing.