It was a snowy evening in early February, 2003, and I was angry at Secretary of State Colin Powell. He was delivering his now-infamous address to the U.N. Security Council, providing the justification for military action in Iraq, and I was yelling at the TV. Because the speech was bullshit. We later learned much of the evidence was manipulated and a false narrative constructed by the administration as a pretext for invasion. But the bewitching rhythm of the post-9/11 war drums was hard for most of the country to resist. Despite some lingering sympathies for conservative ideology held over from my years as a Reagan Republican, and a desire to be as patriotic as the next guy, I refused to join the parade.
A few weeks after I hollered at Gen. Powell, I traveled to Sichuan Province, China, where I had been invited to lecture on intercultural communication and rhetorical theory at a university in Chengdu. It was difficult to avoid talking about the war that was about to begin. I was warned that my perspectives on the topic might be used in China as propaganda, but I didn’t care. I was disgusted by our lockstep march toward the end of history, and I was pissed that truth always seemed to be the first casualty of war. I thought the least I could do was speak out for peace and reason.
While I was in Chengdu, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a global alert about a severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) that was first detected a few hundred kilometers south, in Guangdong Province. But I didn’t learn anything about the outbreak until I landed in Chicago on my return trip, where my fellow passengers and I were briefly detained on the tarmac by the CDC. It was alarming at first, and ultimately hundreds of people died around the world, but the risk quickly faded and we were soon distracted. A week after my return, the U.S. began its campaign of “shock and awe,” where Vice President Cheney expected us to bomb Baghdad into submission and “be greeted as liberators.” We all watched the live broadcasts. Some of us waved flags and cheered. Some of us yelled at the TV and wrote songs.
It’s 19 years later and everything old is new again. It’s another invasion built on fabrications and lies, with the hubris of a global superpower on full display. Thinking they’d be welcomed and the enemy quickly subdued, they’re facing serious resistance instead. As the costs of war continue to mount, another bigger, bolder SARS (CoV-2) virus thrums in the background, revving its engine and threatening to run us all down.
It could be the end of the world as we know it. And many of us do not feel fine.
In February, 2020, my friends and I had finished all the studio work for my new solo album. After sending the mastered recordings and final artwork to the manufacturer for production, my wife and I flew to Portland for a week to visit some friends. There were reports of a virus in the Pacific Northwest that had come from China, but no one was masking or distancing yet. I wasn’t taking it that seriously. We’d been through this before.
Back home from our trip, I started practicing with a band we’d cobbled together for a flurry of shows introducing the new record; but, with the lockdown in mid-March came postponed rehearsals and mandated isolation (“just for a few days…you can leave your stuff in my basement”). Live music shut down and several of us contributed to a hastily recorded project to benefit some of our local venues. Eventually, everybody in the band came by to pick up their gear, and I canceled all my upcoming dates. I went ahead and released “Something Gigantic” online, but with no live gigs to support it, the album fizzled and flopped. No one heard it, outside my close friends and family. I thought about streaming shows online, like a lot of folks were doing, but I didn’t want to introduce my new music with a solo acoustic performance through a glitchy computer interface. I settled into the quiet to wait. And wait.
Without music as a distraction, I couldn’t ignore the gigantic book-writing project that kept staring at me like a neglected child. I had traveled nearly 30,000 miles across 44 states, talking to hundreds of people about division and polarization in Trump’s America, with the plan of writing about the journey, but the project was stalled. I tried. I tried keeping office hours and a thousand-words-a-day discipline, until I discovered I had nothing to say. I had about 500 pages of accumulated notes and journals, but I was paralyzed. Unable to find the story. And even if I did find the words, I wondered why anyone would or should give a shit what another (mostly) able-bodied, educated, middle-aged, middle-class, heterosexual white dude had to say about anything. I mean, one thing I had learned over the past few years was guys like me should probably be using our mouths less and our ears more. In this historical moment, I couldn’t escape how significant my insignificance was. It felt like I was being ground beneath the heel of a new world order. And it felt like I deserved it.
Depression and anxiety have always been part of my life — a malaise riding just below the surface, with punctuated episodes of darkness — but I was always able to push it down and brush it aside with a new project, deadline, or diversion. My former bandmate Todd Mincks and I even wrote a song about it.
But now the brittle sticks and bricks holding up my mental health were collapsing. Not because of a single cause, it was a little bit of everything: the social isolation, the late middle-age melancholia, the loss of self-worth, feelings of professional and artistic failure, a grab bag of physical and emotional traumas in my past, the profoundly hopeless state of our politics and public life, the looming prospect of World War III, the subsequent growth of the amygdala and shrinkage of the prefrontal cortex in my anxious brain…and the social isolation. I felt like I was losing battles on all fronts. I had left my home to fight against cynicism in our public discourse, and cynicism won. Bigly. I was in a tailspin, running out of my head. I had gazed into the abyss, and it was gazing right back. And I was no match for what was down there.
For a lot of us, this was a time when good things started going bad, and bad things got worse.
One morning in May, a couple of months after lockdown, I decided to stay in bed. Six weeks later I was still there. Or on the couch. Or drunk on the floor. I didn’t really understand what was happening. I just knew I hated everything and existence was unbearable. I was held together by the love of my family and the grace of my friends, who kept engaging me despite my retreat, but things were bad.
My overall health started to suffer. Toxic discourse — whether it comes from the hopeless and unforgiving voices in our own heads, or if it comes from Christians chanting, “Fuck Joe Biden” in their worship services, or racist and science-denying bullies spewing non-stop outrage on social media — can make us sick. It creates an environment of chronic stress, which inflames proteins in the body called cytokines, and shrinks chromosomal material called telomeres. The assault on the nervous system manifests as an assortment of illnesses and injuries, vandalizes our brains, and shortens our lives…one way or another. If the toxicity is systemic and unrelenting, it eventually gets tenure. It sets up office in our cerebral cortex. A doctor recently told me when our breathing patterns become faster and shallower, we become chronic hyperventilators, and our bodies are locked in a perpetual state of fight or flight. Change gets more difficult. It starts to redefine who we are. We can push back at the effects, if we discipline ourselves and practice good health, but not with the way my brain was wired. Eating healthy, exercising, sleeping, reading good books, and practicing mindfulness are all things that require me to have some degree of optimism. I had none.
Around this time I had a dream where I had been invited to a summit at Camp David for some reason. I have no idea why. Maybe to mediate in talks between Putin and Zelenskyy, or to help brainstorm what the federal government should do about all the newly adopted dogs that would be neglected when everyone went back to the office. The only scene I remember from the dream was arriving at the gates and being greeted by Gilbert Gottfried, who turned me away, shouting indignantly, “YOU CAN’T STAY AT CAMP DAVID UNLESS YOU’VE STAYED AT CAMP DAVID!” A stupid dream tautology, but it captures the dilemma I felt. I couldn’t make an effort to feel better, until I felt better.
In the absence of hope, my days were dominated by Red Vines and Jameson, lethargic sweatpants, and episode after increasingly absurd episode of The Blacklist at 2:00AM. I gained junk weight from empty calories, then lost it when I’d quit eating altogether. My joints were hurting, and my body ached. I developed severe headaches and a deep cough. It wasn’t Covid. I regularly tested negative, and besides, I never left home. It was me, turning against myself. I kept waving a white flag, but there was no ceasefire.
I somehow rallied several weeks later to support our daughter and son-in-law through the birth of their first child. The likelihood of postnatal heart surgery was high, so we all relocated temporarily to St. Louis so the baby could be delivered at Barnes Children’s Hospital. In September, 2020, our beautiful grandson was born and underwent a successful procedure. And I began a new semester of teaching. Helping my family isolate and protect our vulnerable little guy, while managing lectures, discussions, and guest speakers for a graduate class conducted online and on Zoom kept me productive and focused.
The distractions didn’t last. I felt like I was being chased.
Churchill famously referred to his chronic depression as the “black dog.” I like the canine metaphor, but the term, coined by Samuel Johnson, can contribute to a whitewashing of mental illness, where the health and well-being of white people is highlighted over the systemic “white dog” that regularly causes physical and mental illness in communities of color. I don’t want to privilege my issues and distract from the systemic shit POC face in our society, so maybe I’ll call it my “feral dog.”
In any case, when my life settled back down to a sort of normal, things got bad again, and the depression dog was scratching at the door. And it wasn’t going away. I disappeared down a hole again, and this time I wasn’t sure I was coming back.
I hadn’t written anything of substance or touched my guitar in over a year, and — with the exception of my immediate family and a handful of “porch and firepit” friends — I was completely isolated. The epistemic crises, the existential dread, and the overall public and private batshittery had become more than I could bear. I dropped out of social media and social life, I didn’t answer messages, I retreated further.
Last summer, my wife, who is superhumanly patient and supportive, was getting more worried about me. She encouraged me to get some help. So I did. I started seeing a therapist in July, and my doctor started me on meds in August. I was diagnosed with major depression and (unexpectedly) an “inattentive type” of ADHD. But things didn’t get better right away. In fact, for a while they got worse.
The fall of 2021 another new semester began, and I had a brief moment of healthy distraction. But it didn’t last. I came very close to bowing out and disappearing on my teaching duties, along with everything else. I couldn’t bring myself to abandon my class — my sense of obligation runs deep — so I kept my word and did my job. But I didn’t do it very well; I was off my game.
In the meantime, I was at least able to get some personal writing done. It read less like a journal and more like a freewheeling suicide note. I don’t think I was making plans to end my life, really, but I thought there was a chance (a hope, maybe) I’d stop existing.
I’ve passed my “best if used by” date. I mean, people still keep me in the fridge, because it seems important to have something like me on hand. But when you really think about it, or if you get close and take a smell…guh.
If I disappeared tomorrow, it would make some people sad. In a few hours — minutes, maybe — most of them would get over it. In a few days, nearly everyone would get back to life as usual. In a few weeks or months, life would completely cover over the tracks I left in the world and there would be no sign of me.
I met a woman at the memorial site of the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. She gave me some cards with “You Matter” printed on them. Nice person. Simple profundity. I liked it. I don’t believe it anymore. Not really. I guess the best I can hope for is to plant some shrubs. And I could make sure I find some awesome art to hang on the walls of my awesome house, ‘cause having awesome art and an awesome house with awesome shrubs is fucking awesome, ya know? Beep. Bop. Boop. The thought of living like this for 30 more years…holy shit.
It’s a bleak picture, yes, but a picture that’s not completely wrong. In a historical sense I don’t matter. Most of us don’t. A third of Americans can’t name all four of their grandparents. Nearly sixty percent of us can’t name even one of our eight great-grandparents. So, unless you become a president, an Olympic gold medalist, or you break up with Taylor Swift, you’ll likely be forgotten within three generations, if not sooner. Someday we’ll be trees falling in the woods with no one to hear us. Will we still make a sound? Sure, I guess. Will anyone give a shit? Probably not. That terrifies me. Ceasing to exist — in corporeal form and as a memory — is far more frightening than eternal punishment in a make-believe afterlife (“Lord, let me die, but not die out“).
I think most of us exist somewhere between cripplingly low self-esteem and egomaniacal narcissism, with a healthy need for significance, a desire to be seen and known amidst the bullshit. I’d been chasing the promise of significance my whole life. Growing up, I felt significant because God loved me, and my mother would pray aloud about what a great man I was going to be for the Lord. Neither the Lord’s nor my mother’s dreams were realized, but I managed to stay busy. I fathered, taught, wrote, played, sang, traveled, talked, built, and grandfathered. In some cases I was compelled by biology and necessity, but in at least as many others I was driven by the human desire to transcend my pedestrian existence and be the subject and teller of stories that endured.
When we returned to Springfield three years ago we built a new home in our old neighborhood. Last fall, our builder called to tell us he had submitted our house for local and national design awards, and we had won. This news was unexpected and gave me a momentary boost of significance (my edifice complex…?). It was momentary, though, because the feeling never lasts. The need for significance becomes a beast that must be fed. And it’s hungry.
Recovering alcoholic and Grammy winner, Jason Isbell, spoke about this topic recently on a podcast about mental health. In response to what is, for some, a paralyzing fear of cosmic insignificance, Isbell had a different take: “I look at that, and it makes me feel great. None of what I’m doing means anything, so I can’t fuck this all up. I don’t know if that comes from the perspective of being an alcoholic, or addict, who’s fucked a lot of stuff up, but I look at it and say, ‘Man, I can’t break this vase that is civilization; it’s not down to me. So, I can have some fun.'” I’ve been chasing the freedom that comes from that kind of honesty and humility for a while now. Isbell has been in therapy a lot longer than me, so I’m hoping I’ll get there in time.
As my fall semester went along, I was struggling to keep up with things in my normal fashion. When you feel near death all the time, it’s hard to grade online discussions with any real interest. A few weeks in, I decided to try honesty. To hell with mental health stigmas. I emailed my students and revealed what I was going through. I asked their forgiveness and for them to be patient with me. Most stayed silent on the topic. I’m sure my credibility suffered with some of them. But the few responses I got brought me to tears. They were very gracious. Several messaged me to tell me how helpful it was to hear someone who appeared to have it all together share a story that sounded very similar to their own. It started to look like there were whole packs of feral dogs nipping at our heels. Things were bad all over, with mental health professionals reporting unprecedented spikes in demand.
What’s happening to us? That question is too big for me to answer thoroughly, but here’s my hot take: We live within a communication architecture designed to break us. To those who control the structure or profit from it, our increasingly fraught emotions are a feature, not a bug. Scared people buy more stuff, and are much easier to control. Our need for dopamine hits keeps us pushing the buttons to buy, “like,” and rage. Our polarization and fragmented tribalism feeds an epistemic collapse, allowing us to dismiss the authority of history, science, and critical thinking; and truth becomes a matter of existential power, not external reality. Might makes right. The subsequent demise of facts and reason elevates paranoia and conspiracy thinking, which feeds fears of cultural displacement, emboldening the hoi polloi to threaten school board members, promote systemic racism and virtually every kind of crackpot discrimination available. The way we eat and drink is making us sick. We’re suffering nature deficits as we huddle around the glow of our devices. As we segregate ourselves more, whether from pandemic isolation or political boundaries, we release more chemicals like oxytocin that prompt us to favor “us” more aggressively and dehumanize “them.” This sets up groupthink behaviors justifying aggression and the demise of democracy, and opens the threshold to war and genocide. (The end of the world as we know it?)
As Gen. David Petraeus famously asked nearly two decades ago, as I was getting over jet lag and the fear of SARS, and U.S. forces pounded their way into Iraq, “Tell me how this ends.” If so many of us are facing mental health challenges, what will come of us? What are we doing about it?
For those who are suffering, it’s hard to do much, since survival is about all we can manage. Those who haven’t experienced it aren’t likely to see it as critical. Add that to the ongoing stigmas (self-imposed and external) we face in communicating about mental health issues. I’m not immune to those stigmas.
I’ve been chewing on a version of this essay for months. Confessing this kind of weakness makes me very vulnerable. I wasn’t sure I was ready for that kind of self-disclosure. But I decided that if we’re going to crack the case, we’ve got to pry open our shells and share who we really are. I know plenty of people who aren’t comfortable hearing or talking about this topic. Frankly, I’m not entirely sure I am. But, the suicide of a friend a few weeks ago prompted me to speak up. I don’t know why he did what he did, but I do know that lots of people like him are struggling. And most of them feel terribly alone. If hearing more stories moves them back from the edge, or inspires them to reach out for help, it’s worth the risk.
So. If you are traveling at the speed of dark and black or white dogs have taken a giant shit on your couch, and the dishes are piling up, and you are certain you’re terrible at parenting, or forgiveness, or chess; and you’re pouring another (and another, and another) drink, and you’re starting your fourth Mission Impossible movie in a row — not because it’s good cinema but because it numbs the goblins in your brain — I see and hear you. The ocean you are falling into is full of drowning people. And I’m one of them. I’m not “okay” yet, whatever that means. The not-bad days are outnumbering the awful ones, but mostly I find myself, as Matthew Arnold describes it, “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born.” The feral dog never quite goes away. I keep feeding it. It keeps biting my hand — less frequently, thanks to a fortunate support system, a thoughtful therapist, and pharmaceuticals. A shaky and tentative practice of gratitude, vulnerability, and mindfulness helps. I carve out time most days to focus on breathing. I’m slowly starting to see my friends again, as the threat to our unvaccinated 18-month-old grandson begins to ease. One of these days I’ll pick up my guitar and make music again. I still yell at the TV (or computer screen) sometimes.
These dark days have gollumed me. They’ve bent me and burned me, and made me into their image. But I’m still here, accomplishing nothing gigantic, but trying to do something — learning to play the symbols and become part of a narrative that’s bigger than me. Maybe this is partly what Joan Didion meant when she said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
If you’re in pain, I’m not sure what I can do to help you, beyond telling my story. Take a moment to breathe. Give yourself some compassion. Have the faith to reveal the broken version of you to your people — the people who are supposed to love you. If they’re assholes and tell you unhelpful shit like, “I loved who you were becoming,” or “you’ll never be happy until you get back into a right relationship with the Lord” (things I was told by people who were supposed to love me), find better people. Take lots of walks, and while you’re walking, think about all the things you should say to a trained professional. Then find a trained professional you can say those things to. If they’re not a good fit, try someone else. Keep trying. Keep breathing. Give yourself some grace. You matter. I think we all do. We might not matter much in a hundred years, but we matter now. I hope we do. If we don’t matter intrinsically, if the meritocracy we’ve been sold by privileged oligarchs, the Little Lord Fauntleroys of Silicon Valley, and the carnival barkers of Six Flags Over Jesus is the only way we can measure our worth, then come over to my house. We’ll dance. We’ll sing, “a tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies.” And we’ll yell at the TV together.
*When I was a high school speech and debate coach in the ’90s, there was a widespread rumor that R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe had been a debater, and that this song was influenced by debate arguments about the destruction of the world. It’s probably not true, but it’s a good story.
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