Friday, March 13, 2009

Breakdown






(Some of you might recognize this essay from its previous publication in Washington DC's now prematurely folded Beta-Culture 11. I include it here because it's an important episode in my life).


I find him laid out face-first on the floor of the garage. He’s banging his forehead against the concrete floor, punching it with tight fists. I can hear the screaming coming from all the way across the apartment complex common. The sounds of his rants are like knives piercing my sternum. He wants to be free of the dreaded weight. He wants out of life.

To witness the nervous breakdown of your own child is no different than watching cancer devour a young body. Like cancer, depression is a powerful disease that can render even the strongest of parents paralyzed. Maybe this isn’t my first encounter with his depression-like symptoms, but it is the first encounter with a clinical breakdown.

It is not the stuff for the faint of heart.
When a child like my son Jack suffers a nervous breakdown, it’s as if he has become possessed. The violence is a traumatic thing to experience, a frightening scene to witness. He issues guttural screams. He claws at himself, tears at his clothing. He punches the wall full-force, enough to break skin and bone. But he will not feel the pain so much as he will welcome it, covet it, the same way an addict lusts for a drug. This is not Jack lashing out. This is Jack hurting himself. Rather, by hurting himself he is trying to cauterize the deeper pain that has consumed his soul. This is as close as Jack will get to harming himself, without actually committing suicide.

By breakdowns end, the boy is spent.
He is soaked through with sweat; face and chest moist from tears, saliva and snot. Dark hair is mussed and matted. Hands and knees are encrusted with dirt from the garage floor, some of the cinders having cut into his skin. He is cut and bleeding in more than a few places. It’s possible he’s broken a finger; maybe a pulled muscle. His exhaustion is so profound, he wraps his arm around my shoulder allowing me to support most of his weight for the journey from the rented garage to our terrace apartment.

On the walk across the common, his head will hang low, chin against chest. Big tears fall, but the sobs more quiet now. Voice will be a hoarse whisper.
“I’m sick,” he will mutter. “I’m sick.”
It’s all I can do to hold back my own tears as I get him through the back door and onto the couch.

What to do next?
I don’t know what to do next. I’ve never before experienced the breakdown of my child. All I do know is that my pulse pounds, mouth is dry, hands tremble. I need a drink.

Looking at Jack laid out on the couch, eyelids at half-mast, I consider dialing 911. But I fear the move will absolve me of all control. In every “Cuckoo’s Nest” sense of the word, I picture the nuthouse. I see straight jackets, injections, big powerful men dressed all in white who instead toss Jack into a rubber room, bolt the door behind him.

Not over my dead body.

I decide to do something totally out of character: I call his mother, seek out her help.
Once more I hold back tears when I tell her, “I can’t handle it.”
My ex-wife insists he needs a hospital. That she knows what he’s going through; that she too had a breakdown not long after our separation which led to months of rehab and a strong medicine which she will ingest for the rest of her life. In the end, her bipolar condition is what led the courts to hand over custody of my two boys to me.
Since then I have tried to play Mr. Mom and Mr. Dad, but looking at my son sprawled out on the couch I feel a failure.

My ex, however is willing to do what she can. She’s going to place a call to her doc at the Four Winds Psychiatric facility in Saratoga. The doc will in turn call me in order to get a better idea of Jack’s symptoms.

I await the call.

When the doc calls I am no longer able to hold back my emotions. The flood gates open. It’s some time before I can get my message across.

“My son is sick,” I tell him, reiterating Jack’s words precisely. “I don’t know what to do.”
Doc tells me to calm down. That if I fear for Jack’s life; for my own life, to immediately get him to the emergency room. I tell him that it’s not necessary. I trust my son, even in this condition. I trust in him; trust that he will not do anything to harm himself or me or his little brother.
Then comes the question: Do I have guns in the house? If so, get rid of them. Get rid of anything you might constitute as a dangerous weapon. Hunting knives, ropes, darts, razor blades.
“Ditch the bottle of Tylenol,” the doc says. “An overdose can be lethal.”
“I prefer Ibuprofen,” I tell him.
“Excellent,” he says.

He wants to see Jack first thing in the morning, start him on medication. No more school for a while, no more friends or activities. “Keep a close watch on him. Let him sleep if he wants to sleep. Above all, don’t excite him.”
He hangs up.
I feel drained.
Drained, stomped on, gutted, bled out, crushed….
I pop a beer, drink down half of it on one swallow. The alcohol goes right to the sweet spot in my brain, tempers my despair, my anxiety. I stare at Jack on the couch. He’s fetal, sleeping like a baby. I remember him as a baby, like it was yesterday. I remember changing his diapers, holding him against me, tossing him in the air, hearing him laugh. The boy passed out on the couch I do not recognize.
_ _ _

What follows over a period of 24 hours is a series of tests and consultations with psychiatrists and psychologists. Jack is placed on anti-anxiety/anti-depression medication. While admittance to a hospital is once more discussed, it is argued by the professionals that to lump Jack in with persons suffering from schizophrenia and psychosis would be a grave mistake. At this stage of the game, that is. This news comes as a relief, although I’m not entirely sure if the relief is for me or for him (I dread the thought of visiting my son in a psychiatric hospital).

Steps must be taken in order to get at the root of the depression. Initially the steps are simple and practical.
Do I possess firearms?
There’s that question again.
If so, I must remove them from the premises.
There’s the answer once again provided for me.
Does Jack appear suicidal? Does he speak of hurting anyone besides himself? Do I fear for my own well being when in his presence?
All the same questions that I fielded during my initial phone conversation the previous evening.
As necessary as the question are, they are disturbing.
I am a gun owner. But I don’t fear that Jack is about to use them on me or anyone else, least of all himself.
But of course, this is exactly the attitude that will get someone killed.
The guns will be removed this afternoon, I assure the doc.

It will be decided that while Jack takes a break from school he is to begin a series of therapy sessions with his psychologist. These will occur three times a week for an hour at a time. The sessions begin the very next day.
His mother and I are called in first to discuss Jack’s childhood. Was there fighting around him?
Yes, that’s why we divorced.
Did he have tantrums?
Yes, major ones, lasted for hours at a time.
Did he exhibit signs of obsession and/or compulsion?
Yes. For instance, if you didn’t tie his shoes perfectly, he’d go into a kind of seizure.
Later, as a pre-teen, he would not leave his bedroom without knocking five times on the wall.
How did he take your divorce?
Not well. He lashed out at his mother.
Etc, etc., etc.

By the end of this first fact-finding session I am again crushed, bled out, drained. I am convinced that this boy’s problem rests with me and me alone. I am at fault for his breakdown. The way I’ve raised him is the problem. My ex-wife and I—all the fighting: it is the root cause of Jack’s depression.

But then the doctor inquires about my family history and a different story emerges altogether. My ex-wife’s side has two documented suicides and several more of depression and bipolar syndrome. My ex-wife herself is bipolar.
As for my side, it’s no better.
I immediately recall a story my dad told me about his own early teenage years. How one afternoon he came home from school and without warning found himself clutching at the driveway, convinced he was about to climb up on the roof, toss himself off. A nervous breakdown followed. He was later diagnosed with depression, at a time when depression was considered shameful. Those persons afflicted with it were to be hidden, kept out of sight of the “normal” people.
My father would go on to beat his depression to become a successful business owner. Yet he would still suffer two more breakdowns. Because the depression never really leaves you. It disappears, goes into a kind of remission. You can’t fight genetics. One day he would tell me of my great grandfather who committed suicide at the dinner table—by cutting his own neck with a straight razor in front of the whole family.

The doctor looks at my ex-wife and I, raises his right hand up and down and up again.
“This depression is genetic in nature,” he says. “And it is weaving its way in and out of your bloodline.”
Bloodline.
Sitting there inside that office I suddenly regret having had children.
It is not a good thought.
This is not so good either: Jack is not genetically blessed and it breaks my heart.
But this is the modern world. Medicine and therapies are available now that can afford Jack a “normal” life. So the doc encourages.
Nor is the stigma of depression an issue.
I have no problem writing about it. It is my own therapy to write about it. If only I could step inside my son’s mind, observe the grinding wheels and gears, observe the monster hidden behind them. I might understand more, be able to better write about it.
But no matter how close I am to my child, I am an outsider looking in. I am on my knees looking down into the pit. There is nothing but cold darkness.
_ _ _
The news is not all bad.
In one week’s time, Jack makes his first advance.
He cracks a smile.
I’m not entirely sure what provokes it. Something I say or his little brother says.
Maybe something Kramer spits on a “Seinfeld” rerun.
A simple smile. A grin really.
It’s not a whole lot. You might not give it a second thought under any other circumstance. Anything normal that is.
But for me, that smile represents hope. It is the future and it is possibility.
It warms my soul like mother’s milk.
I know that we have a long road ahead. There will be more breakdowns. But perhaps the next time it happens, Jack will be ready for it.
When it does, I will be there to carry his weight.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

New Media Love


It’s ten o’clock on a cold Sunday night.

I sit at my desk inside my bedroom, eyes glued on a glowing laptop. I pop the cap on a bottle of beer, reach out with my hands, settle them gently on the laptop keyboard, give myself over to the addiction: the incessant need to check my email (AOL and Yahoo); my Facebook updates; my Twitter followers; my Myspace comments…

This is the way I rise and fall with each and every day. By updating my life; by being updated by hundreds of other lives. It’s also the way I spend a whole lot of hours in between morning and night. Emailing, updating, following, creating, recreating…by feeding the bitch.

What happens when I can’t sleep?

I check my email.

What did Mailer call the Internet? A bigger waist of time than masturbation.

I’m startled when my cell phone vibrates on the desktop.

I pick it up, glance at the caller ID. I recognize the name. It’s a new name, freshly added to my contacts just 48 hours ago. Let’s call her A because that’s the first letter of her real name. We met online a week or so ago. Cupid.com I believe it was, although it could have been Plentyoffish.com or Match.com. I belong to them all. Keep on casting your profile into the cyber pond and eventually someone will take the bate. Someone beautiful, smart and employed. A woman who is between 5’-0” and 5’-8” and of average to athletic build. A non-smoker, a social drinker who decidedly does not want children. A woman who enjoys quiet dinners and travel and live bands. A woman between the ages of 34 and 44 who is divorced (not separated) or just plain single. A woman of good humor and free of neurosis.

The phone vibrates in my hand.

It feels sort of good vibrating against the skin on my hand.

For a split second I consider punching Ignore. I’m not much in the mood to talk. I’m not much in the mood to talk on the phone, ever.

I answer the phone.

“This a bad time?”

I sip my beer, sit back in my desk chair. On Facebook, my ex-girlfriend (we’ll call her S), has tagged me in a picture snapped when we were still in college.

“Just getting ready for bed,” I say half heartedly. In the Facebook photo, I’m sitting on a couch beside the lovely blond S. We look incredibly young and hopeful.

My new friend A breaks me out of my spell. She doesn’t ask, but tells me to hang on while she heads up to her bedroom.

I obey. What choice do I have? I can either hang on or hang up. Over the phone I hear a half-hearted goodnight to A’s live-in mother, then the sound of feet climbing the stair-treads, followed by a check on her six year old son in his bedroom.

“Go to sleep, baby. Nite nite.”

The phone pressed up against my ear, I hear bare feet shuffling on carpet. In my head I picture a narrow hallway inside a cookie-cutter split-level. I hear a door close, and a distinct metal against metal latching noise. I know without having to ask that A’s now locked and loaded behind her bedroom door. I’m wondering why she just didn’t lock herself in for the night and then call me. Maybe she had something to prove to her mother. Maybe she’s acting on impulse. Maybe she’s a bit crazy. Maybe it’s me who’s crazy. Maybe I shouldn’t have answered the phone in the first place.

At the same time, I’m picturing the forty-something woman whose photo ID I’ve memorized from the computer. The dark short hair, the even darker eyes, the slightly crooked but attractive smile.

I wait for her to say something.

“How was your weekend?”

“This is Albany, remember?”

What I really want to tell her is that I tried to kill myself with an overdose of booze and painkillers. But that would be stretching the truth a teensy-weensy bit. The booze and painkillers part is all true. It’s just that the actual act of suicide never entered into my head. Not once. Not really.

On Twitter, a Florida woman posts a story about an alligator that ate her puppy dog.

Some A and I back-story: after weeks of cat-and-mouse online conversation, we met face to face for the first time just a few days ago. We “got acquainted” by sharing a cocktail or two and a conversation that transpired more like a job interview. Where did you grow up? Where’d you go to school? How many kids you got? You like your work? Why’d you get divorced? We covered our combined 80 years in the span of a half hour. We covered all the high and low lights. Everything that is, but the truths we decided to leave out. That’s the beauty of online dating. You get to edit your life at will.

She’s not saying much. But I do hear the rustle of clothing and I know she’s getting undressed.

Interesting.

I take another sip of beer. I get new mail on AOL. A note from my band-mate Davey. Practice on Tuesday and a new show booked for March 13th.

“What’s happening?” I say.

“Getting more comfortable,” she says.

A drawer opens and closes. More rustling. The abrupt coil-like sound of a body lying back on a mattress; a bed board gently hitting the sheetrock wall. But now instead of background noise, I make out breathing. Heavy, rhythmic breathing gradually picking up speed.

“You…alone?”

“Uh huh,” I say. I ask what she’s doing, even though by now it’s pretty obvious.

“You gotta ask,” she says like a question

Oh goody, I think. I’m gonna rock out with my cock out.

But A surprising thing happens to me then. A wave of indifference washes over me. What the fuck? I should be honored. I should be into the spontaneity of it all. I’m lucky to have met such a nice woman. Nice, as in a woman who cares enough to share herself with me, even if it is over a cell phone; even if what she’s doing is a little out-of-the-Betty-Crocker-norm.

“This is a nice surprise,” I say. I’m not sure if I sound sincere enough. But just to make myself sound more sincere, I attempt to play along.

I begin to ask her all the standard questions. What kind of underwear she likes to wear; is she completely shaved; is she into threesomes…

“What would we do with another girl?” she muses.

I feel stupid.

I ain’t rockin’ out and my cock ain’t out.

More moaning follows which culminates with a cry and what is obviously a pillow pressed over her face.

You don’t want to wake the kid.

Silence ensues.

The silence grows more awkward by the second.

Dead silence.

Politely she asks me if I finished and I have no choice but to lie.

“Sure…Great.”

“Maybe we can have dinner this week,” she says, “and get some of the real thing.”

The real thing. I’m not sure I remember the real thing.

But A sounds satisfied and hopeful. Optimistic even. Welcome to the new world order. Facebook, Twitter, phone sex, email sex, text sex. Entire relationships conducted over cellular waves and cyberspace. Why even meet in person. Dig the new media love.

“Yeah,” I say, “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

But it’s a lie.

She says goodnight, hangs up. If we were sharing a bed, this would be the part where she rolls over onto her side and I roll over onto mine, our backs facing one another like the reconstruction of the Berlin Wall. In the middle, barbed wired no man’s land.

The cell is still hot in my hand.

I make a decision then and there.

I punch contacts.

I find her name and number.

I thumb Options.

I punch Erase.

No more A.

I put the phone down, stare at the computer screen, at the AOL news.

Somewhere in New Orleans, a Muslim man has beheaded his wife.

I wonder what’s gotten into me? But then I quickly realize that the problem is not what’s gotten into me so much as what hasn’t gotten out.

It’s possible I’m still holding the torch for my wife.

No, allow me to rephrase for the sake of accuracy.

It’s possible I still love my ex-wife, ex being the key prefix here, since I just can’t get used to the concept. Even three and a half years after our official split. Or is it that I’m in love with the idea of my ex-wife; the romance we once shared; the good times; the adventure. Interesting how all the bad—and there was a lot of it—never enters the picture.

Christ, maybe I should just get the hell over it already.

I steal another sip of beer, check the clock.

10:20PM

I pick the phone back up, hit the speed-dial that will connect me to my Ex.

Let’s call her L.

She answers wearily, if not groggily.

“I wake you up?”

“You have to ask?”

I feel a strange sensation just hearing her deep voice, knowing that her prone body is lying under the covers, the long smooth dark hair draping the pillow, big brown eyes half open, half closed, her thick lips touching the mouthpiece to the phone that connects to my own and my own lips.

Not so long ago I used to spoon into that body…that real human flesh body. I know how her skin smells after a shower. I know how her hair feels in my fingers. I remember how her lips feel against mine. I know the sound of her breathing when she slips into a deep sleep. I remember it all and I relive it often. Especially at night.

Only problem is, I’m no longer sure what’s real and what’s made up? Where does reality stop and fantasy take over?

I feel my heart skip a beat.

“Can I come over?”

She exhales, “Pleeeaaasseee.”

I feel my throat constrict, my pulse elevate. I feel the onslaught of panic. Why the hell did I have to go and ask her that?

“Sorry,” I say. “I’m sorry…Good night.”

“Good night.”

I go to tell her I love her, but she’s already hung up. The line is dead. I know she wouldn’t return the love anyway. Not at this point. But it still feels good to say it now and again.

I love you.

I love the idea of you.

I love the made up memory of you…of a past we never really shared.

I set the phone back down on the desk, get undressed, slip into bed.

I keep my eyes open, peer out at the darkness.

The infinite, absolute darkness.

I grow weak.

I close my eyes.

I see nothing.

I grow weaker.

In the morning I will get on with my life.

For now I close my eyes, wait for sleep.

Wait for nothing….