A Parking Garage on Sansom Street
Chapter Eleven of The Places I Lost It
Meanwhile, I was making coffee. The job at Starbucks started with a panic. A few weeks in I made an off-color joke about a dream a female co-worker had about another woman, and she threatened to file a sexual harassment complaint against me. I thought my attempt at stability was over just as my waiting period was up and the medical insurance was about to kick in, but my sense of humor helped diffuse that incident and she and I grew friendly. One young man on staff supplied me with endless new music, and another joined with me in comedy routines that made customers and colleagues roar with laughter and filled the manager with dread at what we might say next. Two young girls who worked there were off to NYC to hear a famous DJ one weekend. I gave them a few Klonopin to enhance the experience, and they remembered little of the trip, except for waking up with some Spanish-speaking guys in Jersey City. Another kid there was employed as a youth minister, and I teased him unmercifully about his evangelizing. I was working with people in their teens and twenties and not acting my age at all. All along I thought I was recovering. All along I was in my 40s and pathetic. My life became a pilot for a sitcom as I plunged into bathos.
I still saw Courtney fairly often, bringing her chocolate drinks after close and engaging in weird, bible approved sex every once in a while, but that soon fizzled and I fell into the occasional dalliance. One was with a woman with a Kandinsky tattooed on her back, another a school principal who looked like Halle Berry, and a third a new ager who gave me a statue of Ganesh and wanted a certificate that proved I tested negative for HIV. But after a while, I found no one to share anything with at all and settled into being alone. It was time.
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One Sunday night, with a few young Jehovah’s Witnesses (who I called J Dubs to their giddy approval) sitting in the café, a big white Dodge Ram pulled up to the drive through. In it were two drop-dead sexy women, dressed as dancers in a country western video, and they taunted me to rip off the headset, lock the store, and come with them wherever they were going. They parked and came inside, and I ended up with both of them in the cab of the truck. It was a chance to leave it all and go somewhere else, preferably somewhere far away, and just start over. The myth of America, the myth that has become impossible in our plugged-in, over-connected age, was the ability to be anyone, anywhere, at any time, and in 2005 this was the last chance I’d have to disappear; to commit metaphorical suicide and wake up in a strange place without the weight of the past I dragged around with me, and without the responsibility of getting better to the exclusion of mindless passion. The cowgirls touched me and kissed me deeply, as if it was my first kiss so many years before on a dock on Lake Winnipesaukee in a campground in New Hampshire, with an older girl who held my cheeks for a moment before caressing my lips. In that moment, just before joining with unfamiliar warmth, was a firing of a simmering sensation of hypomania.
Hypomania is a state of lucidity and energy unequaled by sobriety and a stable life, and if I could bottle it I’d be a billionaire. Under its spell I came fully alive and sparked ideas and moved the earth with the charisma of a front man and the telling of a prophet. Easily in reach was the success of a gilded age robber baron. Under hypomania’s spell it seemed there was nothing I couldn’t do, and others would line up to help me do it. Inhibitions and limitations fell away and ladders just appeared for me to climb to higher places. As a young man I spent years in this state, and it still blessed me occasionally, albeit with less intensity, as I stuck to my prescribed treatment. The longing for hypomania was a barrier to effective therapy and a common reason for non-compliance with proven treatment regimens. The drugs beveled my edges, made me less sharp, and, without the ideas born of an exuberant mind, I seemed less relevant. Years dragged on less creative, less vibrant and vital, and certainly less exciting than the years spent flying high, and I longed for that hypomanic feeling despite the fact that I always spun out of control and crashed to the ground after the climbing moods took me ever higher. Now I had a chance to fly again, and why not, because even when I stuck to treatment it seemed episodes still let me down and I still spun dizzily crazy.
The women in the pickup were like sirens, with steel guitars and fiddles wailing, throwing me back to the old-time country and bluegrass that twanged from my parents’ radio and filled the air that cool night by the water with the older girl in New Hampshire, when I was still young and innocent enough to be impressed and everything was new. The pickup’s door opened to offer escape and immersion into a more intense, and possibly final, sense of exuberance as we drove out of the Delaware Valley straight into a plain on fire, consumed by a desire to discover feelings lost since I was 15. But I set a goal to get better, and any goal comes with discipline, sacrifice, and compromise in its execution. I traded the highs of hypomania and the risk of full-blown, psychotic mania for the stability of a life well lived and the promise of a healthy future and, while I didn’t have much, I knew where I was going and how to get there. I kissed the cowgirls goodbye, and stood by the order board as they peeled out and squealed off, soaring down route 70 as a last chance to overindulge in temptation disappeared. I wanted to call out, to beg them back, but they were gone as cyphers blending into the traffic until I lost them, and I returned to the café and wheeled out the mop bucket, counted the register, and cleaned the urns. I said good night to the J Dubs as they and their chaperones moved to the tables outside to revel in their innocence and promise, with the certainty of the faithful and the future of youth. I’d be back the next day, and the day after that, remembering a glimpse of what could have been, as I slowly, hopefully, got better.
At the coffee shop I was open about having bipolar disorder from the start. I viewed the job as sort of mission work. To make my comeback visible would combat the pervasive stigma that keeps so many people with mental illness out of work. It was quickly and not so privately revealed to me that several of the young people who worked at this Starbucks had mental health struggles of their own. I thought I could be a positive role model, and I quickly matured and became a kind of cool uncle to the kids at the store. Customers found me easy to talk to, and they, too, inexplicably began to open up to me about their own challenges in conversations whispered over the espresso machine. I was doing well, not missing any shifts, and adding something positive to people’s days. So I posted for a shift-supervisor job. I didn’t get it. The job involved things like counting money and making sure other baristas took their breaks. Sure I was qualified, I posted again when the next position became available. Again, I wasn’t even sat down and talked to about the job. My manager told me I wasn’t ready yet. When the third supervisor position came and went, I asked Paige, the manager, if we could discuss it. Surely, after years as an executive I was qualified to make bank deposits. She arranged a time and we sat down in the back of the store to talk. Her first words were, “I want you to know this has nothing to do with your problem.” I heard nothing else.
At home my apartment seemed to tilt and I wouldn’t place anything on the coffee table, for fear it would roll off. The table spoke and asked for pills and glasses of water. I felt tied up and trapped by limitations I didn’t know existed, and suddenly my clothes didn’t quite fit. There was a ringing in my ears that cancelled out any music I tried to listen to. I kept the blinds drawn since the light hurt my eyes. I missed a shift, then two. Finally, when I drove back in I was pulled over for speeding. I told the cop I was going to be late for my job at Starbucks: “You know, where we give you the free coffee.” He wrote me a ticket for a taillight that was out. All I did that shift was call out drinks. I said nothing else. There was no suffering, no humor, no emotions at all. I was defined by my illness and I was not going anywhere. I burned myself with a spill and it felt kind of good. I obsessed that I needed to do laundry. I went to my guitar lesson in Philadelphia but rushed from the parking garage to a pay phone. A light snow fell and dusted the cars parked on Sansom Street. I rifled my pockets for change. I called my father and cried into the cold. I looked around and there were hills where I knew the street was flat. The wind picked up and flakes landed on the back of my neck and fell into my t-shirt. The snow was colder on my skin than I ever felt it. I spoke with my father, the only warm person I could reach out to, and he cried on the other end of the line. Tall buildings surrounded me. There was no safe place to go.
By nightfall I was back in an office at the Belmont Center for Comprehensive Care, and I tried to convince an intake rep that I was a danger to myself. A doctor came in to assess me. He was young, agitated, and sweaty. He seemed to have a tic. I asked him about his residency and the toll it was taking on him. He put his head down on the desk. I let him know it was OK if he wanted to talk about it and thought to myself maybe he should follow me inside. I was sent directly to the affective disorders unit, and as I settled in I saw staff I knew from before, and felt the awkward return to a place of failure. Patients greeted me warmly, but afraid that they, too, like everyone else in my life, would want to talk about their problems, I huddled in the corner of the sofa in the day room and put my head in my hands. I wanted to hide from everything and everybody. I didn’t want to hear about or deal with anyone else’s troubles, or my own. I couldn’t get a handle on my own failings, and I didn’t know what it would take to get out this time. Then I thought that to get beyond this disease, to truly recover and continue living, I should look at this hospitalization differently and focus more on learning and less on escape. I feared I had become a cynic when I needed to be an optimist to survive. Thinking I knew better led me nowhere good. It was time to honestly open up and admit that, on my own, I only found suffering without recourse. Certainly, something positive could come from all this pain.
I don’t remember any of the other patients from this stay. I went to group sessions and meals, but spent a lot of time alone meditating, applying the Zen practice of asking, “what is this?” to every thought that arose. And a lot of thoughts came up. Most of them were fantasies of me in other places and other situations, and I didn’t get very deep into the nature of my self or my motives.
My family came in for a session with a social worker, and I had the uncomfortable feeling that my brothers thought I was getting some advantage from living with Mom and Dad and periodically chilling out in hospitals. I saw no pluses in the arrangement, other than the fact that I wasn’t on the street with no means of support. My parents’ belief that they had to protect me from difficulty and stress was reinforced with every failing, and I felt myself enter a second adolescence. I needed to rebel against them in order to regain the independence that would be required to move on. By the end of the session it was pretty well established that I was not reaching the life milestones that a 42 year-old man should be hitting, but it wasn’t yet time to strike out and seek a better way. I was in an odd sort of holding pattern and no one was satisfied, but no one saw an immediate alternative, either. Bill visited, but Linda couldn’t. She’d had a bad experience in a hospital when she was young, and the memories that may have been dragged out by entering this insecure, teetering place were too risky to confront. There was no one else to come, hence no one to fake wellness to. Everybody I knew knew how sick I was.
I saw the medical director again, and the nurses kept me suitably medicated, but the staff I remember, the real heroes, were the psych techs. In conversations aside with them I felt they shared as much as I did, and in the middle of our stories was a common ground that spoke to understanding. I think the real healing happened with the techs, and they were the people I missed when I returned home. There were safe hugs and smiles when I left the muted colors and open patient room doors of the hospital, and as welcoming and friendly as everyone had been, I hoped to never see them again.
During the ride home I considered my future, and I thought a psych tech was something I could be; a way to make a positive difference for myself and others. But diving back into work and taking on as much as I could right away yielded poor results in the past. Plus I was still shell-shocked by my Starbucks manager’s condemnation of my potential, and the setback caused by my openness left me solidly cut off from the idea of sharing intimacies with others. I thought I should meditate more and get out less. I also believed, in light of the failure at the coffee shop and my subsequent disintegration, that there was little I could do to help myself at this time but lay low and explore what was wrong with me. I learned to take responsibility for my recovery, but on some level I also learned to just take. I never did go back to Starbucks. I filed for short-term disability and received it.
When I got out of Belmont I carried a strange mix of optimism and defeat. I did not expect to be in the hospital again. It seemed like whenever things were turning positive an episode would hit me hard and I’d be left without independence or the recourse of anything but a psych hospital. I knew I could get better, but I had no evidence to support that claim. I took inventory of the material and thought, with so little, maybe I should explore the spiritual again.
The art, clothes, and expensive guitar were all gone. Far from the Acura I drove years before, I had a 1992 Mitsubishi Eclipse that I bought from my sister for a dollar. The first night I parked it at the top of the driveway my father accidentally backed into it and crushed the driver side door. Then the window didn’t work and had to be pulled up or pushed down by grabbing the glass from the top and muscling it. I had a beautiful Pottery Barn sofa, but I sold that for $500. A woman with three kids bought it with her welfare check, and she asked me to drive her to a check-cashing store so she could get the money to pay me. She only had $450, but I said that was enough. I dropped her, the pillows for the couch, and the kids, all of whom had crowded into my little car, at her apartment and she gushed about my kindness and what more she could do to repay me. She said she used to have a job giving massages until the police closed the studio down, and she offered me a rubdown. I passed, and drove home to my apartment and left the frame of the couch on the front porch for her to figure out how to pick it up. I was moving.
My parents sold the duplex to my sister, and she couldn’t afford to let me live in the apartment for free the way my parents had, so I left to move in with Mom and Dad in a small house on the Black Horse Pike in Mt Ephraim that adjoined Mom’s travel agency. While I did have a private suite of rooms on the second floor, we all shared a common entrance and a kitchen. I was 42 and living with my parents.
I supplemented my short-term disability payments by working under the table two days a week at the guitar store, and my friendships with Bill and Linda there remained deep. Bill gave me lessons for free, and Linda and I discussed a life well lived as we spent long nights drinking whiskey in her house in the city. At the store I grew close to a man who also worked there named John. He had a gentle understanding and an active mind that made him seem like a loving brother to me. He’d buy me lunch, and fill me with ideas and books, and when I couldn’t take a painful day anymore, he sent me up the creaky old spiral staircase to just lay down and breathe among cases of guitars while he minded the store. He remains my closest friend.
One Saturday I drove to the train station to go into the city, and I had to open the car door to adjust the window so I could put money into the gate to enter the parking lot. When I maneuvered out of the car it rolled forward, and I jumped back in to stop it, but instead of jamming on the brake I hit the gas pedal. The car drove through the closed gate and into an embankment. I crashed, but the car still ran. I laughed out loud and then cried, thinking the whole event a metaphor for my entire life.
When I wasn’t in the city I took classes at Camden County College toward a nursing degree. I thought maybe I could be a successful psychiatric nurse, or work in clinical trials. Needing so much help just to get by led me to decide that when I got back on my feet I’d be obliged to help others. Despair, failure, and need were killing my selfishness.
I meditated daily and found that the human capacity for self-loathing as a result of deep self-examination is huge. I swore off intimate relationships until I could come to a place of self-acceptance and let go of my need to manipulate others to conform to my desperation for external validation. All the while I was lessening my opinion of those others for falling for the straw man I became. In therapy again with Dr Dube, I began to develop views of my own, instead of falling for the last, most convincing presentation I read or witnessed. In this new period of contentment I developed and deepened a few close friendships that I knew would last, which was unusual, as I carried no long-term friendships from my past, except for occasional contact with Debra. This pleasure in others and mutual sharing reduced my need for external validation and set me up to, one day, perhaps, enter a relationship with an equal again, instead of someone who compensated for some deficiency I thought I missed.
As for prospects toward independence, I was stuck in a rut of waiting for inspiration and energy that would not come. Inertia and the sameness it bred was not a good thing, as I was trying to get beyond the limitations of my illness. I was not working and I was living intimately with my parents, and they cautioned against every opportunity for growth that I could avail myself of, and sought to keep me forever in their stead, away from the influences that tore me apart. But what they didn’t realize was that the barriers were within. Negative and risky experiences did not create my illness, my illness created them, and nothing brings on negative thoughts and actions as much as inactivity, as if doing nothing could make the bad go away when in fact it just invited it. A life without risk, a life devoid of any possibility of failure, is no life at all. Yet, just as a parent wants to delay their teenager from facing the pain of adulthood, my parents wanted to protect their son, me, a man now 43, from re-entering the world that defeated him.
But I knew the defeat was internal. Mental illness can tear down one’s will and resilience and leave one on the couch with chips and a remote, unwilling to chance a challenge. The acquiescence of those closest to me only served to reinforce the surrender within. My greatest effort of will would be to bust out of the protection and low expectations, born of valid concern, of those who cared for me, and to rebuild an independent, self-sufficient life. So, as the short-term disability ran out I thought I could claw my way back to a point where I could pay my bills, both financial and emotional, and convince those closest to me that they could back off and let go. I was taking classes and working a bit. I could certainly take on more. But the gravitational pull of chanceless safety is strong. I considered a job for a moment, then settled into the waiting period for Social Security Disability Income and Medicaid. I went on food stamps and hungrily settled into a wait for total dependence. Of course I became depressed.
They say that depression is anger turned inward. People often bury a rage deep within about some injustice, and that rage can burst out at the most inopportune time. But I always coasted level, as if no trouble boiled in me at all. I was always calm, and my father told me he worried that one day I would blow up and hurt someone. My parents, in some ways, knew me better than I thought they did, and they knew of my budding resentment toward myself and my situation, and that this anger could be very dangerous if not vented skillfully. So they began to push all of the buttons that would make me go off. They taunted me with crazy politics and uninformed history, and finally I burst. I exploded one evening and paced and screamed like an animal in a cage. I wanted to break things. I was confused as to why my parents just sat there as I railed, and then they started laughing. Now I was really mad, but I understood their ruse. As I calmed down and found my breath I felt more silly than resentful. In fact, I felt great. It was cathartic. I ended up laughing at myself and I was suddenly completely in touch with how I felt about my situation. It wouldn’t last long, but that night I was emotionally clean. I looked out the front door at the motorcycles and delivery trucks rumbling past, rattling the lamp by the door, shaking this little house that sat by itself on a very busy stretch of the Black Horse Pike. Across the street was a diner that was always open, cloaked in neon lights that bled through the blinds in my room. Red and blue reflected from the building, and the colors streaked the wall across the room from the window. I had a jersey from a Mexican soccer team, The Pumas, which I bought during an odd obsession while hypomanic and possessed by a need to buy anything from Univision TV. I took it across the street and gave it to a busboy. He beamed as he set about clearing a table, the jersey carefully tucked under his arm. I couldn’t use my food stamps to pay for a meal, but I had a few dollars, so I bought a coffee and some toast. I looked across the street at the sorry house we all lived in. I was in touch with something ugly and it needed expression.
When I began meditating, I drifted into the Benedictine tradition. This newly touched rage found expression in the Divine Office practiced by the Order of Saint Benedict. A recitation of the Psalms over a period of two weeks, the Office encounters some of the deepest, and darkest, expressions of longing, hope, and contempt ever written. People are surprised to find in the Bible prayers for God to crush the skulls of our enemies’ infant children, let alone the idea that right-minded people would meditate on them. But there is a rage in many souls, and interpretations of the Psalms include one that holds that the “enemies” are completely within; doubts and defeating emotions we hold about ourselves and others that must be expunged by Grace. Only a monastic can complete the office daily, but I did the best I could, living alone in the attic with little contact with people outside of the guitar store. Old musings of religiosity crept in, and I began to attend Mass every morning. I didn’t believe any of it, but the comforting ritual remembered within my deepest sinews gave me a psychosomatic security that filled me with visceral warmth, and inconsolable doubt.
I took up running, and like every other one of my avocations, I went at it with abandon. I cut off a few pairs of sweatpants and ran through the park around Audubon Lake, near the house. Just beyond the trees were a liquor store and a welfare motel, and in the mid-morning defeated people lumbered between the bus stop and the Walmart down the street. But on the path where I ran, fathers and sons fished into the algae covered pond, and a red-tail hawk dove at the smallest squirrels as they dashed from tree to tree. The movement felt good, and I was finally out, doing something. I still played the guitar a lot, an old, cheap one, and when not meditating I spent paranoid nights reading Franzen and DeLillo. Then my inner right thigh began to hurt. Running became too painful to continue, and then walking, and an x-ray revealed a stress fracture on my femur. It seemed whenever I threw myself into something I went too far, and I managed to break the strongest, largest bone in my body by overdoing it. As with everything else I’d always done it was too much, too soon. In the inactivity that followed, thoughts that all my talents were squandered brutalized my mornings, and the wall of “my problem” rose up and kept me house bound without prospects. No hypomania brewed after this latest crash, and little motivated me to go back to work full-time. I gave up any idea of resurrecting a career and looked forward to nothing but disability insurance and excuses for why I turned out this way. As if I wasn’t cloistered enough, my periods of meditation were taken up with fantasies of becoming a monk, not for insight or revelation, but to be fed and put to work and left to sit and ponder. I meditated so much that I quit the guitar. I couldn’t just do something without it taking over my life, and my shifting goals wrenched me from the sense of recovery I felt. Up and down, always. Late one night it struck me that again I was seeking escape, some final expulsion from the life I poorly lived into a void uncertain, but less painful, than the realization that I couldn’t be who I wanted to be. But now I didn’t know who I wanted to be, and I filled out the forms for Social Security Disability Income and waited for an answer. As I watched the sky redden to the east and heard the birds come alive in the trees behind the house, I dreaded facing another day after poor sleep. I stopped and thought again, “what’s the use?” But this time I was out of energy and had no impulse to act. Panic gave way to a grave resignation.
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