(dis)Abled

I’m driving north out of Cincinnati towards the Indiana state line. The Midwestern sky is polluted with clouds that look like pot-bellied stoves long in use, charred and bowling around, hanging low and threatening. The temperature outside reads 93 degrees and the humidity percentage must be close to matching that number. Inside The Gray Haven, my mind is steadily unraveling: deteriorating into a salad of nonsensical, horrifying thoughts that play on repeat. My brain starts to resemble those black-bellied clouds overhead. No rain will fall to relieve me of the darkness.

“I wish I was dead.” “I should drive my car into oncoming traffic.” “I’m a drain and I’m better off dead.” “All I do is cost money and cause problems.” “I should just die.” These are the statements that run through my head once the pain of depression and the stab of anxiety take over my day, and they are too often accompanied by horrific images of self-harm. There’s a huge difference between having these thoughts and images in my head and actually moving forward with death by suicide, but imagine what it’s like have these ideas and statements cycle through your thinking hour after hour and day after day. It’s the worst kind of exhaustion.

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Performing in NYC, depressed AF.

Driving and fighting these thoughts for hours on end pulls all the energy out of me and I end up with nothing left to give. Just like when I was working as a psychotherapist, I end up calling in sick because I can’t muster what it takes to get the job done. Except that “calling in sick” now means that I have to cancel a gig, which takes a lot more courage than leaving a voicemail on my boss’s phone. There’s a good reason for this: I’ve never felt like I have more to give than when I’m singing and playing guitar. The thought of being unable to give what I have is almost unbearable. I’ve written before about how music is the only job I can hold down, but it is obvious music isn’t immune to the thorns of my disability.

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Something to give: Playing music for an old friend recovering from a heart transplant while traveling through PA last week. I’m grateful for these opportunities.

And there you go: I put it out there with one short sentence. I’m disabled. That’s the official classification and it’s a much more bitter pill to swallow than any of the pills populating the expansive case in my toiletry bag. I’ve been thinking a lot about my disability on this tour, probably because I feel it’s affect resting heavily on my shoulders. The weight is shame, and it compounds on itself with every passing moment. I am ashamed of myself for my disability.

I held an important conversation with a close friend at the beginning of this tour. This friend is an expert disability scholar and helped me understand the shame I feel towards myself, and the root of the disturbing self-talk that plagues me. I began to understand that I feel a self-loathing because I am not “normal”. Something she and my wife have been able to train my mind on is that “normal” is a misnomer, and my shame is a byproduct of society, not my disability.

Our society has an astonishingly limited view of functionality and worth. Worth is often measured in financial success or notoriety in one’s field. We have been trained to think that if we don’t have one or the other of these two things we are insignificant to the rest of the world. As a result of this training, our world has been constructed in a utilitarian fashion to benefit and serve those who fit the status quo. If you are outside of the ring of normalcy you tend to get left behind. Society turns on those who do not fit in, and as a result, I have turned on myself.

I hate who I am not because I hate the experience of depression and anxiety; I hate who I am because I feel I am less than those of you who are not shut out of life due to a disability. This is wholly incorrect, yet it lay at the root of my entire way of being. It’s been cemented deep within my core beliefs over years and years of mortar applications from society, media, friends, and family. No one means to entomb me with my dark cask of amontillado, but it’s happening just the same. Even the term “disabled” itself has connotations that I’m not whole, that I’m unable to be whole.

“Disability” is unfair, and I think the key lies in dissecting that word. It means that I’m unable to do something, which is true. But the effects of the word are further reaching than that: the societal meaning is closer to “I can’t do anything for myself” than the latter. This is untrue. I’m incredibly able to write, think, and feel. I’m able to play guitar, sing songs, and perform them in front of people. There are times when I’m not able to do that, like last night, but that doesn’t mean I’m unable to do them altogether. Hardly the truth. I’m able to do these things when I’m able to, and that has to be ok.

The world doesn’t work for me and folks like me, so I have to navigate it in a different way. There are times when people don’t understand this and it will repair any of the cement that I’m able to slowly chip away. I don’t think it’ my lot to be free from this, so this is a lifetime work. I just hope that someday I can see myself with the compassion, understanding, and love that others see me with.

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Summer 2017: Walking On. And On.

I’ve been hiking a lot this year. I’m on hike 25 with the goal of hitting 52 by the end of the year. I’ve walked a lot of different terrains: The Mojave and Colorado deserts, the Sandia Mountains, the rocky beaches of the Olympic Peninsula, and now the deeply forested hills of the Appalachia. I’m swallowed by green, here now in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, one of the states I’ve called home.

Westerners often scoff at the rolling, rounded, old mountains that make up the Appalachians. We’re used to younger mountains, whose prominence has not been worn away by time. We look at them, jutting crags, exploding upward out of the golden prairie of the Midwest. We hike them, bike them, climb them, and our sweat hits their dusty ground. The steep fourteeners imbue a hubris in us westerners that could be a downfall in these green hills. The trails are deceptively steep, and the muggy flora creates an environment that is something to contend with.

I hiked these hills the other day, sweating more profusely than I ever do in New Mexico, feeling calve muscles pull and stretch with each steep step (I often remark that using a pedometer is a misnomer because it only counts a number of steps you take, not the quality of step). The air is thick and I feel like I can chew on it as I walk. I stroll past bluffs overlooking a grand, green-brown river; another landform we are not often graced with in the west. Our Rio Grande would often look like a creek to eastern folks. I can see kayaks and canoes below, fishing rods arching through the clear sky.

On the short, three-mile hike through Penn’s Woods, I found I worked harder than many of the high desert hikes I walk in the southwest. Each step I take is different, some bring joy others bring pain. Most of these are bringing pain as I strain to make it to the top of the next rise. The elevation is only 1500 feet, but the mugginess turns each breath into a deep burn. This isn’t fun right now. This is healthy, this is what I’m supposed to be doing, but this isn’t fun. This hurts. I’m discouraged and I want the hike to end. The problem is that I’m only halfway there.


I’ve been playing music full-time for two years as I type this. June 2015 saw me leave my education and career behind and I threw out plan B. Music was the only plan, and that’s how I continue to think today. For the first time in two years, I have begun to feel discouraged about this path. I’m in a state 2500 miles away from home and I’m wondering what the hell I’m doing here. What the whole point is. Living authentically just isn’t cutting it right now.

People often tell me, “You have the coolest/greatest life.” I hate this statement. The reason my life feels so miserable is that I know that it’s supposed to feel amazing, but it doesn’t. My depression and anxiety take that away from me, and there really isn’t anything I can do about it. That’s the true sadness of my life.

I left the house under a cloud of depression almost two weeks ago. The thought that ran through my mind as I made my way across Oklahoma was “Just get through the next five weeks, then you can go home and watch cartoons.” It’s the same thought I had every day when I was depressed in the traditional working world. “Just get to the end of the day, then you can go home and go to sleep.” At least my respite came at the end of 8-10 hours. Now I have no real recourse but to keep going, to plow through this discouraging time.

My wife and a couple other friends have been singing the same tune to me lately, although they don’t know the others are doing it. The lyrics to that song go, “The world wasn’t made for you.” I’m not normal, I know that. I’m not status quo. I have a disability and a career path that is nontraditional, and these two things put me at odds with the way our world is set up. Society is set up for the 9-5. For people who have the skill set of being normal. It’s not set up for someone with severe and disabling depression, or PTSD, or if they’re blind, or if they have Lyme’s Disease. Our society is set up for the normal because that’s what most people are. It’s a utilitarian necessity and I guess I understand that to a point. I just wish the system would have some degree of plasticity.

But it doesn’t. That’s not the way the world works and those of us who are unlucky enough to fall outside of society’s designated circle have to walk on in spite of having the deck stacked against us. The house always wins.


I made it back to my car and drank water. It felt soft on my throat and my panting began to cease. I made myself a small snack and sat on the tailgate of The Gray Haven. I felt good in that moment, with a burning sense of accomplishment tightening in my quads. I was smelly, that was good, too. It means I worked hard (also there were showers at the campground). These things all felt good to me. Hours later they would be gone, lost again in the haze of my never ending walk with my darkness. That darkness will give way to a new dawn, and I just have to keep walking long enough to get there.

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Hiking in Virginia.

 

 

The Road Part II: Meaning

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Even when it looks like there’s a storm up ahead, the road is the right place for me to be.

My mental health disables me from doing many things. I’ve left a dozen or so jobs due to the ongoing struggle. There are times when it prevents me from taking care of myself: I have a hard time exercising and eating right, I can have a tendency to neglect my hygiene and the state of my house. It can prevent me from doing chores and other work that needs to be done for my music business. It can hold me in a cage, causing me to cancel plans at the last minute, and even cancel gigs in a similar fashion (this isn’t a rare occurrence). Travel has been hard for the past 5 years, and international travel has been completely out of the question. There is so much life that my mental health gets in the way of, so when I’m looking at coping skills I am searching for things that open the doors PTSD and depression have closed on me.

While I’m planning an entire post on the coping skills I have developed, one coping skill, in particular, has developed into a lifestyle over the past 24 years. Music. While I played one musical instrument or another since I was a young child, I didn’t fall in love with it until I started playing guitar. I never felt that playing guitar was a tangible coping skill: It didn’t alleviate my deep-seated feelings of sadness or anger, and I don’t feel that it does as an adult, either.

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All smiles at a show in Lancaster, PA, May 2016.

For me, music doesn’t work like a typical coping skill. There are a lot of layers to this, and I’ll try and explain. For me, music has always been a constant positive presence in a life that has been plagued with negativity. I’m talking about the trauma I’ve been through as well as the trauma of life-long depression. It acts as an anchor, through the most turbulent storms. It has been constant and consistent, unlike most other things in my life. I can depend on it to be there, no matter what. I realize that this could all change in a moment: I could lose my sense of hearing; I could lose the ability to play music somehow. But I am confident that I will always have music in my head, even if I can’t express it.  It’s always there, and I love it so much. I wake up in the morning with songs in my head and I go to bed struggling to filter them out. My love for my wife is the only thing that trumps my love for the feel of a guitar beneath my fingers. It’s this love that has the most profound effect on my life and forced my hand.

Two years ago I left my job as a psychotherapist amidst immense, depressive turmoil. It was hard, I’d left so many jobs for the same reason. I’d begin these jobs by working my ass off and being good at what I do. Six months to a year later and I’m a depressed wreck: burnt out, suicidal and calling in on a regular basis because I feel like I can’t move. This has been a pattern my whole life and it has nothing to do with laziness: I know this because I work hard and (I hope) all my former co-workers and supervisors would attest to this. I stop working hard when my mental health begins to decompensate. Then I stop working altogether, and I mean this in an encompassing manner. My whole life stops working: I can’t do anything around the house, any coping skills go out the window because I’m stuck to the couch, or my bed, or that chair I always sit in at the kitchen table. Hiking and music are gone, and at times I just stare at the wall for hours on end. My brain stops working correctly. Distorted thoughts perpetuate the depression, while my depleted cortisol levels leave me open to severe anxiety, which also digs the episode’s heels in deeper. After this happened yet again with my final job as a therapist, my wife and I decided it wasn’t important for me to make as much money as it was for me to make meaning. I’ve played music for what seems my entire life, part-time professionally for the past decade. It was time to use those talents and skills to try and start a career doing the only thing that had ever really made sense to me.


I’m driving a straight line across the southern California desert, where the Colorado meets the Mojave in Joshua Tree. It’s dusk, I’m listening to Tycho churn out mellow electronic beats alongside ambient, dreamy, analog synthesizers and guitars. A slight crescent of moon has already risen behind me, and ahead the horizon is a stratum of colors: The Dr. Seuss landscape is divided from the sky by a fading band of pink and orange, changing the colors of the rocks from a deep pumpkin to dark violet. The colors continue above the fading sun: a fading sky blue turns navy as it reaches into space. My windows are open and the cool air licks my face. The smell of night in the desert is special: the dry, dusty cough of the day seems to allotrope into relief. The chill in the air makes it feel damp and the smell of the creosote bushes is a natural aromatherapy, lulling me to wind down. I drink this in greedily as I pull into my campsite and begin preparing for sleep.

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Barker Dam, Joshua Tree National Park, April 2017.

This is a scene from the beginning of a month-long tour I recently completed, but it’s one that I could write from several different, exotic locales. Over the past year-and-a-half, I have completed six tours ranging from five days to a month. I’ll be leaving in three weeks for a month-and-a-half. I live out of my Honda Element most nights, staying in national parks and forests, BLM lands, and even a Safeway parking lot or two. I spend my days hiking and fishing, and most nights are filled with gigs in exotic cities and some of the most amazing small towns this country has to offer. I’ve hiked the rocky outcrops of the Pacific Ocean, fished the rivers and streams of the Rocky Mountains, and I’ve walked the New York City streets in the dead of winter. I lived in one of the most remote national parks in the country for a month, writing music and gazing at a night sky the likes of which I’d never seen. I’ve met countless amazing people and been able to reconnect with old friends. None of these things would have been possible without music.

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On stage at Big Bend National Park, Texas, November 2016.

Soon after leaving the traditional career path I began realizing new and deeper love for writing and performing music. I realized that I loved the feel of a guitar in my hands just as much as I did when I was 13. It was invigorating; I couldn’t stop playing and writing. I began booking solo shows in earnest (I was still playing with a band at the time) to bring in some money, and I began looking at booking my first tour: Tucson to Silver City, NM, not six months after leaving my job. This first tour was a disaster. I left the house depressed and it grew as I went down the road. I ended up having to come home early, and my wife and a friend had to meet me in Truth or Consequences, NM to help me finish the journey as I was unable to drive. As I rode in the passenger seat for two hours back to Albuquerque I figured my time as a touring musician was over as soon as it started. It was just too scary to be on the road by myself.

Hitting the road alone can be dangerous for someone with such severe mental health concerns, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it. Quite the opposite, in fact. In my time in academia, I did a lot of studying on trauma. Not only was it close to my heart, but I found the concept of trauma to be absolutely fascinating, and I began seeing childhood trauma as a pervasive social problem. In my studies, I came across the concept of posttraumatic growth. It’s a term to describe the tendency for people who have gone through trauma and healed themselves to exhibit a perception of personal growth as a result of the process. This growth gives meaning to the trauma, creating space for further healing to take root. For this reason, posttraumatic growth has become a focus in my life: to further understand the optimal situations that produce it, and then apply them to my own life. One of the first things I realized about growing beyond my trauma was that I had to allow for situations where I needed to rescue myself, over and over again, to allow new emotional memories to become tied to my anxiety and depression. Memories where I triumphed.

In Peter Levine’s book Waking the Tiger, he discusses an incident where a group of school students was kidnapped and buried underground in their school bus. They escaped, some with more injurious trauma than others. A study was done on the children and the varying affects the traumatic experience had on them in the years following the event. Loosely explained, the study showed that the children who actively worked towards ensuring survival (in this case tunneling their way out of the bus and to the surface) showed graduated returns in growth and healing beyond the experience of being kidnapped. Older children who conceived of the plan and encouraged younger ones to help dig were shown to be the best off in the years following the event and the younger children who began to dig and help were doing well. The story lies in the children who were frozen by their fear and relied on others to rescue them. They were affected in a debilitating way by the traumatic event, even years after it occurred. What was the difference? In short: those who experienced the most posttraumatic growth kept moving. They refused to give up and they fought for survival.

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Fight or keep moving.

There are a lot of childhood traumas where fighting is not possible, as was the case with mine. Just because I couldn’t effect the situation at the time doesn’t mean I’ve lost my chance at posttraumatic growth, but it does mean I have to work harder at it. Going on tour and putting myself through anxious situations and coming out on top aids posttraumatic growth. Each time I drive through major city traffic without panic I’m one step closer to it never happening again. Each time I don’t throw in the towel when I’m driving in some faraway state while depressed and on the verge of tears I pound another nail into my trauma’s coffin. If I didn’t have music I wouldn’t be able to do any of this


I’ve been playing music since I was very young, and I’ve been writing it since I was 15. I feel in resonance when I’m creating music. Chasing this resonance has pushed me out of my comfort zone and that is something I have sorely needed. Chasing the resonance has brought a level of meaning to my life that I could never have imagined. It has been the true impetus of healing in my life, and when the going is hard that is how I choose to understand what I’m doing. I don’t have any delusions that I would become some famous singer-songwriter, I know that I’m just another white guy with a guitar. I also know that meaning is rarely found in something outside of ourselves, like money or notoriety. Meaning comes from within. Cultivating this meaning is one of the most important tasks we must accomplish in our lives. Music gives me the road. The road gives me meaning.

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Feeling good on the southern California Coast, April 2017.

 

The Road Pt. 1: Meltdowns

The glamorous part of my life is obviously the road. As it should be: I go all over the country to the most beautiful natural wonders and all the exciting cities. It’s what I do, it’s how I make a (meager) living. It’s incredibly exciting and inspiring, but it can also be a grind, full of the unknown, and stressful. This can be a real problem for someone with serious anxiety issues, like me. While I have a great time on the road, it is also the setting for some of my most intense meltdowns.

Life on the road presents a unique set of circumstances that can lead to some monumental weather happening in the brain. Sitting in a car all day, lacking any real routine, camping in sometimes severe weather, poor eating choices, and wondering about money are just a few of the stressors that I deal with on a daily basis. If there is any sort of routine, it is one of worry. I’ve learned a lot on how to eliminate this weight: having a detailed itinerary before leaving is a must, and slowing down my morning is extremely important (although I don’t always succeed in doing this, I typically rush to get moving in the morning). My eating habits constitute an entirely different blog, but my tours go better when I eat healthier. I don’t always eat healthier because I have this thing where I want to eat all the things that are bad for me when I’m out of town, and I have almost zero say on the issue. Doing what I can to prevent anxiety is vital. There are so many X-factors when I’m on the road and I must have a low baseline of stress when they happen or they will overwhelm me (aka meltdowns).


I’ve spoken about meltdowns in a somewhat abstract sense for a year now, and I feel it’s important to paint a clearer picture of what they are in the interest of educating folks on PTSD and anxiety, and so that people can see what touring is really like for me, beyond social media.

There are definitive signs before a meltdown occurs. Physically, I notice that I flutter my fingers rapidly against my thumbs, usually it’s the left hand. I begin hitching my breath, often holding it for 3-4 seconds at a time. If I can recognize these two signs I can take some additional preventative steps to stave off a complete attack, but I often miss the moment. As the meltdown progresses my mental state becomes hazy. I become confused: I begin misunderstanding what is going on around me, interpreting it in a distorted, negative way. Often, one thought will begin circling my head such as “I need to go, I need to go, Ineedtogo, ineedtogoineedtogoineedtogo…” The thought doesn’t have to be connected to the situation I am in, it can be wildly random at times, but it always cycles obsessively. My face begins to contort: my eyes crumple in and darken, my jaw clenches tightly. My speech decompensates from enunciating through gritted teeth to mumbles, and further on to almost complete incoherency.

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If the meltdown continues beyond this point it enters a place of psychosis. Often misunderstood, psychosis basically means that a person is experiencing such severely distorted and impaired thoughts and emotions that they lose attachment to reality. There have been times where I have experienced auditory hallucinations, but these events have been very few and far between. More often lose control of my thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. It’s difficult for me to delve into because there is trauma that clings to these episodes once they reach the zenith. My heart hurts to think of the places that I’ve been within this darkness. Once I reach this depth, there isn’t much that brings me out. Usually, I’ll end up having to sleep, and I’ll be out of it for a few days. There have been hopeful times where I’ve bounced back from a meltdown, even within the same day.

Preventing and bouncing back are what I need when I’m on tour, but sometimes it doesn’t work that way. As I documented in this previous post, my winter 2016 tour was a mental health disaster due to combining factors of tour stress, poor medication management, and lack of coping mechanisms. I ended up canceling the second half of the tour, my wife had to drive me back across the country while I drifted in and out of meltdown states for 2,500 miles. It was scary as hell and it changed a lot of how I deal with my mental health.

This is the other side of my life on the road, the side where I have to fight. Those pictures on Instagram are hard-fought and come at a very high price. The smiles in the videos are likewise obtained as a result of hard work. I won’t take any smile for granted.


There is a monumental difference between my Winter 2016 and Spring 2017 tours. Both my wife and I agree that this past month was successful, both for my music and writing, but more importantly for my mental health. It was a much needed “win” for our camp. While the final few days were a bit tough, the lessons they taught are being applied to the next tour. In spite of the dark mood I’m experiencing now (something that is likely natural to me when I come in from a long stint on the road), I know I’m stronger than I’ve ever been. That’s the key to growth, you see: Each time you overcome something, you gain the strength you need to tackle the next something.

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The road provides a degree of meaning for me that goes beyond playing music in front of a few people in other towns. Its meaning is deeper than even the most amazing hikes I have gone on. In my next post, I’ll talk about how living on the road is meaning. How it gives me life and purpose.

The Cape

I’m sitting in a dingy hotel room in Clallam Bay, across the strait from Canada. I can see the southern coast of Vancouver Island beyond the docks where men anchor boats after a long day in search of Halibut and other big commercial fish. My day started unassuming enough, with a drive up 101 (an amazing road worthy of its own post) towards the northwestern coast of the Olympic Peninsula. I was planning on taking the day off, as it was pouring and I was in serious need of a shower and a warm, dry bed. After securing my room in Sekiu, I decided that seeing the tribal lands of the Makah would be important, and perhaps I could see the coast from the west as well.

I started at the Makah Tribal museum, and I read about the plight of the Makah, which read like the narrative of every North American tribe: White people came, natives died, white people took land, natives died, often horribly. White people forced treaty, tried their best to wipe out culture by forced assimilation of native peoples, who kind of went along, but eventually gave them a well-deserved middle finger. I saw the bones of whale and saw how the people of this land were similar to the people of my land: different fish, different water, same people. Warriors, fighters, survivors.

The woman at the counter and I began talking and she told me that the small tribal community that resides on Neah Bay had lost one of it’s youngest and brightest stars. A kid, only 19, who died while diving for shellfish for food, just a week ago. The community was already reeling from the suicide of a tourist a few weeks back, and then this happens. This community, which consists of a gas station, a minuscule marina, the museum, and a handful of sea-battered houses. So much pain on the shoulders of such a small population.

The boy was a leader at the age of 19. “He had such a voice,” she said, and she played me his singing at a recent tribal dance. She was right, he emitted a power in his voice that seemed to come from the might of the sea itself. He was deeply rooted in his culture and spoke at other tribal councils about the need to preserve hunting and fishing traditions. He was attending university and studying biology, and was known to walk into his classes still smelling of whatever dead, beached sea creature he had just been dissecting. “The professors told him he had to stop doing that,” she smiled.

She said he died out at Cape Flattery, at Hole in the Wall, a dangerous cove at the westernmost point of the contiguous United States. A wave came in and swept him out to sea. There was a trail that led there, she told me, and it was important that I go there. “It’s a spiritual place, you will feel it, I know you will feel it.”

IMG_1757She directed me out of the village, which now looked tired with grief, soaked to the bone, and looking for simple rest. It was raining steadily as I took the sharp curve that put me on the Cape road. I first climbed, then descended the winding two-lane that follows the Sekiu River. Great, white trees tunneled the road, and jade-green clubmoss clung to bare, skeletal branches that still awaited a Spring awakening. Further back I saw the ever-present Douglas Fir trees towering in the temperate, rain-drenched hills. The road began to climb again towards the trailhead, the rain continued to fall.

At the trailhead, I saw few cars, which wasn’t a surprise on a Monday like this at the end of the country. This really was the end of the road, I thought to myself, as I struggled to pull my rain pants on while sitting in the driver’s seat. Snug in my rain gear I began the descent, which was steep, wet, and shimmering a glorious green. I could feel something stirring in this place. The trail was muddy, and soon my shoes were covered and I was thankful for choosing the waterproof sneakers for this trip. The rain beat staccato against my raincoat and I walked with the syncopation. Every ten hits or so I would get bombed by a fat drop falling from one of the trees rather than the sky. It was fun to anticipate them when I walked under the canopy.

FullSizeRender-14After about half a mile, the trail leveled off and a boardwalk came into view. As I approached I saw that it sat about three to four feet above the ground cover, which was a litter of giant ferns, tangled roots, and various flotsam that has collected over years of heavy storms. As I walked on these boardwalks, I saw huge, yellow lilies bursting from the forest floor. Everything was covered in clubmoss and the earth smelled rich with life. Mixed in was the oily aroma of the railroad ties that constructed the board walk. Eventually, I heard the roar of waves crashing against the rocky Washington coast mingling with the tap-tap-tap of rain on my hood. I approached a clearing in the rocks, the haze parted and I saw it. Cape Flattery.

“I didn’t know,” I whispered to the sky, the rain, the trees, anything around me. I didn’t know something could look this beautiful. This powerful, yet fragile. I walked to the clearing and the carved coast came closer into view.FullSizeRender-13The turbulent northern Pacific waters raged on to the west, smashing against two green islands about 1/8 mile off the coast. The water flowed into a deep gouge in the coastline, the Hole in the Wall. The blue-green waves moved in and out of the cove, like deep breaths, in-out, in-out. The water towards the center of the inlet was a deep navy, sighing up and down like the belly of the Earth softly sleeping. It could wake up in a rage with no notice, filling the hole and carving further into the rocks. This is where it happened, where the sea took him, I thought. I listened.

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Hole in the Wall: A dangerous place even for those who have grown up diving rthese waters their entire lives. 

I walked further toward land’s end. My steps felt light on the spongy earth, it gave the vague sensation that I was hovering rather than walking. I saw the trail lead first down, then up towards the final lookout. The trees towered above me, the rain continued to pour down, and the wind pounding the Strait of Juan de Fuca began picking up. My heart felt like it was floating on those last steps. I felt the spirit of the cape flowing from the ocean, the rocks, the ground, the trees. The echo of its voice reverberated in the sea caves that littered the northern side of the cape. I went to the very end, Tatoosh Island floated about a mile off into the sea, a green stalwart against the pounding surf, with a small, white lighthouse adorning the highest point. I looked again towards the Hole. I thought of the young man whose spirit departed him when the wave took him while he was diving there. It was a violent looking place, only a very brave person would be able to navigate those waters, and he and his people have been doing it for millennia. They fought back the Spanish who raped tribal women and tried to steal their lands. They fought for the right to hunt and fish as they have done for centuries when the US forced them to sign treaties. They retained their culture even when Americanization did it’s best to take it from them. Their spirit lingers here in this place.  I sat in the rain and let it pass through me. I let the water clean my heart and mind. I could smell the salt in the air, mixed with the deep, rich loam.

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The end of the country. Tatoosh Island off in the distance.

I spent the previous weekend camping with my friend at Kalaloch Beaches to the south. We had a perfect spot: trees shading us from the bleating sun, the roar of the waves to the west, and a grand view of the ocean just beyond the bluff that dropped off to the beach. We spent Sunday morning hiking Ruby Beach and intellectualizing about this and that. We went to college together, studied religion, and both came out on the other end more than jaded with the faith of our upbringing. My friend was now trying to reconcile his core ethics, which remained the same as they were when he espoused his former faith. He wanted to know what made him tick, and why. It was an illuminating conversation for me, to hear someone going through a crisis of faith in such an intellectual way.

As I hiked around the Cape, going down this dangerously slick path to the next one, mere feet from falling to my death (and happy to be doing so), I applied my friend’s question to my own life. What made me tick? Why do I do what I do? What matters most to me? The answer came easily: I don’t want people to suffer. Almost everything I do runs through this filter and has since I was young. I’m not perfect, and I cause suffering, too, but trust me when I say the resulting shame has been crippling. Why don’t I want people to suffer? Because I know how much life can hurt, how that hurt can change a person, can damage a person. I know and I don’t want other people to feel that. It’s why I studied religion and philosophy, it’s why I became a therapist, and it’s a driving force behind why I play music. It also directs a central passion, or locus of control of mine: environmental awareness.

Trying to think like my friend, I questioned why in the world I care about the environment. I mean, I don’t think the most drastic and cataclysmic damage will be seen on Earth until after I’m dead when It won’t really bother me ( because I’ll be dead). I don’t have children, I don’t plan on having children, and even if I did, again, I’d be dead and wouldn’t really care either way. So what’s the point? I’m going to get to enjoy this planet, then I’m going to die and anything else is pretty much immaterial to me.

It comes back to what makes me tick: I don’t want people to suffer. I have suffered a great deal in my life and I don’t want anyone else to feel that way. I have also found there are things that help me get through this painful life. Connecting with this Earth is one of the main ones. I want to show people that they can heal themselves with this connection. We can become better because of this connection: better physically, emotionally, and yes, spiritually. There is so much respite and life to be found in the natural world; I want to save it because I know that it can help people get through the suffering. Its song is so sweet, and I firmly believe that everyone who truly hears it will be changed. This is why I want conservation. This is why I do everything I do. I feel it deep within my soul. My heart explodes with its truth.

After a long time perching myself on various dangerous ledges, I began making my way back up through the forest on the steep trail. My body felt hot under my rubbery rain gear, and the trail climbed ever steep. My feet slipped on the muddy slopes, slick as ice. While each step took effort, I still retained that euphoric feeling, like I was gliding up the hill. My heart felt peace, even as it beat ever harder within my chest. When I finally reached my car I stripped down to my tank in the pouring rain and let it wash the sweat off. I breathed in the spirit of that place, something so old yet so fresh. I got in my car and drove towards the village. The Strait of Juan de Fuca, a memorial to the Spanish that tried and failed to take this land from the Makah, loomed gray on the horizon.

IMG_1788As I navigated the streets I saw that the faces of those I passed wore the badge of grief that the woman at the museum did. May you feel peace, I chanted as I made my way past the totem poles that marked the entrance to Neah Bay. This place gave me something more valuable that I could have imagined. It gave me more than just an amazing picture, even more than an amazing feeling. It gave me reason, meaning, and purpose. I am grateful for the story of the young man that compelled me to see his sacred place. And I am forever grateful for this, the most important hike of my life.

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ABQ. Phoenix. Joshua Tree I

IMG_0518 2I departed Albuquerque around 9 a.m., heading south towards Socorro on interstate 25. The sun was shining and creating a haze at the foot of first the Sandia Mountains, followed by the Manzanos further south. By the time I reached Socorro the haze had dissipated and opened up a relatively cloudless sky. The drive was pleasant, little traffic met me on the interstate, and I was excited to turn off onto Rt. 60, cutting across West-Central New Mexico, an area I had not explored before.

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The Box. 

As I drove I saw gray velvet clouds off in the distance, swallowing the Magdalena range. I stopped at a magnificent canyon called the Box I’d heard of from rock climbing friends. The silent site filled me with excitement around the wild and silent areas I would encounter throughout the tour. I passed by the Very Large Array, a system of radio telescopes I have always wanted to see. Not long after this I, too, was swallowed by the cloud cover. I watched the thermometer on my rearview mirror quickly tick down from 60 to 50, and finally resting between 34 and 40 degrees. The wind picked up to a gale and my little Eleanor was tossed around the road and I had to favor the right on my steering wheel as a result. Not long after snow began to blow from the sky, and continued to fall for the next couple of hours as I began to wind my way through the purple and gray mountains. Crossing the state line into Arizona, I was greeted by fields of white-gold buffalo grass as far as I could see. It offered a magnificent and stark contrast to the dark skies above.

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White-gold fields against a snowy, cold backdrop.

One of my favorite things about driving to Phoenix is how dramatically the temperature changes if you are approaching from the north. It can be 40 degrees in Flagstaff as you take the ramp onto I-17. You drop down from the 8-10k elevation of the north to the desert of the south. The iconic Saguaro cactus begins littering the hillsides and you know that it’s time to roll the windows down. After all, it’s 75 out there.

My approach from the central part of the state was a little different, although no less a dramatic landscape on my way into the Phoenix basin. It was the snowy, wet weather that hindered my coveted temperature rise. By the time I reached the outskirts of Mesa, just north of Phoenix, the sky had broken open once again, and the sun began to dry up any remaining clouds in typical Arizona fashion. I have never seen Phoenix so vibrantly green. The mesquite, creosote, and palo verde had feasted greedily on the above average rainfall of this past winter, and they were bursting with chloroform to show for it. The green was punctuated by the bright, goldenrod Chamisa that sprouted from the rocky hillsides, defying the need for adequate soil as desert plants often do.

I turned off towards the Tonto National Forest and within minutes I was rambling away from the bustle of one of our country’s most populated metropolises and transplanted into a wild corner of the state that I had never seen before, and I was reminded of why Arizona remains one of my favorite wild places. There are so many places one can get lost in Arizona, and there is a great variety of the landscapes you can access. I was headed towards Horseshoe Lake, following a deeply rutted and nerve-wracking road towards the Horseshoe dam, and the river below it. My car dipped and banked, slamming too hard, too fast, too many times into the canyons that were created in the unmaintained access lane. After what seemed like an eternity on that washboard, I came upon the campground I was to meet a friend at, and I found a site. When I emerged from my car, I saw that my rear, the drivers-side tire had popped, and my car sat sadly on the rim, digging into the soft earth. Poor planning on my part resulted in my tire jack residing in a compartment underneath Eleanor’s sleeping platform. Even poorer planning resulted in forgetting my knife, or any cutting utensil whatsoever, and that meant I couldn’t cut the industrial strength zip-ties securing my bed in place. Here I was, in the middle of the Arizona wilderness, with a flat tire and no foreseeable way to get what I need to fix it. There were no other campers nearby, and I could only hope my friend would come through and meet me as planned.

I sighed. I laughed. I said, “God dammit.” But that was it. No meltdown, no screaming, no frustration whatsoever. Just bland acceptance of the situation. I pulled my chair out and sat there, taking in the sights of the marshy banks of the creek that ran behind our sites, and I spied on several different types of raptor birds hunting their evening meal. The day turned twilight, and night followed. I began thinking that my friend wasn’t coming. Oh, well. I was just preparing myself for an intense walk the following day when headlights approached in the distance. Sure enough, it was my friend. We laughed at the situation and resolved to fix it in the morning. Too late for that kind of hassle.

We awoke the next day and fixed the tire quickly. I spent some time meditating on the banks of the creek. Birds sand all around me, the water roared, and my life felt right. To spite my flat, I went and purchase four brand new tires and headed to the gig.

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This morning I awoke and made the three-hour trek to my special place. And the shine has not worn off. As I pulled off of I-10 and approached Cottonwood, an immense sense of relief and gratitude rose within my chest, escaping my mouth in a long and breathy sigh. I was back in my heaven, my rose. It turned out that the flora of Phoenix was not the only place to take full advantage of a precipitous Winter. The hillsides were erupting the same yellow gold. It was a blanket to the desert. I pulled over and looked closer: there were spots of orange, purple, green, and blue in addition. Red Claret-Cups emerged from their namesake cactus. It was astonishing to behold as I made my way through the park towards Indian Cove.

I parked at my site for the next few days and took a breath in, smelling the dusty creosote that surrounds my site. It will be in full petrichor at morning’s first light, as the dew settles and the day begins.

Recovered. Uncovered.

My two months of respite and recovery have come to an end. For two months I’ve sat in fairly constant reflection, even while busying myself and putzing around the house. I’ve worked my program, as they say in 12-Steps. I’ve followed my doctor’s orders, and I’ve followed the natural orders of my body and mind that I was able to tap into. Where am I at right now? I have the steady, low hum of depression that has been a constant in my life for 30 years, but I feel pretty great.

“But Russ, that makes absolutely no sense,” you’re thinking. Oh, dear readers, it most certainly does.

In all the reflection that has occurred, one most-important thought has stood out: I’m not going to get better, and that’s ok. I can’t control whether or not the depression and anxiety are going to attack me. In fact, I can’t control a damn thing. It may sound elementary, but when you’re able to actualize the realization that control is illusory you are relieved from a great deal of pressure. We exchange one burden for another, however, because we can control our behavior, or how we act. Throughout the deep, depressive episodes and the anxiety meltdowns, I fall into a pattern of behavior. I have come to the understanding that this behavior is the key to coping with the depression.

It is common for a person with severe depression and anxiety to act out when they become completely depleted. The depressed brain doesn’t work like a normal brain, and this needs to be lesson number one. To avoid any technical language, it may help you to understand the depressed brain as processing all information through varying layers of fog. Sometimes that fog is thicker than others, but it never fails to distort the information being received. As depression continues to ravage the brain and body, a person can “act out” instead of rationally coping with a situation. It can take a lot of different forms, but for me it’s anger and impulsive self-harm behavior. What I have learned is that I need to spot the warning signs of acting out, and then make a decision to pre-emptively begin behaving in a different way. By behaving in a different way I can effectively cut off a chain of triggers that usually ends in a meltdown that is very difficult to escape.

I realized that I need to control the way I act or I am going to die. I’m not being dramatic here, it is a serious concern. I’m not just talking about dying by suicide, either, although that is the primary fear. I’m talking about cardiac arrest, a stroke, shit like that. This kind of lifelong pain takes a hard toll on a body, and I feel it already at the age of thirty-seven. I have some serious health problems and it’s all related. But I can take control of my actions and I can reverse the course of these detrimental effects.

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I spoke earlier about coping with depression. Notice I said “coping”, not “eliminating”. Eliminating depression has become a ridiculous concept to me. It’s like trying to stand against the waves: sure, you’ll do it for a few hours, but then you’ll get tired and drown. Coping is the key. Coping ensures that I can continue living my life in spite of the depression. Right now I’m feeling it, but it’s not controlling me. I’ve had times over the past few months when it has gotten on top of me, but it’s encouraging to think about how much less this has been occurring. I’ve had days in a row where I’ve been happy, laughing with my wife, playing with the dogs, and experiencing a quality life for the first time in years. While there are struggles (I’ve gone through a low point for the past couple days), I know that they aren’t there to last. I know my triggers and I know that if I catch things in time I can ward off any dangerous behavior. I know that I can go on tour next month and enjoy it. Sometimes knowing your limitations is the first step to handling anything that comes your way. That hum of depression? It just doesn’t seem so important, anymore.