Tuesday, March 13, 2012
It was in the mid-summer when I was 14 years old when I happened upon a film version of a Spalding Gray monologue on a cable movie network. The monologue was Monster in a Box, which focused primarily on the time in his life in which he wrote his novel Impossible Vacation. I remember the timing because my father had an annual work-related conference in late summer which changed location throughout America each year. My family would go with him and be tourists while my father would go to his convention classes. I remember reading Impossible Vacation in New Orleans.
The appeal of Gray's voice was instant for me as a young man. It was one of those great moments in literature and/or the arts when you realize as though for the first time that you are not alone in the world. Here was a man who had a career, a fulfilling artistic life, who was candid about his rather extreme neuroses. His keen intellect was unabashed. This was not the sort of thing that was being encouraged by my peers and teachers in public school, but it was, none the less, the sort of young man I was becoming. It was like growing up in a jungle and finally meeting another human being one day.
If you've never seen the work of Spalding Gray, I highly highly recommend that you do. They are excellent pieces of theater. There are at least three film versions readily available: Swimming to Cambodia, Monster in a Box, and Gray's Anatomy. The latter is the monologue I saw live in Irvine in the mid-1990s. As we were walking from the parking structure to the theater, I saw Mr. Gray come out of the back door of the theater with a photographer from what I assume was a local or college newspaper. In spite of knowing that he was preparing for a performance, I walked right up and met him. He signed a few of his books for me that I had brought, and talked for a few minutes. He seemed distracted, but also perfectly willing to talk to a young fan.
Spalding Gray was the reason I majored in Theater in college. If someone had asked me what I intended to do with my life, I would say, "I want to be the next Spalding Gray." In fact, the one play of mine that actually was produced was similar to a Gray monologue, autobiographical and addressed directly to the audience. Mine was in the round and had a stool that looked like it came from a log cabin in the center, rather than a desk on a proscenium stage, but the influence was unmistakable.
Then, in 2004, after years of depression, Spalding Gray jumped into the East River from the Staten Island Ferry in the middle of Winter. It took weeks for them to find his body. I stopped saying that I wanted to be the next Spalding Gray so much.
Laurie says I have this dark cloud that comes over me at times like a Plinian Eruption. I can go from pleasant and happy to the absolute depths of despair in an instant. I am not proud of this, and I don't speak about it often. It is something that seems completely beyond my control when it comes, like a tidal wave washing over me. I am well aware that I could walk into any doctor's office in this country, explain the sort of things that happen inside of my brain, and walk out with a prescription for some form of anti-depressant. I don't, and not just because I can't afford medical insurance. I've never had a suicidal moment in my life, not because the Everlasting fix'd His canon 'gainst self-slaughter, but simply because I am not wired that way. So there doesn't seem to be any great danger to this.
When Laurie was proof-reading this entry, she stopped at this point and said, "Wow. You've never had a suicidal moment?"
"Well, I've had moments of intellectually considering the concept. I suppose there may have been some moments in extreme depression where I might have thought of walking into the creek and putting a shotgun in my mouth, but never so much that I would actually go get the gun."
"No. I would always think `But then I would never have another cup of coffee or the last thunderstorm I saw would be the last one I would ever see, instead of having the promise of possibly seeing another one. I still haven't read Don Quixote.' You know?"
"So, even in the depth of it, you still have hope of future happiness."
"Now, mind you, I've been extremely self-destructive at certain points in my life, which is sort of like a Schrödinger's Cat version of suicide."
I understand that there are people in this world with genuine chemical imbalances whose quality of life could be greatly improved by chemical intervention. I personally feel that I am one whose quality of life is greatly improved by forcing myself to overcome these things on my own. I will go into more detail on that in my next post.
When Rob died and my religious faith fell apart within a 6 month period, I went through one of those long dark nights of the soul that you hear tell of. I had a high stress job for a time and, enmeshed in all of that angst, I had one of my latent fears come boiling to the surface in a bizarre manner. I gradually became maniacally afraid of catching a cold. I am not employing hyperbole. I say "maniacally" advisedly. I am speaking of opening doors with cloth or paper towels, a tremendous amount of hand washing and hand sanitizer, a phobic avoidance of shaking hands, constantly taking cough drops and Cold-Eeze, using the Neti Pot four or five times a day. If I was in a supermarket and a child at the end of the aisle would cough, I would go home and use the Neti Pot.
The fear transformed gradually from the fear of catching something into a fear that I was, in fact, coming down with something, and then evolved into the conviction that I was coming down with something. Today, I have worked it down to asking Laurie to look at my throat and feel my forehead maybe once a day. Maybe sneaking off to take my temperature only once or twice a day. This is how I have spent a great deal of the past year of my life. I should probably add the significant fact that, within that year, I have not fallen ill. Laurie has taken to reminding me "You're healthy as an ox."
How did this happen? Well, the Little Internal Analyst says that it is a manifestation of my fear of losing control on a number of levels. There is the fear of an inability to work based on having spent almost a year and a half out of work a few years ago. There is the fear of inflicting harm on others through no fault of my own (in fact, the fear of doing my best and failing anyway is one of my greatest fears.) There is also the baggage of a childhood spent being on the receiving end of bullying. Illness reminds me a great deal of being bullied. It's painful and, once it's attacking you, there's not much you can do to get out of it.
History repeated itself. As I was clawing my way out of that deep pit, I was given a copy of The Journals of Spalding Gray, which is exactly what it sounds like. I found the same kind of identifying that I experienced when I was a young man. One of the themes that recur in Mr. Gray's journals is that of a sort of doomed fate, a sort of infection of tragedy. In his case, his mother committed suicide when he was a young man. At one point he intimates his fear that that act of her's would, in fact, eventually drag him down, which is all the more startling in light of the end of his story.
But then, about three-fourths of the way through the book, I had an epiphany. I am not like Spalding Gray. Spalding Gray was a man who lived on the East Coast and did performance art in the 1970s through the 1990s, gained a reasonable amount of fame, had the personal life which I was reading, and died. I am living in Northern California in the early 2000s; I pour medications for a living, and have a very different personal life. I am married, religious, introverted, and any number of other differences. As a matter of fact, to identify myself with the experiences of someone whom I, in reality, have nothing to do with really just kind of cheapens both of us. After that, it occurred to me that I am not a hypochondriac by fate like how I have brown eyes. I sort of think that my earlier, regrettable dalliances with Calvinism left me with a nervousness around anything to do with exerting human will.
So much of my recent adult life has been finding myself at a place of bare foundations, trying to figure out what is my voice and what are the voices of external influences. In my next post, I intend to consider some of the tools I've been collecting to build a structure inside my brain that is not at the mercy of the elements, blown over by the slightest wind of change or disappointment. I want to talk a bit about how I am learning to tread water when the tidal wave washes over me.