My White Padded Vacation

 

My mind is vicious two-faced bitch sometimes.

When I was in my late teens and early twenties I used to fantasize about having some kind of nervous breakdown so they’d lock me up in a mental ward somewhere and all I could do to keep myself busy was play games, smoke cigarettes, stare out the window and look fashionable in a frayed bathrobe. Family members and friends would visit me and vulnerable truths would be admitted and catharses would be had followed by tears and hugs and the idea of starting over from square one with a clean slate was on par with the ending scene to “Good Will Hunting” when, finally, Will leaves his neighborhood friends and job behind and says, “Sorry, I had to go see about a girl.”

Even then, I wanted a break from life so badly the idea of a white padded room actually seemed like a vacation to me.

I remember when I started taking medication in my mid-twenties for bipolar II disorder I thought, Thank God I’m one step closer to the loony bin. Maybe now things will finally slow down. Maybe now I can stop trying so hard to live up to this thing, this fire-breathing dragon that calls itself my Ideal Self Image.

When, like in “Almost Famous,” I finally took my first solo road trip at twenty-nine from New York City to New Orleans I thought, This is it. This is where I’m supposed to be: on the road. This is where life is. I’m present. I’m in it.

“It’s all happening,” Penny Lane says to William Miller over hopeful guitar strumming and the music gently crescendos out as the camera cranes up signaling the end of act one.

I like the ideas of a white-padded room, of starting over with a clean slate or escaping on the road into the vast country wilderness. Or rather, I like what they represent to me: a moment of relief. A place where I can lie down and breathe into the clean air without the heat of the dragon’s breath hot on my neck like an oncoming fever.

A place to stop the constant drone pulsing between the tender folds of my brain tissue at the top of my skull that says I need to be doing something else, I need to be somewhere else, I need to accomplish more; that as I am, I am not good enough.

Tony Robbins has a meditation on YouTube he does with Tim Ferris where he talks about being in what he calls a “beautiful state” and how, in this state, we can solve our problems and live in our days with love and gratitude.

In the meditation Tony walks you through three moments in your life that you can feel immense gratitude for. He asks you to access that gratitude, to walk inside it. To feel what you felt during those moments; the smells, the sensations.

Admittedly, I do feel better after doing this meditation. But that’s not the point I want to make here although I do highly recommend you try this meditation. The point I wish to make is that my moments of immense gratitude are never the images I’m striving so hard to achieve. They never embody that fire-breathing Ideal Self Image I spend so much time paling in comparison to.

In contrast, the memories I have immense gratitude for are those memories I was most present for: Driving across country with a best friend and experiencing each day for all its newness and wonder. Camping alone in Joshua Tree and meditating at dawn as the sun rose above the distant mountain ranges. Jumping in the cold ocean at dawn along the shores of the Outer Banks.

So, is my white-padded vacation an escape from my life? Or is it an escape from the idea of what I think my life should be?

Forget Everything You Think You Know About Greatness.

“Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.”

– Miles Davis

***

Is there a way to quantify the moment when someone transitions into greatness? Can we package it up and brand it? Sell it to the masses or create some vocational school centered around breaking personal creative barriers?

Want to be the next Jackson Pollack? Justin Timberlake? Rihanna? Well you’ve come to the right place.

In his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell went ahead and tried to quantify it with his ten thousand hour rule. We all know the cited example of The Beatles playing in Germany every night of the week for several years, carefully and painstakingly honing their craft before ever setting foot on American soil and becoming the international sensation forever etched into musical history.

And so, according to Gladwell, ten thousand is the magic number where ordinary transcends into greatness.

I mean it sounds good, comfortable, even “doable” if you’re prone to the occasional manic episode such as myself; amped up on a delicious chemical imbalance, a mental Molotov cocktail of grandiosity and delusion.

Ten thousand hours. That’s all it takes. All I have to do is pick something I’m good at or something I enjoy doing and plug away at it for eight hours a day, every day of the week for three and a half years and I’ll graduate from the Gladwellian School of the Arts destined for greatness.

But Gladwell is a master marketer, and a goddamn fraud.

He presents you with something rather benign and then he raises his nasally voice and says, “Everything you ever knew about that thing you thought you had figured out is wrong!

Your mind is now, effectively and forever, blown.

You lean back in your chair with your eyes wide open and your hand smacks your forehead and you say to yourself, “Oh my God he’s right! I don’t know anything. Please Malcolm, tell me. Tell me now, dammit! TELL ME!

Gladwell is brilliant at catering to one of the most fundamental characteristics of human nature: the need to know. It’s the essential building block to any dramatic situation in story telling: you present a juicy-enough question and the audience is hooked. Will Ross kiss Rachel? Will Walter White get away with it? What does Jon Hamm have in his pants?

The Media use this device every day, except they ratchet it up with a heavy dosage of fear to guarantee viewership. Is this the storm of the century? What you’re eating could kill you. At eleven.

At the same time Gladwell presents you with something that is utterly preposterous yet simultaneously juuuuuuuust out of reach. If Gladwell had said, “These are people you’ll never be like because you’re simply genetically and mentally inferior,” he’d never get close to bestseller numbers. This is a marketing and mass-distraction phenomena Noam Chomsky discusses in his book “Manufacturing Consent” but unfortunately we don’t have the time to get into that because it’s usually around this point I really start to feel the need for an editor.

“Bring it on home, Joe!” she’d say to me, slightly seizing from mainlining a Venti Triple Shot Mocha and tapping her watch.

Exhale.

Gladwell’s not entirely wrong: There’s merit in taking the time to learn your craft. But my problem isn’t with the hours, it’s the assumption that greatness follows.

I’m not sure I know what it means to be great or when, as a culture, we went from striving to live a good life to striving to be the best at every goddamn thing we do. I do know that I’ve tried my whole life to be great and fell short. Over and over again. And that rift between what I expected of myself and reality created more pain than I’d like to remember.

But maybe it’s not even about being great at all.

Maybe greatness is just another marketing tool, a distraction, something to strive for. Maybe it’s about something else entirely. Maybe it’s just about being the being the best me.

***

Truthfully, I think Miles said it best:

“Man, sometimes you takes long time to sound like yourself.”

Oh and I just totally Gladwelled you.

 

30 Days Without Television? Am I Insane? 

I’ve decided this morning that I need to go thirty days without Television.

Well, the idea actually popped into my consciousness during my meditation like a microcosmic big bang[1] so I don’t know that I can fully take credit for such a novel and totally unique idea.

“Why would you ever?” You ask with jaws agape and brows furrowed like Mark Wahlberg beaming judgement upon me from your third eyes, “There’s so much good TV.”

And you would be right.

Even amongst my screenwriter and cinephile friends, “The trends are moving towards television,” they say, “That’s where all the good writing is these days.” Pause, exhale, inhale and finishing with, “Movies are all franchises and superheroes, television is where the stories are. If you’re gonna get a job, I’d look into television.”

And they would be right, too.

And I would be lying if I said I didn’t love television but here’s the thing:

When does so much good television become too much good television?

At what point do trends reach their tipping point and become obsession? Obstruction? Oppression?

I’m truly asking because I don’t know the answers.

***

I stare at a computer screen for a living. It’s what I’ve done my entire adult life. College—just before the social media explosion—was maybe the last time in my life I was able to go a day without looking at a screen. Since then it’s been all-screens all-day-long and now I routinely shuffle between my Macbook Pro laptop, iPhone 7+, and 42” Vizio that I tell myself isn’t really a screen because it’s a television and TV screens have been around forever so that’s really okay. It’s been grandfathered in, I reason.

But then yesterday while doing work on one of the aforementioned screens I had what’s called an ocular migraine. I had to look it up because, although I’d experienced this phenomena in the past, I never knew what the hell was happening. It went down like this:

Suddenly, without any warning, my vision went askew and a jagged bright spot that looked kind of like a circular version of Zeus’s lighting rod appeared in the center of my vision and I couldn’t see anything directly in front of me. I couldn’t read or do my work. It was painless, however, semi-alarming. Google gave me an answer that was sort of satisfactory, but then I started thinking about how most nights, by the time I’m ready to try and fall asleep[2], I’ll have a dull throb behind my eyes where the retinal wall meets the optic nerve. And then, almost predictably, that existential itch arose in the back of my brain:

What if this was more than just an isolated incident?

***

Luke Storey, in his illuminating health and wellness podcast The Lifestylist, talks about eyesight in several episodes. In his interview with James Swanwick, they discuss the effect that blue light (screens) have on our eyes and brains. And in his discussions with Nadine Artemis they talk about the necessary health benefits of Sun exposure, Sun gazing, and even the Sun’s abilities to heal certain ailments.

So what am I getting at?

I’m just spitballing here, but I’m starting to think that maybe we weren’t engineered by nature to sit in front of a screen all day. Is it possible that we evolved as creatures of the sun and the moon and that by denying ourselves that relationship we’re doing damage to ourselves?

I don’t know. But here’s what I do know:

I do know that screens give off blue light and blue light tells my brain that it’s daytime even if it’s nighttime and if I stare at too many screens before bedtime I can’t sleep because my anxiety levels are raised and if I can’t sleep my body and mind aren’t restoring themselves and when I’m not restored I’m tired and when I’m tired I need energy and I can’t focus and my mood plummets and my emotions become volatile and I end up drinking too much coffee and too much sugar adding to my anxiety levels and my head and chest will start to hurt and—

Point made.

***

Okay so let me try and tie all of this together.

I need to earn a living so I can’t stop looking at my computer, and I need to answer the phone when it rings so I can’t eliminate that screen either. At least not entirely.

I can, however, decide not to watch television for thirty days to see what it does. Just as an experiment. I can decide to go outside for that hour and soak up some much needed sunlight or read a book or maybe even have a conversation with someone.

Mostly, I want to do it because I have no idea how I’ll feel after thirty days of unplugging from it all. Truthfully, I don’t even want to do it and I even have a strong, however irrational, fear that says I can’t do it and that it’s simply impossible and I’ll be missing out on life.

These days I find myself averse to all forms of addiction and when I become aware of them I try and build some mindfulness around them. The idea of needing to see the latest episode of Whatever-the-fuck isn’t a virtue I’d like to nurture.

And getting back to that existential itch:

Maybe I just don’t want to be addicted to someone else’s story anymore.

Maybe I’d like to invest that time into my own.

[1] Yes, I’m referring to my ideas as miniature big bangs. No I don’t really understand what the Big Bang theory really is but as a writer I reserve the right to use whatever is floating atop the cultural zeitgeist as I please. In other words, get past it.

[2] Sleep is another topic altogether we’ll discuss at some point in the future.

Mind vs. Heart.

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Illustration by Amber Vittoria.

My mind often sounds like a hall monitor, sounding the alarm on every decision I try and make (or surrender to) throughout the day. Constantly warning me with little mental jabs, stabbing me in the frontal lobe like a trickster migraine with:

You can’t.

You don’t have the time.

You’re too old.

You’re too young.

No one’s going to care.

You’re going to make a fool out of yourself.

Your friends will make fun of you.

You don’t have any friends.

You don’t have enough money.

Everyone’s looking at you.

You have nothing important to say.

You’re mediocre at best.

Give up. Stay inside where it’s safe.

No one’s ever going to love you.

You’re a terrible boyfriend.

You’ll never have a family.

You’re alone.

You’re not worth it.

… and the list goes on but I think you get the idea.

This is the voice of my mind.

It is a critical voice. A problem-solving voice. It is also a crucial voice from an evolutionary perspective. Having an intuitive warning against immediate danger is probably one of the many things that kept us alive as a species. Watch out! That sabretooth tiger can most definitely eat you! was probably a good thing to hear inside our heads eleven thousand years ago. But in today’s fast-paced, high-stress environments that voice can be debilitating.

My problem was I used to believe that voice. I would swear by it. It was so loud and constant and pervasive that it never occurred to me there might be another voice inside me; a gentler, softer voice, one that was standing right beside me, ready to guide me, just waiting to be heard.

But my mind was being hijacked and held prisoner by a very real and powerful emotion:

Fear.

I hadn’t realized that for so long I was cultivating that voice of fear, feeding it with reinforcements, making it stronger and more prevalent. Maybe some of that was environmental, maybe not.

And if I was ever going to break the cycle of fear-dominated decisions, living my life hoping for something good to happen but too scared to walk out my front door, I would have to find another voice.

This was the voice of my heart.

This is the voice that sounds like the morning sun that just shone through my kitchen window as I write quietly while she sleeps.

It is the voice that tells me to take a walk under the sun.

It is the voice that says it’s okay to take that drive to the beach and enjoy the day.

It is the voice that says to keep going and have faith, you are being guided.

It is the voice that says you are loved, you are beautiful, you are wondrous and powerful and you are worth living an extraordinary life.

It is the voice that says at any moment you can choose to see incredible beauty all around you simply by surrendering into immense gratitude.

It is the voice that says breathe. You are alive.

It is the voice that says smile at someone and give them a hug. Reach out and do something great for someone and keep it a secret.

It is the voice that says, I love you.

It’s important to say that I am afraid. All the time. I fear everything. Even things that have nothing to do with me. But today I do my best to cultivate the voice inside my heart. To build awareness around it when I am afraid, and to not run from my fear but to step inside it and amidst all that terror to confront it, listen to it, and learn from it.

Because on the other side of that fear lies true discovery.

No More Pills. Meditate.

By twenty-three I was told I had a heart problem and put on beta blockers. I was experiencing uncomfortable palpitations, shortness of breath and extreme anger. I remember the first time during one of my first post-college shit-show jobs at a small company in Stamford, CT. I was in the back lab and I had the thought, for the first time, that everything was wrong. That I was imprisoned and needed to run, that I was literally dying each moment I stayed in that environment. That that job, those hours, were effectively not what they promised me in the American Dream literature during my formative years in (slightly) Upstate New York.

They hooked me up to a holter monitor and for three days I walked around with a little device the size of an iPhone Plus and electrodes taped to my chest where they had shaved the hair away like little crop circles. They called it Wolf Parkinson White Syndrome and told me I would need surgery.

They said they would send a catheter down the artery in my neck and into my heart and they would literally “burn” out a part of my heart and that would “fix” me.

I fearfully opted for a second opinion and never had the surgery.

By twenty-six I was told I had Bipolar Disorder by two separate medical professionals and put on different medications: Seroquel and Abilify. The first made me exhausted, foggy and caused me to gain weight and the second made me feel like I was having tiny little seizures in the fatty layer between my skin and muscle tissue.

I took those for as long as I could to try and save a relationship that couldn’t be saved and eventually stopped taking the meds. I would learn they have that behavior pre-built in the disorder; people with Bipolar Disorder frequently stop taking their medication. I was a semi-self-fulfilling mental disorder.

By thirty, I had realized on my own that the palpitations, shortness of breath and anger was anxiety. To say that panic attacks and anxiety defined my twenties would be an understatement. But I go back and thank God I made it through those years without knowing what I know now.

But I still wasn’t ready to hear what I would hear years later.

I was prescribed Klonopin and Trazodone. One for anxiety and the other for sleep—I hadn’t sleep well in years at that point. Klonopin worked great, especially with Whiskey. Trazodone was like date-raping yourself.

Around thirty-two the anxiety got so bad I had checked myself into the Emergency Room at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, absolutely terrified. I wasn’t necessarily suicidal, but I had no idea what was going on.

Just the voice, over and over and over, This isn’t right.

They sent me to a clinic in Brooklyn because I never have health insurance and a month later, after I’d jumped through enough hoops, I was prescribed Lamictal. Lamictal is an anti-epileptic medication they discovered also treats Bipolar Disorder.

Funny enough, when I asked the Doctor exactly how it treated my illness, she told me straight,“We don’t know.”

I asked her, “Is this something I’m going to have to take for the rest of my life?”

She nodded, “I’m afraid so.”

I won’t lie. Lamictal changed my life for a while. I felt relief I hadn’t felt as far back as I could remember. I remember crying in my apartment in Bed-Stuy thinking this was how the other half lived. This is what I was missing out on.

But of course all Band-Aids wear out and eventually fall off.

By the time I moved out to California at thirty-four I knew, without a doubt, that I needed a different solution. One that didn’t lie in changing my brain chemistry. One that didn’t require me to fill out papers and get governmental approval. One that didn’t pull me out of the fabric of life and lay me out on the slab of cultural conformity.

My problem for so long was that I felt simply wrong.

How could life be like this? I would ask myself every day. I felt so wrong in my inner defiance against the stream that everyone else seemed to be swimming so expertly.

But maybe that inner voice that was screaming was actually helping me. Maybe instead of trying to dull it down and numb it into submission, maybe instead I could simply just listen to it.

“There’s no way I can do that,” was my initial response to meditation. “I don’t have the time,” and “My mind is just way too active, I’ll never be able to sit still,” and finally, “I’m not a fucking monk.”

I told myself every excuse not to try it until one day in early 2015 I simply just surrendered and listened and closed my eyes for twenty minutes.

And a light went on.

Relief.

Within a month I had weaned off of the remaining Lamictal I had stashed from New York and developed a religious Meditation practice. I opened myself up to learning what meditation actually was, and not what I thought it meant. Words like mindfulness, body awareness, breathing, presence, peace, and serenity entered into my life.

I stopped trying so hard to control every aspect of my life.

I learned to stop running and be present for my own life, to experience the emotions I was being given and to stop trying to control them in some irrational fear. I learned to focus on gratitude for the sun that shines through my window each morning and learn the virtue that says I’m exactly where I need to be.

I feel the need to say this is a true story.

I no longer have panic attacks.

I meditate.


Sarah Blondin’s Live Awake project is one of my most frequent listens in the mornings. I don’t always do guided meditations but her voice and musical selections never fail to gently bring me into the mornings.

 

 

Inconsistent

You love spring. The sun shines brightly through your apartment window this morning, kissing you gently into the world. Mornings are soft here in California. Not like they were in New York City, loud and abrasive, you often sick from the night before.

You dream of a house in a wooded area, Topanga Canyon or something, where the serenity lasts all day and you can sit out on your porch and write. Today, however, you’ll step out onto Vine Street and evade the resident homeless patrolling the sidewalks—develop more compassion, you read from an Index Card you made a few weeks ago highlighting virtues you wish to develop.

You dream of jumping in the car later this morning and heading up the Pacific Coast Highway or maybe driving east into the desert. You miss the desert. You miss having your camera that you had to sell when you couldn’t pay rent. The Mojave. What a cool name, You think to yourself.

She sits next to you in bed reading the Times. It’s what she does in the mornings. You wake her up and bring her a coffee, it’s what you do. And you love doing it.

You tried meditating but your thoughts wouldn’t cooperate and even now they’re a bit scattered between fear and love; what you want to do versus what you think you should do today.

Finding balance has never been your strong suit and it makes you think of when you were a child and the teachers would always write on your report card:

Inconsistent.