I was well on my way. . .
I was sharing an apartment in Paducah, Kentucky while working as a blackjack dealer at a casino just across the river in Metropolis, Illinois. I'd been working there not quite a year, and was making decent money when I was caught in a random drug test and lost my job due to traces of marijuana found in my system. The loss completely devastated me. I'd never felt more like an utter failure than I did as I stood there peeing in that cup, knowing my days were numbered, questioning only when, rather than if I'd get the call to inform me that I'd been fired.
Looking back on it, I have to say that losing that job was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. I'm simply not cut from casino cloth. The work requires a level of cynicism that I can't muster in good conscience. I just can't stand behind a table and watch people drink and gamble their lives away -- seeing the misery and anguish in their eyes, and watching as their deeply meaningless hopes are dashed with the flip of a card. I'm just not the kind of person who can brush aside the consequences of the choices people make when I'm the person facilitating them. I can't help holding out hope for the underdog, and that's not an enviable position to be in when you work for the alpha wolf.
Though I'd advanced pretty quickly, becoming a three-game dealer within a year, poised to learn a fourth, I never derived a single moment of satisfaction from my work, unless it came from those times when I'd fleeced a person whose personality struck me as grating. The friendships I developed as a result of my work, however, were satisfying. Unfortunately, those friendships develop across the table and you're just as likely to fleece a friend as you are a jerk. It has a way of jading you -- causing you to see people in an unpleasant light. One of the jokes among blackjack dealers goes like this:
Q: What's the difference between a blackjack dealer and a stagecoach driver?
A: A stagecoach driver only has to look a six assholes at a time.
When you laugh at that joke, you're inevitably laughing at the misery of some nice people. And over time, that cynicism creeps into every facet of your life. I was a prime candidate for what was about to befall me.
Dejected but still determined to salvage my independence, I took on two jobs -- waiting tables during the lunch hour at a local Applebee's, and working as a clerk in the convenience store across the street from my apartment at night. The hours were hellish. Often, I went to both jobs on three hours of sleep -- never having a full day off over a period of six months. I would come home and hurriedly set about washing one of my two pairs of work pants and a shirt for each job in the kitchen sink, scrubbing away salad dressing stains and various grime from one job or the other, making sure to stay awake long enough to get them out of the sink to roll up in a couple of towels before hanging them up to dry so I could press them before going to work several hours later.
This left me with virtually no time for recreation of any kind. So, in order to unwind at the end of a shift, my only recourse seemed to be getting high. I was able to justify it by telling myself that I worked hard and paid my taxes, so I had a right to relax however I could. And besides, I'd already lost the only good job I'd ever had, so there really wasn't any reason not to get high. So, I did. More and more often. Eventually, I started walking across the street to my apartment on breaks at the convenience store to get a buzz to help me get through the rest of the day.
Then, one night, as I was ending my shift at the store, I was walking up the sidewalk to my apartment when the front door flew open and my roommate came running out to tell me our apartment had been broken into and the television that I had gotten from a local rent-to-own (I've since learned better) had been stolen. At the time, I seemed unfazed by the incident, other than the indignation that comes from knowing you've been busting your ass at two jobs to pay for something that someone can just break a window and take from you -- right out the front door. My roommate was fairly shaken by the experience, and went to stay with her mother that night. It would be the last night she would stay in the apartment -- and the night my sanity began to slip away.
Over the next week, I began to suspect I was being watched. Once, as I crossed the street to work, I spotted someone walking down the sidewalk in front of my apartment wearing a hooded sweatshirt. When I got to work, I called the police to report the suspicious-looking person. It turned out to be just someone taking a walk. Still, I was convinced I was being watched -- and that there was a rather large conspiracy going on all around me, involving nearly everyone I encountered, centering around me.
Soon enough, I began to hear voices. I remember delivering food to one of my customers at Applebee's and hearing a voice call my name. I'd turn to see who was calling me, and there would be no one there. It was never more than that -- simply hearing my name called and seeing no one around. But, that's bad enough. Rather than suspect that you're going crazy, you supsect that someone is deliberately trying to drive you crazy. Ah, but I was one step ahead of them. I was going to find out who was doing it.
When I worked my shift at the convenience store, I stayed keenly alert to everything that went on around me. If someone spoke to me as they were paying for their items, I searched their words for hidden meaning. If they asked how I was doing, I figured they were dropping a hint that they knew what was going on, and wanted to know if I'd had enough yet. But, they weren't going to get me that easily. "Doing pretty good," I'd say. "How about yourself?" I'd ask it cheerfully and defiantly -- as if to say, "you're going to have to do better than that."
By the end of the night, I'd be a complete wreck -- wired from being poised to react to whatever came through the front door. The only way I could settle down was to smoke more weed before setting about washing my clothes for the next day. It was the only way I could get any sleep at all. Otherwise, I'd lie there and think about what that one person meant when they asked how I was doing. "Why would someone ask that? They didn't know me. I'd never met the person in my entire life. Why would a complete stranger care how I was doing? They must know I'm not doing well, or they wouldn't ask."
Another couple of nights, and I was no longer able to stay in my own apartment. I was a marked man there. Whoever had broken in and stolen the television knew exactly where I was, and they knew that they'd be able to get in and out without being seen. Sleeping there made me a sitting duck. So, I started spending nights at my parents' home.
But, it wasn't any better there. No one was above suspicion. After all, my mother had stopped by one night at the convenience store -- something she'd never done before. Why would she do that all of a sudden? Did she know something about what was going on, but couldn't tell me for some reason? Who was behind it? Just how big was this conspiracy? Why was everyone being so sly? Why wouldn't someone just come out and tell me? Was I being tested?
Finally, on my last night at the convenience store, a soldier walked in wearing his uniform. It was just me and him. . .I looked out the front window of the store, making sure no one else was watching him, and I leaned forward and said to him as quietly as I could, "Man. . .you've got to help me. There's someone after me. I don't know what it's about, or what they want, or even who it is. But, I'm scared." He said, "Don't be scared! There ain't nothin' to be scared of," -- which told me he was in on the whole thing. He was only posing as a soldier to get me to drop my guard, to find out what I knew.
I spent the next two days in stark terror of everything around me. Watching television, I was certain that some of the people on there were talking directly to me in coded references, but I couldn't fathom what they were saying. I knew it had to be something, but what? What were they trying to tell me? Were they out to get me, or were they out to protect me? And what were they trying to protect me from? Why wouldn't my family tell me what it was all about? Is this something I have to figure out on my own, and when I do, everything will fall into place and be perfectly obvious?
After two days of unremitting fear, it dawned on me that I should check myself into a hospital. I didn't do so thinking I was in need of treatment. I did so thinking I needed a place to hide, and that no one would ever think to look for me there. To placate my obviously worried parents, I told them I thought I just needed a rest, and that I was going to get checked out. Afraid I'd be recognized if I drove my own, I borrowed my mother's car and drove myself to Charter Hospital -- a local drug/psychiatric treatment center at the time. Turning onto the road leading to the hospital, I was so distracted by the sense of being followed that I nearly hit an oncoming car head-on, jerking the wheel at the very last moment to avoid the collision.
After answering a series of questions, they admitted me for treatment. I remember sitting there with sweat streaming down my sides, my shoulders and neck so tight I could scarcely turn my head. I asked them to contact my parents so that they would know where I was and what was happening -- also, so my mother could come and get her car, just in case someone noticed it in the parking lot and figured out where I was hiding. I was relieved as they processed me into the treatment center, thinking I'd finally get some peace and quiet so I could figure out just exactly what was going on all around me.
When my parents showed up, I told them I was there to get help -- and the only thing I could say to my father was, "I'm sorry, dad. . .I'm sorry. I didn't want to end up like this. I'm sorry." It was only the second time in my life that I'd seen my father shed a tear -- and remains so to this day.
My next memory is standing in the room where I was placed and taking off the clothes I wore to the hospital, getting ready for bed. I looked up at the body-length mirror and what I saw absolutely stunned me. I must have lost 20 lbs without ever noticing it. I saw an emaciated, hollow-eyed shadow of myself. I simply couldn't believe it was me. I thought it had to be some kind of trick mirror. It just couldn't be me. I was always thin, but had a good amount of muscle that had always been well-toned, even athletic. The person in the mirror looked like a prisoner of war.
I spent the next three days wavering between the conviction that I was still the object of a massive conspiracy, and the notion that I had cracked, but managed to answer the questions asked of me to the satisfaction of the doctors and counsellors. So, they released me. And, I did indeed feel better than I had when I entered the hospital. But, I was far from cured.
For the next two years, I lived day-to-day in phases of anger, suspicion, elation, misery, self-pity, loneliness, shame -- you name it. But, I felt nothing to a normal degree. Every emotion was pronounced -- everything I felt was utterly accute. One day would see me seething with rage and hatred at the world around me, and the next would find me a lifeless, emotionless lump of blood, guts and bone. I tried living at my sister's home, with her husband and two daughters at the time, but the stress got to be too much -- too much commotion for a person with such heightened senses and so much anger at the fate of having been reduced to the position I found myself in -- complete dependence.
I eventually moved back into my parents' home and would spend the next few years there, trying to cope with what I instictively knew was madness, but still clinging to the notion that the madness had been something perpetrated upon me, rather than something I had simply sunken into. It was then that I was introduced to cognitive therapy and Paxil.
The combination was enough to slowly walk me out of the depths of the spiritual and emotional morass that my life had become over the previous months. Eventually, I overcame the sense of shame that I bore as a mark of having been mentally ill, and began to venture out into society again. To be sure, it was an excruciatingly slow transition, with setbacks along the way, but I found the strength to make my way out into the world again, and tried to bring some normalcy back into my life.
I would move from job to job for a few months before finally landing one that I actually enjoyed and looked forward to going into. Then, as Christmas was approaching in 1998, I had another major setback.
I had managed to get some sense of stability in my life, and was well on my way to somewhere again, having just bought a car, looking at a future with some promise, and a satisfying job that helped to keep me in good physical condition. I was becoming a social animal again, feeling I'd finally put the shame behind me, and had gone out to meet with some friends on my first night out in the car I'd just bought. On the way home, I fell asleep, crossed a highway and landed in a deep ditch, crushing my wrist against the steering wheel with my head. I remember waking up and seeing the traffic light pass over my head as I hit the breaks. The next thing I remember is trying to open the car door with my then useless hand, switching hands, climbing out and waiting for a car to pass while I attempted to push my hand back into the position I thought it should be in. I felt no pain at all for several minutes. It wasn't until I'd almost arrived at the hospital in a car that I'd flagged down that I began to feel anything. By then, I was nearly in tears and unable to speak. As I entered the emergency room, I held my arm up for the attendant to see -- she responded by simply waving me through and leaping to her feet.
Once again, I was in free-fall. Everything I'd worked for was gone, and I found myself stuck with a twisted ball of metal that I owed money for, and no way to pay for it, since I was going to be unable to work for the foreseeable future. I'd come so far, only to find myself right back where I started from a year earlier. I began to wonder if hope was a healthy thing to have, or if it was just a cruel condition of human existence. Was it all a fool's errand? Was the sense that things can be OK nothing more than a delusion to benefit idiots who just don't know any better?
After several months of wallowing in self-pity, my father convinced me to apply for disability, and sent me to a lawyer he knew from his work with charitable bingo organizations. It took some time, as anyone who's ever applied for disability benefits can tell you, but I eventually began receiving checks after a couple of appeals. With the backpay I received, I was able to buy a pickup truck, and slowly went about trying to put my life back together.
But, it was shortly before I ever had the accident that my father did something that would have the most profound effect on my life. He bought a second-hand computer from my cousin, and an internet connection. I was immediately fascinated and fixated. I spent countless hours exploring the computer, both online and off. I downloaded software, surfed the web, browsed newsgroups, and tinkered with settings from dusk to dawn, night after night. Then, I discovered Lucianne.com.
As I said in my earlier biographical blog entry, Lucianne.com opened up an entire new world for me, and is largely responsible for this latest recovery in my life. Had it not been for the many wonderful people I've met as a result of my involvement in the site over the years, I don't know that I would have ever developed the confidence in myself and my abilities -- my very worth as a human being -- that I would need to reach the point I've reached in my life, today.
Now, if you'll indulge me, I have some people to thank:
Karen, a.k.a. Blondie: Over the past few months, you've been my tether to sanity at times when the world seemed to be sweeping me back out to a sea of madness, once again. When I didn't seem to have a friend on the face of the planet, you were there with reassurance and encouragement. You've never turned down any request, and have offered more than I ever would have dared to ask for. And, without your talent and help, this blog would be just another page of cobbled-together characters and not much else. You've helped me to create something I can be proud of, and I don't know how I'll ever repay you.
Next, Beverly: You reached out to me at a time when I was in doubt, and helped me to believe that I have some talent for the writing thing, and have been generous and encouraging beyond description. You've taught me a lot about life, and what's important, and given me reason upon reason to keep believing in something -- anything -- but mostly, myself. Knowing that you can see some ability in what I do gives me the confidence to sit down at the keyboard on those days when I start to feel I've run out of things to say. Thank you for believing in me enough to tell me so. And thank you for everything you do. One day, I'll be able to repay you in some form, regardless of whether you consider it necessary.
Another Karen, a.k.a. applepie: If it weren't for you, I'm not sure I would have made it through this winter, the way things were going in my life. You've been a source of encouragement, a voice of kindness, and a reaffirmation of my belief that there are good people in this world, and they always show up at the times when you most need them. When I was bound for the skids, you put on the brakes and reminded me that as bad as things may seem to be at any time, they can always be much worse -- and that as long as a person has friends in this world, he has a chance, if only he'll ask for help.
Mary: You too have shown me kindness that I will never forget, and if there's every anything that I can do to repay you, you must let me know. The world became a less solitary place for me when you showed up, and that's something you can never place a value on -- you can only hope to mean as much in someone else's life.
Mrs. Reynolds: Your patience and determination to see to it that I finished school opened up a new world for me. If it hadn't been for your understanding over the past several months, and your stubborn belief that I could actually pass accounting, I'd be looking at another year of scraping by on an insufficient disabilty check, trying to make ends meet with nothing bigger or better on the horizon.
Lucianne, Amy, and all of the LCom Staff: What can I say? Would I even be here without you? Would any of the changes in my life over the past several years have taken place without you? I suppose it's possible, but I seriously doubt that it would have happened by now.
Readers: Thank you for caring enough to check in over these months while I've been in a dry spell, and focusing on other areas of my life. Priorities have a way of changing, but they can always be rearranged when the big stuff gets taken care of. Without all the encouragement I've gotten from you as I've pecked away on this blog, I doubt I would have kept it up this long. Your kind words have been a confidence boost at a time when it was badly needed.
Finally, Mom and Dad: How you ever managed to keep believing in me is a testament to the human will itself. How you managed to tolerate me during those dark times when I seemed determined to drag everyone around me into the pit I'd dug for myself is a testament to unconditional love, and something that I'll never be able to repay if I live to be 110. And, let's face it, there have been times when it wasn't a sure bet that I'd live to see 30. Now, at 35, you can rest somewhat assured that I've cut the yo-yo string -- though, I'm sure I'll still be bumming coffee and filters for years to come.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some work clothes to press. Tomorrow is the first day on my new job, and I want to look like I belong there.