A multi-part post from Summer 2007.

“I have to turn my head until the darkness goes….”

–The Rolling Stones, “Paint It, Black”

Part I

I’ve not blogged in awhile because I’ve been busy tending to my shattered mental health. That business has dominated the months of August, September, and October.

My workdays have fallen into a dull pattern: I wake to classical music at 7am (6:30 if there’s a meeting). Sadly my wake-up music is seldom a fanfare. I take ten to fifteen minutes getting up out of bed, after mentally doing an inventory of my body and hoping to find myself sick. I stand up to see how my legs and aching ankles are doing, go into the bathroom, piss, wash, get a drink, brush my teeth, shave, comb my hair, dress (I don’t iron my clothes anymore—I don’t care how I look at that fucking job), make my lunch, eat a bagel, check my e-mail, pack my backpack, put on my shoes, go to the box of Fred’s ashes and kiss the photo atop it farewell, check the stove to make sure I didn’t leave it on, leave my apartment, trudge on sore feet out of the complex and down the sidewalk alongside the road, hoping not to find any animals killed (the sight of a dead skunk made me cry the other day), go into Randall’s and get the papers and some food, make small talk with the clerk, go to the bus, board, pray from my little 1920s prayer book, read the papers, pray that the day will be over with quickly and not be too hellish for me, think how much I dread going to work, get off the bus, cross the street, unlock the door, sign in, refrigerate my drinks, piss, do the morning’s chore (vacuuming, glass polishing, book-keeping), straighten the books in the book section, prepare the store for opening, and select music that won’t annoy me too much for the store stereo (a harder task than it sounds).

Then I waste eight or nine hours of my life that I’ll never get back peddling mostly useless merchandise to tiresome people, wolf down a bland lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fruit cup, and chips in thirty minutes—a time allotment better-suited for a kindergartener’s lunch than that of an adult–go back and work at the grindstone again, unpacking books and statues and Precious Moments figurines and over-priced reproductions of paintings, entering them into a computer whose keyboard is way lower than my waist, feeling my back and legs and feet and ankles getting more and more sore, and get a few pointless lectures and assignments from my 5’4” manager, who is a decade-and-a-half my junior, as well as the company president’s nephew. By 1pm I am physically exhausted and my brain is totally worn out and barely capable of processing information.

Then I devote a lot of time to even more pointless acts of busy work, like counting greeting cards. If it’s Friday I unload a shipment of about 27 boxes of merchandise and process them all by myself. Later in the day I get a 15 minute break in the afternoon if anyone remembers to let me have it, collect all the garbage in the store and take it to the dumpster, clock out, un-tuck my shirt and leave if I’m lucky, and stay an extra half-hour doing the books if I’m not, then I walk the block to the corner 7-11 where I hand $1.40 to a kid who looks like Elvis Costello in exchange for a 28-ounce Slurpee, down it before the bus arrives, board the bus and get greeted by the friendly driver in dreadlocks who always calls me “Chief,” read until a large, talkative woman boards and drags me reluctantly into conversation, until we finally de-board at the same stop.

I trudge home, get the mail, unlock the door, erase a phone message from a solicitor, check my e-mail, shower, fill the tub full of Epsom Salts and soak, write, have a good cry, pop some pills, go to my room between 10pm and 1am, read, pray that God will bring all these horrors to an end or finally, mercifully, kill me, then shut off the light, take off my glasses, kiss Fred’s photo again, and hide under the covers.

This happens every working day of my life. And still, no one understands why I wish I were dead.

And so on the 7th and 9th of August, as I mentioned in a previous blog, I went down to one clinic, in the southeast part of downtown, got signed up, entered “the system,” and was diagnosed with Bi-Polar, Level II. During that first morning I was convinced I would not be able to be helped in that dirty, unpleasant building, and I gave up what very little hope I had. There were several times I wanted to bolt out the door but didn’t because James was there, to shame me into staying, if nothing else.

On the 15th I did more signing-up activities at another clinic, in East Austin, then attended a group session, for Bi-Polar sufferers. I was rather annoyed to see the group leader mostly read aloud from a print-out, but she did encourage the two of us at the meeting to tell our stories.

By this point I had told what I’ve come to call “The Story” several times. This is a summary of what’s happened to me in the last six years, commencing with my traumatic lay-off from the only decent job I ever had, and climaxing with my nervous breakdown following the death of my beloved dog, Fred. I have grown tired of telling The Story, and am eager to move along and tell the other tales of my strange and disturbing life.

(People in my program are required to put in 6 to 8 hours a month of group sessions, case worker sessions, and medical sessions, or the computer will automatically spit them out of the program.)

I will refrain from describing the stories I hear in treatment, in order to protect the privacy of the other patients. (And now at this point James–if he’s had the patience to read this far down–will no doubt sputter, “But you have no problem violating MY privacy, you bastard!”)

Later on during the 15th I met with my friend Matt to get more information on a job he said was coming open at his agency. But in the following weeks, the job evaporated as quickly and as mysteriously as it had appeared.

The week of the 20th was rather busy. On the 20th itself I met my case worker for the first time and we hung out in the café of my neighborhood supermarket and talked for an hour.

On the 21st I went to South Austin and attended four group sessions. The interior of the building where these group meetings were held stank of insecticide. I made a reluctant visit to the men’s room to take a whiz and found boogers wiped on the wall and standing vomit in the trash can. Welcome to my nightmare.

The first session was “shoe box collage.” I felt like a real loony sitting in on this, then decided, “What the hell, I’ll just have fun with it.” But I wondered… should I follow instructions or should I make a collage that’d make me seem really crazy and alarm the group leaders? Should I do like Christian Slater and Winona Ryder in “Heathers” and underline the word “Eskimo” to emphasize its cryptic significance in my life?

The object of the exercise was to take a box, then clip pictures and words from magazines and catalogues on the table, and paste on the outside of the box those words and images which express our outer, public selves, and paste expressions of our secret, inner selves inside the box. Those who didn’t want to reveal themselves were asked just to make pretty pictures, and at the end of class we’d vote to see if we wanted to talk about our creations.

I knew I was in trouble from the get-go: Spread all over the work tables were magazines and catalogues: I started thumbing through the newer furniture catalogues not so much to find pictures but to price furniture.

Then I had great difficulty finding images and words that I thought perfectly expressed my inner and outer selves.

About a decade ago, before e-mail was popular, I went through a period where I sent a few select friends letters that I had composed using headlines and captions from newspapers and magazines. Taped onto the page, they rather looked like ransom notes, but if you knew me and the circumstances of my life well enough you could make sense of the messages, and would probably have laughed your ass off as well.

So I applied my design principle from those old ransom letters to this project.

I found a box–a Little Debbie snack cake box–(symbolic of my addiction to junk food!)–flattened it, so there was no inside nor outside, but rather a two-sided plane, open to the scrutiny of the world, then cut off all the lose ends.

On Side One I put the following: a print ad for M&Ms candy with the figure from Munch’s “The Scream” reacting in horror to the sight of an M&M playing hopscotch; a sick Golden Retriever, his head resting on a pillow and topped with an ice bag; a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel asleep in his dog bed; a stuffed bunny rabbit standing on his head with the words on the page reading “healing” and “Play’s the Thing;” a picture of the Louvre and its Pyramid in the Cour Napoléon, with the caption on the page “Away We Go;” and in the center, a Basset Hound sitting in a tub, awaiting a bath. My captions included, “THE PROBLEM IS BIGGER THAN YOU THINK,” “‘You are not in control, and you must regain control,'” “CAN WE REALLY BE PERFECT?,” “A Man of Many Colors,” (and next to the Louvre) “A Movable Feast,” “The Weight of What-If,” “‘The impulse…to prove oneself superior to others,'” and (next to the Basset) “NOW OR NEVER,” and “What Now?”

Side Two featured these images: A Charmin toilet paper ad, with a big bear snuggling up against a roll described as “Soft on the outside, Scented on the inside;” an oil-caked penguin held by gloved hands and getting his feathers brushed clean; Abraham Lincoln and a beaver sitting in a kitchen looking forlorn, with the caption, “your dreams miss you;” a ridiculous photo of George Hamilton in a cowboy outfit, eating a snack cracker (symbolic of my failure to be a “cowboy,” so to speak, of the vast disconnect I feel to my Texas origins); and a happy dog being walked, looking up adoringly at the bottom half of a man, with a bit of a woman on the side, and bearing the caption “Redefined.” The captions state, “A Storied Past,” “VOICES OF THE FALLEN,” “The Move From Hell,” “Message From A Departed Son,” “After The Reversal,” “any day I’m here could be the day I die,” “HOW LOW CAN YOU GO?,” “What Are You Hungry For?,” “Rethinking the Unthinkable,” Just Tell Me What I’m Supposed To Do,” “You promised to take care of me. I don’t understand the ‘if I can afford it’ part,” and under the caption “your dreams miss you:” “You can never have too many.”

All in all a pretty telling piece of work, if I do say so myself.

I’d not finished my project by the end of class, so I took it and the clippings I’d not yet attached back home and finished it there.

After that class I went to an anger management group. But they didn’t talk so much about anger as they did the dangers of stress. I spent a good portion of the hour lecturing on my own experiences, talking directly to the group leader and over the heads of the other participants, who seemed too dazed to notice what was going on anyway.

From there I went to a group on health and nutrition. This was held in a room used primarily for arts and crafts and games. There was a smear of dried blood on the table top. There were also art supplies everywhere, as well as two items that struck me as personally significant: a box of dominoes of the same design and from the same manufacturer as the set my grandfather used to own, and a completed jigsaw puzzle of the Cour Napoléon of the Louvre. Was someone trying to tell me I belonged here?

If so, I’m not sure why. The group leader read from a print-out, listing facts about diet and nutrition I was already well-familiar with. About the only thing I learned was that my intimidation with the cooking process, my inability to follow through with a recipe, might be connected to my mental condition.

During this class the leader, to spice things up, asked different people if they’d like to read. Most of the people asked were barely literate, and it took forever for them to get through the text.

I was asked to read twice, and did so in a booming, properly-enunciated voice. It was quite a show; I sounded like a broadcaster. I have no idea what I said, because I was so busy concentrating on my performance.

When I grew bored I busied myself editing and proofreading the grammar of the hand-outs I’d been given.

At every session I went to that day we were joined by a skinny man who didn’t really pay any attention to what was going on in the classes; he just sat reading the Bible and muttering. I noticed several times that his Bible was sometimes upside down.

At the beginning of the health and nutrition group he tried to sign the sign-up sheet with an “X,” claiming his mother had told him it was a perfectly legal signature. He wanted to argue this with the group leader. Why, I have no idea, because he’d signed his actual name on the sign-in sheets of the previous two classes.

And at the end of the class we were all given evaluation sheets. This guy wrote “BUSh” at the top of his sheet and drew a huge circle around the entire page.

My last group was for people with substance abuse. The leader was a big, burly man with long white hair and a gravely voice. He talked rather like Chris Farley, and whenever he’d come to punch lines he’d add on more gravel.

I kept wondering when and if I’d be exposed as a faker, a poser, and a tourist, because I really don’t have any substance abuse problems, or if, on the contrary, the group would assume I was lying and insist I was concealing my addictions and being dishonest. As it was, nobody cared enough to ask and I didn’t talk all that much. The subject of the meeting was fairly interesting, though, comparing and contrasting healthy types of love to “addictive love.”

Did I mention there was dried blood on the floor of that meeting room as well?

Afterwards I took the bus back downtown. On the way there I passed the State School for the Deaf and saw a big banner advertising their production of “High School Musical.” I then tried to imagine how and why deaf people would perform a musical….

On the 22nd I had to come in early to work so the company president, my manager’s uncle, could hold a boring and pointless staff meeting, wherein he droned on and on about last year’s sales figures and this year’s sales projections–as if hourly wage slaves would give a shit about such nonsense. (I work at a store that sells Christian gifts, books, and church-ware.)

The president was a prim, uptight, and humorless man. Had he not been Catholic I’d have described him as Puritanical. I don’t imagine he’s ever enjoyed himself a day in his life. (Did I mention he used to be an accountant?) Since his is a family company, it’s run the way the family wants it run; new ideas and suggestions to improve efficiency are not entertained.

The president also was quite frank about his racism. Someone discussed better cultivating the Hispanic market, and asked if we ought to try to get some merchandise from Mexico. He brushed aside that suggestion: “The Mexicans who come into this country are trying to get away from the filth and the squalor down there and improve themselves, so they want better stuff–American products. We tried ordering some goods from Mexico before and it was all just crap.”

All morning he stood around with his arms folded, breathing down our necks as we tried to work. This naturally made me anxious and accident-prone. I sought refuge in the break room during lunch, but he came in and tried to start a conversation. He found out I was born in Houston and mentioned he’d lived there four separate times in his life, then added, “Yeah, I bet Houston’s really gone downhill since they got all the vermin from New Orleans to move there after Katrina.”

Now I’m a pretty serious misanthrope, but my God, you’d think the president of a Christian-themed business would be a little more guarded about expressing his racist opinions, wouldn’t you?

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