Isolation

This is the last of a three post series on friendship. While not the end of my writing on this subject, this marks the conclusion of what I’ve built up in my previous two posts. Today we strike the hot flames of comradeship into cold steel of isolation and doubt. Exposing myself emotionally is not easy. I have a large T&T on hand for an assist, but there’s no way around how terrified I am as I write.

To write this I need to dive into some darker places that I’ve work hard to crawl out of. Introspection is healthy – that doesn’t change the fact that it’s uncomfortable to do, much less share in such a way. I am encouraged by the fact that my last post seemed to be my most well received. So maybe you all really are interested in this.

OK, no more stalling. Here we go.

June 2011, I begin terminal leave and we move to western New York. Intending to settle down near Buffalo we are flush with confidence. We know that there will be an opportunity for me. We know that while it’s not a cake walk we will be able to find a suitable life and be near family and friends. We just know that everything is looking up.

Weeks go by with no job, barely any interviews. We are in a bind because our household goods will only be held for 90 days. Living with my parents for a short period while we get working and find a home stretches longer than we expected. The first chip. Pressing up close to that 90 day mark and still without work our best option seemed to be to rent the house next-door to my parents. I begin living out ‘Everyone Loves Raymond’.

Could be worse though. I had no idea just how much.

Living in the same town I grew up in again. The same town I worked so hard to get out of. The same town I hated with every fiber of my being by the time I was 18. Another chip.

There are lots of relatives nearby and even some people I went to high school with that I got along with are still around. I never see them though. Everyone is busy with their own lives. When we do get out I feel alone. There are only a few bars in town, and not much else to do besides work on liver cancer. Occasionally I’ll see someone to shoot the shit with but it always ends in frustration. I really don’t have many good things to talk about. Just another one of the failures in town struggling to get by.

Drinking at home or at the bar feels about the same. Just one is easier on the wallet. Either way I’m trapped in my head. Obsessing over all the things going wrong. Anxiety builds over homework, my dickhead bosses at the bank, the pointlessness of my work, the feelings of going nowhere but deeper in debt.

And all of my friends are several states away. Anyone I would really want to spend time with. Anyone who could really help me pull myself together is so far away.

Deeper and deeper down that rabbit hole. Chip after chip after chip to my pride. Confidence gone, I’m wracked in self doubt over every decision I’ve made. Some great leader you turned out to be. Just another schmuck who couldn’t hack it as a civilian.

And now nobody wants anything to do with you.

One night in that first year out I had a complete break down. Stress overcame me. My body shook from frayed nerves and I began to bawl. I had to bury my head in a pillow as I screamed as loud as I could. Everything was just too much. I had completely failed and ruined not just my life but my wife’s too. It was the sobbing of a man completely broken. After this passed and I went back downstairs I found my brother had stopped over. We awkwardly ignored my breakdown but later that night I got a phone call from my  mom asking if I was alright. Awesome.

That first year sucked. But at the end of it we bought our first house, the house on the OTHER side of my parents. It seemed to make sense as it cost less to own than to rent and our lease was ending anyway. The house looked a bit trashed from a couple years of not enough maintenance, but nothing worse than cosmetic. Wrong again. Within a couple months of moving in the insurance company notified us that a new roof was required within 30 days or we would be dropped. Our savings had already been drained and we had no way of doing this.

Luckily I was able to convince the insurance company that putting a new roof on a house in NY in November was a bad idea and got an extension on our deadline. That emergency abated, others kept following. Detailing them here would be mundane, so let’s just say something similar to the roof fiasco seemed to happen about every few months for the next few years. Pro tip: never buy a house built in the 19th Century.

The point is that these stressors kept building up. One hole in the ship got patched and two more sprung. These things added on to my social isolation. I couldn’t connect with anyone in town. I had a few friends at work, but they all lived an hour away from me so I didn’t see them outside of the office and never really got too close. School was like being on an educational assembly line. Nobody was there to make friends and I certainly didn’t find much common ground with anyone.

That’s not true. In the final few weeks I found that most people shared my hatred for a classmate who was the son of a local real estate ‘magnate’ (dude, it’s Buffalo). In the last few weeks there was an opportunity to catch a drink with some classmates (during lunch) and I wish it had happened earlier.

Floating through life. Anxiety dialed up to 11. Pulling financial gymnastics to stay afloat. Grad school being an all or nothing, cannot fail endeavor – which was great when I did fail Management Science and had to retake it.

All of this compounded and distracted me from just how badly my social isolation was harming me.

Years went by and I only became more isolated and distant. I became an awful person to be around, which again compounded the isolation. I hated everyone. I resented the world for abandoning me. I was humiliated for falling so far from the prestige and financial security of being an Army officer.

At the core of it all though I was just afraid. I was afraid that I peaked at 23, that everything was bound to be worse for the rest of my life. That I wasn’t living up to my own standards and never really was anything of consequence. Nobody seemed to care about what I had done in the Army, nor were they impressed. I vacillated between hating everyone else and hating myself. Life became pointless, just something to tolerate until death’s merciful release. Why wouldn’t it just hurry up already?

I was in deep. Angry at the world and ready to lash out at anyone. Sometimes I did. And I hated myself more and more for it. For being weak, for lacking resilience, for not being the man I used to be.

This is where the therapy became necessary. I hadn’t really grasped what was going on, but I recognized there was a real problem, even if I couldn’t see its depths.

I had lost my tribe. I had no sense of community or belonging. My strongest identifiers were in my past, never to be again. Slowly I began to understand this all. Reading Tribe by Sebastian Junger opened my eyes a good deal.

(Oh that was a big swig of gin)

Lacking my tribe I was a listless person. The problem is, I’m not into hanging out at the Legion and talking about how great all us heroes are. I tried getting involved with my local American Legion right after moving back. It was a total crash and burn.

Being able to identify the problem was a major breakthrough for me though. Slowly things started to dawn on ol’ Mongo and over the span of a couple years I found my way to Stoicism.

I’d like to tell you “And that’s where my life completely changed!” That would be a lie. Major change in mentality, sure. Stoic teachings have helped me to reframe my problems, but it’s still a gradual process of making real changes. And I still have some lingering issues dealing with isolation. I’ve made some friends in the past couple years. Even went to a Bills game socially….. in mid-December! I also reconnected with friends that I had not seen for years. All these things happened in the last three months, just to give some frame of reference.

(More gin was needed at this point)

Really, I just nicked the surface of these struggles (it’s a blog post not a full chapter). Anger and alcohol abuse left me incapable of recognizing myself. I lost my way. With help I started clawing back. Integrating Stoic teaching and practices have helped me continue making progress. In 2017 I began reading and learning. In 2018 I’ve begun more actively journaling (including this blog), making time for morning meditations and evening reflections, putting more structure to my days and holding myself accountable.

That still leaves me with no more friends or social connection. But now I am focused on what I can control and maintaining right action rather than feeling like a victim and resenting the human race. In my control – staying more connected with the people who are important to me. Disconnecting from trivial things like social media. Taking time to write. Recognizing the beauty around me and how fortunate I am to live where I live. My hometown may not have much, but we live 500 meters from Lake Erie. The sunsets are amazing, and I can take my dogs to the beach whenever I want.

Finding every single joy in life, everything to be grateful for, is what maintains me now. It’s a battle of light and dark. As much as I’d love to Force Choke mofos every single day it’s so much better focusing on the light.

I’m a work in progress (there’s always WIP). It’s been a much better ride lately. I’m grateful you’re reading this and for anyone who has taken part or will take part in this literary adventure.

Until we meet again.

Getting back up

“Why do we fall, Master Wayne? So that we may get back up.” Possibly the best line in the Christopher Nolan trilogy of Batman films. Yes, I’m a big comic geek and we’ll talk about that much more. Today I want to use that as a starting point for my reflection. Tomorrow is Veterans Day, but it is being celebrated today. I could write many different posts related to this holiday, but this too is something that we will talk about much more.

Today I am writing about the convergence of the two ideas above. Today I want to talk about one of my own failings, one that has led me here to this blog. I had made up my mind yesterday to write this post, and through a twist of irony I read this morning Seneca’s 28th letter to Lucilius. In each of his 124 letters to Lucilius, Seneca ends with a piece of advice to the younger man. In letter 28 Seneca offers a quote from Epicurus “A consciousness of wrongdoing is the first step to salvation.” If we are unable or unwilling to see our own faults we will never improve ourselves. With that, I present one of my failings and how I am trying to make it right.

Last year I bit off more than I could chew and tried to start a non-profit called Band of Bards. The goal was to to collect oral histories from fellow veterans and turn them into graphic novels that would be published online. This was an effort to preserve some bottom-up style history and to help bridge that civil/military gap by making many more stories much more accessible (and entertaining). I brought in two friends and started forming an advisory board. We had a good plan that identified and addressed weaknesses of talent as best we could. This was still a really big undertaking. Anyone who never thought of what goes into making comics or graphic novels would be blown away by the amount of labor involved. Undeterred we pressed on. Until it came time to file paperwork to register our business with the state of New York.

The packet was not terribly difficult to put together, but it went off into the mail (no online option) and nothing ever came back. Now, it’s typical for a response to take up to 90 days. So I waited impatiently, wondering if the state ever got what was sent out. Eventually I fell into a bout of depression. I started doubting myself, chastising myself for being overconfident and thinking I’m smarter than I am. “You can sure talk a big game, Tim, but when the rubber meets the road you suck!” I felt I had let down my two friends, as the administrative side of this venture fell to me. My anxieties got the better of me and the wheels fell off. Depression and anger derailed what I was trying to build and put a strain on two friendships that I valued. I felt embarrassed that I had made such a big deal of this effort, had started a Facebook page and even got my alma mater’s alumni magazine to publish a blurb about it in the ‘what everyone’s up to’ section.

Failure. Big time failure. It could be my most spectacular failure for the simple fact that it was so out in the open. I kind of just ignored it and didn’t want to talk about it. I tried to forget it, but Facebook likes to remind me now and then that I haven’t published anything on the Band of Bards page. Squarespace recently sent me an email notification about the auto renewal of the domain name. I could have canceled that, but I didn’t. Something about that seemed like absolutely giving up.

So I fell down and stayed down for a while. Now, it’s time to get back up. Band of Bards might be too much for now, but I can start with something more manageable like this blog. Owning the domain name allows me to keep it in the background and possibly go back and try again. For now I will put effort into this blog. If you’ve read the About section here you know that the end goal is to write a book. Gradual, incremental, manageable steps. Stand back up, dust yourself off, see what your faults were, and then correct them. Rick James said that cocaine is a hell of a drug. I think redemption is a hell of a drug. Building victory from the ashes of our failure and proving, most of all, to ourselves that we are good enough is a beautiful thing.

So friends, take time to reflect on some failure. Small or big, we can always improve something. All those small fixes add up. That’s what I am doing here. Many small fixes and improvements to build something large.

Thanks for stopping by. Happy Veterans Day (I’ll post more on that tomorrow).

Pax et bonum