Easy Steps To Vanquishing Demons

Christopher J. Stephens

© Copyright 2002 by Christopher J. Stephens

Photo of a yellow rose in front of a globe on a table covered with books.  Photo copyright (c) 2002 by Richard Loller.

"You have a big heart, and it can get you into trouble. You have to learn how to not take seriously criticism from the kids. Otherwise, they won't stop."

There was probably never any doubt, especially in myself, that somehow I would break down. I wouldn't "have a nervous breakdown." There wouldn't be a string-soaked John Williams score accompanying the point where I had to be escorted from a grocery store, a bank, a shopping mall in the last days before Christmas, trembling and sweating in the dead of early winter. I would just be kindly told that I had to put a halt to things. People would be informed that I needed to take care of a family emergency, or something like that. I would go away, and shortly after Christmas vacation, I would return, re-energized and determined to focus on something other than my troubles. The glassy-eyed look would be gone, along with the un-trimmed beard and the determination that if I stared straight ahead and focused on my next class, or a kid in the hall I hadn't seen for a few days, I wouldn't have to face what I was doing to myself.

I had seen the look of concern in the eyes of other people, but I couldn't respond. They would ask why I was sweating so much, and I would respond that it was probably hypoglycemia, or a pre-disposition to diabetes. They would take notice of a stray grey hair at my temples, or the dark circles under my eyes. Slowly, I grew to resent these unsolicited observations. Why do they think they're being my friend? Are they under the impression that this is going to help me? The kids always pointed things out [that's what kids do] but they took me on surface value. I was intense. I talked too much and too quickly and risked boring them just to get my point across. I stayed on their case and sometimes trailed them in the halls to ensure they got to their next class. Kids approached me in the halls; "Mr. Stephens, what's my next class?" I followed kids when they stormed out of class, angry at a classmate, and I talked them down from their need for revenge. The kids would make assumptions about some sort of life I did or didn't have, and I always left things to their imagination. Gotta girlfriend? Gotta wife? Got kids? You figure it out. No, the kids wouldn't wonder what was happening. If I suddenly disappeared one day, they would ask questions but then they would move on. People in their lives had a tendency to slip away, and I would just be another guy they used to know.

When it did happen and I started on my leave of absence, I was more perplexed than saddened. Why hadn't there been a clear breaking point? Why hadn't I been escorted out in an ambulance, mumbling to myself, chewing on the knuckles of my right hand and pulling my hair out with my left hand? That would have brought it home for me. Instead, the process was very simple. There was a meeting. People spoke respectfully, eloquently, emotionally. Agreements were made, and I gathered my things and walked away. There was a clear sense that I worked with people who cared for my well-being, but even that was initially confusing. I pictured myself in their position, and I doubted I would have been that thoughtful. Emotional instability, at least as it had been manifested through me, was frightening. It presented an erratic sense that something somewhere might go off. The fact that I worked with kids and could feel at my best with them, but miserable in any other situation, probably also filled people with concern.

The fact is that this temporary pit stop had been almost seventeen years too late. I was twenty-one when I lost my favorite sister in a drunk-driving accident. I was almost thirty-three when I watched my father die in front of me, instantly, from massive heart failure. Those events, in 1985 and 1997 respectively, had simply been factored into my "grin-and-bear-it" stumble through my twenties and into my thirties. There was college. There were relationships with a handful of brooding, dark-haired, morose, beautiful women who spouted apocalyptic poetry, drank too much, smoked, and latched on too tight for me to breathe. There were jobs in special ed., with foster kids, juvenile delinquents, retarded adults, and, finally, teaching English. Always on the shelf, waiting to be confronted when there was time between movies, reading, music compilations, was the grieving process.

The need to take a break was the inevitable end result of what had been a terrible three months. The first sign, three days after 9/11, felt confusing. Was I mourning with the rest of the nation, or was it also something deeper? I was losing sleep, crying at everything, putting up a defensive posture when my actions were questioned. I was setting the groundwork to becoming a frightening individual, but inside I was more frightened than anything. Inside, the wheels had gotten stuck. There was an upside down world forming, and I was amazed that gravity hadn't pulled me down.

"So how are your sessions going? Are they working for you? I only ask because I'm as eager for you to get through this as you are."

There is no shame in therapy. There is only shame in not doing anything with it. We enter into an arrangement with a mental health professional . Weeks pass by with long-winded narratives about this person, that event, and the disastrous "Jerry Springer" reality that is our family. This was what I started in late September. Every week, I coquettishly flirted with the biggest issues. I danced like Brando in "Last Tango In Paris", unencumbered by societal restraints and every bit the libertine. There is no shame in the process, but there is fear in going too deep.

I had spent a lifetime denying the personal analytical process. Give me a great novel, a revolutionary poem in chaotic free verse. I will nail down the meaning and I will make convincing arguments tying my own life to its themes, but only within the context of the art. Don't make me personally connect because then I'll have to come to some conclusions. Those early stages of therapy were infected by my insistence that every action I had taken needed to be analyzed and dissected. Show me where that vein started and I will trace its every twist and turn, from origin to conclusion. None of this will be vague. None of this will be hazy. There would have to be a physiological or genetic reasoning to this temporary short circuit of emotional logic. Who do we trust? Why do we trust? Why can't this just be worked out through writing and a hardened sense of humor? After all, men didn't need to talk. Right?

Sisters and cousins and aunts and others drifting through hyper-space, living in my emotional area code, had been under pharmacological care, at one point or another, not necessarily for emotional management. For me, the idea seemed one extreme or another. Prescription drugs meant becoming Elvis 1977, battling obesity and legends of the fall, or Judy Garland showing up on "The Jack Paar Show" in the early sixties, telling one drunken story after another about the munchkins. Zoloft, an affluent suburb of Prozac Nation, is a crowded metropolis, always foggy and cold in a mid-December limbo, teeming with hopeless neurotics mumbling as they stumble off the subway, and they are always threatening to declare independence from the motherland. Right?

 At the Gym, there was focus and fun and sweat. There was only calculating heart rate, calories burned, distance covered. I had never challenged myself in that way, and it was amazing to do four miles on the Cross-Trainer in less than an hour, the same with the treadmill. I had expected it to be filled with young hardbodies in their twenties and women dressed like Jennifer Beals in "Flashdance", but I was out of touch. I started going in October, once a week, then twice. There wasn't a sense of pounds slipping away. I didn't join in weight training or ab crunches. That would wait until after the new year. The Gym was a solitary act, my prayer for possibilities, my fight against a life that had up to then been sedentary and fully observational.

It is an easy, fun, but dangerous hobby to analyze workplace relationships. They are touchy dynamics, never seen in purely black and white terms. Since my sister's death, I had always looked towards women for guidance. Female colleagues at work became sounding boards where I worked out issues from the past. They were substitute sisters, friends who heard everything and dispensed no-nonsense advice. It was comfortable because I knew the patterns of women, their rhythm. I was more competitive with guys. They made me want to prove myself, whereas women were comfortable.

My real sisters had scattered in three states, always distant, always putting up guards. The one who had been dead since 1985 was the only one who still loomed heavy in my daily life. She had taught me about music, literature, had infused me with a sense of purpose and strength. The dead take on mythic proportions with each passing year. Testimony to their suffering and their healing powers is painted in grand, sweeping strokes. Everything they ever wrote, touched, or wore assumes instant iconographic status. It wouldn't have mattered if my surviving sisters and I had lived in the same cramped apartment, if they didn't have kids and lives of their own, if we were without entertainment and forced to acknowledge each other. We had stopped being a family and so I looked elsewhere for a sister.

"I will always have a special place in my heart for you, and I'm sorry to see you in this state. You just need help." In those three months before my leave, workplace relationships became disastrous. One day there was an urge to be confessional, and the next day nothing. Respectful disagreements became arguments. Documents were misplaced and a general restlessness surfaced when I was away from the classroom. Why couldn't I talk without dissolving in tears or hearing my voice reduced to a hoarse whisper? What was happening? I became focused only on being quick, rushing from one place to another, putting thoughts and concerns in long memos that I delivered to colleagues who quickly grew exasperated. In the classroom, and with all those teachers and administrators, I felt like a golden boy. They respected me and I didn't have to prove myself. Eventually, with my own colleagues, I froze myself out of everything. I had built a glass cage and was screaming inside for attention, but the environment was soundproof. Something had to give.

I had read the memoirs Darkness Visible, An Unquiet Mind, Prozac Nation. Ingmar Bergman films were what got me through my first two years as an undergraduate. Why did people shy away from depressing things? Wasn't there a cathartic release in things that were sad? Listen to Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Dylan's Blood On The Tracks, Beethoven's 7th Symphony 2nd Movement. Let it take you down that path and as you're walking, carefully balance that crown of thorns on your head. Take off your shoes and let the hot coals burn your naked feet. Jeffrey Eugenides's novel The Virgin Suicides haunted me. A young boy in a bucolic, suburban bedroom community of upper middle-class America in the 1970's tells this heartbreaking story of the Lisbon girls, all five of them, how they took their lives one year and it affected this boy and his friends into adulthood. They had wanted to save these girls. They had wanted to reach out across time and grief and hopelessness and find a way to heal their wounds. It's a brave and romantic book hidden beneath the burden of its title, a dream narrative voice of such stark beauty that it could only be told by a boy in love with these girls. I had known this feeling, known these girls in my own way. Maybe I had even been them when I was a teenager. I knew it was a bad move when I recommended the movie version to my colleagues. I had allowed the dark romantic literature of longing to slip into my work life, and my passion for it seemed to be misinterpreted as a longing to follow through with it in real life. It was probably the first sign of trouble ahead for me.

We risk too much when we try to sell our pain in the marketplace. We present these narratives as if we are the only ones who have ever suffered indignities, the only ones who have ever felt hopeless, never had a happy day in our lives. I was a walking, talking, exposed lump of raw red flesh by the time I left, with only a thin layer of bandages to cover the sores. The need to leave was obvious to me, but the damned process was so smooth.

There's never anything pretty about a public breakdown. I had seen it happen with too many good educators. Many of them stayed precariously in their positions, day after day, glaring out at the world and seething with bitterness at an out of control situation. They rationalized their every move under the guise that they had no choice, that the kids would never succeed, that all they needed was to keep these brats around long enough to collect documentation and then shove them over to somebody else. I had seen that in others and I hated it. My issues, my problems, were personal. My colleagues intervened because they cared for me. I had made a positive impression. I had made a difference in the first year I was at this job, and they wanted me to take time to think about whether this was the best environment for me. Why was this act of kindness so confusing?

"I want the old Chris to come back. You were alive, happy, and you didn't look like you were falling apart. I want you to tell me if this is the best environment for you."

There are no easy steps to vanquishing demons. It's that simple. Harry Potter won't graduate from wizard school in time to offer a magical antidote to my ailments. I know young people who have suffered much more than me and they come to school every day in spite of the odds. They look to me as somebody who can answer their questions. My biggest problems had always included a need for humility and an unwillingness to fully see everything in its proper perspective. December quickly passes when there's time to think, time to stand back and breathe. The gift of a definite second chance is more frightening than anything old Harry has ever encountered, and it can't be returned. To be given a vote of confidence and understand that people at the workplace are concerned for your well-being is a once in a lifetime offering.

I never knew how to make a clear separation between the professional and personal, especially as an educator. I take student failure to heart, and it's not just for the obvious reasons that their being unsuccessful could result in my termination. Any student who couldn't share my passion for the literature of despair or "The Streets Of Philadelphia" or anything else that made a sad statement confused me. Their apathy killed me. I had replaced dedication with obsession, and somewhere in that equation I killed my sense of humor. 2001 was a tough year for the world at large, and I was at risk of losing that perspective.

Last Thanksgiving, I was drawing with one of my six year old nephews. He drew an airplane en route to crash into two twin towers. The plane was nicely detailed, and like most inanimate objects drawn by a six year old, it had a face. It also had liquid spilling from its tail, and a bolt of lightning aimed at its mid-section.

"It's going to crash into the buildings," he said. "See all the people inside?"

"Do the people know this is going to happen?" I asked.

"Sure," he said. "The plane gave them all parachutes before they got on so it's really okay. They'll get out."

"I hope you feel better."

Not everything that crashes is so focused. Random chaos rained down on all of us then, as it does now, and there's no safety lever to pull before crashing. There is nothing that can fully prepare any of us to have resilience, to grow a backbone, to not think that we are the only ones who have ever suffered. In the movie "Vanilla Sky," the lead character David Ansen [Tom Cruise] is caught in a "Lucent Dream." Things are not what they should have been. He signed a contract for a sort of virtual, idealized dream-life come real, but the circuits had come undone. He yells for Tech Support to come bail him out and put some logical meaning behind what had been a nightmare. This idea of an escape clause resonates with all of us in a post 9/11 America. Too many of our fellow citizens are walking around with scars that will take years to heal. We seek Tech Support from psychiatrists, psychologists, lawyers, lovers, flimsy alibis, that last drop of integrity we're storing, freeze-dried in a hermetically-sealed safe-deposit vial, for times like these.

"This isn't working out."

Three weeks after my return to work, on the morning of January 28, I was fired. The boss from New York had come up for a visit, and I knew why she was there. I knew what was going to happen. The Human Resources woman was on the phone from New York, and she explained to me the benefits that would be coming my way. There was no impulsive need on my part to have the last word because I had barely spoken to my colleagues in the three weeks I'd been back. I was on anti-depressants and mood stabilizers. I was focusing on reading, writing, and if anybody spoke to me, there'd be hell to pay. I packed my belongings in two boxes, and I spoke in private with the boss from New York.

What did we say?

It was private, and it was nice. We had always spoken like friends, and I will never forget her kindness and counsel. This job was just a bad fit for me. My firing was a release. I could finally breathe. I no longer had to fake enthusiasm. I hated being a social worker, coordinating academics, pretending that I was a teacher when for the most part I was a caretaker. Whose fault was it? I take full blame. That was a beautiful Monday in January, and I was free.

Unemployment Compensation. Severance Pay. Health Insurance Continuance. Freelance Writing. That's my life now. I work out at the Gym, but my body won't get sculpted anytime soon. I have food deliveries ordered via the internet. I have therapy sessions every Wednesday night. My Saturday morning Yoga Class is a respite from the madness in which I'd lived for most of my adult life. We learn how to balance, how to stretch, and how to understand the connection between our body and mind. The beauty of the constant metaphors in this class doesn't escape me.

There are times I can't sleep and I go through my files and I throw out an amazing amount of papers from the past ten years. Then, there are times I have the kind of serene sleep I can never remember having had. My dreams are hopeful and full of possibilities.

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