23 July, 2012

It can happen to anyone

Last Friday at a midnight showing of the new Batman movie, a man dressed up as The Joker shot and killed at least a dozen people in the audience and injured perhaps 40 more. The similarities between this and other shootings, including the Columbine Massacre, the VA Tech tragedy and the troubled rampages that led to five dead in Seattle earlier this year and even the saga of the Unabomer are not lost on me, but I am still troubled because I don't know how these people are different than the rest of us. However, I realise that there is a difference and that somewhere along the line, these people snapped and thought that killing was ok. There are conflicting stories, but among the mentioned shooters, all of them were known outcasts. All of them had trouble communicating and/or were teased by others. The Unabomer decided to leave society but felt hounded by civilisation. Cho-Seung Hui felt tormented by his classmates. I don't know the story of The Joker, Mr. Holmes, but would not be surprised if his story were not somewhat similar. All of them had easy access to bomb making equipment and knowledge and rifles and/or artillery and all of them were more or less in good standing and so could easily access any of these things. These men, aside from The Unabomer were also quite young. Most of the mass shootings tend to be of men(not women), under 30, usually under 25. Their stories are all different but there are enough similarities to show a few red flags. The easy accessibility of guns raises a flag. Inadequate mental illness treatment and prevention is another flag that is also often raised. Glamourized violence in the media, to which the Colmbine killers, Mr. Holmes and Cho Seung Hui all seemed enamored with are all often blamed. And perhaps all of these things ARE to blame, in some form or another. I do not know. The thing that concerns me is what makes a person decide that killing, no, massacring ten or more people is OK. What makes someone lose touch with humanity and to themselves to that degree? That problem, and not the one of untreated depression, violence in the media or gun laws are what concerns me, although sometimes I wonder if they aren't all related, if they are all just part of a bigger picture, a picture of decay and alienation in the United States. But I digress. I want to make a point of asking the question of what makes a person lose the ability to empathise with others to emphasize that a) mental illness cannot be blamed for such faults and b) to show that the problems in these people and society in large are ALL of our problems. I grew up depressed, socially alienated, unable to fit in with the normal work world throughout my twenties and yet I never came close to the level of callousness of these men. I don't write this to illustrate MY superiority, but because I believe mental illness and stress are not the only things at play here. These men were terribly wounded, terribly alienated. Think how much it would take for you to completely lose your humanity. It can happen to anyone. Daily hatred from others, combined with systematic drugging and suppression, compounded by years of mind warping TV and film. Perhaps there were other factors. A lack of supportive family or friends. A sense of meaning or belonging. Our gun laws make it easier for these men to buy guns, but it's our society that makes them killers. Anyone who disagrees is in denial of their true nature and the possibility within all of us to become terrible monsters. It can happen to anyone.

20 July, 2012

How long has it been?

I re-started this blog when I was inspired by Andrea Rouda's daily(or sometimes hourly) short blogs about her life and various topics of interest. I kept it up for a while, but then life took over and I found other things to do and more corners of the internet to explore and more sleep to procure and more places to ride my bike to.

So why am I back? I am not here on an empty promise that I will write daily posts or even weekly posts. I just have some things on my mind and this place seems as good as any to serve as kind of a confessional. Modern life sure is weird, huh?

Since being back from Guate, I do feel like I am seeing my own life a little bit clearer. Like too many people my age, I am somewhat directionless, and despite being smart have been consistently underemployed or unemployed for a long time. It used to be easy for me to blame that on "not wanting to play with the system" or "lack of motivation" or even "depression" or "being a slacker". The truth is, "lack of focus", "codependency" and "lack of connection" probably best describe it.

Warning: this blog is going to be insanely anally instrospective

It is really hard to describe what leads someone to volunteering for a trail building non-profit, a community ecology surveying non-profit, a mental health non-profit all while volunteering at farms and being homeless and living in a tent, listening to your neighbors drunk or high. It's hard to describe what a lifetime of being suicidal is like. And it's hard to describe exactly what directionless and aimless feels like. Sometimes it feels like indulgence in this, the richest nation in the world.

I became homeless because I had given up caring. I was working a job doing dishwashing and felt that was the best that I could do. I felt I had nothing to look forward to in the job. It was tiring and I wasn't making enough money to save. My coworkers were nice, but they all spoke Chinese which made the work even more alienating feeling. It's not that it was hard, again, but I had little motivation or direction and little idea of what I could really be doing differently. So I gave up and became homeless.

From there, I stayed at the job for a few months before embarking on a long travel. I was homeless on the Columbia River, working at different farms across Washington and Oregon. I spent a lot of time on my art work and eventually, after travelling to the east coast, landed in a shelter on the west coast. I spent a lot of time on my art work while busying myself in coffee shops. Like most homeless shelters I had been to, I stayed quiet and didn't interact much, lest I would get into trouble. I just hung out at the library and Starbucks, drawing and reading books and being bored out of my mind.

During this time, I had a few odd illustration jobs, I got to stay at an artist retreat center and I took some peer counseling classes. I stayed there six months before finding some affordable rent.

Although I hated staying at libraries and coffee shops, it did keep me busy and between that and the Y and the shelter, I was never alone. Having a roof over my head, I was very lonely and the time alone did not go so well. I looked for jobs, finding a lot of volunteer work but having difficulty with social relations made job interviews total messes. I volunteered at a farm and did a permaculture certificate as well as took some more art classes. Steady work eluded me.

During this time I was depressed. I had a long form suicide plan in my head- my way of dealing with extreme suicidality was to make the plan really convoluted so that it would take years or at least months to complete. Every time I walked over bridges, there was a strong urge to jump. That time I was driving a car- how easy it would be to just ramp it up to 100 and go straight into that cliff. Alcohol, meth, crack, pills- how painless that would be. The thoughts were always there.

After coming back to Guate, amazed by the beauty but still crushed by the dull rag of depression and a crushing aimlessness, a complete lack of feeling of worth, my efforts redoubled and I did find some illustration work. Many of my interviews for park jobs failed and many I was not qualified for.

I have a dream right now of biking across country and finally finishing my climb to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. It's insane because I know I should figure out my work situation here first, but working as I did before did not work. The cycle of killing oneself to simply live for the next paycheck doesn't make much sense to me. I suppose in some ways that is very self-centered, but I've always been kind of an alienated person due to things in my past.

But I'm beginning to see how self destructive that all is and how it keeps me from doing any work I want to do, instead feeling like I have to be a martyr, taking shit jobs and volunteering while homeless. In some ways I am afraid of success because people scare me and I feel like no matter what I do people will be disappointed. And suicide is the ultimate disappointment.

But I still think of Mt. Katahdin. The only problem is, unless I win the lottery, I will still have to come back and find a way to live after that. And even if I do win the lottery, well, I'll still have life to deal with.

12 July, 2012


There is research that shows that people with addiction problems and OCD often focus more on a "story structure" more than an "experiental structure" in their brains. A story structure is more or less a way of ordering, making sense of the world with facts and stories, whereas an experiental structure is one of being in the world, just letting the experiences wash through and be experienced without being labeled. Both are probably necessary, but something goes haywire for one reason or another with various mental woes. The exciting news is that no matter what your upbringing, you can change this. I'm probably one of the more skeptical to believe that this is true, but if it is true, it is very good and very exciting news. The most exciting part of this news, to me, is that it shows science and cold hard facts and meditative, religious practices are meeting and finding common ground. Studying mindfulness is not exactly new, but the focus toward more holistic, experiental and even spiritual practices and therapies is a direction psychiatry has been headed for a while and I think it's promising. And I think it might open the way for other ways of looking at the brain such as ecopsychiatry(looking at a person and relationship to and place in environment), transpersonal psychiatry(looking at the aspects "beyond personal"), more thoughtfully looking at the cause of mental illness (maybe they do have a role in our society and are not broken), more holistically looking at nutrition and wellness as well as looking to the past including psychedelics to see what we can learn. It's beautiful today and I feel hopeful that we will figure this out, that there will be more thoughtful, thorough approaches. I have hope, although to tell the truth, I know we have a very long way to come, because I believe successfully treating mental illness means a complete overhaul of our current mindset and society.