It’s been a while. And I’m not sure we’ve actually met.
I don’t think this is comfortable for anyone involved. There are a lot of people, who saw who I was and tried to be there for me, that think of me or look in my direction and are completely baffled by or uncertain of who I am. For months I became more and more unrecognizable, even to myself, and confused those closest to me with decisions and behaviors that were, for lack of a better term, aberrant. It took a catastrophic turn of events, largely the result of my own actions. Some saw it coming; others are still reeling from the aftermath. For my part, it caused me to finally sit with myself, as I should have long ago, and look unflinchingly at who I am, and the gap that had been widening between that person and who I’ve wanted to be.
Let me state, for the record, that none of what follows is meant to be an excuse or attempt at exoneration for my actions. I own, and accept, that I made the choices that lead to so much disaster, shock, pain, and loss. Regardless of the influences and experiences that motivated those choices, I still made them, and the consequences for doing so are mine. I caused damage to people I hold very dear, violated boundaries, manipulated situations, broke trust, and inflicted emotional wounds. To those victims, for whatever it might be worth: I am so, so sorry.
Okay. Deep breath. We’re diving into this mess.
In the past, I have externalized some of my emotions and thought patterns and called them ‘head weasels’. Anger and depression and hubris and anxiety — each was their own entity. At one point, as I was trying to tell one from the other back in 2016, I started giving them their own personalities. I didn’t realize then, and perhaps to some extent couldn’t know, that each of them was part of something larger, something deeper, something far more sinister. Like a kraken lurking in the darkest of waters under an unsuspecting boat, it would reach up with this or that tentacle to push the boat off-course, damage it, even try to sink it. It didn’t just appear out of nowhere for no reason one day. I know why it’s there, and I know who set off the process that spawned it.
I was a smart kid, even from a young age. I was brought into a ‘gifted’ program in my elementary school. The teacher once told my parents that “Josh will never be accepted by his peers; he marches to the beat of his own drum.” She had no idea how right she was. My school was part of a district very big on athletics, football most of all. Most boys my age were being groomed for that — the cheering crowds, the scholarships, endorsement deals, NFL contracts, all of it. They moved in groups, developing swaggering machismo from a young age. They didn’t care about grades, and not much about what other people thought of them, either. They were, in their own minds and the eyes of their parents and the system, nascent golden gods. It seemed like everything was handed to them.
I never assumed that. My dad instilled in me the importance of working hard from the start. I always saw him working. On more than one occasion, I’d walk into the dining room at my parents’ old house and have to walk around to see him past the stacks of legal documents he had to parse through. I knew he was doing it for us, to show up at his job as his best self — I didn’t have that vocabulary back then to describe it this way, but I knew it deep down. And I wanted to be like my dad. I looked up to him and believed in him. So I worked hard at school, not just to get good grades, but to be a good boy. I talked to my teachers, I tried to help others in need, especially the girls around me. My sisters, one older and one younger, impressed upon me how important it was for me to treat others of their gender well. So I did the best I could.
I didn’t always get things right. I made mistakes – the sorts of mistakes all kids make, to one extent or another, when they see what they can get away with when their parents aren’t looking. Poking around areas of the house that one shouldn’t, or doing something without my parents’ permission. I even peeked under my parents’ bed before Christmas one year. And I was always terribly ashamed of those mistakes. I’d fib about mistakes I made to try and hide that shame. My mother always knew when I was fibbing. She tried to tell me how important it was to always own my mistakes, to be honest, and to accept responsibility for everything I did, good and bad. It’s a lesson that I should have internalized, and possibly would have, if something else hadn’t gotten there first.
I was ten years old. There were three of them — preening, spoiled boys raised on the vicarious expectations of their fathers and a steady diet of hyper-masculine 80’s action movies. I was walking down the hall. Two of them grabbed me, while the third pulled off my backpack. Holding me by the arms, they pulled me to the side of the hall. The one with my backpack opened the door to the girl’s bathroom, and I was tossed inside. They laughed.
“Yeah!” The third boy, their leader I guess, opened my backpack and threw it in after me. Books and papers scattered everywhere. “That’s where you belong, nerd!“
They walked away and the door swung shut.
I don’t know how long I was laying there, crying, before I stood up and started gathering my things.
A part of me stayed on those cool, pink, little square tiles for the next 30 years.
I never told my parents about it. Hell, I didn’t even remember it this clearly until recently. It got lumped in with “I was bullied” as a general statement, which usually was the beginning and the end of my description of events of my early childhood. But in that moment, on that floor, the thing in the shadowy depths of my psyche began to take shape.
You’re a nerd. You’re an outcast. You’re a loner. People hate that. You should hate it too.
It was the first time in my life that I wanted to die.
Somehow I’d failed in being a good boy, in being a person people liked. How? What had I done wrong? As far as I could tell, nothing; I’d simply had the audacity to exist. For two years I let other, less aggressive bullying, mostly in the form of ridicule and heckling, sink into my mind to reinforce the idea that every breath I took was somehow offensive, or a mistake.
The only person I told about this at the time was my big sister, Jen.
I came home one day from school and opened the kitchen cabinet. I looked up at the big knives Mom kept on a magnetic strip to keep them out of reach of us kids. But I was taller, now. I could reach the knives. I could stop hurting. Because it would hurt less if I used one of those sharp knives. Right?
I closed the door, walked upstairs, knocked on my sister’s door, and before she even finished asking who was there, I opened it.
Jen shrieked, because she’d been changing. I backed out and apologized, but didn’t close the door all the way. I just looked away and started crying.
She asked me to come in and to talk to her. She stood on the other side of her bed from me, sheet held up against her chest, listening to me. We talked for a long time; she told me that I was going to be okay, that those boys didn’t matter, that I was a good boy with a good heart that people really loved. I said I didn’t know how to keep going, that I just wanted to stop hurting so much. Jen told me that the best thing to do was to keep going forward, doing what I was doing. “It’s going to hurt sometimes,” she said. “Best thing you can do is suck it up and deal with it.” I remember her looking at me with this mix of sympathy and determination. “You do that by remembering that you’re loved, you’re smart, you’re funny; if nothing else, remember that I love you, and I don’t want you to quit.”
I stepped out into the hall to let her finish changing. She came out of her room and hugged me tight, and told me again how much she loved me.
I kind of fell in love with her a little bit in that moment.
When I was sixteen, she was engaged to be married. We had talked about her boyfriend, who I liked, even if a part of me was a little jealous of him getting so much of her attention. But I was getting used to it. I liked seeing Jen become more and more of her own person. I told her so, in one of the last conversations I remember having with her. She was so happy; she practically glowed. She told me that she wanted the same for me. She’d heard me sing, seen me act, read my writing. She asked me to never stop telling stories, because that was what I was born to do.
She was killed not long after that.
It was a horrible car accident. The bridge she and her fiancee were driving on was heavily fogged in. She was driving as carefully as she always did — well, unless ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was on the radio, which meant she’d hit the gas while she and I headbanged like idiots from ‘Wayne’s World’. This was anything but; driving in fog had always tended to make her nervous. She barely saw the tractor trailer in time to swerve. According to the police report, she swerved in a way that put her side of the car towards the trailer and aimed her for the other lane. She hit the trailer on her side of the car, and then another vehicle, an orange pick-up, slammed into her back end. Her little Plymouth was shoved even harder into the big truck. The rear fender, at about head level for those seated in a normal car, shattered the driver’s side window on its way towards her head. She was killed instantly.
Her fiancee got away with a bruise from the seat belt and some scratches from his glasses. And the emotional scars, of course. We all were our own wrecks in the wake of what happened. And like the girl’s bathroom, a part of me never walked away from where I’d been standing next to the cardboard box my mother was crying over, our last letters to Jen in an envelope slid under one of the thin straps holding it shut, ready to be rolled into where she’d be cremated.
I left my home the first chance I got, going to university an hour away, and then moving to the other side of the state after that. It hurt too much to stay. I wanted to be my own person, the way that Jen had been. And if I’d gotten into an accident of my own, I wouldn’t really complain. I did get into a few over the next couple of years, but I always ended up walking away, usually without a scratch. That didn’t seem fair. What made me special? Why was I still here, and Jen wasn’t? Like a black hole in my soul, my grief grew until it obscured all that had come before it, including the little boy still on the floor of the girl’s bathroom in that elementary school.
I wanted to die more than ever, but how could I make that happen? How would it possibly be okay if I did that? I was loved and supported; I couldn’t let down the people who still wanted to see me be my own person, to live up to my potential, to be happy.
Ah, came the logic from that slowly maturing and growing kraken. But what if you did let them down? What if you did something so heinous and selfish that they hated you, instead of loving you?
That would make it okay. That would mean they wouldn’t mourn you the way you do Jen. They’d throw a fucking party to celebrate.
And you won’t care. You won’t be in pain. You won’t have to keep trying so hard.
Again, this is something I didn’t realize was happening until much, much later. And even when I did realize it, the behaviors were so deeply ingrained that I couldn’t necessarily stop them before they happened. And then, ashamed of the actions I’d chosen to take to act on those thoughts and emotions, I’d lie about it. Which, of course, ended up making it worse. It created time bombs in my relationships. And when they went off, they went off in spectacular fashion. The ramifications of my actions fueled my shame and self-hatred, which pushed my thoughts back in a suicidal direction. Every time it happened, I came a little bit closer to doing something I couldn’t take back.
Along the way, I tried to understand what was going wrong, what I was doing wrong. At the time, seeing each of these individual tendrils as isolated feelings rather than realizing they were connected to a greater, central source of trauma and internalized toxicity, I failed to really get to the heart of the matter. This was especially true in the last year; looking back, I cannot help but admit that the harder I tried to do better, the more I failed and made things worse. The worst part was, I didn’t realize I was failing. I thought I was making progress, and I’d talk about the work I was doing, patting myself on the back and looking for approval or validation from others. I didn’t know, as ill-equipped as I was, and as deeply I was engaged in self-deception, that all of that work was merely scratching the surface. And all the while, the timers on those bombs I’d laid in my relationships, the best relationships I’ve ever had in my entire life, were tick, tick, ticking away.
Then, on March 28 2019, they went off. All of those lies, and all of the harmful decisions I’d made, from actively hiding or obfuscating communication to engaging in gaslighting behavior, came screaming into the light to drown out everything but one quiet voice in my head.
There. You see? You really are everything you claim to hate. Look what you did to these people you’re in love with, and the ones that trusted you, that believed in you. You broke their hearts. You showed them your true colors. Well done, good and faithful servant.
You’re the monster. It’s time to slay the monster. Go ahead. You won’t be missed. It’s okay. It’s the right thing to do. It’s time for you to pay for your crimes. Man up and get it done. The sooner you’re gone, the sooner everyone can get on with their lives. Prove that at the very least you’re not a fucking coward. Go on. Do it.
I almost did. My behaviors had finally pushed my emotions past their breaking point, and that turned my thoughts to a single goal: self-destruction. My behaviors then moved my body away from work, away from love, away from everything but that final, fatal act. It was only the intervention of strangers, whose names I wish I knew and whose faces I’ll never forget, that I’m able to sit here and write about how behaviors begat emotion begat thoughts begat behaviors.
Let me take a moment to expound on that interaction.
This triangle, a concept in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), illustrates the effect our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors have on one another. It’s a symbiotic relationship, and in an ideal world, there would be balance between the three vertices.
Part of bipolar disorder, as I’ve discovered, is that the mercurial nature of the emotions and perceptions that are generated and influenced by the chemicals in the brain can be difficult to predict or to control at times. Environmental factors, triggers, and the potential for rapid cycling all contribute towards when and how those chemicals are generated. The upshot of this is that the emotional vertex of the triangle above isn’t something over which we always have control or influence.
However, we always have control over our thoughts and behaviors. While our emotions directly influence both of these things, we can choose how that influence is interpreted and applied. When emotions are particularly intense, these choices can be difficult to discern. We may even feel that we have only one choice to make. This is almost never the case. Even if it takes more time or energy than we’d prefer, at the very least, we can choose to allow our emotions to simply be felt or examined, rather than allowing them to have a direct immediate influence on our thoughts or behaviors.
The importance of understanding this relationship, especially for those with mental illness, cannot be understated. It takes work and time devoted to self-exploration to understand it on a fundamental level and apply that understanding to our everyday lives. Personally, I would not be where I am now, in terms of showing up as a person whose outward persona matches their inner self, if I did not take the time to do that work, both in the past and in the present. I highly encourage you to look into this further, and it is a subject on which I plan on writing and speaking more in the future. I hope you’ll find that insight useful.
When I woke up in the 7-North wing of the UW Medical Center on the day after they’d brought me in, I made a decision. I knew I couldn’t trust my own mind, not as it was, and I had to find a way to do that, once and for all. I decided that this would be the last time I ended up in a place like that, the last time I punished myself for my actions to the point I sought my own death penalty, the last time I hurt and betrayed people I love so dearly. Nobody deserved what I’d done to them. I didn’t deserve to do these things to myself. If nothing else, it would be worth my time to once and for all find a way to not be so incredibly miserable all the time.
It’s only been a handful of weeks since that day, but the changes are manifesting themselves already in ways that I could not have anticipated. I was expecting to be in the hospital for a long time, but they discharged me in relatively short order. I didn’t get the impression they were trying to get rid of me, either. In fact, the reaction I was getting from pretty much everyone was that I was on the right track, and walking the right path, maybe for the first time. And I’m still getting that impression, from what I feel might have been the most unlikely of sources.
The title of this post is a bit of a misnomer. Mostly it’s because “Walk” by the Foo Fighters is a very good song to describe what I’m going through right now. I’ve talked the talk before, about doing The Work. If and when you see me now, you’ll see me walking the walk.
And for the record, I’m not doing it for you. I’m doing it for me. Because I’m worth it.
We can’t go back to the past. We can’t undo the mistakes that we’ve made. We can only own them, admit to our part in events, and make the effort to get and be and do better. And the sooner we start that process, in and for ourselves, being honest with ourselves first and foremost, the sooner that effort we make gives us tangible results. I am sorry for what happened, what I did, and how much damage my choices caused. This was going to happen, eventually, and it happened in the worst possible way, and I’m sorry for that, too.
I no longer want to die. I believe in myself too much to want that. I have too many hopes for the future to want that. And at the end of the day, I’m far too stubborn to let a trio of insecure little boys who hated what they didn’t understand determine the course of the rest of my life. Now that I see these things for who and what they are, I can deal with them. Not fight them, not attack them, but deal with them.
And it started with me going into that bathroom, helping that hurt and terrified 10-year-old boy off of the floor, wrapping him in my arms, and telling him that we are going to be okay.
I tell him that we’ve stumbled quite a few times since he ended up in that bathroom. We’ve made some big mistakes. We’ve hurt people. And we’ve hurt ourselves most of all. We’ve hindered ourselves, gotten in our own way, even come close to breaking. But we’re not broken. We’re still here. And there’s still a world ahead of us, and we’re walking into it, one step at a time.
The most important thing is, every time I’ve stumbled, to one degree or another, I’ve managed to get back up. I had trouble in the past seeing what it was that had truly knocked me down. Now I see these things for what they are, and I’ve realized I was fighting back against them with one hand tied behind my back. And embracing things, accepting things, and committing to treating them and myself better works more effectively if one uses both arms.
I believe in that little boy. I believe in the teen who was struggling not to completely fall apart over his beloved big sister’s body. I believe in myself, here and now. I have it in me to right the course of my ship, run out onto bowsprit, glare down into the depths of the waters in the inscrutable face of all of the pain and trauma and self-hatred that wanted to destroy me for so long, that even now fights to survive and prevail over my better nature and my innermost Self, and say the words “I AM.“
In my mind, I then flip that eldritch abomination the bird, get back behind the wheel, and steer for warmer and cleaner waters. Forget living in the past and fuck wallowing in self-pity and misery. I have too many awesome things to accomplish; I can’t waste one more second doing any of that shit.
Radically accepting that truth isn’t the same as fighting the old, internalized aspects of my Shadow, viewing them as antagonists or monsters to be slain or destroyed. Doing that has caused more problems than it’s solved, and caused the people around me to become casualties of a war that raged entirely in my own head. Rather, it’s healthier and more constructive to sit with them, see them for what they are, understand where they came from, and allow them to exist as parts of me that have gotten in my way before and still could. Making the choice to move past them after accepting them in that way is not only the better choice to make, it’s an empowering one. Things only have the power we give them; when I make that choice, I’m taking power back for myself, to show up and keep moving forward, allowing me to be the person I am and want to be.
We can easily get hung up on the thought that we “must” or “are supposed” to be or act a certain way. Those thoughts are erroneous, based almost entirely on external influences. Our source of truth is within ourselves, and is sovereign and self-contained. Embracing that, and manifesting it in our everyday lives, allows us to succeed in being who we are, rather than failing in trying to achieve an erroneous or even unrealistic goal.
Things can get in our way in being able to reach that source. We can make wrong choices, act on incomplete or incorrect information, or fuck things up spectacularly. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t better choices to make, even in the wake of a mistake, especially if we own the fact that we made that mistake, rather than denying, projecting, or trying to shout down the truth. There are always better choices to make.
It’s never too late to start making those choices. It’s never too late to start over, try again, to get and be and do better.
And that is a choice that, now more than ever, is the first and most important one I make every single day.
I’m standing on my own two feet, and I’m taking deliberate steps forward, one day and one moment at a time.
So… hi. This is who I am.
And I’m very, very glad to be here.