Some of you will find this relevant, and some of it is still relevant to me.
“John Michael Madden” – the old me:
- was born on 9/26/46, to a working-class 3rd generation Irish-Catholic family
- grew up in a (then) blue-collar suburb (Brookfield) southwest of Chicago. A kind of sweet little conservative lily-white town.
- was raised by a sweet, loving, neurotic, guilt-inducing, Enneagram 2 mother and a passive, withdrawn, alcoholic father.
- was born nine years into his parents’ marriage and was the “miracle baby”, the little prince. His mom always told him he could be anything he wanted to be – and that he was a complete disappointment.
- his brother Terry was born 16 months later. (“He also is nice.”) Their relationship greatly shaped John’s life.
- was influenced in his early years by old-time Catholic culture – with all the neurosis and genuine, hell-fearing trauma attendant to that.
- was sexually abused from ages 6-10 by his much older tormented alcoholic cousin, who lived next door. The memories of this powerful, extended trauma stayed totally suppressed until they returned – completely unbidden (actually fiercely resisted), starting with a Jungian dream group. The return of these memories pretty totally blew his life apart – and allowed the surfacing of a pattern of feelings and behavior that were identified as “Major Depression” and then “Bipolar Disorder”. He had all manner of personal support and psychotherapy to heal the sex abuse and after several years declared himself “healed” – though the remnants of this trauma still definitely affected him until his “Integrity Day”, (6/26/19). Since that day, this part of “John’s history” is pretty much irrelevant.
- attended Catholic schools through college (Loyola University in Chicago). For his four years of high school and his first year of college, he was in the Catholic seminary – studying to be a priest. He left that specific vocation behind, but truly all of his work since then – as a psychologist, organization development management consultant or as a front-line customer service worker (for seven years now a grocery store cashier) has in a very real way been pastoral.
- in his last year in college (1968), experienced a genuine transformation from a straight, middle class kid into a real immersion into the counter-culture and political radicalism. This, in a very real way, changed the trajectory of his life. In many ways he was an aspiring hippie (he tuned in and turned on), but never became a true hippie (he never really dropped out). Instead of moving to Haight Ashbury and really “living the life”, he stayed in Chicago and quickly married a girl very much like his mother.
- got a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Rochester. Did not in any way identify with his academic faculty, charting for himself a course towards psychotherapy and personal growth. Rejecting the influences of Sigmund Freud and B.F. Skinner, he and many of his classmates were irresistibly drawn to Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, and Fritz Perls. His class and the class ahead of him were the first (and maybe last) wave of “student radicals” to hit that program: they and their academic faculty made each other crazy for the next four years – and he escaped with his Ph.D. by the skin of his teeth.
- was married right out of college. A tormented, ten-year marriage that did, however – right near its end – net a wonderful adopted son, Terry, who lives in Louisville, KY, and still is his heart.
- Having grown up in a sheltered, all-white midwestern suburb in the fifties left him completely ignorant of racial issues until his final year of college. Then, along with the rest of his political and societal waking up, the scales began to fall off his eyes about racism and white privilege. Over the last fifty years, he has – among many other influences – been shaped by
- raising a black son
- Martin Luther King (marched with him in Chicago),
- Re-evaluation Counseling , with its passionate, across-the board commitment to liberation issues – a real distinguishing characteristic from so many personal personal growth paths. “I can’t be really free until everybody is free.”
- ten years of his management consulting and training specialized in “diversity issues” – race, gender and sexual orientation in the workplace.
- a long and powerful commitment to “men’s issues”. He was groomed to work with men by: having six brothers, five years in the Catholic seminary, four years of working in a VA hospital, and 15 years working with mostly-male corporate managers. He passionately loves his brothers and has organized and participated in men’s groups for the last forty years.
- After divorcing at age 32, had a number of less powerful romantic relationships and one very powerful four year partnership. That last relationship – steamy and magical and tormented – shaped him in many ways, and in many ways has left him unwilling to have another.
- has, since that relationship, had one beautiful long-distance relationship – but otherwise nothing but a few dates. Being in this way untethered has perhaps made him more ready for truly waking up.
- has been influenced by many personal growth influences, especially Re-evaluation Counseling (peer “co-counseling – a passionate 24 year involvement, formally ending about 20 years ago but forever influencing him) and Gestalt Therapy.
- Has been in therapy for himself for most of the last 20 years, with therapists who have practiced
- in his 20 years of practicing psychology, he (among other things)
- taught college for two years at Alfred University
- worked in a mental health center in Amherst, Nova Scotia, for two years
- offered psychotherapy in a private practice in Syracuse, NY, for seven years
- (in his last psychology job) was the psychologist in a Day Hospital program at a tough, mostly black, West Side of Chicago VA Hospital
- in his 15 years of practicing organization development management consulting, he:
- worked full-time for four years at AT&T, including a lot of work at its headquarters in Basking Ridge, NJ – where he grew from a psychologist into being a genuine systems-oriented organization change person
- while at AT&T, he was greatly influenced by the brilliant and incredibly progressive organizational hero Peter Block and his ground-breaking book Flawless Consulting (which Peter teased that he had considered titling “Smash the Patriarchy”), was certified as a trainer of the corporate training course based on that book and was briefly a part of Peter’s training firm, Designed Learning.
- Worked two years at Cincinnati Gas and Electric – a sleepy old-fashioned utility that was the opposite of the vibrant AT&T, was as resistant to change as AT&T was relatively open to it.
- While at CG&E, went as an OD consultant with representatives of the Training Department to an extended series of trainings with Peter Senge on “Systems Thinking” as applied to organizations. A lifesaver while he was working in a system that so feared change.
- While at CG&E, went as an OD consultant with representatives of the Training Department to an extended series of trainings with Peter Senge on “Systems Thinking” as applied to organizations. A lifesaver while he was working in a system that so feared change.
- Participated in the 54-day (over 18 months) Organization and Systems Development (OSD) professional training program at the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland. Influenced the way he worked with corporate clients – and his whole way of being in the world.
- after his “mental health breakdown” (should have been a spiritual transformation) thirty years ago, did not work for a couple of years
- was hospitalized 13 times over eight years in Chicago and Asheville. Those hospitals ranged from very benign (if never truly therapeutic) to snake pits
- was treated for 30 years with very potent cocktails of psychotropic drugs
- separated by a year, was treated with two extended rounds of ECT shock treatments. The first round was relatively traumatic: he discontinued it when he became very aware of much erosion in his subtle mental faculties. The second round was totally devastating and precipitated a three-day psychotic episode (the only psychotic experience of his life)
- seriously attempted suicide in 1999, by suffocation. Should have died – the next day, still alive, decided that his work here must not be done
- in 2004, somewhat on impulse, in a desperate attempt to re-invest himself, moved to Asheville, NC. – as counseled a year before by his son Terry (“Dad, if you ever get suicidal again, no matter what don’t hurt yourself. Move to a place where you have never lived, where you know nobody, do work you never have done – start over.”) The funky, artistic Asheville really fits him – has supported his development as an artist/writer/performer. He can’t picture ever leaving.
- In his fifteen years in Asheville, has held 13 different front-line customer service jobs – including restaurant server, cab driver, call center customer service agent and grocery store cashier (his last 7 years). Has become “the working class hero I was always meant to be”. Please read his “Working Hard for the Money” chapter in his in-progress memoir A Dark Awakening.
- meditation and eastern spirituality: has been a meditation student of
- Sri Chinmoy (three years)
- Bengali teacher of Bhakti Yoga – the yoga of love, devotion and surrender
- teacher of classic jazz guitarist “Mahavishnu” John McLaughlin and Carlos “Devadip” Santana
- stumbled into the guru’s backyard and joined a group of about 15 people who got to hear the guru instruct Santana on how to meditate when he is playing for thousands of people in a rock concert
- Sri Chinmoy (three years)
- mind-expanding drugs – did four powerful acid trips in grad school. Each was intended and structured to be a “spiritual experience” – and each was, until it turned terrifying, out of control and psychotic. Had no one around him then to help him integrate these experiences.
- mental illness: was diagnosed with “Clinical Depression” in his early forties, and Bipolar Disorder a few years later. Today, influenced by the thinking and writing of Stanislav Grof (famous pioneer of “Transpersonal Psychology, the meeting point between personal growth and spiritual growth – especially in his book The Stormy Search of Health) is no longer willing to identify himself as having a mental illness and sees his “symptoms” as signs that he was having a “spiritual emergency” – which no one around him was equipped to do anything but define him as mentally ill.
- psychotropic drugs: has for 30 years taken potent cocktails of 2-4 drugs. He is convinced now that none of them has ever really helped him – in negotiation with his fine young holistic PA psychiatirst is in a process of weaning off all of them. He thinks that reducing his Lithium made his “waking up” process possible.
- has been very influenced by the 12 Steps and (until very recently) has for many years thought that really “working” the Steps, with a sponsor, could be very powerful. Not sure if any of this still pertains to him.
- was a Myers-Briggs ENFP and an Enneagram 7. Today, being pretty totally guided by Spirit, none of that is really who he is any more.
- a writer – threw himself into it since elementary school. His writing really caught fire when I moved to Asheville 15 years ago.
- Performing at Jubilee Spiritual Community (poetry, prose, stand-up comedy) over those same 15 years – often with musicians – has really helped him to come into his own as a performer
- He put on two big poetry concerts
- Radical Integrity: Reflective Stories for Reclaiming Your Self – still unpublished, but he’s brushing it off, sharing chapters with people. Ready to do something with it now.
- blogs – see list at the bottom of this blog.
- since May, 2018, he has been very influenced by his “soul friend” Diana Buchanan
- 5 Rhythms dancing – a passionate practitioner of this form of free-form improvisational “ecstatic” dancing
- he has also been very influenced by three dogs:
- 5 pound yorkiepoo Toni
- 20 pound (should be 16 lbs) chihuahua mix Panchita aka Pancho
- “Woke up” – 3 a.m., Monday, June 26, 2019
Waking up isn’t for everyone, but for those who have gotten a taste of becoming fully conscious, it is the only game in town.
Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.
— Oscar Wilde.
For most people, the process of becoming fully yourself unfolds very gradually throughout our lives, through lots of hard work. This is how it worked for me for 73 years. Then – at 3 a.m., on Monday, June 26 2019 – many things fell in place at once and I made a 100% commitment to reclaiming my integrity. I was given a gift – and poof! In that moment I became a new person.
Learning to walk the walk and claim the voice of this new person is in itself a gradual process – but I am being unerringly guided by Spirit, and in a very real way it has all become easy.
I have become, in the words of Michael Singer (The Untethered Soul), “unreasonably happy” – and nothing can seem to dent this happiness. I endure the shocks of human life: my checking account is suddenly overdrawn; the chronic pain, sometimes pretty rough, that has been with me for 30 years – and still hasn’t been diagnosed – is still there; a friend is in the midst of great pain and I go there with them (actually more acutely than ever before). But happiness always sits in the background and is the baseline to which I always return.
I have for thirty years been diagnosed as having Bipolar Disorder (see my blog Bipolar Integrity). My energy still cycles powerfully up and down, but words like “bipolar”, “manic” or “depressed” no longer apply to me and I will not use them to describe myself. I am returning to the comfortingly descriptive, non-psychiatric words I have used for years: “expanded” and “contracted”. These I can live with.
which no one recognized or knew how to support or guide. This crisis, rather than being treated with reverence as the sacred process it was, was “treated” with psychotropic drugs that snowed me and kept this sacred process from ever resolving.
(I myself was trained as a Ph.D. clinical psychologist and worked in the field for 20 years; while I was in some ways an especially awake psychotherapist, all that psychology training finally made it harder for me to truly “wake up”. I have been very supported lately by the Asheville Center for Spiritual Emergence.)
For a while, I was confused by the fact that my waking up process does not look like that of some of my role models: I do not consistently come from a place that looks like peace and love like Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama. My “new person” has a sharp edge – more like Byron Katie or Fritz Perls, two of the big influences of my life. (And truly, even Thich Nhat Hanh – my teacher for four years – also has a ferocious side, as I saw revealed when the U.S was preparing to go to war in Iraq.)
I readily tell people truths – or reflect them back to themselves – in ways that they seem unready to hear. I can be ferocious at times, will raise my voice – will look and sound very angry (even if, in at least some of these situations, I actually feel completely peaceful inside). This “new person” sometimes shocks my friends, who have always thought of me as a “nice person”. When someone around me (even my customer in the grocery store checkout line) is being harmed or threatened, I can suddenly become “an avenging angel – a sword of truth”.
The political situation in our country – with Donald Trump and the forces of reaction, separation and hate – remains profoundly disturbing and I feel committed (required) to finding the right ways (as Spirit guides me) to be involved and try to make a difference, to take our country back. Thich Nhat Hanh was a pioneer of “engaged Buddhism” during the war in Vietnam – where he and his order of monks worked heroically to put that war to an end – and remains in this area of my mission a role model.
And I am more loving than ever before – love that has integrity and truth and often great gentleness.
Fifteen years ago, I wrote a book – as yet unpublished, but soon – called Radical Integrity: Reflective Stories for Reclaiming Your Self. There are some real gems in that book – I was already on the path, and some of those chapters will turn up here. There were times that I would show up with great integrity and even courage. But I had not yet undergone “the change” – I had not become integrity, I still basically had no clue who I really was.
Whether your process of claiming your integrity is very gradual or whether you, like me, have had – or soon do have – your own moment of “waking up” (and this moment is happening to more and more people), my wish is that the words and stories in the blog will give you encouragement, inspiration, maybe sometimes guidance, and maybe sometimes excitement.
For more information about what led up to my breakthrough and what followed it, you can read the Page “Waking up: a tale of depression, integrity, assertiveness and good boundaries”.
Become a part of this community of waking up. Subscribe to the blog. Add your voice in the Comments section after each blog post. Write me. I want to be here for you.
Preface, 10/12. While I still think there is some valid stuff in this post, it now looks pretty imbalanced to me. (Jesus, I am on fire with Spirit!) I think it is useful for tracing how gradual some elements of the “Waking Up” process can be. Its companion piece now – which I encourage you to read before or after reading this: “A radical reorganization of my relationship with rest.”
Since I “woke up” at 3 a.m. on June 26, I am no longer the person I was before. I am only gradually getting to know this new person – to find my true voice. But it is happening – relentlessly. I am clearly no longer a “nice guy”. Some of my behaviors may look “nice”. Some of my friends may cling to the obsolete notion that I am really a nice guy – in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. Some will say, “I liked the old John/Majo better.” Being liked is no longer of any importance to me. If I am liked by no one, that could be fine – as long as I have the connection to Spirit that is the only true driver to me these days.
Being this new person sometimes feels lonely: I nostalgically long for someone to “get” me – to understand what I truly am up to. And there are candidates for this role: Tom Kilby, my really good buddy and old/new housemate here in Asheville, is working heroically to hang with me. I have hopes for one really great friend from my 18-year men’s group. When we came away from our last Skype meeting, one guy had said “You really sound manic to me” – and I had the impression that maybe all of them were thinking that.
The next day, I sent them several text messages to try to help them understand what was really going on, including the Waking Up blog post that for me captures so much of it. This guy responded with a definition of “enlightened” from Michael Singer, in his book The Untethered Soul, which so many of my friends seem to be reading. “Unreasonably happy.” There’s no reason for feeling happy. It doesn’t rely on something good having happened – it’s just your baseline. That is exactly what is happening for me. Non-stop happy for now more than three months.
So where do I get my support? From Spirit. No question. As long as I am living out my mission – that path for which I have been uniquely sculpted over these 73 years – I will remain so solidly in the loving arms of Spirit that any other support will be really nice, but not really necessary. Certainly, speaking my truth to people is pissing a lot of people off. This seems to me confirmation that I am on the right track.
Some people will always be irresistibly drawn to me when they smell what I am up to – they know, even if the do not understand – that they need to be around me, that at least some elements of my path are also their path. They are like a moth to the candle flame – and, truly, contact with me may burn out who they used to be, who they and others think they are.
Some people, when they wake up – and I do believe this is no longer the province just of “saints” like Eckhart Tolle and Byron Katie…lots of regular people like me and you are being called to a new path, are being scooped up in the irresistible net of Spirit – many of these people get “spiritual”, more loving, more peaceful, more quiet, etc. This seems not to be my path: I am the “bite me” cashier, the “bullshit!” friend, the “let me turn your life upside down” spiritual teacher.
A customer this morning at Earth Fare – a very cool 50ish white guy – went back and forth between the equally open lines of the the really very special young woman Damali and me. I tried to make his decision easier: “Damali is amazing – smart, competent, charming. If, on the other hand, you want a walk on the wild side, come on over here.” He chose the wild side, not knowing (nor did I) how prescient that invitation would prove – just how wild I would show up. Before his transaction was completed, a young woman (new) cashier whom I had never before met or worked with came over to bag my customer’s groceries.
Within a couple of minutes, she said something that I’m sure she did not think was racist – but that I immediately recognized to be very potentially destructive, very dangerously racist. And I absolutely blew! I screamed at her things like, “Don’t you ever, ever dare to say racist shit like that in this store again!!!” When things settled down a little bit, she was obviously very shaken and defensive – and my customer was fine. I apologized to him for all the drama, but in a very real way I was defending a beautifully insightful thing he had just said about racism, which she had ignorantly contradicted and attacked.
I myself was shaken by the totally unexpected and unbidden power of what had just flowed through me. It certainly was not the me I am used to being. While I am loved and admired by so many people in that store – including management – I knew that this kind of “inappropriate” display of emotion could potentially get me fired. Yet at no point in this process did I ever feel any regret: I knew that what I had just done, while on one level had been pretty rough, was totally guided by Spirit and “just right”.
But still I was shaken. The new cashier in question was still standing in front of me – maybe shell-shocked, I’m not sure …and my customer was still organizing his groceries to leave. I yelled to the supervisor Puppy, who is a friend and ally of mine and who had been just a few steps away for the whole thing, “Puppy, I have to get out of here! We need to have me not be in this store right now! I need to have my ten-minute break right now! I need to have a cigarette!”
Our wonderful house sitting host, Monika Wen, comes back on Sunday from her two months in Mexico – and Pancho and me will very sadly move back into our Battery Park apartment on Saturday. Our really good friend Will does not know when he will be moving out of his Candler house – allowing us to move in there with our awesome friend Tom Kilby and very cool 19 year old son Ian – so we will be in our old apartment at Battery Park for some number of days or weeks.My current plan is to give my 30 days notice to Janet, the Building Manager at Battery Park, on October 1. While I am believing that it is probably certain that we will be moving to Candler, it is not for sure that we will be able to move there in October. Giving our notice to be out by November 1 is a little risky, but I sure don’t want to be stuck with the November rent.
Today, inside of an hour visiting with our friends/dog sitters Diana and Angie at Battery Park, we had three very disturbing encounters with angry dogs and their clueless masters/sitters.
Diana and my last dog, Toni, who – as much as Pancho – adored her and vice-versa.
1)Diana and Julie and I were sitting on the rock wall in front of the building, enjoying cigarettes, each other’s company and the presence of a very peaceful Panchita. Our housemate Eileen was unloading her groceries from her car. Diana, knowing that Pancho does not like Eileen’s actually very sweet and submissive Fleur (a very recent adoption), warned me that Fleur would soon be getting out of the car. The last time Pancho encountered Fleur and Eileen – maybe two weeks ago – Pancho had barely wrinkled an eyebrow from our path towards our car. But this time, for whatever reason I will never understand, she was upset with Fleur’s presence and started to growl, then bark.
The obviously very aggressive and dangerous five year old chihuahua-mix Pancho, who I rescued from Rusty’s Rescue in Marion – after she had spent a full month in a smallish crate, being terrified of all the barking dogs in the other cages.
I will never understand why so many clueless dog owners don’t understand Principle #1 of managing dogs – don’t let your dog go close to a dog that doesn’t like them. Eileen doesn’t seem to understand this basic principle and unconsciously let Fleur’s leash go slack – and Fleur, demonstrating a lack of basic doggie instincts, kept walking toward a dog that was already barking and growling at her. “Get her away from us”, I said – not screaming or swearing (yet), but very, very stern. Eileen obediently pulled her dog away, but apparently did not like my tone and yelled, “You need to learn how to control your dog!”What? My dog was sitting right by my side, still up on the rock wall, on a very short leash – and had made no gesture to move towards her stupid dog. This was too much for me and I kind of snapped: I screamed “Fuck you Eileen!” – which really got her attention. She muttered her upsetness, then warned us that she was about to walk our way. “Thank you for warning us”, I said – genuinely appreciating her for this moment of clarity and responsibility. I took Pancho in my arms – the ultimate act of control and comforting – and Pancho did not bark as they walked closely by. When they had walked about 15 yards past, Eileen had apparently not had enough of the hostilities and turned to yell some more upsetness (none of which I really listened to).I, clearly violating the building policy against threatening your neighbors, said – kind of quietly, no longer in any way out of control, but definitely menacing “Don’t make me come over there.” With that, I had absolutely had enough of her stupid ass and turned to talk with my soul friend Diana while Eileen continued to yell at me. One of the things she yelled was “I will never talk to you again.” You can imagine how devastating that threat was to me. I totally ignored her and let out a good laugh to Diana at how thrilling it had been to set such a clear boundary.2) Diana and Pancho and I had gotten on the elevator to go to #6 for Diana to go home and #2 for me to use the bathroom. Someone in the basement had called the elevator and we went down there first. On the way back up, the elevator opened again on the main floor, and there was Roberta and one of Pancho’s arch-enemies, the extremely aggressive little Nyabi. The two two dogs immediately started to growl and bark at each other. Roberta, the queen of doggie unconsciousness, still moved to enter the elevator. “Don’t you bring that dog in here.” My tone was completely under control, but the power of my very clear boundary setting backed her right off. This encounter had been an unqualified success, but still made me very tired.3) Somewhere along the way, we encountered Cynthia – walking some stupid aggressive dog whose name I don’t remember. Cynthia gets lots of dog-walking business in the building, but has lousy understanding of boundaries in her own relationships and clearly does not understand Principle #1 – that you don’t let your dog get close to another dog who clearly is angry at her. She is forever letting the dog in her charge walk right up to another dog when they are already barking at each other. One very strong “Stay away” backed her right off. I felt satisfied – and got even more tired.
Pancho had done so well in our countrified temporary home. I will walk her a lot in the nearby beautiful, tranquil neighborhood of Montford – sometimes visiting our really good friend Amanda Graves over there, and often returning to Monika’s place in Oteen to walk the nearby Mountain To Sea Trail, even setting up my laptop in Monika’s state park of a backyard, and when we are lucky enjoying Monika’s sweet company.
But it will be a long number of days or weeks ’til we can get out to Candler and the wonderful Tom and Ian Kilby.
A little over a year ago, I sold out my integrity.
I gave up my perfect job – as a cashier at Earth Fare, not your average grocery store – because I had moved into a subsidized senior living high-rise, where they told me as I was moving in (after putting my application a year before) that – between my Social Security check and my earnings at Earth Fare – I had too much income to live there. Giving up my Social Security was not really an option, so I quit my wonderful job (the only real problem with which was that it paid lousy wages – $11 an hour, nothing like a living wage).
Within two weeks, I was pathetically depressed. Desperate to get out of this depression, I decided that I was missing my job and went over to Earth Fare and got my job back. (I am, honestly, magic with customers and they love me there.) “So now I’ll move – I don’t really like living in a high-rise two-room apartment in the middle of all the concrete downtown.”
My loving, well-meaning friends absolutely jumped in my shit. “You have moved way too much in the last year.” This was true – I almost never seemed to get along with my roommates (the only way I could live in a house, which my dog needed) – the only exceptions being my friend John Langdon
and the husband of a woman who liked me at first and invited me to live there, and then learned to hate me and my adorable 5 lb. yorkiepoo dog Toni.
(I think it may have become a problem between the husband and wife that he liked me so much.) “The rent is cheap there and you will finally have stability. You won’t need roommates. You can live there the rest of your life if you want.” (Most people do just that, leaving only on a gurney.)
So I dutifully quit my job again and committed myself to somehow make the cursed apartment work for me and little Toni.
It didn’t work. And not having the job – the structure, the identity, the community of staff and customers – was very, very bad for me. Over the next eight months, the life energy gradually dripped out of me – drip, drip, drip. I got suicidally depressed and – with support from my friends John and Diana and the building’s wonderful counselor Donna – went to the hospital after, in a kind of hysterical state, coming very very close to going to the top of the 13-floor building and jumping.
I shifted into mania and came out of the hospital happy – high, actually. I organized and performed a hugely successful “Something Rises 2019 – Majo’s Comeback Tour” poetry concert.
That night after the wonderful poetry concert – having truly been in the zone with those 78 people – I was extremely happy, content and peaceful.
A week later I was again in tremendous pain from depression. (The core symptom of what I call my “depression” – because it alternates with mania – is a very painful physical contraction through my whole body, like every cell is in a vice. The shrinks, for 30 years, have never known what I was talking about – it doesn’t fit any of their models – and have always pretty much ignored this reporting). I spent most of the next week in bed – mostly isolated from other people, especially my world-class circle of important friends. I got progressively more depressed and – exactly like the previous time, just five weeks earlier – felt that I could not bear the pain any longer, and prepared to make my departure. Again by jumping off the roof. I understand there is actually a long history of people doing just that – which, however, the management of the building works hard to minimize.
Coming out of the hospital after two weeks in what felt like a sensory deprivation tank (my fellow patients almost all were suffering from dementia), I was still almost as depressed as when I went in. My really very good hospital psychiatrist apologized to me in a heartfelt way that he was very sorry they had not helped me – that they really had tried every medication that they thought might be helpful, but obviously nothing worked. (I thought even then that changing my meds so many times in two weeks in itself whacked me out.)
I had an appointment with my regular psychiatrist the day after I came out of the hospital and told her, “Don’t let me fall through the cracks – I’m still in danger.” She said, “Your hospital psychiatrist made that very clear in his discharge summary, which they faxed to me. He said you are still a serious suicide risk. They let you go only because you really, really hated being there – and they couldn’t think of anything else to do for you. And because you told them that you were safe, that you were not thinking of hurting yourself – even though they didn’t really believe you.” And, in fact, I was consciously lying to them – I was ready to say whatever it took to get out of there.
I spent the rest of the week in bed. My behavior and language were so similar to before my two brushes with suicide that my really good friend Tom Kilby got very worried about me and called me every day.
A week after I came out of the hospital, on June 26, my new little dog Pancho
(Toni had very sadly died on October 1) got up in the middle of the night and acted like she was going to be sick. I got her out of the apartment and took her for a walk through the dark, mostly deserted 3 a.m. streets of downtown Asheville. Walking down an eerily quiet Patton Avenue, very near Jubilee’s back door, out of the blue several things came together:
“You gave away your integrity. You gave up a job you loved and that was made for you – to take an apartment that you knew was not right for you – because your loving, well-meaning friends told you to do it. You always knew they were wrong, but you didn’t trust your instincts and bowed to their pressure. It’s time to take your integrity back.”
I came home from that walk as charged up as I had been dispirited at the beginning of it. That afternoon I got my job back – it took about thirty seconds. Even though I had quit twice in six weeks a year before, when I said to the store manager Brandon that I wanted my job back, he totally lit up and asked, “When can you start?”
Now that I would be making too much money to stay at Battery Park Apartments, that evening I started to think hard about my escape. Wednesday a week later, in the morning I said to a friend, “I need to find two roommates and a house we can afford. That task feels a little daunting, but I really feel like it’s going to work. I seem to deal better with male roommates. My favorite roommate of all time was my friend Tom Kilby.”
That same day in the afternoon, I was shopping at Earth Fare. I now was employed again at Earth Fare – as is Tom and our old roommate, and his current roommate, Will. I ran into Will in the store and was bending his ear while he loaded a frig with kombucha. I vented pretty much the same way I had in the morning.
“I need to find two roommates and a house we can afford.”
“When do you want to move?”
“Around the end of September. Why?”
“That might be perfect.”
“I want to move in with my girlfriend right around then. I have been feeling a responsibility to find a roommate for Tom and Ian” (Tom’s 19 year old son, who really likes me – and vice-versa). Within a week, I had met with Tom and Ian and we had a plan in place. All three of us are very excited about this. They both love Pancho.
Will had asked me how much a month I was paying at Battery Park. I said, “It’s really cheap – $380. ” I assumed Will’s house – he owns the house – would be a lot more expensive than that. $500 plus utilities has seemed to be pretty standard for house share situations. Will said, “I can match $380. I’m not looking to make money off of this – just to get the mortgage paid.”
Something has really changed in me since I decided to reclaim my integrity. This sometimes-too-nice guy has become assertive in ways that sometimes shock people – and feel really great to me.
The social scientist Brene Brown says that her research has shown that the personal quality that correlates most closely with happiness is open-heartedness – and the quality that correlates most closely with open-heartedness is solid boundaries. If we trust our own capacity to say “No”, we feel freer about saying “Yes”. Without ever thinking about it or consciously willing it, my personal boundaries have become a thing of wonder. I don’t suffer fools gladly and won’t let someone stay standing on my foot: I start by nicely asking them to get off my foot – but if they don’t I escalate, in stages, just as much as is necessary to get them off. All this makes me very happy.
At Earth Fare – a place where I have always been loved, admired and known for being outrageous and funny – I am now way more outrageous and funny. And I will also let myself be crabby with customers in ways I never would do before – especially when their behavior is begging for it.
My signature intervention with customers (and staff) has always been to validate them – to find something fresh and positive and genuine to appreciate about them. I am now way more enthusiastic and intuitive at this than ever before. This girl had gotten about two words out of her mouth when I erupted with, “You’re really a fun person, aren’t you?” “Yes, I actually really am. How did you know?” I didn’t know how I knew – I just knew.
While my “depressive” physical pain continues non-stop, 24/7. there are ways I can take my mind off it – including reading the Washington Post online, which really kinda helps, I ain’t kiddin’. But the primo distraction is standing in front of a customer at Earth Fare: it’s a performance, it’s show time, it’s the Majo Show – it’s a total blast. It’s what I was born for. It’s what I have been shaped for in these 72 years, For two hours at a crack, I feel no pain. When I get a ten minute break and head outside, my hand has not touched the front door before my pain comes back. It is worst in the morning when I get up – until I open up my laptop and start to surf the Washington Post – and then in the evening when nothing is going on. But it can also kick up at the checkout if things get slow and I don’t have a customer in front of me.
While the physical “depression” has honestly been kicking my ass, the affective depression that most people associate with the word “depression” never seems to touch me. In the eight weeks or so since my “Integrity Day” (that’s how I have marked it in my calendar), I have never been blue or worried or anything. I have never stopped liking myself – even (or especially) when someone else is not liking me. And, as I get way more assertive and emphatically hold my boundaries, those situations where I piss somebody off are more common. The other person’s upset typically feels like a sign that I am doing something new and very right.
I can feel emotional pain (maybe more acutely than ever), like when a dear friend called me yesterday and – in so much pain herself – told me a horrific story about the sudden accidental death of her cousin two days before. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and cried mightily through her whole telling of it. I’m crying now remembering this call. But, while what happened to this guy – and is now happening for his wife and three kids – seems so terribly wrong, I still know that I am not wrong, that inside of me I am safe.
I have never, in six weeks, in any way disliked myself (my old depressive specialty), felt guilty or blamed myself in any way. I see myself do things wrong, but all that seems very fixable. I still have problems, like making $11 an hour and seeing my 24 hour a week job shrink to 12-18 hours because corporate is putting the squeeze on every department in every store – but more than ever I trust that “every little ting, is gonna be alright” – in Jubilee-speak, that “all shall be well”.
I sing all the time these days. I’ve never been a great singer, but that isn’t stopping me. I sing to my dog a real lot – almost non-stop. I sing in the woods – loud – and never worry that another hiker might come around the corner. I really belt out the songs that I know so well and love so much at Jubilee – and I actually sound really good to me. People turn and look at me. They may be thinking “Jesus, he’s loud”, but I imagine they are thinking “Wow – what a beautiful voice.”
I seem to be so much a new person – sometimes just like Majo on steroids, but other times like somebody I don’t know but like a lot. I seem suddenly so awake! The other day, just for laughs, I googled the word “enlightened”. I didn’t find any definitions that seemed compelling to me, so I wrote my own list of qualities (which will soon, maybe even tonight, appear in this blog under the title “Enlightened”). Not too surprisingly, I guess, this list that I just created looks a lot like me in the last six weeks.
What do I know?
Most of the posts in this blog will describe events and insights after I “woke up” on June 26, 2019. But some of them will tell stories of events and relationships that shaped me earlier, that I think prepared the ground for my inexplicable “sudden breakthrough”. My relationship with Diana has been one of those.
Last year I lived in seven houses in ten months. Some of them were roommate squabbles – I hated them or they hated me. One was a landlord issue: he hated us and we hated him. One of them hated my little five pound yorkipoo dog – the completely adorable Toni, who was clearly a menace. This whole saga was as harrowing to my friends following my adventures as it was for me. They were afraid to read their Facebook for fear of what I might have posted now.
So when my friends heard on Facebook that I was moving into the famous Battery Park Apartments, they did victory dances all over Asheville. Famous for the location – right downtown, directly across from the Grove Arcade. Famous for the amazing history of the old hotel. Famous for the year to three years it took people to get in. (I was lucky and waited only a year.) Famous for nice large remodeled 1 bedroom apartments right down town rent controlled need-based senior living charging rents that all over town would get you a studio with free cockroaches. Famous for the reputation that you could live there three months and not see anybody under sixty. Famous for the word that nobody ever moved out except on a gurney.
My friends were so relieved that I had landed there that a month later when in one of my bad moods I told one of them that I needed to move out, he said, “No you don’t.. No you fucking don’t. If you so much as attempt to move one stick of furniture out of that fucking apartment I will come down there myself and rip that chair out of your feeble old hands and sit on your fucking chest until you get your head out of your fucking ass and agree to stay put.” And then he told me what he really felt.
I have bipolar disorder that in 20 years my meds have never gotten under control. I have no middle ground – I’m up or I’m down. In the interest of fairness, my raging biochemistry tends to give me roughly the same amount of time up as down. In the really bad old days after I was first diagnosed, I once went six months up and six months down. I don’t know which mood was worse: flat on the floor or through the roof. A few years ago I was for year consistently 2-3 days up and then 2-3 days down. When I was down, I knew that in just a couple of days I would be up again – so I knew I could ride it out. But my life was total chaos. Lately I’ve been 2-3 weeks up and then 2-3 weeks down.
Some parts of my moods are relatively predictable. When I’m moving – which has been every other week lately – I gear up for the move. At four a.m. I’m throwing shit in boxes. After a move, within a week I am crashed flat on the floor. As I was moving into the Battery Park Apartments and for the next week, I loved everything. I loved the layout of my apartment, I loved the views out my fifth floor windows.
So for a week I liked most everything. OK, except my neighbors. What am I doing living with all these old people? Yeah, at 72 I cleared the bar for living there ten years ago, but I’m not like really old. I’m a young person walking around disguised in an old suit. So I kinda, in that first week, stayed clear of my neighbors.
Then, after a week of being up and mostly liking everything, I crashed and hated everything – especially my neighbors. Old – I’m not old. Or disabled, mostly crazy – I just have a little bipolar disorder. But the symbol of what I wanted to avoid in my neighbors – the woman I most wanted to avoid (she helped me to write this part – and insisted I use her real name) was the woman out in front of the building – all day every day, in overalls every day. Chain smoking all day every day. Smoking is not allowed anywhere in the building. Like light the next cigarette off the last cigarette just before it burns your fingers – all day every day. After long hard struggles over a couple of years to get off of cigarettes, I had eight years ago gotten free. Her especially I wanted to stay clear of.
So I went three weeks down. Then I had a stroke. It didn’t kill me. It didn’t leave me paralyzed – or with any long term symptoms except some balance issues, and the risk of having another.
Three days later, I checked out of the hospital a new man. I had had my brush with death and had come back from the brink. I was more than happy to be alive. My depression had passed and I was again wonderfully up. I wanted life – all of it. I wanted to embrace my new apartment – including my neighbors. So when the friend who had been caring for Toni picked me up at the hospital and dropped us off in front of Battery Park apartments with my little overnight bag there were no parking spots. “No I’ll be fine getting myself in, really”.
In front of the building, the icon of Battery Park Apartments – the woman with the overalls and the cigarettes. She looked too young to live there – and it turned out she was. She had gotten in for a disability ten years before.
“Ok, I’m gonna make friends with her first.” “Hey, how ya doin?… Nice day, huh?… Can I bum a smoke?”
From there began one of the most amazing friendships of my life. I discovered that – although her schooling, back in Mexico and here in Chicago was sparse and lousy – Diana was extremely smart – brilliant in some areas, interesting, a great communicator… able and willing to share deeply about herself as well as being a world-class listener. Extraordinarily generous.
And adored my Toni. Most everybody actually did – but Diana more than anybody. And Toni, who mostly loved everybody, especially loved Diana.
And we smoked together. What started as sharing a smoke, then a couple, became a full-fledged habit. Two days after having that first cigarette, I went to the smoke shop to buy one pack so I wouldn’t be mooching off of Diana, who clearly was of modest means. (I had no idea.) When it was my turn at the counter, I totally shocked myself by ordering three packs. “Who is that voice?” When I got outside, I talked to that voice. “What are you doing? I just want a few cigarettes.” The voice said back, “Who are you trying to kid? You’re in it now.”
Soon Diana became Aunt Diana for Toni. Diana sat for her when I went out. Toni, who for some reason had stopped sleeping in my bed, napped with Diana. Toni, who never really cuddled with me, with Diana would sleep here – up against the side of her head.
Diana then went from Aunt Diana to christening herself “Mama”. It accurately reflected her relationship with Toni. We became co-parents. Never a hint of romance on either side: We have checked in with each other a couple of times. We are blessedly clear of that. But we had become an ersatz family. When I announced to our smoking posse – all spokes in the wheel to Diana’s hub, people love to be with her – in front of the building that I had to leave to take Toni to the vet, to find out why she was walking even less than usual, Diana asked “Can I go?” She dropped everything and didn’t smoke until we got out of the vet’s office. After running a lot of expensive tests, the vet said, “She has congestive heart failure. Like people with heart disease, she could have a relatively long life or she could die of a heart attack tomorrow.’
Diana and I digested the news together, we grieved together. Our baby might not make it. Our little angelic being – who had always seemed to inhabit a rarified atmosphere, above this earthly plane – now seemed more precious than ever.
Then came the liver disease.
Diana: “I still have a good feeling. I think she will live a long life.” Me: “Her liver is shot, Diana – she’s not going to be here much longer.”
I still thought we might have her a few weeks longer. When two days later my friends Karen and Lisa convinced me that she was looking terrible, that it was time to let her go, i realized how much denial I also was living in. As I grieved, I feared what this conversation with Diana would be like. Perhaps, finally, this would be our first big fight. When I told Diana it was time to let Toni go, she was amazing, astonishing. “Hey, you’re the real parent. You know her better than I. You hear her labored breathing all night long. You’ve got to make the call.” And she really, truly, totally fell in behind the plan.
I arranged for the Four Paws mobile euthanasia group to come to my apartment the next morning, Monday morning at ten a.m. I called a few of Toni’s favorite people to come be with us. Amazingly, four of five were free – and each loved Toni so much that there was no question of them coming.
At the releasing ceremony, Diana was as strong as I thought she would be. She held her baby tenderly. At one point, one of my friends gently said to her, “Maybe you could let Majo hold her now.” I had not even noticed that she might be taking too long a turn. The next day, we wheeled Toni in the stroller she loved three blocks over to Montford, to bury her in Amanda’s back yard, which she also loved. I dug the grave, we together laid Toni in it. We cried.
A week later, i shocked everyone by saying that – still clearly grieving over Toni – I was going to quit smoking. I had tried several times lately and failed bitterly. “I’m going to do it the right way this time – get lots of support from the state ‘Quit Line’ help resources.” Toni’s death made me want life more than ever. “These things are killing me. I can’t breathe right any more.”
Diana and I had the conversation. We no longer had our baby to pull us together. Toni died on October 1. If i stop smoking on my quit date of October 29, what about us? I was very clear that there would be no more children to pull us together. “I won’t be ready to let another dog into my life and my heart for a minimum of one to two years.” Diana said, “I’m afraid I’m going to lose you.” And in some ways she has. We no longer start our days with that first smoke of the day at 7 a.m. I no longer make several trips a day out to the front stoop. If there are more than two smokers out there at a time, my sobriety feels threatened and I stay away. I hate the cold, while – even with her Mexican blood – Diana endures it out there most of the day.
But we both crave and continue this friendship. I will leave the building by the front door even when my car is in the parking lot out back. I will endure the cold for a while to talk with her. Her smoking for some reason never threatens my sobriety. We go down to World Coffee on a warm sunny day and sit outside and she has six cigarettes. We wrote this story together.
We are soul friends and we know it. We will never let each other go – until one of us goes out on a gurney.
I have been totally clean of cigarettes since October 26 and have not had a craving. The Quit Line counselor the other day asked me the two questions: “How much do you want to stay off of cigarettes – 1 to 10?” “Ten, no question.” “How sure are you that you will stay off them?” “Eight.” I could weep.
Hey, if you have any time after the show, you could walk with me the three blocks back to Battery Park to meet Diana. Diana hates crowds and knew this was not for her. She was my first audience for the finished story the other night and gave the whole thing her blessing. She’s sitting for Panchita aka Pancho – a five year old adorable female chihuahua, my totally loyal Mexican sidekick that I adopted two months ago.