Thursday, April 7, 2016

At The End of Your Rope

I love the magic of the printed word. The last “La Vida” I wrote, titled “Two Front Teeth” about my friend Lucas really reminded me of that—it was the most popular piece I’ve ever written for the Telegraph. How do I know that? Comments. And, not comments on a Facebook post, real life feedback from people in real life, you know, the original social media: talking to people.

            A little background on that piece—I wrote it in Joshua Tree while I was on a climbing trip. It was a very sentimental piece about a bad thing happening to a good man, and I felt more comfortable writing those sentimentalities knowing I wouldn’t be in Durango when it was published. I was planning on being on the road for a while, and I liked the idea of not being around when it was published. Why? I don’t know, but maybe we’ll get to that. Part of writing is discovering personal truths.

            But then, my piece got bumped, and I ended up being in Durango when it was published. In the end I was glad I was because so many people were psyched on it. And I learned an important lesson: don’t be afraid to write from the heart.

            This last year I’ve been trying to write directly from the heart. I finally got my life story on paper—and finished a memoir I’ve wanted to write for years, called American Climber. I’m celebrating the release of it Monday at Maria’s. While writing the book I realized something else I should celebrate: the fact that I’m alive.

            You see when I was 20 years old I was depressed and suicidal. Without exercise and positive energy I naturally lean towards depression, and at the time I was addicted to a whole cocktail of substances, which created a mindset of delusion and hopelessness. One night I snuck out of my parent’s home and ran away from Illinois, leaving behind a trail of notes, and I’m sure a lot of tears from my loved ones. They probably thought there was a chance they’d never see me again.

            No one heard from me for nearly a month. I drove all around the United States, looking for a former girlfriend who I thought would be my salvation. This was 1999, pre-cell phones, pre-checking the Internet 100 times a day, and I never found her. I fell asleep at the wheel more than once, and only narrowly escaped death. I punched my dashboard in anger countless times and smoked a pack of cigarettes a day. I wanted to die. I had nothing to live for and thought I never would be happy again. My great-Grandfather killed himself, so I guess there’s part of that running through my blood. Other family members have suffered from depression.

            And that’s the state of which I arrived to Colorado. I never found the girl, and it would be many years before I climbed out of that existential depression. But, I found Colorado.

            My healing began with nature. I got into climbing and found something that provided a high that wasn’t a drug. I found an amazing community in Gunnison. I discovered that life was worth living. The day I first arrived in Gunny I stopped thinking about suicide and I started thinking about living life again. 

             The thing was though I never told anyone my story. Even my parents never realized how depressed I really was. For a decade plus I kept that secret in the deepest place of my soul. Then, one day, it wanted out.

            It came out in the form of a short story, which later became the foundation for the start of my memoir. It felt very therapeutic to write it all out, and share my story with other people who it might help. One day my dad finally read it and told me he had no idea how bad it was for me during that time. It was also therapeutic to share that with my family, but now I’ve wondered why I kept it in so long, and what permanent damage to my psyche it inflicted. Holding onto pain makes pain much more severe, like a boulder constantly pressing down on the heart. I wonder how much pain I passed onto women I was in relationships with because my heart was not free.

            So I’ve been talking about it. I’ve been writing about it. I feel much more free, and every time I face the pain of the past I try to sit with it, acknowledge it, and learn from it. Now, it’s my time to share.

            Nothing breaks my heart more than when I read about a young person who has committed suicide. It happens all the time, and it is always a permanent solution for a temporary problem. I know what it’s like to live without happiness, but I also know what it’s like to live with it. Since my dark days I’ve had so many complete moments of joy—whether that be in the embrace of a lover, high up on a cliff with a great friend, or even just sharing food and drink with loved ones. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars”.

I just hope every depressed person knows that it IS temporary. Once you get through the darkness there’s a whole lot of light, energy, and hope on the other side. Depression is often just a sign that you need to change some things in your life. Though I lived with severe depression for an entire year, and subsequently suffered from it for another decade, I honestly rarely get depressed anymore.

            I don’t think there’s any sort of formula for a depressed person to find happiness. I do think it starts with telling someone how you’re feeling. Then there are little choices, like going outside for some fresh air and some exercise, or picking up your substances of choice—there’s so many evil drugs out there these days. None of these decisions are easy. I know people have suffered much more deeply than I ever did. Most of them suffer quietly. Depressed people can be professionals at hiding what is really going on. Trust me, I know.

            That’s the greatest lesson I’ve learned through my own personal journey—keeping pain and depression inside is the worst thing you can do. Set it free, life is beautiful, and worth living, especially here in the junction of the mountains and the desert.

This piece was originally published in today's Durango Telegraph. 

My new memoir, American Climber, is now available.

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