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Sep042008

« Halcyon Days & Suburban Hero's Journey »

I don't refer to myself as a "born again" Christian because that term has been appropriated by a sector of Christianity that I don't very much agree with. The basis for the term is based on the Gospel of John in chapter 3 when Jesus says that a person must be reborn in order to experience and enjoy God's realm. Conservative interpretation refers to this rebirth as being "born again" (NIV), but others (NRSV and the Scholar's Version, both of which I favor) says one must be "born from above" in the sense of a spiritual rebirth. Hence, the confusion within the text which has Jesus and Nicodemus talking past each other, as one talks of spiritual rebirth and the other tries to figure out how a man can be born again physically. Indeed it does seem preposterous that one could be physically reborn, but it makes lots of sense how a person can be spiritually reborn, to discover new avenues to God and the mysteries of life. Better still, it makes better sense to see that sort of experience not as a one-shot deal. Indeed, I have come to believe the great thing about Christianity is that one can continually die to the self and be reborn again and again. I think this makes far better sense, as it is a method or an evolution, not an event.

There is not one time when I ever "knew" that such a transformation was clearly upon me. For years, I wanted nothing to do with religion, though it intrigued me, more in an anthropological way than anything. I didn't set foot in a church for ten years except on Christmas Eve and a few other times (my grandmother's memorial, etc.). My stepmom had long since turned to a brand of literalist-evangelicalism which was practiced in earnest, but was too small for me, and never really spoke to things I was experiencing. Still, it did remind me of the Christian promise that God loves every one of us, and that that love is there when you decide to accept and fall into it. Many years during that dark decade had conversations that inevitably meandered toward that type of talk, and of course, I wouldn't have it when I knew that my problems were too big for all that. It was a dark decade indeed, but she kept the candle in the window for me, so to speak. What prompted me to rejoin church life after that time was a great need to wrap the agonizing events of the period which preceded my return in some sort of context wider than the one I knew. Life got way bigger than I was able to handle. Back in 1999-2001 in particular, I was often plagued with suicidal thoughts which themselves were the low points in a great malaise that had gone on for years. And then there was 9/11, an event which seems to have marked any human being who has encountered it.

I got a respite from that malaise in 2002, in part because that is the first year when Kelli and I were together, but moreso because I basically went into overload and protective shutdown in the second half of 2001, and used consumerism as a drug to wish away the deaths of grandmothers, the agony of charges of never-before-discussed molestation in the family, the newfound wonders and pitfalls of computer use, the musical stagnation, unemployment, and new living situation with roommates thrust upon me by my old man who improperly inherited the house I was in—all of which defined that period. Much of 2002 was conducted in that numbed state. I spent 12-18 hours a day on the computer making havoc if left to my devices. I all but abandoned recording in a turn of events that would have been unthinkable a couple years earlier. I did manage to make some music, but most of that was agonizing too because of the personalities involved in group effort, or because of my ambivalence about the enormous sums of money I spent on tools that would never make better music than I would make if I actually had it in me. One huge irony wouldn’t let me sleep: I originally got swept up in all my computer interests in order to support my musical pursuits, not to bury them!

photo illustration of female biological symbol functioning as cross with crucified jesus-as-ed. the circle part of the symbol holds an upside down earth. the rest of the imagery is psychedelic in its coloringEd's World, 2003The year of 2003 was all that and more stress too. By the mid summer, I had closed my studio up in an attempt to determine if I was really done with music. I had come to loathe all I once loved in music and the gear used to play and record it. The situation with the house got very much worse as my old man did his illegal and tasteless work while treating me like a 12 year old meddling in his affairs. I had destructive roommates and little control over my living space because the "landlord" himself was destructive to that same space, albeit in a greater way. That summer, I once had some really harsh stuff said to me by an ex-girlfriend, a sister, and even my stepmom, with the collective force of it all crushing me while so many other things had already brought me down. During the hot and humid summer of 2003, I got over my years-long avoidance of movies and went straight for the movies that I thought would rattle me some—a couple on nuclear war, The Deer Hunter, Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now, and some others that were just intense.

One film that began a recognizable shift in me was The Last Temptation of Christ. In 1989, I once was offered a chance to see it with my youth group but my family refused to sign the consent form in some misguided attempt to shelter me. (My family was pretty conservative, while the church was at that time quite liberal, something which gave my grandmother grief.) Anyhow, I finally got from LTOC a sense of a Jesus to whom I could relate. I remember feeling like I had lost a great deal by not having seen that movie years before. LTOC was one part of my method to jackhammer my way out of the shell where I found myself that summer of my 29th year. Even while it takes liberties with the story of Jesus, I found in it the Jesus who finally made sense to me—a human filled with uncertainty and longing to offload his accumulated burden of fears, sins and failings, wishing God would just not love him so much if it was going to hurt like this. Most of what I had heard about Jesus either did not make sense or was hokey, but I understood this Jesus. He was even my age!

I suppose the nearly 2000 years between he and I have changed the outward appearance of the path toward God but the mythical journey remains intact. Yeah, I didn't go to the desert to face my demons. But on this day in 2003, I took a big first step into my own spiritual wilderness. After work, I stopped off at Sav-On to get some sleeping pills so I could take a long nap. I wasn't into guns or knives or anything. That, I thought would be a little too crude, and knowing what a failure I was, I didn’t want to mess that up and have to deal with it later! A couple years before, I was entertaining stopping a car along Morena Boulevard, as I took a four mile walk from near Sea World to my house. But on this particular day, I was just going for a nap. Since I hadn't done any of this before, I got the biggest bottle of sleeping pills I could find, hoping it would do if I put the whole thing down in short order. I had the contents arrayed on my desk and was in a shattered state as I contemplated my next move. Kelli was bound to come by after work—in several hours, since this was maybe about 2 or 3 pm. She knew something was up with me. All the summer long, she was my confidante and more than a few times I was a total wreck before her. The hours between the end of my work shift and hers were achingly long. I had the words of my pastor in mind that day, words that intervened in this kind of thinking back in late 1992 when I was 18 and was having my first fanciful thoughts of what it might be like if I were to check out of this life.

I guess I chickened out. I called Jerry and sought his help to drive me to the hospital initially. He came over right away just like always said he would if any of us were ever in this place in our lives. I went to the ER not because I had actually done something, but because I was in need of intervention. Maybe the hospital was overkill but it seemed right as a first step. I guess they can't do much for a guy who has existentially rooted clinical depression—where do they put the band-aid? So they passed me off to a county mental health system crisis center called Isis House, and later to a slightly more convenient house in the same system called Halcyon. My pastor stayed with me at the hospital for the three hours till they decided what should be done with me. Kelli arrived too. But I was sent solo to Isis, riding in a chartered taxi which was only allowed to let me off at Isis in Imperial Beach. On the ride there, in a move quite uncharacteristic of my usual self, I remember muttering the Lord's Prayer over and over. I guess nothing else would have done better. Nothing else came to mind. I don't know what it achieved, but I guess it indicated that I really had to start turning to something outside myself. As much as ever, I had to admit I was at the bottom of things.

The first evening at Isis was long with paperwork and entrance interviews. They gave me an upstairs room to myself that night. I slept like I hadn't in a long time due to the Trazidone they gave me which made me sleep like a baby all the way through the night. I awoke to the beautiful sun beaming into my east-facing room. It was all very surreal there and I guess on reflection that was the beginning of being born again into a new world. I had an endless loop of Radiohead's song Kid A playing in my head. It always sounded like a trip through the loony bin, and I sort of had to admit that I was there myself. The people were mostly younger than me, with various diagnoses of mental illness. I didn't feel that I was mentally ill; I felt like the world sucked and my life was chaotic and hopeless. I never heard voices or any of that. I just wanted out of a fucked up world. Fix the world, I thought, not me. (I still feel that way but now I act a bit differently.) The time at Isis was short, lasting just over a day. Kelli negotiated a transfer to Halcyon in El Cajon which was slightly more reasonable and close for her, since she was the only person who came daily for the 11 days I was gone. The day I spent at Isis was bright and sunny and had a splendid breeze from the ocean, but the whole experience was surreal as I talked to people who were far more messed up than me. There were two meetings with therapists and a group encounter type thing. In an effort to evoke a bit of normality—and echoing a splendid picnic meal we had a few weeks before—Kelli came and brought me a tasty turkey, bacon, and avocado sandwich from Henry's, and to this day, that gesture still stands as one of the great things she did to care for me. (The food at these houses was white trash picnic food, I swear.) It also got her brownie points toward getting married!

I moved over to Halcyon on the Saturday morning after this all started. I liked Halcyon much better. My fellow campers seemed a lot more normal, but I also rather hit a stride with one of the resident therapists named Billy B, who was probably younger than me but a genius about how to pull out some magnificently inspiring quote from religion, science, philosophy, and whatever else was applicable. He was also a guitarist. I think he heard me best while there. Halcyon and Isis were short term crisis houses, and the idea was to get people back into the game, ready to get back to family and work or school. A certain share of time was dedicated to one-on-one therapist visits, community therapy discussions and exercises (even a drum circle which I met with ambivalence due to having recently sworn off music), planning for how to return to life, and a rotating kitchen and cooking duty which functioned as a team exercise and demanded resourcefulness. The rest of the time was mostly time to mingle and reflect or have visitors. It was rather regimented. We had to make our beds and clean up. It was for me a direct injection of order into my chaotic life, and that I now recognize as one of the first orders of business in God's creation of the universe: get this place into order! I still look back on a few things that I learned help keep depression at bay, and most of it revolves around just tidying up some—the small stuff I do have control over. Another valuable thing to learn was not to isolate, and the days were structured as to not really leave time for that.

Some good support was forthcoming. Three different multi-instrumentalist friends named Doug all knew about this and called while I was there. My sister (who was nice to me then) called and talked to Kelli too. But by far, Kelli was the star of the show when it came to support. Kelli visited every day but once, even though it was rather far. I guess I scared the hell out of her with all this but she was loyal through it all. This was before she elected to go into ministry—a profession which too often witnesses this sort of drama and has to find a way to put meaning to it. Our pastor of many years came out a few times, and if there were things I hadn't told him before, this was when I finally did, and in some cases, it revealed a cesspool of guilt and fear and other emotional poison that had yet to find daylight. (These days, I understand those bits of release as the small dyings of an old self that lead to new life, unburdened by their weight. They were some of the baby steps that I had within my control, ego willing.)

One of the most valuable single things to emerge from this experience was the learning of a new language which helped clarify a fundamental difference between how I saw the world and how my old man saw it, and how we clashed. Somehow, despite not being specifically notified of my whereabouts, but knowing the outline of what was happening that week, he managed to find out where I was, and you can imagine I was not having it since he was a significant irritant in my oyster then. He found the place on his own—I saw him drive past as I was sitting on the front porch, and I just about flipped out, dashed inside and notified the staff that he had no business there, and that "I'm not here." He came in and saw me in the back area and demanded access. I relented only under the condition that either or both Kelli or our pastor was there. I don't remember if that all came together that day or a subsequent day, but eventually it did turn out to be a five way meeting with all of them and me and Billy the therapist. (Usually the facility didn't do such encounters, so I am thankful for their exception.)

My pastor was about the only person who could get my old man to listen. Being the same age, there was a bit of peer respect. But with respect to my old man who is not being a person interested in religion or psychology, it was a miracle for him to be there at all. Sitting in the same room with Billy and my pastor, he was a fish out of water. They were intellectual giants compared to him, but moreover, they were there to take my issue seriously and to extend a helping hand. The most important thing to be said that day was from my pastor who stared him right in the eyes and declared that something real was going on here in my life and that my old man would have to pay attention and take it seriously. That day, I came to understand how my old man was materialistic, only accepting the world if it could be empirically weighed and measured somehow. Emotional conflict such as I knew flew under his radar, but it was time to pay attention or else. I wasn't really let to speak much, but it was for the better, because all I was fit to say then would be destructive. This hour was to open my old man's eyes, if such a thing were possible. Later on, he and my pastor talked outside for some time. I began to have a tempered hope that maybe something would change, since perhaps there was only one person who could address both of us in a way that might communicate honestly and forcefully without triggering defenses. Sometime during the course of the ten days at Halcyon, me and the old man sat out and talked for a while, seemingly releasing a lot of pressure, and offering a bit more hope.

kelli wrapped around ed's shoulders from behind in sweet loving embrace. awww.Kelli and me, circa 2003I was set to go home on the 15th, 11 days after the darkest day. The psychiatrist who oversaw the program there prescribed me a year of CBT—Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. At the time, it seemed like an amazing amount of talk, but it made sense. I think he prescribed Prozac too, or something like it. The followup would be through the County of San Diego, which was the body responsible for Isis and Halcyon and other centers around the county. Kelli set about finding me a therapist for the long haul, at the same place I had gone a couple years before. (The entire experience at Isis and Halcyon cost me $37, a sum so paltry it defies logic, but for which I am immensely grateful.) My pastor drove me home on an overcast Monday morning (9/15). It evoked a time back in early September 1989 when I came out of a youth group retreat which left me feeling whole and good, only to douse that soaring optimism with the first day of school on the following Monday. So of course I was apprehensive; sure things could be better in the controlled settings of the crisis houses, but what awaits back in my normal setting, at my desk? Among roommates? Dealing with the landlord? The home I returned to had two new roommates since I left. One was a joy to talk to and live with for many months to come, but the other moved in half a house worth of stuff and eventually caused a lot of grief between Kelli and me, and she left soon after she got there. Returning home was an uneasy time, since the house was such a symbol of what was wrong with life. A week after I got back, all the imagined progress with my old man evaporated when he provoked me with more of the status quo—he'd carry on with his building modifications anyway, no matter what I thought. This made me angry as hell and I smashed an unmounted window frame on the concrete slab of his patio project. There never was an improvement in his understanding, not even to this day. The house and all the related dynamics of family and control continued to shatter what relationship we had, culminating in his evicting us and selling it a couple years later. That experience just strengthened my resolve to make things work with Kelli above all and to separate the notion of what home is, versus what a house is. I didn't get the house I wanted to live at, but I got the home I needed when I decided most specifically in 2005 to unambiguously embrace my future with Kelli.

My prescribed year of solo therapy turned into two and into three or more eventually, to say nothing of periodic visits to the county psychiatrist to evaluate progress. During my early months out of Halcyon it was rough going with Kelli since it didn't make a lot of sense to her and the house thing was still a big issue, even though she did not live there, the roommate who moved out soon after she got there was seen as a threat, and Kelli felt slighted by that, and frankly, I guess I didn't do a good enough job of mitigating that. So in addition to the solo sessions, we began couples sessions and that went on for some years. I might say that that was one of the best decisions ever, and perhaps was more constructive than solo work because it dealt with a fuller picture of things—one which I had no control over. The types of things that emerged from that were just what needed attention and just what got attention in an environment where things could be worked with constructively. It required vulnerability to work, and even with a fresher mindset, it takes a lot to let the defenses drop enough to do some good. Eventually, we got engaged and married six months after that—our wedding held only a week shy of one year after this whole experience at Halcyon. Something was working.

So what does all this have to do with being born again, or born from above, or any of that? For me, it is just proof that even the New Jerusalem wasn't built in a day. Far from being an experience of blinding light or a great revelation, or any of that other miraculous stuff, it is really all a process of dying or resigning a bit more each day so that each day might bring something new. For me, the basis of that has come in my domestic life with Kelli. It is the first place where a lot of things get tried out, and where confidence is born so that other things might be taken on and changed. Kelli has been great in her capacity to open my eyes to a vast reality out there that otherwise was beyond me. She is as splendid a wife as anyone could ask for, but she has a wealth of intellect and experience which has had a huge effect on me. In a lot of great ways, she has unpacked the sheltered me of yesteryear by introducing me to a great many things which I was denied or ignored. Her seminary schooling had a completely unexpected effect on me, as I found myself ready to investigate and drawn to many things in the fields she has been studying. Combined with experience of some still topsy turvy years since Halcyon, it has been a great learning experience.

Joseph Campbell and his synthesis of religion, mythology and philosophy proved fascinating. He was the first who impressed upon me the idea of what the death and resurrection really meant in a mythical sense. I think from him I came to understand it not as some supernatural phenomenon, but as a natural growth occurrence in a life lived honestly before oneself. And it was this that Jesus wanted us to know was ours for the taking: you can die and be reborn if you let go of the old and welcome the new. The cross to bear is all the weight of life thus far, and it is only ever ours to carry, but if you live in honesty and take it on willingly, all the shortcomings (aka sins) matter not if you own them. The denial is what adds up and makes the heavy cross heavier. I suppose maybe some people are prepared to completely prostrate themselves and get it all out in one gesture, but I think many must work this way, moving more slowly and thoroughly to release oneself from bondage. One attributes it to God, but really, the business is done when one admits to oneself all the flaws and failings in kind with all the good that is within—that we are made of opposites and complementary aspects held in tension and that is the only way it could ever be, since humanity is not divinity. That isn't to say we are fallen; just that we can't be divine because that is God's domain, not ours. But such is our lot in life, so Jesus led the way to show how these opposing forces could coexist and motivate us past our selfish egos and on toward healing the world one relationship at a time. As Campbell reminds us, the Genesis story about eating of the Tree of Knowledge is about discovering duality: opposites that define our adult lives. The very things that make life complex, once we are forced to make a moral decision. The innocence lost is the simple wholeness we know before we must take that fork in the road. And the rest of life is spent trying to regain the wholeness somehow, often by stumbling, but also by grace. I think it takes both. As the last five years shows, I've had both.

Carl Jung said, "the task of a life is not to be good but to be real." He spoke of the shadow self, the dark side of one's personality that one must own in order to be whole. It is another way of looking at the things discussed above. All that has an important a role to play in development, and often in couples therapy, it was put before me, not to hurt (though it often did), but to enlighten. You can't be real if you don't face this undesirable aspect of your being, and accept it as part of the whole that is you. Many clamor to avoid this part of their being, and mask the gaping holes in their being with addictions of various sorts, abuse of power, scapegoating, etc. Carrying the cross of one's own devising is admission that even the dark areas of our being are valid and real. Fighting all this takes a lot of energy that just drains one from more productive pursuits. Fighting this also lays the groundwork for the various personality deficiencies that underpin some of the worst behavior in human history. Disowning this shadow side allows us to project it onto others where we can hate them and destroy them from afar, when what is really happening is we are hating and disowning ourselves but drawing so many others into the drama.

From my vantage point, I am at a point where I've learned some of the intellectual parts of this stuff, more like the vocabulary for being able to recognize this wisdom in many more places than I once could. And some of it I know experientially, but didn't have the means to identify it as such. I fancy the last five years as either one long passage on this born again journey, or an ever-unfolding series of rebirths as these nuggets present themselves to me in all the various ways they appear: conversations, movies and books, music, church relationships and worship, observing my dog and other "simple" things, and even in dentistry! It is hard to remember who I was in 2003 and before. I can remember a lot of actions and events, but sometimes, I am baffled at the logic behind my actions. While there never was a definitive hinge point where there was a distinctly old me and a new me, the time at Halcyon was perhaps the biggest single catalyst to move things in a new direction. While in the moment, it would seem to be a great weakness to fall that far, but time bends that idea into the realization that it might have been the greatest thing that happened, for that week or two took the spilled and scattered jigsaw pieces of my soul and put a few pieces into the right places where I could see there was a picture after all.

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