It’s the evening of April 30th of this year. I’m sitting on the edge of my bathtub smoking. I smoke almost every day. I am standing on the edge of an abyss. Everything feels wrong and I have no idea why. I’m covered in molasses, dragged to earth. I have strange ideas, strange fantasies. Nothing makes sense. I don’t know why.
I turn my head and hear a voice. It’s all in my head. I hear it as clear as if it were being whispered in my ear.
It’s January 17th of 2004 and my wife is in the hospital. I drive 90 minutes both ways to visit her for a half-hour every few days. We are living in a house that has gone untenanted for decades and has no bathroom except for a toilet in a room where every surface fixture has been torn out. In November of the previous year I spent a week trying to fix the toilet with a snake only to eventually discover the main sewer line to the house had been blocked by a flushed condom. For many years I will consider these to be the worst weeks of my life.
I start a blog because I need to talk to people. I name this blog The Hurting because at that moment in time it’s the only sensation I am capable of feeling. It’s a joke that perfectly reflects my mordant personality, but not really a joke. I don’t want to die but I no longer care about being alive. This is the only sensation I am capable of feeling for many years to come.
It’s August 3rd of this year. I am driving in San Francisco. I don’t know where I am or where I’m going. What I thought was a straight-shot from Diamond Heights down to the Haight has turned into a detour down the freeway in the opposite direction, leading to the warehouse district near the docks. My phone refuses to tell me where I am or how to get to where I am going. Waze isn't working.
I panic, a sensation that begins with a tingling in my toes and the tips of my fingers before seeping back up through my extremities and finally wrapping its cold fingers around the area where my neck sits on my shoulders. Something in my brain sticks and the gears stop moving. I can’t think. I don’t know how to get where I’m going. I keep driving. My passenger is very polite but this is a terrible first impression. I become more and more anxious with every passing moment. I don’t know where I am. I am smiling and trying to cover it up with jokes but inside I am seething, unable to do any more than follow the most basic and rudimentary plan to go the long way around Golden Gate Park.
My anxiety builds and I eventually lose altogether the capacity for deliberate thought. One block at a time I proceed to unravel, leaving a trail of myself in my wake like an unraveled spool of yarn. I turn onto the sidewalk and end up driving through a skate park in front of a police station. My passenger has turned five shades of pale within the previous twenty minutes. She is queasy from my driving.
It’s September 2011, the first day of grad school. I’m seated around a room with twelve other very smart students. I am the second oldest in the room. Of these students, one will leave at the end of the first year to work on a boat. Another will leave in year four. The first of us to graduate will find a job at the end of year five.
From the beginning people seem to think I’m very smart. I don't want to disabuse them of the notion. I do a good job, I think, of projecting a mixture of expertise and confidence. In practice it comes out strangled, grumpy, and pretentious. No one notices how profoundly, painfully uncomfortable I am in every social interaction. People laugh at my jokes. Based on what I have heard, I expect my grad school cohort to become a very big part of my life. In truth, we are very different people with only a few commonalities strung between us. Six years later, I see none of them socially, and the few friendships I have had in the department have been snuffed by my own disinterest - all but one.
It’s November of 1983 and Saga of the Swamp Thing #21 hits stands. This is Alan Moore’s second issue on the title, although issue #20, which mostly consists of the previous writers’ subplots being neatly tied up, is rarely reprinted when Moore’s run is later compiled into trade paperback.
No one in America knows who Moore is in 1983, just as no one expected anything from a novice foreign kid moving onto a struggling book that had only ever been published in the first place to capitalize on the the release of the oddball 1982 Wes Craven film adaptation. Eventually “The Anatomy Lesson” will be acclaimed as one of the great character reinventions of all time.
He’s just a ghost. A ghost dressed in weeds. I wonder how he’ll take it?
The hook of “The Anatomy Lesson” is that everything Swamp Thing had believed to be true is suddenly, in an instant, revealed to be a lie. The premise of the original Swamp Thing series was that Dr. Alec Holland was a scientist accidentally turned into a monster who devotes his life to finding a cure for his condition. Moore’s innovation is to reveal that this has been a grave delusion on the part of the monster, who was in fact merely a swamp creature who had tricked himself into believing he had once been a man.
In a rage Swamp Thing kills the person responsible for the revelation before running away from the world. Being an immensely powerful plant elemental, suicide is not an option, but he lies comatose for weeks. Life-changing revelations are comics’ stock in trade, and because “The Anatomy Lesson” was so popular and influential, every secondary and tertiary character from either of the Big Two has been the recipient of similar shake-ups. These lesser shake-ups still advertise Moore’s story as a primary inspiration - even 33 years after its initial publication. But the one thing none of the subsequent iterations ever quite get right is the violence and terror of Moore’s initial idea, the nightmare that you might one day wake up and discover that you are a different person from who you were when you fell asleep.
It’s Fall of 2009. My professional relationship with Popmatters.com ends after I stop replying to e-mails from my editors. Writing about music for five years has almost completely sapped my enthusiasm for music. I have learned a lot from writing hundreds of 600+ word music reviews, the sheer numbing repetition of which taught me a great deal about wringing novelty on demand from a small toolkit of familiar tropes. I also learned how to loathe the same music I once loved so much that I dropped out of college to marry a DJ.
Around the same time I will burn my final bridge at The Comics Journal after I stop replying to e-mails from my editor there. Even though I haven’t even begun the process of filling out graduate school application, I am already trapped in a serious depression which will not lift until I begin graduate school two years later, and even then only briefly. I have through sheer numbing indifference effectively severed ties with every publication that ever paid me to write. I don’t really understand why I do these things, I just know that I am helpless to prevent my worst self-destructive tendencies.
It’s the evening of April 30th of this year. I’m sitting on the edge of my bathtub smoking. I don’t really understand anything anymore. I teach twice a week and enjoy four-day weekends. I will sometimes go to the grocery store on Thursday evening and buy sufficient supplies to not leave the apartment until next Tuesday. Every social interaction outside the context of a classroom is enormously painful and places significant stress on me. I have no perspective on my situation and I am unable to see anything unusual in my behavior. I am unable to see anything at all.
My last real attempt at a regular social engagement – the department’s weekly softball game – eventually fizzled. The people in charge of organizing the games are very serious about softball and there isn’t always a lot of room for people who just want to run around in the sun.
It’s after midnight on May 19th, 2005. I am seeing Revenge of the Sith for the first time. Of all the Star Wars films it remains the one I’ve seen the least amount of times. I am embarrassed to admit the depth of my identification with someone who destroys his own life because of his inability to understand why he keeps failing at everything he tries. On paper everything makes sense. But inside nothing quite fits and everything keeps breaking as soon as he touches it. He watches in horror as everything he cares about is taken from him, through his own actions.
The crucial moment of the film comes a little more than halfway through. Palpatine has been revealed and cornered in his office by Mace Windu. It was a close battle but finally Windu has the upper hand. As fierce as he was, Palpatine was ultimately no match for the most feared warrior in the whole of the Order, and because of his unique relationship with the Dark Side he is also the fighter best suited to match Sith aggression in kind. Dun Möch cannot overcome Vaapad. The problem is that the fate of the battle at its most crucial moment hinges on Anakin. And he’s conflicted. He knows what’s right, somewhere. But he feels loyalty to Palpatine, a sensation driven by feelings of fatherly devotion stoked by the Chancellor in anticipation of this very moment.
Anakin has the choice to do one of two things, depending on who he chooses to believe. He can follow what appear to be his first instincts to ultimately back the Order despite his terrible miscalculation - or back Palpatine which will mean ultimately standing against the Order. I’ve thought about this moment a lot over the years and what I believe is that in the last moment before he makes his decision Anakin realizes that he was wrong about Palpatine and had completely misjudged his mentor. And that moment of revelation, when he realizes he was wrong and that Palpatine had been manipulating him for over a decade, he experiences the most profound sense of disappointment in himself. He knows he’s failed and everyone around him will have to suffer the consequences. And he hates himself so much that in a single impulsive instant he succumbs to the pull of the Dark Side and destroys his life.
That’s when the battle is lost. Anakin has fallen so deeply into the pit of his own self-loathing that he’s willing to murder half the galaxy rather than admit that all his problems were of his own making. He loses his mind. He wants to die so badly he goes into battle against the one person in the universe he knows can never defeat. The battle is close but Obi-Wan demonstrates the virtue of Jedi self-discipline by fending off Anakin’s attacks long enough for the younger fighter to exhaust himself. Which he does. What Obi-Wan fails to account for is just how deeply his friend has fallen: he wants to die because he can’t stand the thought of living with the memory of what he’s done. And for the rest of his life Anakin hates Obi-Wan for the "mercy" he showed on Mustafar - for refusing to kill his former pupil.
One of the reasons I don’t watch Revenge of the Sith very often is that the last thirty minutes never fail to demolish me. Obi-Wan’s last words to his pupil - “You were my brother, Anakin, I loved you” - cut me like a knife. The tragedy is that all of this could have been prevented if Obi-Wan had spent more time being a mentor than a brother. He wasn’t ready for the responsibility and a lot of shortcomings in Anakin’s training got papered over by Obi-Wan’s generous insistence on always seeing the best in his student.
The most underexplored yet crucial relationship in those films remains that between Dooku and Yoda. Dooku was Yoda’s Padawan. Yoda and Obi-Wan both share the dispiriting experience of seeing their Padawan and trusted friend turn to the Dark Side. Although they are portrayed as two of the great paragons of the Order, both fail as teachers, both similarly unable to communicate the necessity of virtue to the next generation. Complicating matters, Dooku’s own Padawan was Qui-Gon Jinn, whose humble demeanor and commitment to charity could not be more different than his imperious and aristocratic former master. Given the pattern it makes sense that Qui-Gon's last Padawan would follow in his own mentor's footsteps.
It’s late September and I’m on Twitter. A loose acquaintance – friendly, but never intimate – mistakes a passing comment for sarcasm. I inform him I’ve recently undergone a number of changes which entail a significant change in my outlook. I don’t have the same motivation to excoriate bad comic books for the sake of winning points for an ever-shrinking coterie of those handful of patient people who can wade through the wreckage of my repellent personality to find the few gems of modest wit scattered haphazardly in my wake. He jokes that he hopes this doesn’t mean I am hanging up my scalpel for good. I am profoundly sad because I no longer see myself reflected in my friend’s words.
I’ve said many times there were two main influences on the genesis of this blog: Jon Morris’ Gone and Forgotten and Abhay Khosla’s “Title Bout.” I’m nowhere near as funny of either of them. I talk to Jon on Twitter now and I’m still slightly star-struck whenever I do so. I know Abhay well enough that I did a long interview with him a few years ago for this site. I don’t do many interviews for a reason, but that one is a pleasure and one of the highlights of my time writing this blog.
The voice I cultivated to talk about comic book online is a hybrid of three approaches: the high art pretension of the old print version of The Comics Journal, the type of knowledgeable-but-funny approach taken by writers such as Morris (who can still definitely bite but is far more kind than I in many instances), and Abhay’s complete fearlessness. Back in the early days of the comics blogosphere – back when many of the best writers were still writing for their own personal web pages – there were bloggers that sometimes occupied two of those niches but no one who could comfortably shift between the three at will. I appreciated the fact that I was free to define my site however I wished. In hindsight, I was also one of the first writers to see that those stylistic divisions – essentially between quote-unquote “high-brow” critics (read: middlebrow with a thesaurus), fans, and satirists – were becoming less important with the ascension of the internet as home for the vast majority of writing about comics. Everything was converging.
I clung hard to the remnants of the old Journal-approved house aesthetic for a bit too long. Although originally horrified, eventually I embraced the more stylistically catholic possibilities of online criticism because I recognized within me tendencies towards all three. So I tried to be funny and I tried to be profound and I tried to be biting, sometimes all at once. For the first few years it worked pretty well, I thought. I learned a lot from the first few years of this blog.
But then blogs started dying and gradually most of the blogs that got started around the time The Hurting did were also gone. Technically, this blog is still here, though you wouldn’t know it from how often I update.
It’s early Summer. A random retweet in my feed informs me that Celexa has been known to create sleep disorders for years despite doctors’ insistence that it had no effect on sleep patterns. Although I had switched to Wellbutrin the previous year (which appeared to create a brief improvement in my mood, an improvement which was later proven illusory), I had taken Celexa almost every day for sixteen years. I believed that my sleep problems were permanent, although oddly in the last year I had ceased to need either a sleeping pill or CPAP machine in order to achieve a better night’s sleep than I had experienced since I was a teenager.
It’s 2006 and I work as night staff at a residential treatment facility for juvenile mental patients and substance abusers in Rutland, MA. I start this job in the Fall of 2004 and will stay in the same position and at the same pay until the Summer of 2007. I see things I can never forget. Had I stayed any longer I would almost certainly have been accepted for a promotion and found a career in social services. I was good at the work but had to leave because it was slowly killing me.
I live in Worcester, have one friend, and go on about a dozen awful OK Cupid dates. I get a cat, who I name Janet after the drummer of Sleater-Kinney, who I saw in Boston in 2005 during what I believed for the next decade to be their last tour. The cat is still alive and lives with my parents.
It’s September of this year and I am correctly medicated. For the first time in my life I experience joy.
It’s Winter of my first year of college. I decide in an instant to drop out because I am profoundly unhappy. Everything feels wrong and I don’t know why. This is the second worst mistake of my life. I move to Oklahoma, where my friends will be the man who runs the comic book store and a few senior citizens who work at the department store where I work part-time after any income from my writing fails to materialize.
It’s January 3rd. I’m downloading Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes onto my cell phone. I will not miss a day’s activities for the foreseeable future. After an unfortunate phone bill which forces us to switch data plans, I manually deactivate every nonessential app on my phone to free up bandwith for the game. My username is GeorgeRBinks.
It’s the first day of Jr. High and I’m the new kid starting in a very small school where all the students have known each other since kindergarten. Break and lunchtime activities are strictly codified by gender: the boys play basketball or football, the girls mostly talk and watch the boys. I can’t play those games to save my life. I barely understand the rules of football, and that only by virtue of the game’s numbing ubiquity. Sports will always make me feel bad about myself.
I crack jokes and do all the ingratiating things that usually work with teachers and school staff but no one has patience for the parvenue. I’m the smartest kid in the room but I fall into a deep depression that doesn’t lift until the age of nineteen, and even then only briefly. All the things which had previously seemed so unimportant were suddenly the only things that mattered. It had still been possible to stay on the fringes at a larger school where the division between elementary and Jr. High was observed by virtue of being on different campuses. The new school, however, is a four-room school building housing grades K-8 situated at the center of a half-mile radius hamlet without so much as a gas station to call its own. What seems at first glance to be cozy is actually suffocating. There aren’t a lot of happy memories.
My problem was not that I assumed I was the only one suffering – it was that I assumed everyone suffered equally and I was uniquely terrible at coping.
It’s May 7th. After having not listened to music for a week, I listen to White Lung for four hours straight. In particular I listen to Paradise compulsively for around ten days. I can’t listen anymore. Until I die those songs will take me back to the worst days of my life.
I don’t remember much from the first weeks of May. A great deal of it feels as if it has already been smudged, obscured from recall out of the necessity of segregating the trauma in my mind. Sometimes I feel momentary stabs of the same existential terror and dread I felt during those weeks. I joke to myself that I’m having flashbacks but I realize in short order that it may not actually be a joke. I may very well have PTSD.
It’s the last day of high school and my car is totaled, ironically, driving home from an All-Night Sober Grad function. I walk away from the accident completely unharmed. After a generally pleasant last few months of high school, this serves as a first in a series of bad decisions and unfortunate accidents that will doggedly haunt the next two decades of my life. I secretly blame this accident for much of what follows. I am wrong to do so.
It’s October 1st. I’m sitting down to write this essay and thinking there would be many easier ways to do this. But it’s all just a delaying tactic, tricking myself into writing my way out of my problems. Scheherazade dodging the axe for another day.
It’s Kindergarten and everything is really awesome. Everyone likes me. Nothing I encounter at school amounts to more than busywork and rote memorization, largely of things my parents already taught me. School is great.
It’s the evening of April 30th of this year. I’m sitting on the edge of my bathtub smoking. What was wrong? I was stuck. Unable to make any forward movement in my life. Retreating away from the world, alone, what? A wounded animal in a cave? Waiting to die? It felt at the time that I was waiting for something, although I couldn’t have articulated that if I had wanted.
Over the years everything had just . . . spun out of control. There was no chaos, no confusion. Things fell out of my hand and kept rolling and I didn’t notice they were gone until they were too far away to find. I was in a waking coma. Nothing registered, good, bad, or indifferent. Every emotional response I had was reserved for other people – being happy, sad, proud, indifferent, angry. I could rouse myself on the behalf of others but when I most needed to help myself I was unable to do so. I wasn’t even very good at helping other people, but I wanted to be needed and useful, a tendency that sat at odds with my ability to actually follow through on my stated desire to be needed and useful. I had no consistency or follow-through, and no ability to make good on even my most modest ambitions without constant support from every person in my life.
It’s the day before Christmas, 2009. I have finished every grad school application and am spending the day shopping with my partner. I buy a copy of Tegan & Sara’s Sainthood at the Newbury Comics in Amherst, MA. That branch of the store will eventually close, relocating to Northampton. Although it takes me a few weeks to get into it, eventually I will listen to Sainthood, along with its sister album The Con, on near repeat. Those albums will remain a constant in my life for the next six years, a period of time during which a week does not pass without my listening to them both at least once.
It’s May 16th, 2002. I am living in a suburb of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and it is early morning on the day of the release of Attack of the Clones. The film later comes in for a great deal of criticism, with some even ranking it below perpetual whipping boy The Phantom Menace as the worst film of the Prequel Trilogy. My memories of the midnight showing are overwhelmingly positive. People loved that movie, at least before the Internet told them they shouldn’t. The battle sequence on Geonosis that comprisies the last 45 minutes of the film gets a fantastic reaction. The first time Yoda pulls out his lightsaber produces the loudest cheer I have ever heard in a movie theater.
It’s a meticulously constructed and deliberately plotted movie. It has some of the most gorgeous sequences in the entire series. Lucas’ use of color to indicate changing tone and mood as the film pivots at the halfway point to indicate the darker direction of the next 1 ½ movies is masterful, and completely ignored by most of the film’s loudest critics.
I am again drawn to Anakin’s character both despite and because of the film’s insistence on showing us in awful detail just how unbalanced he has become. The boy who had once been a child prodigy has grown into an uncomfortable young man. He’s very good at his work and – on paper at least – is meeting every developmental milestone as a Jedi. But there’s something wrong. The sense of endless potential he used to feel every day as a boy on Tatooine has been stifled by the rules and expectations of an Order that has no interest in changing their educational approach to fit someone who is, from the outset, troubled. What he needs most is a father figure, but the father figure he should have had died on Naboo when he was nine years old. In place of the fallen Qui-Gon Jinn he has many teachers and a few friends, but none step forward to provide the guidance he so desperately needs.
There’s something wrong. He’s unaccountably violent. He shouldn’t have been separated from his mother: it’s increasingly obvious that the Jedi Council were right. He was too old to be trained as a Jedi . . . because being a Jedi means being indoctrinated from infancy into a thousand-year old cult of self-denial. Anakin doesn’t have patience. He’s also dangerous: he becomes infatuated with an older woman who is unable to properly rebuff his increasingly aggressive advances because he’s already one of the most powerful people in the galaxy. She becomes trapped in an abusive relationship with someone who spends their entire “marriage” gaslighting her. She convinces herself this situation is satisfactory because she loves him too, albeit probably not with the same intensity with which he loves her.
Emotionally, Anakin is fragile and often hurting. He doesn’t know how to talk to people naturally so he talks to women like he learned it from watching TV, which he probably did. His affect is flat and his dialogue preposterous, because he’s still a little kid in the body of a professional killing machine with the powers of a god, and he’s just repeating lines he’s heard other people say to produce the desired results. He gets frustrated when he can’t make himself understood. No one quite believes what he says because there’s a frightening insincerity in the way he comes across, but he can’t see it. He’s just not a healthy person, emotionally, and the fact that countless experienced Jedi masters pass off his obvious mental health issues as “growing pains” is the strongest indictment of the Jedi Order of the Prequel era as dysfunctional, sclerotic, and passive. The only person who bothers to try to relate to Anakin on the level of an actual affectionate parent figure is the last person in the galaxy to whom he should ever listen.
After the movie lets out at around three, I wait up a couple hours and go to my job as a morning receiving associate at Kohl’s in Owasso. I’m living alone for a period because my wife could only find a job two hours away in Norman. The house is very quiet.
It’s August 3rd and I’m driving into San Francisco to meet a woman I know from Twitter. It’s 90 degrees at my house outside of Sacramento but jacket weather in the city. I am on time but from the moment I reach the Bay Area everything goes wrong. It doesn’t matter. We spend a couple hours walking up and down the Haight talking about nothing at all. It is the first time I have knowingly spoken to another human being who understands precisely why my life has been so thoroughly disappointing on so many levels. I can’t as yet even begin to approach the challenge of expressing my sorrow in words, but I don’t have to because for the first time in my life I’m speaking to someone who already knows. I haven’t had a best friend in many years. I have one now. I feel as if I have taken my first step into a much larger world than any I could ever have dreamed possible just a few months before.
It’s early Summer of 1993 and I am in a serious car accident from which I walk away completely unharmed. Although for years my dad blames himself, it is later revealed that the accident was caused by faulty Firestone tires which caused our car – a Ford Explorer – to flip over on the freeway driving down I-5 somewhere parallel to Chico. The defective tires are recalled in 2000.
It’s the Fall of 2007 and I have returned to school, long overdue, as an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. After spending many months worrying that I would be unable to meet the demands, it is quickly confirmed to me that I will have no problems with the level of work expected. I enter as an English major and eventually graduate with minors in Comparative Literature, Classics, Political Science, and a certificate in Medieval Studies.
My first year, the 2007-08 school year, passes quickly. Initially I have energy and momentum. This fades as the first year fades into the second year. I have already made the decision to work towards graduate school as the classroom remains one of the few places in the world where I completely understand the demands placed on me. When my initial year-long burst of enthusiasm wanes, I carry forward powered by a dogged and increasingly desperate sense of purpose. I start making mistakes. My focus begins to shift. I can’t concentrate on anything. The ease with which I can fulfill the routine expectations of the classroom soon fades in the face of the difficulties of navigating the realm of professional interpersonal relationships. I am competent with people in face-to-face interactions but the longer we are apart the harder it is for me to keep track of my obligations. I go months without talking to people I know I should be talking to on a weekly basis. Why can’t I make myself care that I am starting to fall down, hard, at one of the very first tests of my willingness and commitment to get into grad school? People are counting on me, but the pressure of knowing other people are depending on my actions makes the task appear insurmountable.
It’s June 19th, 2015. I meet my friend Mike for the first time after having known each other for over a decade. Our two blogs began a month apart back in the Winter of 2003-04. My blog has been on life support for a very long time but I refuse to shutter it, preferring to believe that one day soon I will find the time and energy to mount a proper return. I want to believe I am capable of doing this but my motivations for doing so other than a merely abstract sense of obligation are completely hollow. Mike and I rarely talk about topics outside the field of our shared interests. He is one of my better friends, notwithstanding that at the time I have very few. His favorite character, incidentally, is Swamp Thing.
I see Mike a couple more times over the next year, a period during which I am spending a lot of time in Southern California. I go out of my way to spend money at his store even at times when I don’t have a lot, because I understand better than anyone how valuable and important it is to have a job that you both enjoy and are good at. Talking for a few hours I can almost convince myself that I still have interest in my hobbies or my supposed “field of expertise.” People ask my advice all the time on what they should be reading. I am never less than amazed when people take my opinion seriously.
In August I will share a very important secret with Mike, and his reaction is the kindest of anyone I know.
It’s the Spring of 2010. After failing to be accepted to grad school, I have a mild nervous breakdown. For reasons I cannot fathom I decide to get back into Magic: The Gathering.
In hindsight it’s easy to see why: I needed a task to occupy my mind that was both time-consuming and meticulous. The game demands an attention to detail that I find both frustrating and challenging, although for many years I will not make the connection that I appreciate these sensations in the context of a game precisely because I am unable to master them in my daily life.
I am not very good at Magic, and I will never be very good. After playing regularly for the next five years I become a competent duffer, someone with a better-than-average comprehension of the game who remains unable to be more than a strictly competent player. Every moment in the game is regulated by a precise turn structure and elaborate timing rules that, when properly understood, form an ingeniously flexible and challenging game engine. I can understand the mechanism in theory but in practice I am very poor at juggling multiple cognitive challenges at once. The endless metastasizing decision tree that is even the most rudimentary game of Magic consumes much of my brainpower. It feels at times like exercise.
During this period I begin to hang-out at the game store in Amherst. It’s a basement store that smells both of mildew and the Papa John’s pizza restaurant upstairs. I need company to keep from falling into my own head so for the next year I am usually hanging out at the store for a couple hours a day for a few days a week. I don’t cultivate any close friends, but really I’m just looking for the anonymity of a group of strangers with whom my only connection is a single shared leisure activity.
It’s June and I’m lying in the bathtub. It occurs to me after the events of the last few months that there is no longer any point in denying that I am bipolar. I am most likely bipolar II, which for me means I very rarely – if ever – experience periods of extended energy resembling a traditional “manic” state. It is likely that those periods of my life when I have felt best and most productive were brief periods of hypomania surrounded on all sides by long stretches of apathy and torpor. I had for a long time - over twenty years - resisted the idea that I shared the same condition as literally every other person in my immediate family, but that was merely denial.
It’s May 25th 1983. Return of the Jedi is released in theaters and although I am too young to understand the wider context Star Wars is immediately my favorite thing in the world. I inherit my cousin’s old Star Wars toys, including a partially demolished Millennium Falcon that may still be sticking it’s nosecone out of a box in my parents’ mildewy basement.
My cousin in this instance is my dad’s brother’s son, who I will meet perhaps three times in my life. I am not close with my uncle, especially after he becomes estranged from my father. After he learns of my decision to drop out of Berkeley he will never speak with me again.
Burger King sells glass tumblers commemorating the film. Ours break over the next few years but they live in my memory. Sometimes I see them online and wonder how they can look so different in reality than they do in my recollection. I wonder sometimes as I get older why it is that so many other things in my life fall by the wayside or curdle into some form of strange obligation . . . but with Star Wars I can always somehow manage to get back to being a child and staring at those Burger King glasses in the kitchen of the trailer we lived in for a year when I was young. Sometimes those memories are the only thing I care about anymore.
It’s December 2nd 2014. I give myself a concussion while eating tortilla chips at the kitchen table. I am studying for my qualifying exam just a few days later. I fail my quals - to be precise, I receive a grade of “Not Pass,” and am told I would be allowed to pass if i completed part of a chapter. I do so with little difficulty.
The concussion had no impact on my ability to take the exam. I wasn’t ready. I wouldn’t have passed it with another six months, given the fruitless direction of my reading and the difficulty of writing my prospectus. I don’t really understand why I can’t concentrate on what I’m doing but for many months I am simply unable to focus completely on the job of formulating my dissertation outline. Due to a combination of my concussion and many days of sleeplessness I am not thinking entirely straight and believe it is within my abilities to bluff my way through the oral exam.
It’s July. I am sitting in a doctor’s office listening to my new doctor reel off facts about my new medication, a litany that includes a number of possibly regrettable side effects. Although it takes me a few weeks for the enormity of the decision to completely sink in, in the space of a few moments’ discussion with my doctor I have understood and accepted that I will never have children.
It’s sometime in the Winter of 2000. I first read Tom Spurgeon’s essay “Comics Made Me Fat” on the old TCJ.com – from back when the site had a message board. I will return to reread this essay every few years, one of my all-time favorite pieces of writing about comics. I can relate to almost every word of the essay even if the specifics of my experience are different.
Although he was hardly the first to articulate the idea, what sticks with me the most from Spurgeon’s article is brief mention of old-school Journal writer Darcy Sullivan, and his belief that “reading comics may indeed be a very bad thing for many of us, contributing in very specific ways towards our becoming emotionally and spiritually crippled.”
At the end of the essay, after some biographical details regarding his associations with food and comics, he ends with an observation regarding the nature of superhero fandom that
superhero comics promote such an unrealistic fantasy based on bizarre, arbitrary models of action that they don't really give anyone a model for fully socialized behavior. A kid who idolizes the biggest shithead basketball player on Earth can at least pursue the sport in which his hero participates. But until fighting ninjas become a club activity on major college campuses, the core activities of the superhero are lost on the superhero devotee. What replaces it is a realization - the Stan Lee model of secondary selling by making the creator the hero and the reader a potential hero - that indulging in the fantasy aspects of the stories one loves can have eventual financial or vocational awards. In the meantime, stay in your basement, and if you need a companion while you're down there, call Domino's.
There are two aspects of this quote that jump out at me after sixteen years. One is the fact that, over the course of the following decade and a half, superhero stories have come to occupy so much space in our collective cultural landscape that their “bizarre, arbitrary models of action” have become almost normalized as socially acceptable behavior. Ten or twelve years ago it was common to see articles bewailing the superhero movie glut – as well as the accompanying prophecies of direct market implosion which would follow the failure of two or three successive superhero movies. Now it’s expected that the release of a new superhero movie will be accompanied by earnest op-eds in major newspaper regarding what Captain America tells us about the limits of American foreign policy in a multilateral world. Everyone writing about comics in the early 00s was dead certain that superhero movies were a bubble that would pop when the average person figured out, like us jaded and cynical critics, that superheroes were stupid. We got that wrong.
The second thing I would like to point to is Spurgeon’s completely dead-on observations that, since superhero stories could not actually be directly aspirational, the creative process behind comic books could be portrayed as such. I can’t grow up to be Spider-Man, but I can grow up to write Spider-Man.
When I was a kid I bought into this fantasy with all my heart. My friends in Jr. High all idolized basketball players, although by that age the vast majority of kids will have realized they will never play sports at the professional level. The difference between them and me is that it took me a lot longer to figure out I wasn’t going to be the next Mark Gruenwald than it took them to figure out they weren’t going to be the next Michael Jordan.
I don’t know when exactly, and I doubt there was any specific incident. But eventually as I got older and the mistakes of my youth gradually transformed into the disappointments of adulthood I realized that it just wasn’t going to happen. Breaking into any kind of writing is difficult, and although the barrier to writing comics might seem from one perspective to be ludicrously low (relative to many other fields), from the vantage point of the average fanboy and reader it’s an almost impossible distance to bridge.
If you grow up reading comics and never really stop, you carry a lot of baggage around the activity. There’s the comics you read because you want to read comics. But there’s also the comics you read because you’re unhappy and need to distract yourself. The comics you read because you don’t understand anything going on in the rest of your life. The comics you read when you should be out running around. The comics you read for comfort as a child that become the comics you read for a crutch as an adult.
Younger readers – by which I mean, at this point, people who have still been reading comics for over a decade – who don’t have this baggage don’t understand why the dichotomy between the old-school Journal pedantry and uncritical fan culture evolved the way it did in the 1980s and 90s. Since they had no connection to the world in which this duality was a reality, it dissipated the moment comics discourse rematerialized online and became something more than just the domain of a relative handful of white men in their twenties and thirties and forties writing about either how awesome the comics they loved as a kid were or how much reading comics as a kid stunted their development. The fact is that for many people, myself included, both statements are completely true.
I don’t blame comics for making my life what it is today. I ultimately can’t blame anyone for that but myself. Comics were there for me when I was a kid and needed a place to put my mind that was far away from my body, but they also became a crutch at periods where I sought to isolate from a world I didn’t understand and in which I didn’t wish to be implicated.
After I realized that I would probably never write for comics I didn’t know what else I wanted to be. My imaginative horizons were limited by the fact that I was perpetually discontented and antisocial. I knew I had to be some kind of writer. I spend my early twenties trying to be a novelist. I wrote three novels that were all various shades of terrible, the last of which was just not-terrible enough that I was proud of it. I had a lot more success writing online, where the invention of blogging meant that I could have my own forum to discuss whatever whenever I wanted. I knew comics really well and already had connections and a tiny bit of reputation based on my having been published in the Journal for the last few years of its existence as a print magazine.
The problem is that I have always resented comic books. For whatever reason they grabbed me when I was very young and nothing else in my life has ever stuck around quite like comics have. But in reality comics is a small field dominated by abuse both professional and personal, built on the very real fact that people who want to write Spider-Man will do anything to write Spider-Man. Very few people get to be Jordan, but if you buy his shoes you can run around and pretend for a few minutes.
So, yeah: that’s my secret origin as a critic. I spent my life preparing for a career in comics, only to discover two things: 1) it’s a snakepit that eventually grinds all but a very few “lucky” people into hamburger, and 2) for whatever reason I lacked the wherewithal to even begin to understand how to approach the field as an aspiring professional. When faced with the dizzying array of options and obstacles, it was simpler merely to throw up my arms and grab a flamethrower.
And boy, it sure is fun to be an asshole! People laugh and pat you on the back for making witty observations and delivering trenchant commentary. It’s great work to criticize for the amusement and edification of an audience of dozens online the hard work of people who are probably being taken advantage of by the rounding-error arm of a multinational corporation. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of posting a withering takedown of Identity Crisis to make a person believe they’re really doing something of worth for the betterment of the human race. And there’s certainly nothing that can reignite your love of comics quite as much as the endless dribble of sexual abuse stories that dominate the comics news cycle with soul-crushing regularity.
If we’re being honest, the reflexive negativity of the critical stance was where I was most comfortable because it was where I felt safe. If I’m smart and articulate and can write quickly and with relatively few errors I can publish enough to build a small audience. Small audiences can sometimes be leveraged into bigger platforms through advantageous networking. Networking forms the basis of professional relationships that can later become work. On paper, at least, I know how the system works.
I don’t know how to talk to editors. I come off as weird or tetchy when I want to be personable and funny. When I tell jokes there’s an uncomfortable edge to them I can never quite dispel. Somehow or another even though I have plenty of people who tell me how much they love my writing, more work rarely materializes. It’s no secret why this work doesn’t materialize, it’s not magic: people who want work go out and hustle for work. I was incapable of hustling, so I was stuck on the outside heckling. My attitude was toxic and my willingness to slaughter sacred cows for the amusement of the people who read my blog (and later, Twitter feed) bordered on masochistic.
Eventually people stop paying attention for a number of reasons. Overall blogging readership declines. My audience gets sick of intermittent updates and stop-and-start series which might lurch into brief life before shuddering to a halt a few hundred yards down the road. There’s no follow-through. My early reputation as a cynical shill for the Journal represented at least a modestly honorable position, even if I was at the time capable of little more than aping the style and tone of better writers who had defined what by the late 90s and early 2000s had been codified – even stereotyped – into the Journal’s “house style.” Eventually, as the Journal ceased print publication and its significance in comics culture receded further and further into the rear view mirror, I was left alone as a kind of curio, a forgotten man who had once perhaps had the raw material for a promising career in the field but who had strangled his own potential by systematically alienating every single person in a position to advance my writing in and around the comics industry. Every now and again I’d pop up for a special guest spot in one of Tucker’s columns for TCJ.com, or I’d post something to my own ghost-ship of a blog. But I was a spent force. I felt, on the balance, that comics had taken a great deal from me and left me with almost nothing in return.
I feel intensely jealous of every writer who was able to turn their blogging into a career. My current position at the AV Club – a position from which I am currently on partial leave, ostensibly for health reasons – appeared completely out of the blue, based on nothing but the last flickering ember of my old reputation magically smuggled across a gulf of years. I have been writing professionally for fifteen years and still cannot manage to make more than a few hundred dollars a month as a writer. It’s no mystery why. I did it to myself.
It’s the last week of September this year. By chance I click on a link on my Twitter feed that takes me to an article that explains the meaning of the term “executive dysfunction.” I begin reading with mild curiosity and by the end I am weeping. I see myself reflected in every symptom, and more than just a casually resemblance. For years I had joked with my students that I had a bad memory and needed to constantly be reminded of things - I see in a moment that I’ve used humor to mask the very real fact that I cannot regularly remember even the simplest of tasks that do not depend for completion on rote muscle memory.
I can only leave the house if I run down a very precise mental checklist of tasks which must be done in a very specific order or not at all. I cannot remember the proper way to perform simple household chores even when I am shown repeatedly and try my best to replicate the form of what I am shown. I have gradually lost my ability to read, unable to concentrate on a single book or article for longer than fifteen minutes at a time. The last book I finished reading was a YA Star Wars novel that required a monumental force of will to complete. I have thoroughly internalized the conviction that I am lazy, incompetent, and undependable. I am never surprised when I find myself doing through sheer carelessness stupid things that hurt me and the people around me.
This is my third life-altering revelation in the space of five months. I am very tired. At this point I am quick to accept the idea that I may have some form of executive dysfunction, as I have already seen that nearly everything I believed to be true about myself was a lie. Within a week I have a referral from my psychiatrist to be tested for Adult ADHD.
It’s the first semester of the first year of my first attempt at college, at the University of California, Berkeley. For the first time in my life I build the courage to see a psychiatrist. After one appointment he diagnoses me as a mild depressive and prescribes me Celexa. I notice the effect on my mood immediately, when I am struck by giggling fits in my dorm room the day after having taken my first pill. I will be very happy for many months, and by the time the feeling begins to wear off I will already be living in Oklahoma.
It’s October 7th 2016. I briefly attend my department’s yearly potluck, which is held within the first few weeks of the new school year. I have been looking forward to attending for the purpose of getting approving looks from people who will notice I have lost almost fifty pounds over the last five months. I run into two people I know well, they both notice, and it is gratifying for a number of reasons to be told by one of them that they did not at first recognize me.
For years I had tried to convince myself that this was my milieu, but in a flash I realize that I don’t know any of these people. Of all the grad students in attendance I am the only one from my cohort, and all are younger. The professors expertly perform the part of suburban intellectuals. Their casual (if sometimes affected) manner masks the deep self-satisfaction of the liberal academic: generally decent folks who live in a very nice bubble of their own deliberate creation. Suddenly the sense of professional obligation that had brought me to attend every previous potluck snaps and I realize I have no reason to be there. I leave the party after five minutes. I’m happy to do so.
I’ve made enough of a shambles of my career in grad school to date that the prospect of finding a tenure-track position after finishing my dissertation is probably not realistic. I realize that I’ve known that for a while and have already acclimated myself to the idea, even if I haven’t wanted to articulate it to myself. I like teaching. I’m good at teaching. Academia would be perfect if it weren’t for other academics.
I begin to feel the stirrings of something I believed long gone. I hear the rattling of distant chains. My academic ambitions were someone else’s dream, another man’s borrowed clothing in more ways than one. I used to have other ambitions. It might be nice to feel some of those old desires once again.
It’s May 19th, 1999. I am watching the first available midnight showing of The Phantom Menace. A week earlier my friends and I had camped out overnight on the hard concrete outside the theater for tickets to the first new Star Wars movie in 16 years. Thanks to the internet, I will never need to do so again, although much of the charm is lost that way. Although conventional wisdom is quick to turn and the film is rejected by large segments of fandom - based on what are admittedly a few regrettable elements - it remains one of my favorite movies.
Something that is often overlooked about the film is how closely it matched form (structure) to fit the function of introducing an important character as a little kid. It is part kid’s movie, and many of the elements adult viewers find most cloying, including the comedic sidekicks, slapstick, and extended racing sequences, were specifically intended to appeal to younger children who would recognize the outline of a kid’s adventure film even if they were too young to have an attachment to the original films.
It’s also a very sad film because it’s about the best day in Anakin’s life. It never, ever gets better for him than his victory at the Boonta Eve Classic. He will carry that memory for the rest of his life, the moment when everything still seemed so golden and full of potential. He achieved a massive upset with nothing but his skill and ingenuity, and believed that he had succeeded in winning his heart’s desire in leaving Tatooine to find a greater destiny in the stars. Of course it didn’t quite work out like that.
It’s February 22nd, 2010. I am sitting in a hospital waiting room updating my e-mail every few minutes as graduate school application decisions begin to stream in. I am listening to Tegan & Sara on constant repeat. That afternoon I receive my rejection from Yale. The e-mail begins, “Your application to the English Language and Literature program has been reviewed and a decision has been reached.” I was not expecting to get into Yale, but you always apply to a few schools to which you have no hope of actually being accepted. Sometimes the Hail Mary lands, but not today.
Later I will conclude after reviewing a few items of circumstantial evidence that I was sabotaged by one of my recommenders, an older male professor who did not think highly of my abilities or ambitions. Although there are other reasons, one of the most important was my tendency to disappear for weeks or months at a time. Other people believe and I believe as well that I am inherently flaky. Unable to ever stick the dismount, always puttering out just a few yards from the goal. I am not accepted to any grad schools in 2010, but I wait another year and am accepted into five.
It’s May 5th 2016. I’m driving home from the preview showing of Captain America: Civil War. I enjoyed the film more than I had expected, and in fact it the first substantial thing to succeed in diverting me for the better part of a week.
I’m driving home from the theater along a brief stretch of freeway used for a shortcut from the supermarket back to my apartment. There’s a rightward bend where the road rises and tilts slightly. I feel the sudden urge to grab the wheel and pull to the left as hard as I am able, driving the car into the oncoming lane and hopefully killing myself.
It’s the closest I have ever come to killing myself. It’s a long and vivid few seconds that stand out in the context of a week I otherwise can’t fully recollect.
Thinking about it later, I realize that - far from being an isolated incident - this was something I had done almost every time I sat behind the wheel of a car for many years. I used to take solace in the idea that, as bad as my life could be at time, I never considered suicide. In truth, I considered it on a daily basis for many years, but the thought never stuck around long enough to stick in memory. Just a thousand stray thoughts spread over a thousand days, all considered and dismissed in a few seconds. Never lingering in my mind as a serious problem, just . . . random impulses.
I concluded recently that I have been convinced for much of my life that my death would come in the form of a car accident. The nature of the method is such that a moment’s hesitation or weakness could easily have seen a stray thought converge with a random impulse, and the act would be done in a heartbeat.
I didn’t kill myself. I came within a hair’s breadth of doing so. I would have flipped the car into traffic and felt my body be shredded by multiple tons of steel shrapnel. It might even have looked like an accident. It might even have felt good.
It’s July of this year. I begin a Twitter account dedicated solely to posting Raid scores from Galaxy of Heroes. The game is the only thing capable of consuming my attention during long stretches of time when I feel nothing but anxiety and paranoia.
There is a mechanical precision that appeals to me. It’s a resource management game dedicated to collecting and building teams of Star Wars characters to battle one another. The resource collection itself presents a significant logistical challenge: there are many different types of currencies, only some of which can be converted, and all of them must be shepherded in such a way as to maximize impact while minimizing outlay. I have never spent any real money on in-game content. The challenge for me lies in using a very limited resource base to achieve the best possible return on my investment. It’s all about spending credits on incremental improvements to character stats. Judging when, where, and how to spend what and on who is endlessly challenging, and requires constant awareness of a quickly evolving metagame.
It’s the only part of my life in which I am capable of making long term goals and sticking to them. I am comforted by the clockwork regularity of the game’s schedule, and the satisfaction of periodic breakthroughs in my understanding of the game’s arcane leveling mechanisms grants an illusion of accomplishment to the successful execution of pointless tasks. The constant background hum of gradual improvement gives form to some of my most formless days, even in the first weeks of May.
It’s the evening of April 30th of this year. I’m sitting on the edge of my bathtub smoking. I’m listening to Tegan & Sara on my headphones, because I’m always listening to Tegan & Sara on my headphones.
I keep circling around back to this day because it’s the day everything changes. I can’t quite bring myself to open the curtain and look at what’s hiding there, waiting for me, not yet. It’s all too big and too painful.
If you’ve read this long - well, God bless. I had a number of things I wanted to say and I doubt I’ve said anywhere close to everything I need to say. I keep putting off the end because I know once I reach the end of this essay, and publish it on the site, and it is read by anyone - I will no longer have any control over my story. It will be out of my hands, forever, and I will be left to deal with the consequences.
It would be nice if I could keep writing forever, perpetually pushing forward these final few words - the final two words, actually - for just another day, another chance to sit and think and hide. If you’re reading this now there’s a chance you’ve been reading this blog for a long time, maybe even know me from Twitter. Maybe you’ve never met me before. Maybe this article has gone viral and is being circulated by thousands of people who are devoting their long lunch breaks to hacking their way through the thick maze of my verbiage in order to get to the surprise at the end. Maybe only three people will ever finish it.
It’s the evening of April 30th of this year. I’m sitting on the edge of my bathtub smoking. My life is over. I have driven myself into a ditch and I have no idea how to extricate myself. I’m killing myself slowly but surely with bad food, lack of exercise, disinterest in my work, my hobbies, my friends. My overriding sensation on most days is a generalized lack of vigor that leaves me feeling like a wax approximation of a real human being.
I failed. At work, as a writer, as a friend, as a blogger or a critic, as a son and a partner.
I’m not beating myself up unduly. I’m not being harsh. It didn’t work, and by the time it came to right the ship it was already too late. Does this sound melodramatic? Please bear with me for a few more precious seconds and all will make sense . . . it’s not melodrama. It’s truth.
Most people never get a second chance. This essay represents the end of a lot of different things: it means, for one thing, I’m willingly giving up a large part of the privacy with which I have closely guarded much of my life. This isn’t everything: my partner and my family are mostly absent, as my reckoning with them is a private matter. But my reckoning with myself? with my career? with my endless feelings of self-loathing stemming from my bottomless perception of my own inadequacies, real and imagined? Well, that’s different. This is the end of something very real - not this blog itself, but something much, much bigger.
Something I’ve learned over the past few months is that privacy and discretion are not rights, they are privileges. And I keep putting off finishing this essay because I don’t want to give up those privileges. I don’t have a choice, really: there’s no option here, and I hate that. I’ve been a very private person for my entire life. Suddenly I find myself relinquishing a large part of that privacy, forever . . . not exactly willingly.
I feel good about this essay. I haven’t felt pride from anything I’ve written in many years. That’s just another thing that has been taken from me by the march of years. I want to get back in the game. I have a great deal to make up for. I pissed away the first half of my life on sickness and sorrow and unhappiness, resenting the rest of the world for my own shortcomings, pushing away everyone I ever cared about in the process of punishing myself for the sin of having been born. If I was a dick to you at any point in whatever our shared history may be, I’m sorry. If it’s any consolation, I only hurt people because I was hurting myself. And the hurting never stopped.
I’m not the same person I was on April 29th. I wish there was a better way to say it other than - for months now I’ve been maintaining a bit of a false front. I haven’t been tweeting much for a while because I’m having a difficult time keeping up the pretense that I’m still that person. He was mean and petty and thought being clever was the greatest achievement to which a man could aspire. He had his good qualities, sure, when he tried. Trying was very difficult. I’ve been told by people who are in a position to judge that I am a far kinder and far more pleasant person now than I ever was in the before-time. I’m not that person anymore and I am working every day, slowly but surely, to overcome that person.
During the last week of April 2016 I was reading Thus Spake Zarathustra with my class. Because I am increasingly bored with teaching I have written a series of increasingly odd and difficult syllabi that challenge my ability as a teacher as much as my students’ abilities as writers. On the weekend of April 30th I read these words:
Man is difficult to discover, most of all to himself; the spirit often tells lies about the soul.
There is no better way I can describe what happened to me. Every lie I had ever told myself was revealed in a single instant, a single statement spoken with the quiet authority of armageddon long delayed.
But there is always a reckoning. We can only hide out from ourselves for so long. And so we must continue, we must press on until we reach the moment of truth, however painful.
It’s the evening of April 30th of this year. I’m sitting on the edge of my bathtub smoking. I smoke almost every day. I am standing on the edge of an abyss. Everything feels wrong and I have no idea why. I’m covered in molasses, dragged to earth. I have strange ideas, strange fantasies. Nothing makes sense. I don’t know why.
I turn my head and hear a voice. It’s all in my head. I hear it as clear as if it were being whispered in my ear. Whose voice? There’s no one else in here with me. But the voice still belongs to someone else. It lands in my brain with the subtlety of a lightning bolt, leaves me sizzling in the aftermath, every nerve ending fried by a sudden and painful shock.
I will spend the next few weeks in a daze, recovering from the next few seconds. I will suffer secondary revelations. I will experience the slow and unsettling reorientation of every facet of my personality I once believed to be stable and dependable. Every aspect of my life is thrown into chaos and uncertainty. I am on my way to becoming someone better, hopefully. Hopefully. But it’s still very hard.The memory still feels like I'm scraping my head along the hard tile floor.
I turn my head and hear a voice that changes everything. Whose voice is it? It’s my voice, only it isn’t, speaking to myself from outside of myself. It’s me and it isn’t me. The words hit with the impact of a death sentence, and I feel a heavy curtain falling behind me. I can’t turn back. The road is blocked. The only way out is through.
I turn my head and hear a voice. It’s my voice. It says only two words, and is gone again, having changed everything in an instant. It’s all over. Everything’s over. Everything’s just beginning.
It’s a glorious dawn.
I turn my head and hear a voice. It says two words:
And I am.