I. For the most part, I always knew I was going to end up being a writer. Growing up, there was no feeling ever extant in my body that would match the charge of creating a character and telling stories that developed their personality. Much to the chagrin of anybody who wanted me to make any sort of real money as an adult, I never had any interest in being a doctor, lawyer, or professional athlete. (Realistically, though, a good portion of those people around in my childhood never thought I would become much of anything.) Whether it was being enraptured by the classic storytelling aspects of The Old Testament or creating alternate endings to episodes of Underdog in my mind, I was given a sense early on in my life that my imagination was one of the best tools I was given. It wasn't until later on in life that I realized that very imagination was borne out of necessity, that it would provide a constructive escape from both a pretty brutal upbringing and the darker recesses of my own mind.
I'll never forget the first time I was punched in the face by my biological mother. I don't exactly remember the catalyst of this particular incident, even though I remember the origins of many other one-sided physical altercations with this woman who was bigger then than I am now, as a 31-year-old man who eats well and visits the gym semi-regularly. Let's just say she got angry about something I did, which was no strange occurrence in our household. She asked me a question. In my trembling voice, knowing something was about to go terribly awry for me, I gave her an answer I knew she wasn't going to like, even though it was the truth. I'm certain her reasons for hitting me were trivial. But her right hand came barreling toward my face anyway.
I remember seeing a flash of light. I remembered the light itself being the same as the kind people in movies said they would see when they were dying, even though it was only a flash. I saw that light hiding in the creases of my eyelids enough times as a child to cultivate a desire to move closer and closer toward it until I was engulfed by it, but every time my biological mother punched me in the face, the light would still be as far away as ever. I thought I was being punished. Obviously by being punched in the face, but also punished in the idea that I was always kept alive after these beatings. I felt like being on Earth was a raw deal, and I couldn't wait for what happened after. I was obsessed with it.
For a decent portion of my childhood, it was just me and my biological mother. She and my father had split acrimoniously when I was two years old when we lived in El Paso, TX. Some of my earliest memories (including the one with my cousin blowing out all of my candles on my fourth birthday) took place in my grandmother's house on Montlieu Avenue in High Point, North Carolina. So did an event I'm not exactly sure is so much a memory as it is a shadow.
Sometime during the earlier days of my life, it was possible that I was sexually abused by one of my uncles in the bathroom of my grandmother's house. This gruesome detail is accompanied by a caveat because I don't actually remember being molested by my uncle. I remember my mother telling me about it with a vague feeling of contempt, both for my uncle and for me. I remember going to the Department of Social Services in High Point and being the subject of an assortment of invasive inspections. I remember being in the bathroom with my uncle at my grandmother's house; the door was closed. But I don't remember being molested.
I also don't recall much about this particular uncle (I had three on my biological mother's side of the family), mostly that he was kind and courteous to me and once told me that I needed to eat spinach in order to grow big and strong like Popeye. I do remember times where I knew I was being used as leverage against my grandmother by my biological mother to get things out of her, and I've heard stories of that same behavior. Not knowing definitively whether or not I was actually sexually abused at the age of six is a different kind of mental torture. There are the images and flashbacks and nightmares I would endure because of the physical and emotional abuse of my biological mother haunting my waking and sleeping hours. Maybe that's why my brain can't quite put a firm memory of anybody else hurting me. How can you heal from something you're not entirely sure even happened?
As I got older, the punches were delivered with more force, to the point where I was forced to attend Photo Day at my school in 2nd grade with scars and welts on my face. I wore a white cable-knit sweater that my mother picked out for me that I hated. Later that year, I kissed a boy for the first and only time in my life. My biological mother beat me within an inch of my life and made me stay home from school the next day. The injuries I sustained hurt pretty badly, but nothing was more painful than the fact that I was forced to stay home with her instead of school, which I liked more and more because it wasn't home, because home felt like a prison with a guard who hated my guts. Nobody should feel that way about their childhood home.
Over the years, the abuse became much worse and much more specific. Once, while my biological mother was convalescing an ankle injury, she hit me as hard as she could with one of her crutches. While I was on the ground picking up something she had dropped on purpose, she stomped me down onto the floor with her good foot. She's thrown half-full beer cans at me because I couldn't find her bus tickets. Around the time I thought I had found solace in religion and was hoping the Lord would take me to a place where I didn't have to live in fear every day, I came home from my grandmother's house across town and she was burning my bible in the kitchen sink. She's punched me, kicked me, whipped me raw with her leather belt and opened me up with the buckle, shouted homophobic slurs at me, and told me I wouldn't amount to anything, that I was smart for nothing. When I was given in-school suspension for throwing a textbook right at the nose of a classmate and didn't tell her, my biological mother offered a boxer's 12th round effort.
The first time I ever thought about killing myself, I was 13 years old. My biological mother had another son (coincidentally, on my 12th birthday), and took drugs almost the entire time she was pregnant with him, because she didn't know she was pregnant until she was eight months along. He was born autistic and cried a lot. She yelled at him when he wouldn't stop crying. I saw her shake him once, but it wasn't with as much force as I expected her to. At this point in my life, it was my responsibility to take care of my baby brother. I left the house at 6am, rode the city bus across town to take him to daycare, then rode back across town and miles past where I lived to make it to school on time. There was hardly any food in the house, so I took to buying bags of Blow Pops at the Family Dollar near my house and sold them individually for a quarter in order to make sure my little brother had something to eat when we made it home from daycare.
One day, I was trying to get him to eat something; he was crying in a way that suggested to me that he hadn't eaten much that day. He hadn't eaten a lot in the past few days. As he sat in his high chair, I put a kitchen knife on the table and planned on hacking at my wrists until all the blood spilled out of me once he fell asleep. I gave a long, loving look at my baby brother and he started crying again. He had two bites of his dinner. He just looked at me and started crying. I knew I couldn't leave him in this place by himself. Or alone with our mother.
When the other members of my family — and my school — found out the kinds of things my biological mother was doing to me, I was given an out. But after my grandmother died, I ended up bouncing around between the houses of relatives and foster homes, partly due to my difficult nature, partly because to most everybody else, I was seen as a severe liability. Of course, no one could see what was going on inside of me, where I was being eaten up by feelings of inadequacy and moving through my days living in fear, anxiety, and unworthiness. I slept-walked through my days wanting to die, and spent my nights lying awake in bed, wondering why I was still alive.
Throughout this enormously troublesome period of my life, I wrote plenty of short stories and spec scripts that would never see the light of day, particularly because they weren't any good, but also because I think my biological mother threw them all away, along with notes from girls in school (simply due to me being a glowing orb of sentimentality). At this point, I was a newly-minted high schooler and any confidence I had in my creative abilities dissolved throughout the course of my hardships.
Eventually, my relatives were all feeling the pressure of raising a child with autism and a troubled teenager who was basically the proverbial time bomb ready to explode. My brother was taken to a foster home and I was sent to live with my father and his family in Tacoma, Washington. I was given a clean slate to live life, a new environment to foster my creativity, and pretty much the only hardships I had to endure were the psychological ruins I traversed every day inside my own mind.
In Washington I was afforded the opportunity to live a normal teenager's life and I used it to explore a variety of creative mediums in order to ultimately decide what kind of writer I was going to be. Hip-hop was an early love of mine, even from childhood; I vividly remember obsessively listening to borrowed tapes featuring Wu-Tang Clan, watching Nas music videos on MTV, and taping all of my favorite Notorious B.I.G. songs off of the radio on the day he died. (An added measure of cruelty, or perhaps just preference, was when my biological mother played Tupac Shakur's scathing diss track "Hit 'Em Up" repeatedly on the day after Christopher Wallace was fatally shot.) I was convinced that I should be a rapper. Certainly not one of any conventional worth, but a weird, outside alternative.
The true joy of rapping to me was spending hours upon hours in the bottom bunk of the bunk bed I shared with my brother, my father's youngest son, writing and writing and writing, twisting around winding phrases of rhyming words. I was good at that, but wasn't at all stellar at the actual rapping part of rapping. I probably could have been an exceptional ghostwriter for someone who actually sounded like they could rap. Times existed where I wrote about my biological mother and wrote heartfelt verses to my brother, far away in North Carolina, lost to the system.
I was given an acoustic guitar with a broken fret for my 20th birthday. By the time I learned four chords, I wrote my first song. I don't remember what it was called. It was about an encounter with a girl at the American Eagle Outfitters I was working in that I had a crush on, full of longing and elliptical pseudo-poetry. I recorded it on my secondhand Compaq computer with a glittery, quasi-psychedelic keyboard line behind it. It wasn't very good, but it led to me writing better songs and eventually recording an experimental folk album in my bedroom on that same rinky-dink computer. As time progressed and messing around with chords turned into writing full songs, I felt this weirdo singer/songwriter project I was doing was going to be the vehicle in which my words found its home. But there was still a nagging voice in the back of my head, telling me I couldn't do it, telling me I wasn't any good at it, that I shouldn't be playing music, that I should have been dead. My struggle with my emotional health had contaminated my ability to be sure of my art.
My first actual suicide attempt was sometime within the next year. Feelings of inadequacy metastasized in my brain, I couldn't escape this feeling that I was already on borrowed time. They tell you that you should feel like you're at the beginning of your life in your early-twenties, that the seed growing underneath the soil for almost two decades is finally ready to bloom. I felt as though I was at the end of my rope. I couldn't take how miserable I was all the time, how much I was made to hate myself, and how the people who had an active hand in making me hate myself succeeded.
I spent what I believed was the last night of my life washing down over-the-counter sleep aids with vodka. I fell asleep on my side, comfortable — excited, even — in the fact that I wouldn't wake up. A few hours later, I vomited on the floor next to my bed. I stayed awake in my bed for hours after that, thinking if I had slept on my back, I would have been dead. The disappointment flowing through my body because I was still alive felt like one big stinging sensation. I felt as though I had been cheated, forced to live an existence I didn't want to be in, burdening the lives of people who I cared about.
Throughout my twenties, I used to have nightmares where I would often wake up in a cold sweat, gasping and stopping myself from screaming. My biological mother would be in these nightmares; usually turning up in a public crowd with a fearsome look on her face, making her way toward me. My dream logic always suggested she wanted to do me serious harm, maybe even kill me.
My proclivity to frequently have this sort of nightmare stems from an incident that happened before I moved to Washington, where I was riding the bus to my aunt's house through the streets of High Point, and right before I entered the bus, my mother pulled me off. She said some things I don't remember, and I quickly turned around and got back on the bus. I sat in the front, as close as I could to the driver. She sat further back, and would force out this very distinctive psychotic laughter. The people on the bus saw our altercation, so some of them would ask me if I was okay. "I will be once I get off this bus," I replied. Once my stop was reached, I ran off the bus and walked briskly to my aunt's house, constantly looking over my shoulder to make sure she wasn't following me.
I wasn't at the point where I was mining personal issues for creative fodder; I was mainly doing everything I could to escape feeling anxious, afraid, and hurt all the time, feelings that stemmed from the emotional scars I thought I'd have to live with forever. Years later, I would be diagnosed as a sufferer of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
After obsessing with my singer/songwriter project in those weeks post-attempted suicide, I became better at writing songs, but I wasn't exactly sure if that was the medium I was meant to pursue. I did write and record and album, though. I'm not saying it's my apex as a creative person by any stretch of the imagination, but I'm pleased with the idea of completing a project amidst so many horrible, horrible thoughts and the feeling of just taking up space, not contributing anything to anybody's lives. I felt as though I was this gnarly grease spot on the existence of everybody I loved.
That didn't stop me from trying to distract myself with other creative projects. Shortly after recording that weirdo singer/songwriter album, I started writing about music on the internet. Turns out, I was pretty good at it. I went from writing on my own website to doing a column for a friend (and my favorite music writer, bar none), to getting writing work from places such as Pitchfork and MTV Hive. Before I knew it, I was a few chapters deep into my first ever try at writing a novel. I was happier than I had ever been, feeling like writing novels was really my calling. I loved and trusted my characters, I had faith in my structure of the book's chapters. I somewhat-tentatively called it American Water, named after a classic Silver Jews record. American Water would details the lives of a Mexican-American clothing boutique manager named Javier and his DIY musician friends, exploring societal concepts such as family, race, feminism, and young adulthood. There was an outside shot that maybe I could finish this book, and that it would be intriguing and thoughtful.
But there was still a part of me that didn't think I was good enough to be doing any of this. The self-doubt stemming from my background turned into a constant tugging at my shoulder, with a little devil on it, saying that I'm worthless, saying I'll never get what I want out of life, no matter how hard I work to be better at everything I do, saying that I have talent for nothing.
That's around the time where my then-girlfriend broke up with me. Two months before that, a very good friend of mine — I'd even say my best friend — committed suicide. The email she sent me was vague, but she sounded so unhappy with everything in her life, and I felt guilty that I couldn't do anything to make it better. Losing two of the most important young women in my life would send me into a rut that almost lasted two years, two years where I stayed at home and tried to work through it. But I was blocked. Everything I wrote turned out horribly.
And then I tried to kill myself one more time.
This time, I really wanted it to be the last time. I knew I was going to get it right. I had various prescriptions and bottles of alcohol lined on my desk. I was writing letters and preparing myself mentally for this grand undertaking. I listened to Deerhunter's "Sailing" for most of the night. I genuinely thought the people in my life would be better off without me, and that I truly, actually did have talent for nothing.
And then a police officer who I had known through my day job as a supermarket checker, came to my house and took me to the hospital. She asked if I wanted to go to this mental health facility she recommended, and I said yes. I was there for about 36 hours.
For the eight months after checking out of the mental health facility and paying for a $110 cab ride home, I was fine. I wasn't great, but I wasn't in dire straits. I was creatively blocked, but I had a great support system (including my stepmom, the woman whom I refer to exclusively as Mom) and everybody had the general impression that I was on the mend. My book was coming along; I was on Chapter 10 after three years, so I felt as though finishing this book was well within my grasp to achieve. It's hard to properly rhapsodize the type of encouragement Mom gave me, because she was so honest about her own struggles, and was one of the people who taught me that struggle is an everyday practice, that people with PTSD (she had her experience in the military) might sneak up on me when I least expect it, and she told me to be ready for it.
I was planning on going to her and my dad's house and hanging out with them for a while. That morning, I woke up to a few missed calls and a few frenzied texts saying my mom was in the hospital. She was in a coma for two days. On the third day, she died. It's difficult to talk about what a crushing blow that was, because I loved my mom with all of my heart. She gave me so much emotional support throughout the goings-on of my life. She was the first person I called when my girlfriend broke up with me. She was the first person I told when my friend killed herself. And now, she too was gone, a vivacious woman reduced to a beep on a machine, reduced down to total silence. It took me a long time to write anything after that. I didn't think I was going to write anymore.
The self-doubt was consuming me, my grief blanketed everything I saw, everything I thought, for months. I wanted to quit writing this book, quit writing in general. I was lethargic, my mind was in a far away place, and I couldn't do it anymore. I wanted to either shrink in my bed and never leave it, or disappear completely, go somewhere far, far away. There were mornings where I would ask myself aloud, "Ugh, do I really want to do this today?" ("Do this" meaning "be alive".)
It's hard to say what made me start writing again, even after a lifetime of hardships and fantasies of self-immolation and watching one of my fiercest supporters lying in a casket with an American flag draping over it. To be honest, I still struggle with feelings of adequacy. I continue to wonder if I'm good enough to do this, if my book is going to be any good. That maybe I really do have talent for nothing. I still hear those voices, even though I'm better at shutting them out while I work. But sometimes those voices pierce through my skin and pinch away at me. And through friends and therapy and loved ones, I know it's just a byproduct of coming from an abusive childhood, but that's not necessarily a brick wall that can stand steadfast while the waves crash against it. The artistic mind is rife with insecurity, with ominous motion, like being on one of those tiny tugboats from the cartoons in the middle of a biblical storm in the middle of the ocean. Adding the issue of having to slowly rebuild my mental health is a huge roadblock for creativity. Sometimes my lethargy and melancholy makes me want to quit writing.
But what else am I supposed to do? The pull that an artist gets from creativity, it's like waking up in the middle of a riptide. (Why so many water metaphors? Because I feel as though the human mind flows in very unspecific currents. Yikes, there's another water metaphor for you.) Maybe I knew all along that I wasn't going to quit, that regardless where my mental health issues took me — to another facility, to therapy I couldn't afford, possibly back to the brink of death — I had no choice but to follow my artistic impulses. Those are the kind of dreams I can sail through.
Both photos from the author's Flickr