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Is there any person or principle for which you would give your life? I am absolutely serious in asking you this, and if you don't have one yet, I assert it's worth your while to find one.
I have several, but I'll tell you just one for now: my wife Bonita. I would gladly give my life to save hers. I have said repeatedly that if I had to take a bullet so she wouldn't, I would do so in an instant, and would not for a moment regret my decision as I lay dying.
If you knew you would die this time tomorrow, is there something you could do during your remaining hours, so that in your final moments, you would finally feel it had all been worthwhile? Or are you one of the fortunate few to have already done so, that you may spend your last day in quiet, joyful contemplation of the life you lived?
Does anything make you feel this way? Something should, because I assert that if there isn't, there is a cause for which you will give your life, in fact are already giving it. If so, you will regret giving your life even if you live to be a hundred and three!
What could that be? you ask me. I'll name a few:
Trolling Kuro5hin? Or are you still karma whoring at the other site?
Sharing MP3s? Downloading zero-day pr0n torrents?
Still not with me? No, that's just what I do for fun. I'm not giving my life to it!
Perhaps you have devoted your life to wishing you could work up the courage to strike up a conversation with that cute chick, the one with the nose ring and the tattoo on her leg? How long will it take you? She doesn't have all day, and she has many other suitors!
Still not with me? OK, try this one:
Did you declare your major in college because your parents told you that you had to declare that particular one? Maybe they wouldn't pay your way otherwise, or perhaps they emphasized the life of poverty you would lead after earning a Lit degree. Are you happy with your choice?
No? I'll try harder!
Back when you were a kid, did you once have dreams of Making It Big someday as a Rock Star, only to find yourself somehow now employed in a comfortable, secure, well-paying yet ultimately unsatisfying job as a project manager for a company whose products really don't do anyone any real good?
Maybe it's time to dust off your old guitar. Electric tuners aren't expensive, and with a few weeks of regular practice you could Rock and Roll the way you used to, back in the day.
But I'm married now, and my wife has to stay home to take care of our kid.
I know how it is: adult life has its realities, and one must make certain compromises if one is to live up to one's adult responsibilities. But that's not so bad; while you may not be able to give your life to your music, you can give it to your wife and child.
But would you take a bullet for them? If not, why?
Now, I'm not trying to say that I'm somehow better than you because I would for my wife, while you wouldn't for yours. But if you don't feel that way, yet remain married for the rest of both your lives, when the time finally comes that you lay on your death bed would you look back on your time together with any regrets?
Yes. Yes, I have to say that I would. Please don't tell her I said that.
Then what could you do differently so that it doesn't have to be that way?
The clock is ticking away. It could stop at any instant. I learned to play a piano piece at my lesson this week by a composer who only lived to be thirty-six years old. It could happen to me, it could happen to you. You might be told you have a year to live, or you might not hear the shot that kills you, but until your time comes, you have no way to know when it will come. But know this: it will come. There is no escape.
If you have not yet even started on you're life's work, there is not a second to waste! Start right now!
Maybe, just bear with me a moment, maybe it would help if you took me at face value and got your old guitar out of the back of your closet, and spent maybe just the rest of the evening noodling around on it a little. C'mon, give it a try.
I gave that up long ago. I just couldn't. It wouldn't be the same. I had dreams back then.
Music is not about fame, fortune, groupies and cocaine! Music is in your soul man! Let it live!
Well, maybe, but how?
Play the God Damn open mic! Play in a God Damn biker bar! But Play! Time is a-wasting!
Ok, ok, I will.
Why It Matters
I haven't explained why I feel one should have such a cause as to be worthy of one's life. I am convinced of it; here's why: By living one's life in a fully committed way, one lives a better life through one's appreciation of just how precious and fleeting it is. One's life choices are thus guided by an awareness of what one gives up by committing to each decision.
To live a life with such awareness is to really feel alive, to live a life that really feels worth living.
Why life matters is a question I struggled with for many years. Many have been the times I felt my life was not worth living at all, and that it would be best to just end it. It took some convincing to decide it didn't have to be that way. Maybe by now I have learned some valuable lessons, that by writing this essay I might pass on to others.
In what follows I reveal a great deal of myself. Not to tell you all about me, but to use my life, its successes and its failures, as a specific example to drive home my point: Don't waste the one life God gave you. I did, until recently. What a collosal tragedy has been my miserable existence, what a waste of potential, when I now understand that my own happiness was always near at hand, were I only willing to let go of my own self-pity and grab hold of it!
I know many people, not just the mentally ill, but many who are considered completely healthy and might even think they are happy, who lead completely pointless lives. They don't even lead the lives of simple joy that my wife advocates below: they just mark time, doing what they are told or what is expected of them, until their tick of the clock is used up and they are gone.
It doesn't have to be that way for them. The last twenty years didn't have to be that way for me. I cannot change my past, but I know I can determine my future. Maybe I can help others do so as well.
However we live, well or pointlessly, we also sacrifice our lives for the way we spend our time. I urge you to make a better and more conscious choice.
You Should Talk
If you had one minute for each word you type on K5, you would have six lifetimes to learn to compose. -- me deochraty
Holy Fuck Michael. You can talk my boy. Is Bonita a listener? -- redqueen
You're already number one in my book... It's called: "People who need to stop typing so damn much: A Memoir". -- givemegmail111
I don't regret any of the time I have spent posting at Kuro5hin. While I have not always managed my time here as well as I should, I actually feel my Kuro5hin writing is the best thing that I have ever done. Let me explain:
Remember I asked if you could spend your last day reflecting quietly and joyfully on the life you lived? If tomorrow were my last day, that's how I would spend it.
Now, I won't say I don't have any regrets. I have many that have burdened me for decades. Had I not made a few rash, ill-informed decisions that I once did, my life since would have turned out a great deal differently, and been much easier for me and for some people I care a great deal about.
But some of what I published right here at Kuro5hin are the only things of any substance I have ever done that I feel is of any lasting value, that has enabled me to find any meaning in all I have suffered from my mental illness, that will enable me to leave something of value to my wife should something ever happen to me, and that might mean I will be remembered by anyone but my close friends and family after I'm gone.
Now, I'm not proud of everything I wrote at k5, but I feel every minute I've spent here, and every word I've posted, even my trolls, all contributed in a significant way to the two stories I published here that enable me to finally feel that my life has been a well-lived one:
My once-promising academic career was struck down early by my mental illness of schizoaffective disorder. There are not words to describe the pain I endured, or the collosal waste that were so many years of my miserable existence. But I am comforted by having written down what I experienced, and more importantly, what I learned from it. I published my essay right here at Kuro5hin: Living with Schizoaffective Disorder.
What comforts me is that by doing so, I helped many others who also suffer, and their loved ones. It does not ease my pain, but I am able to find some reward for having experienced it.
Timothy Miller wrote in How to Want What You Have of the difference between pain and sufferring: the pain of childbirth is a joyous occasion for a new mother, but there is no sufferring to compare with what she feels if her child later dies.
The hundreds of emails I received from readers of Living with Schizoaffective Disorder transformed my once-meaningless sufferring into easily bearable pain. Overwhelmingly I am told my essay is the only thing readers can find that helps them understand what schizoaffective disorder is really like: most other material gives only terse clinical descriptions. Sometimes someone recognizes themselves in my writing and seeks psychiatric treatment as a result. Three women told me that it was only my writing of my experience of solipsism that convinced them they weren't all alone in experiencing it themselves. A grieving mother told me I helped her understand what her son experienced before he killed himself.
I can't explain why, but it has always been important to me to know I will be remembered after I'm gone for something good I've done. It's easy for anyone to leave a searing memory that is not soon forgotten, but to be remembered for something positive is much more rare and difficult to achieve. Of course I understand that when I am gone, I won't be around to know whether anyone remembers me, but I also know that feeling confident I will be remembered will comfort me when I grow old.
I worked nearly twenty years in the software industry, and am quite good at what I do, but looking back on all my hard work, I feel I have very little to show for it. Some people found my products helpful, but none of my programs will be of any lasting value. Really all I can say that I've ever created that will endure is my essay on my illness.
I was doing well when I wrote it, but soon after publishing my essay I began to experience symptoms of hypomania and had to increase my medication. Not long after, I started to hallucinate for the first time in many years, and eventually grew paranoid, but did not find my medication helped anymore.
Around that time I did the one other thing I feel is of value, again first published at Kuro5hin: I wrote Links to Tens of Thousands of Legal Music Downloads. While I wrote it for social and political reasons, hoping to help its readers, instead it was my own salvation.
Despite the fact that writing it nearly cost me my marriage, it is the best I could have ever hoped for, for myself and my wife, in that the money I earn from Google AdSense advertising published in the copy I maintain on my own website has provided for us when I've been too sick to work. Realizing that my writing still earns money when I can't work gave me a socially-positive new career that both accomodates my illness and finally gave me the way out of my previous miserable existence as a consultant that I had sought for so long.
I am comforted by the knowledge that should something happen to me, with very little effort my writing could continue to provide for my wife. It is the only thing of any monetary value that I have to leave behind.
The Simple Life
Bonita asked me why it matters so much that one lead a life of accomplishment. "What is wrong with living one's life as simply and as well as one can?" You find me all over the Internet but never her because I constantly strive for recognition while she seeks only to live true to her conscience.
No, nothing is wrong with that, nothing at all. One can find many examples of accomplished people who lived in despair: Howard Hughes, once one of the world's richest, handsomest men, died a bitter and paranoid recluse. Marilyn Monroe, famous for her acting and reknowned for her beauty, died of suicide.
It is not important what one accomplishes, but that one chooses goals that really yield satisfaction. A life spent struggling unsuccessfully to climb out of poverty will be filled with disappointment. Might one not be better off learning to make do with what one has, partaking of the many simple pleasures that come for free? But one must work to find such satisfaction: a simple life filled only with passive boredom won't be any better.
Timothy Miller also wrote in How To Want What You Have of "the grandeur of everyday existence". That might not make sense to you, but I can attest to its truth. While I have often despaired, many too have been the times I have been joyful or profoundly at peace because of some simple, everyday occurence like a misty sunrise or a walk with my dogs.
Those who think themselves lucky to make their mark early in life, but don't appreciate everyday existence's grandeur, may be bitterly disappointed when they spend their remaining years never again experiencing the glory of their youth. One is fortunate to accomplish even one really positive thing in life; if you are not then able to find satisfaction in some other way, you might find your life filled with little but despair.
Esprit de Corps
Despite the horrors they endured, it is common for old soldiers to describe their war years as the very best years of their lives, even sometimes, to describe combat that way. What could ever make one more acutely aware than to hear bullets whizzing by one's ears? What could ever make one more proud than to risk one's life by struggling with one's comrades, and win?
I was once a suicide hotline volunteer. I want to tell you about an old man who called one night. I can't tell you much, as I am sworn to maintain his confidentiality, but I will tell you some. I will call him "Joe".
Joe was a war hero. I won't tell you what war, or just what he did to become a hero. All I will say is that Joe snuck alone behind enemy lines, where he was in great peril for his life and no one could have helped him had he got in trouble. He carried out his mission successfully and returned completely unharmed.
I will also tell you that I'm completely convinced that, in a definite, measurable way, that war went better for America because of Joe's solitary act of bravery.
So why did he call me on the suicide hotline? Because, to hear him tell it, that was the last good thing that ever happened to him. His life since was filled with little more than alcohol and despair. That, and what little comfort he got from his memories. But what memories! I was enthralled with his story, I felt like I was right there with him. How alive he must have felt!
But then he gave his life to what he once was. Heroic though he might have been, he had many more years to eke out his existence, having sacrificed his future to his memories of the past.
Thus it is I know, despite the success of my writing, if I'm satisfied only to revel in my essays of 2003, I will one day despair again. You've all heard me go on about the goals I have now, so I won't bore you with them. I will just say that happiness always requires one to work for it. One must never give up.
I made a mistake with Joe, as I was not very experienced with my hotline work yet. I advised him to seek the company of other veterans, as I figured he would easily make friends with men he had something in common with. Maybe they would enjoy swapping war stories. But at the next meeting of the Suicide Prevention Service, I was told I made a mistake, that I should have urged him to find a way to let go of his past, and get on with living his own life.
The Punishment That Keeps On Punishing
Could you have been a contender? Could you have been somebody?
Have you always failed to live up to your potential? Are you still paying for the mistakes of your misspent youth?
Are you in a wheelchair because you didn't look both ways before crossing the street? Or is it just because you were so unfortunate as to be in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Did a patient die on the table because of a slip of your knife?
Invest heavily back in the dot-com days?
Are you one of the Drunk Drivers that Mothers are Against?
Is the only thing you have to look forward to your next hit when you're finally able to score some?
Has someone spent years on their therapist's couch trying to recover from something you did to them when they were little?
Back when it really counted, did you fail to come through for your buddies? Do you put flags on their graves every Memorial day?
Is that cute chick you never had the nerve to ask out, you know, the one with the tattoo and the nose ring, now a Soccer Mom for somebody else's kids?
Come in fourth at the Olympics?
Did an innocent man go to the chair because you partied your way through law school?
Do you have a criminal record?
If so, have you served all your time? Yes? Well, then I have news for you:
You have paid your debt to society.
It is time now for forgiveness. Not to be sought from anybody else for something you did to them: from you, to forgive the younger man or woman you once were.
Now, I'm the first to say that those who do wrong must make amends, and that those who commit crimes must go to jail. But even five years of hard time is not a life sentence - unless you choose for it to be so. And it is a choice you make, to carry such a burden.
If ever there was a cause not worthy of anyone's life, it is to spend years living in regret for our mistakes, our crimes, or the shortcomings of our past.
Everyone makes mistakes, no one gets to be the best at everything they do, accidents happen and humans have had vices ever since we ate the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. While you cannot change your past, it is completely within your power to choose how you carry your memory of it today, and how you act on it in the future.
You can make your life worth living. But whatever you do...
Do Not Do As I Have Done
In my conclusion to Living with Schizoaffective Disorder I wrote:
One of the reasons I used to work so hard to keep my illness a secret is that while in the grip of my symptoms I did a lot of things that I regret. Most people regarded me as a pretty weird guy in general, and having such a reputation to live down does not help when trying to establish a career in a competitive industry or in trying to find the affection of a loving woman. It might well happen that some who knew me when I was the most ill might post embarrassing comments in response to this article. It might also happen that potential consulting clients - or my current ones - read this and wonder about my competence.
I spent over twenty years paying the price for those things I did that I regret. Regret for all the friends I lost, for the man and the scientist I could have been, and for how easily things could have been different, has never been far from my mind. I have for decades carried out my own punishment far out of proportion to any crimes I commited. Most who were there have by now either forgotten or just don't care anymore, as it was so long ago. I'm pretty sure I'm the only one who still cares. Well, Bonita cares too: she wishes I would stop beating myself up about it and get on with living my life.
But I also said:
It is a risk that I accept in order to live true to myself. While at times I am in the grip of insanity, I take full responsibility for everything I have ever done. The best defense that I have is to let my words speak on my behalf.
I closed my essay with the words of Maggie Kuhn, the founder of the Gray Panthers:
Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind - even if your voice shakes.
I am afraid now, and my voice is shaking.
Last summer I set out to write a book, because I was angry for the way someone stigmatized me for being mentally ill. But writing it brought back to life many painful memories which had lain long-buried. I also wrote that experiencing the feelings I felt when I was crazy risked making me crazy once again. This is what happened to me last summer, when I got sick again. It was a very difficult time for Bonita and myself.
I only wrote a few pages of my book. That was enough to make me understand I should stop. I'm going to share just one page with you now. It's about a day I spent with some friends, back when I was a student at Caltech:
A Trip To The Amusement Park
One summer day when I was a Physics undergraduate at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, I went to an amusement park with some women friends who were also students. We rode on a big roller coaster. Usually I enjoy the thrill of roller coasters, but on this one I was terrified. Up and down we went at terrifying speeds, barely able to hang on as we rounded the bends in the track.
Most roller coaster are lots of fun, but this one was totally out of control.
It's dark here, I thought to myself, what happened to my friends?
He's cuffed, I heard someone say, You can let him go now. I felt the pressure on my neck ease as the arm around it let go. The blood rushing back into my brain brought consciousness flooding back along with it.
It was dark because I had my eyes closed. I opened them, to find my face pressed to a hardwood floor. The dirt from some overturned houseplants lay scattered around me. The front door of a house lay shattered on the floor of the entryway where I lay. I could hear quiet voices and beeps coming from a walkie-talkie.
It was all just a dream.
Before you protest that it is far too early in this book for me to unveil a deus ex machina, let me tell you that it really was a dream. For those who sleep are not the only ones who dream: those who have been strangled unconscious dream as well.
How did this happen? It wasn't supposed to be like this!
I will tell you, but I must ask for your patience. My journey had already been a long one by this point, and a much longer journey yet remains. I am well aware that brevity is not my strong suit: I am widely known by my friends as a prolific writer, but by my enemies as a blowhard.
But I promise you that I will work hard to write what remains as well as I possibly can, as I worked hard on what I have already written. I know what a precious opportunity I have to help those who also suffer. Maybe you do not feel I write well, but I think I do. I am very well aware that to have a voice so that I can speak for so many who have no choice but to remain silent is a precious gift that I must not squander.
The Bonfire of My Reputation
Well, yeah, I admit it's not my best writing ever, but you must agree, it's a dramatic way to start a book!
I never told anyone that I dreamed while I was strangled unconscious, until I wrote this last summer and asked Bonita to read it, then my psychiatrist and my therapist. I never told anyone because of the horror of it - that I could have been going to my death, but never known I was dying, because I was dreaming of a roller coaster.
As for how this happened... I intended last summer to devote a couple hundred pages to it. I won't now. Maybe I will someday, but then maybe I won't have to anymore.
I'll tell you just what I told the cop who arrested me for assault and trespassing: I had come to make a citizens arrest of the man who strangled me for having lied to the police in an effort to get me arrested after he had three Caltech security guards beat the living crap out of me. What I didn't understand, and took some time to figure out, was just how my trip into Pasadena to consult an attorney ended up with me kicking down this gentleman's door and grabbing him. I didn't hurt him, I didn't have time to, as he put me straight away into a carotid chokehold. They work really quickly: I didn't feel a thing.
I was able to convince the cop: I had evidence, in the form of a false police report the man filed. I'm pretty sure that the cop believed me, though he pointed out the error of my ways: "If you had done that at my house, I would have shot you". I don't really know, but I expect that whatever report the cop filed led to my charges being immediately dropped under the condition that I submit to a seventy-two hour psychiatric observation hold. On my rap sheet, it says the charges were dropped for the "Furtherance of Justice".
I had to spend two weeks in jail because of the time it took for my case to come before the court. After I protested being denied my medication by stuffing my toilet with a blanket, then flushing it until it flooded the office of the poor cop who worked downstairs from the city jail, I was transferred to the Los Angeles County Central Jail. It holds ten thousand men, and has its own fully-staffed psychiatric hospital, where I was given my own cell and prescribed the same antidepressant medication I had been taking for several months.
As I wrote, my hold stretched into a one-month hospitalization because I was hearing voices. I wasn't recovered at the end of that month: I was only released because my insurance ran out.
What happened, exactly?
I had transferred to the University of Califonia Santa Cruz with the hope it would be a happier place for me than Caltech was. But I didn't need Caltech anymore to make me miserable, I brought my own despair. Not finding any relief at UCSC led me to contemplate, then attempt suicide: I stood on the edge of the roof of Natural Sciences II, where the Physics department had its offices, balanced on the tips of my toes, trying to will myself to fall over backward to my death.
There has never in my life been a more awful time than those few minutes. I cannot say what saved me. I only know I could not do it. I climbed back down off the edge. No one saw me trying to jump.
I pumped a bunch of bills into a change machine and called an old Caltech friend on a payphone. She urged me to speak to a psychologist. I made an appointment at the campus counseling center, then had to wait two weeks. I didn't tell them it was urgent. Standard procedure calls for those who attempt suicide to be hospitalized, but she was so impressed I'd survived for two weeks that she didn't try to admit me. She referred me to a psychiatrist, who prescribed me the antidepressant Elavil, or amitryptiline.
What my psychiatrist didn't do was ask me if I had ever been manic. I had been, when I changed my Caltech major from Physics to Literature, but I didn't know it. It would have been simple enough for her to diagnose me as bipolar based on my history, but she didn't even try.
All antidepressants can make bipolar people manic. They must be used with great care when given to manic-depressives, and in combination with mood stabilizers, antimanic drugs like lithium or valproic acid, but as no attempt was made to determine whether I was bipolar, I was prescribed Elavil without any protection from becoming manic.
Feeling better by the time summer came, I decided to investigate the incident where I was assaulted by the security guards. I had the idea I might sue the Institute. There is no doubt in my mind this man hated me because I was mentally ill. I was not the only mentally ill student he treated that way, and he told me repeatedly he wanted me gone because I was "disturbing" to the other students - yeah, right, disturbing because I said weird things or cried sometimes, when many of my fellow students ate crystal meth or LSD like they were breakfast cereal.
I sent for the police report. What I received was a work of fiction, and the fact that this gentleman kept telling the police he would press charges until the police told him to leave me bloody well alone indicated a criminal intent. There were witnesses. It would be easy to prove.
I knew I must speak to an attorney, so I hitchhiked from the Big Bear Solar Observatory, where I was working for the summer, back to Pasadena. I swear on All That Is Holy that that is all I meant to do, to get legal advice. But by then I was profoundly manic, no longer under the treatment of my psychiatrist, still taking Elavil and completely unaware that there even was such a thing as bipolar mania.
Somehow, I lost sight of my original goal and kicked his door off its hinges instead. I just remembered, before he got me in his chokehold, I shouted at his wife to call the police, not because of me, but to arrest him. I had caught a criminal!
I had evidence. There were witnesses.
That was twenty-one years ago this summer, enough time for it to fade in everyone's memory but my own. I have my regrets to keep its memory fresh.
And what regrets! Maybe my aim of winning the Nobel Prize someday was ultimately beyond my reach, but I had every advantage by getting accepted to study at Caltech. There are the many friends I once had, now lost, some of whom, when I telephoned them, said it would be for the best if I just stayed away and never tried to contact them again.
Regrets for the cold stares I would get when I ran into some old classmates during our later careers in the computer industry. And then there was the awkwardness I felt, when I met some who hadn't been there that summer, but must have heard what happened. Were they just too gracious to mention it, or had they really not heard?
Regrets for the reunions to which I was not invited. Regrets for having been urged never to set foot on the Caltech campus ever again, or face arrest. Regrets for the times I did go back to visit, to walk quietly around the campus, just to remember, while trying to avoid the security guards.
Regret that now, even after all this time, my illness and my arrest complicate my immigration to Canada. It has been two years since I applied, far longer than it should have taken, and I still don't have my landed immigrant card. Regret that I can say that one of the most courageous acts I have ever done was to venture all by myself into the local Royal Canadian Mounted Police station to request they fingerprint me, so I could send to the FBI for my rap sheet to be included with my immigration application.
Regret that I have been misjudged, that no one ever got to read that police report or speak to the witnesses. Regret at the ridicule I have been subject to, for example by being elected "House Paranoid" in my absence.
I have never felt I needed anyone else's forgiveness. But can I forgive myself, and put down my heavy burden of regret? Can there be a better cause for which I can give my life than to keep kicking myself for what I did twenty-one years ago?
I was contemplating forgiveness one day last summer while out riding my bicycle, when suddenly I burst into tears. Could I forgive the man who had me beaten because I would not leave Caltech, who hated me because I was insane?
I don't know. He never apologized. The last I saw him was when I was led out of his house in handcuffs. Many have been the times I have wanted to sue, that I have wanted justice, that I have wanted vengeance. What joy it might give me, to drag his name through the mud!
But in the end, I decided I would not write his name in this essay, or give his position at the Institute. He was one of the administrators there. Anyone who might have reason to care knows who he was.
It's been twenty-one years, long enough for anyone's thinking to evolve. I have no idea how he might feel now about what happened. I will give him the benefit of the doubt. Let that stand in place of my forgiveness, at least for now.
I also know that those who hold such hatred in their hearts as to hurt such innocent and vulnerable people as the mentally ill are rarely happy people. I don't know how he got to be that way, but I have some sympathy for what he must have endured to become the man he did. Psychologist Alice Miller wrote in For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence of the terrible beatings the young Adolf Hitler was subjected to by his cruel father. While she does not ask us to forgive him for his crimes, she begs us to understand him.
When I was young, I feared my own death like nothing else. Not because my life would end, but for the pain I would surely experience before the end came. I had watched my grandparents die of cancer and emphysema.
But I don't fear death anymore. I spent several years in my early twenties almost continuously suicidal, and tried to kill myself one more time before I got better. I read a book written by a psychiatrist, in which he asserted there is no worse pain than psychotic depression. I was then and still am convinced that he was right.
When one lives so close to death, one spends a lot of time contemplating it. Thus it is I have come to decide there are many things that would be worse than my own death. One of those is the thought of my wife dying. That's why I said I would happily take any bullet intended for her.
But some things are harder to face than my own death. One of those is to put down my burden of regret. Surely you must believe me when I say many have urged me to do so, but I either refused or found myself unable to.
Over the years, gradually, step-by-step, I have been able to lighten my load a bit, first by confiding in some of the new friends I found in Santa Cruz, then by publishing my first web page about my illness, then much later, and in a great deal more detail, Living with Schizoaffective Disorder.
I felt a huge sense of relief and newfound freedom when I finally gave up all intention of ever finding employment as a computer programmer ever again and linked Living with Schizoaffective Disorder right from the homepages of both my personal and my business websites.
I have always known I could never be free until I gave up all the secrets I once tried to hold close. The best defense against vicious rumours - and such rumours have gotten back to me - is to hang it all out for everyone to see. Thus it is that I quote the great Kurt Vonnegut, himself no stranger to mental illness, in response to all who might think me less of a man for being insane:
Take a flying fuck at a rolling donut. Take a flying fuck at the Moon!
localroger points out that I'm addressing some pretty weighty questions, topics that have "caused philosophers to tongue-tie themselves for thousands of years", such as the Meaning of Life.
Weighty questions often yield weighty answers. I'm not trying to make a place for myself among Nietzsche and Kant; I want to write an essay that anyone can read to take away lessons that will help them live a better life. Maybe the answers to these lessons don't have to be so weighty.
It is the nature of mental illness that one must consider profound questions just to get well enough to make it through one's day. But the approach most therapists take in treating us is far more practical: you make it through the day by getting out of bed when the alarm rings, having breakfast then going to work or school. The meaning of life is not so hard to find:
If you live your life as if it meant something, life will find its own meaning.
I'm just not up to the task of pondering the Meaning of Life with a capital "L". Instead, I'll consider a smaller, more approachable question. There is one for me: what is the meaning of my life? And there is a question for each of you: what is the meaning of each of your lives?
That doesn't have to be so hard to answer. Most of us don't have grand ambitions. We each have the capacity to determine the meaning of our own lives, an answer which we will state through our living of them. I assert we find meaning in the pursuit of our goals. Not the attainment of them: it is not the end that counts, but the process of getting there.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote in Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience that enjoyment comes from mental engagement in the pursuit of challenging, yet attainable goals. Our goals must be challenging enough that their pursuit doesn't bore us, but attainable so they don't frustrate us either. Engaging in a hobby provides enjoyment for a day. Carrying out the goals of our lives gives us meaning.
I find meaning in my own life through the pursuit of the following goals: I want to love and be loved, I want to provide for myself and my family through satisfying work, and I want to leave behind something of value so I will be remembered after I'm gone. In recent years, I've approached these last two by writing down some of the lessons I've learned in my life.
I doubt the goals most people have are very different from my own. I expect most people could find satisfying goals and lead satisfying lives if they tried. But you must set your own goals; no one else can set them for you. Not satisfying ones anyway; I'm sure The Corporation is happy to set you the goal of mindlessly consuming Its Products. That so many people aim for the goals others set for them is, I assert, why many lead meaningless and unhappy lives.
Shortly before I was discharged from the Alhambra Community Psychiatric Center, Caltech's Dean of Students came for a visit. He met privately with my therapist, then with the two of us together.
He didn't have a whole lot to say, except that he hoped, and was confident that there would come a time in my life when I finally came to terms with what had happened.
And then he asked me if I knew what had become of the Solar Observatory's bicycle. It was missing. I told him that when they wouldn't lend me their car so I could drive to Pasadena to find an attorney, I took the bicycle the morning of that fateful day and rode it as far as I could up into the mountains. I then chained it to a tree a ways down the bank on the side of the road and hitchiked the rest of the way. I tried to describe where it was, but my memory was hazy.
I don't know if they ever found it. Maybe it's still there.
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