‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’

I picture Hank, wobbly from drink and lack of sleep, standing on the shoulder of some old black top highway where he stoppedth to take a piss. A clear whiskey bottle with a couple warm swallows left dangles from his fingertips. It’s around midnight and as always people are waiting on him. Hank Williams considers the bottle, takes in the moon and says nothing.

He climbs back into the car. The emptiness inside doesn’t leave as he slurs from the back seat. Loneliness lifts long enough when he takes the stage in the next town for hooting fans in a smoky honky-tonk where he is always most at ease. At a break, he stumbles out the back stage door into a dirty alley, sweaty hair pasted to his skull and the ghostly pallor of the spent drunk.

In the distance he hears a midnight train whining low.

Hank wonders why he can’t stop living the songs he sings.

The greatest country song ever written tumbled out of Hank’s heart in the lonely spaces between.

Elvis Presley called I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry the saddest song he had ever heard.  A dying Johnny Cash recorded a ravaged version with Nick Cave. It’s been embraced by bluesmen, punk rockers and Hollywod stars like Dean Martin and Andy Williams.

Hank originally meant it to be a spoken-word ramble in the style of his old Luke the Drifter recordings. He poured his heart out about Miss Audrey, the wife who broke his heart.

If you have never listened to this song, do it the next chance you get. If you already have, do it again soon, especially when the sadness creeps in.

Hank Williams sang “Lonesome” like a saint in agony. He sang plainly, as if heartbreak was a friend. Hank, who passed away in the back seat of a car at 29-years-old, wrote poetry in the darkness like the sun was coming up at any moment.

Even if you can’t recall exactly how a whippoorwill sounds, when Hank sings about him, you know that the poor bird was too blue to fly. And no one has ever seen a robin weep, but every time I hear Hank moan, I know it’s really Hank who has lost his will to live.

Country’s greatest poet never waxed poetic. His words were simple and honest. Pretty clear what he meant when he sang Cold, Cold Heart or when he cried You’re Cheatin’ Heart. Mind Your Own Business and Hey Good Lookin’ didn’t waste words. While there are scratched up pages of lyrics to prove otherwise, when Hank sang it sounded like he’d made up the words right there on the spot.

“I’ve never seen a night so long
When time goes crawling by
The moon just went behind a cloud
To hide it’s face and cry…

Hank, standing along that black top, smells the night air. The moon, like Hank the celebrity, must hide his face to cry. Hank’s wife had left him. The Grand Ole Opry, the inner circle of Country music, had turned him out.

Hank, the natural poet, paid attention to the natural world around him. He uses the weeping robin and dying leaves to convey despair and the fading spirit of fall. Perhaps for Hank, it was another season of overwhelming emptiness.

The last verse of Hank’s song is perhaps the most mournful and beautiful ever written.

The silence of a falling star
Lights up a purple sky
And as I wonder where you are
I’m so lonesome I could cry

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Mining for Lithium in the Red River Valley

There’s something lonely about tail lights. They pass in the night without even the blink promising they might turn off and wait.

I pull onto Highway 101 in San Rafael, California, and ease into a river of red. The music on the radio is gentle country, but
I’m headed north to become a Nirvana song.

rainy-tail-lights-at-night-400x265The traffic is dispassionate and sluggish like my emotions. I slow down and gaze ahead at a valley of commuters, trying to imagine the car lights as festive. They are people who care nothing for my pharmaceutical pilgrimage. I have to be at the Rohnert Park Costco by 7 p.m. to fill a prescription of Lithium.

As I drive I worry. There are so many side effects I can’t keep them straight in my head. And there’s Kurt Cobain’s ghost sitting in the back seat. But I’m turning my will over to what monks call obedience. My doctor and my wife and friends say I should give it a try. I’m taking it on faith.

As they said when I got sober, what I’ve been doing hasn’t been working.

At a 12-step meeting a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the terrors of my bipolar break and how Alcoholics Anonymous had helped me prepare for it. I knew I couldn’t handle life alone. I knew my life was unmanageable. I had learned the Promises: “We will know new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.”

These did not seem extravagant, but they did seem hazy.

Following the meeting, two kind women approached me and thanked me for revealing my struggle. They, too, were bipolar. The rooms of AA are full of our types.

I remember a day at the beach when my break was at its worst. I felt the need to alter my mind. It didn’t need to be alcohol. I felt like anything: codeine, Oxycontin, Vicodin, Percocet, weed, meth would have made the slightest crack in in the fear clamping my soul. It would have been like that first crack of light that buried coal miners see. From there all it would take would be a few more cracks.

Fortunatelly, I waited for a medically approved cracks.

Now, I push through Novato traffic, where it routinely bogs own just after dark.  I am nervous, tired and sad. I still haven’t been handling work situations and conflicts as I used to before my Christmas crash. My doctor says I’m getting better, but there’s still something behind my eyes, a look of fear that something is waiting to take me again.

Lithium is a the standard med for treating what has been happening to me my entire adult life. The side effects sound like one of those TV commercials for erectile dysfunction medication, where the guy reads so fast you can’t possibly hear them all.  None of them are worse than the panic and nightmares and that feeling of permanent startle.

When I told my daughter I was bipolar she cried. “It’s a lot to take in,” she said.

“I’ve  always been bipolar,” I said. “They just gave it a name this time and they can better treat it.” Then I went into the bedroom and held my head in my hands. I try to protect my children from this but they deserve honesty.

Traffic slows to a crawl through Petaluma and the two lanes in the final stretch to Rohnert Park. I will pick up more Klonipin for the anxiety and Clonidine for the tics from Tourette’s I’ve had since Junior High. I chuckle at all the drugs that have replaced booze.

When I pick up the meds, the paranoia flickers. I expect the pharmacist handing me all the medication to glance at a nearby security officer. We’ve got a live one here. Instead, she smiles, asks if I have a Costco card and rings up my order. She pleasantly says, You have a nice evening.”

I pull out of the Costco parking lot to more lonesome tail lights. The only meeting I’ve been to  in a week has been to see my psychiatrist.

I have a bag full of pills and a pit in my stomach. I open the bag and look at the bottles.

I think I’ll wait until morning to explore the promise of Lithium.

Son of a Bitch, Everything’s Real

I don’t know why I went to the meeting.

After a two-hour drive in traffic to reach the Costco pharmacy in time to buy anxiety medication, I meandered back through more traffic and arrived at the Church five minutes late. I felt a chill dark and cold like the winter night. I vowed to sit in the back and not participate. Like a kid whose parents made him attend Mass. “I ain’t singin’ and I ain’t listenin’ to no pastor!”

Bbx45RRIYAA5kUKI tugged my stocking cap down over my eyebrows and punched my fists into my pockets. Leaned back in the church pew and closed my eyes painfully. Luckily I was late enough I had missed the reading of “How it Works.” The first person started to share: Something about being grateful for this program and about how good it was to have this meeting to come to. I wasn’t really listening.

I looked at the time on my phone. Fifty more minutes. Fuck, what was I doing here!

More sharing. One guy had lost someone close to him and proceeded to relapse. He was back– starting over. I think he said he had 10 days sober.  I sat up and golf-clapped for him. Then I leaned back and closed my eyes again. The guy sitting next to me got up and moved to another seat. I was putting off an uncomfortable vibe.

I was better than I had been a few days earlier. The terrors of the bipolar episode weren’t paralyzing me anymore, but that didn’t mean the fear was gone. All the character had drained from me. I had become the center of my own universe and it was a universe without texture or excitement or tenderness.

I sat fidgeting as voices droned on about gratitude, acceptance and promise.

I couldn’t hear the voices over the question in my head, “Why in the hell am I here?

For some reason a memory bubbled up through the poisonous thoughts in my head. It was from the last months of my drinking. It took a lot to get me drunk back then and it really wasn’t much fun anymore. I walked into a liquor store near Atchison, Kan., and stood, staring at the shelves. Nothing looked good. But I stared and stared. For a half an hour I stared at beer and whiskey and rum and tequila. I stared until I finally bought a cheap bottle of rum.

I drank that bottle on the way home to my family.

To my surprise, I raised my hand and spoke. “I’m Dan and I’m an alcoholic.”

”High Dan!” the room responded. I felt irritated.

“No offense,” I admitted, “but I haven’t really been listening to you all tonight.”

I briefly mentioned that my holidays had been kind of crappy and that I didn’t really want to be here.

I told the story of long ago standing in the liquor store trying to decide what to buy.

Whether I wanted to or not, drinking had become a habit, I said.

I think that’s why I ended up at the meeting. Habit.

I remember a lot of 12-Step meetings where my heart was lifted, or I felt embraced by fellowship, or where answers to my problems mysteriously arrived just when I needed them.

This time, not so much.

Someone once told me that sober stands for “Son of a Bitch Everthing’s Real”

I laughed lamely, “I guess it’s better to be at a meeting in a shitty mood than to not be here at all. I hope by the time I leave I’m grateful for coming.”

As I slinked toward the door,  a tall man with silver hair approached and said, “Well, Dan, quite a share!”

I grunted.

He said, “So you had a bad Christmas?”

I knew he was trying to be helpful, but I wasn’t having it.

“How long you been sober?” he asked. I told him and he looked surprised by how long. He asked me if I’d done the steps,

“Yeah,” I said, anxiously turning toward the door.

I shook his hand, said thank you, and walked to my car.

Some will tell you that you never feel worse after a meeting than you did before.

On that night, I would have disagreed.

But I did drink a Dr. Pepper on the way home to my family.

Polar Meltdown: Nearer to Life

In stories of near-death experiences, people recount watching their bodies from above, as doctors and family members scurry about.

I feel like I’m having a near-life experience.

BcMGZcnIQAA9vc8My doctor started me on new medication two days ago. The 24-hour-a-day panic attack has melted a bit. So has the paranoia. I’m not worried that I’m going to lose my job or my wife is going to leave me or I’m going to end up homeless. I’ve gone back to work and I’m easing back into most of my daily tasks. I coached my first basketball practice and I wasn’t quite as afraid that the young players were judging me.

But something tells me none of this is really happening. I feel like I’m watching the whole thing–watching myself go through the motions. This person I’m watching is tentative. His voice  quieter, trembling. He doesn’t trust anything. Especially the slight improvement in mood. I wonder what would happen if I reached out and shoved him. He would fall. Would he get back up?

The medication relieved the paralyzing anxiety that made me feel permanently startled. The fear is drifting into a haze, but the sadness is still there–an old, weary sadness that they sing about on the radio when you’re driving late at night, far from home. The sadness of an airport departure gate.

I pulled off the road this morning and wept.

I thought for a moment yesterday, maybe I’m getting back to normal, but that word tastes chalky in my mouth, like the name of a lost love, an agnostic prayer.

The terror and panic and exhaustion are losing their edge. But I’m worried that i have forgotten what joy feels like. My wife, my strength, reminds me time and again to be patient. Take one step at a time. I am too tired to resist.

I will see my doctor again Monday.

I will tell him that I feel much better, that the horrifying nightmares are going away, but that I still cry for no reason.

He’ll tell me I’m taking another step nearer to life.

Polar meltdown: A startling view from the paranoid side

Last night I dreamed that small children were plummeting from the Golden Gate Bridge. I tried to catch them but they were just beyond reach.

Ripped awake, I began sobbing quietly.

Something menacing followed me out of the dream and beckoned me to return and jump, join the broken little bodies in the black water. I wanted to go.

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The moonlit room at 3am was colorless. Terrors swarmed into my mind, and poisoned my lungs.  I clawed at the stabbing pain in my chest that had been there all week — the feeling of being stuck in a constant startle.

Only the faint warmth of my wife sleeping beside me reminded me that a deception might be at hand. Another sob escaped my lips. Exhaustion dragged me back to sleep.

This morning I am still clenched with fear– fighting an eternal panic attack. I  can’t place the day or time, can’t find my phone or keys. I try to construct my day but it’s like doing algebra in a tornado. I try deep breathing but I can’t stop gulping oxygen. I try to stay in the moment but I either sprint past it in a panic to wrestle made-up demons, or lose track of it staring at old ones.

I try to gather up runaway problems like spilled marbles. Attempts to make me see logic or find Jesus anger me.

I call in sick to work, but I do not rest.  I dive down rabbit holes of fear. Will I be able to work again? I tell my wife she should find a man who can take care of her, who is strong and attentive, someone who can stop cying.

She is abruptly in front of me, clasping my face in both hands, staring into my eyes. She gently growls, “I’m not going anywhere!” She promises me this will get better, it will end.  I nod, but I don’t believe her.

“Are you suicidal?” My doctor asks. I’ve seen that fear in my wife’s eyes. I tell him it’s tempting. Life has no texture, no color, no joy.

One person who had been through this describes it well: “Even at my best life feels a little rickety, like I’m here but not quite here, like I’m just a stand-in for my real self, like someone could just reach over and pinch me and I’d deflate. I thought I was feeling better, but I don’t know anymore.”

I’m on the phone with a counselor. She says this is like an asthma attack. It comes on for no reason but it does end. A friend, who has suffered mightily from bipolar disorder, compares it to diabetes. I just need the right treatment and long-term management and I won’t ever have to suffer like this again.

I wish I could believe them. What else are the going to say.

I am afraid I have lost the best of me. I don’t think it will be back. What piece of me will fall away next.

Writer Amy Reed described her bout with bipolar disorder this way: “I feel like I’m a snow globe and someone shook me up and now every little piece of me is falling back randomly and nothing is ending up where it used to be.”

This happened before; seven years ago. Before that was 2003, following an encounter with violence that stole away two friends. When I think of those times, my heart pounds and my hands shake. I want to go to sleep and never wake up. I came away from those encounters feeling like I had lost something of myself, like life had worn me down. This time I have a clearer diagnosis, a better support system. I am sober. But I can’t help fear that I will still emerge—if I emerge—even weaker, more afraid, more exhausted.  The people around me talk of asthma attacks, diabetes. I think of a knee injury. After three, can I ever run the same again.

There have been moments in the past week when I have laughed, engaged in lucid conversation. At those times I doubt this whole things is real. I wonder if it is all something I have created to avoid responsibilities. Im lazy and disorganized. Am I running from the world? But like the ocean’s tide the darkness surges back. I think of my little girl, a sophomore in high school, playing basketball 2,000 miles away in Missouri, or I see the date on a calendar when my son who is visiting will leave, and I fall apart, sobbing with despair.

I have a cup of anxieties that is normally about half-full. Through the past five years, during alcoholic recovery,  a nasty divorce, a year of unemployment, a difficult move across country away from my children, it has stayed pretty steady– no unexpected spills. Now, suddenly, it is filled to the brim. The slightest upset– real or imagined– a minor work concern, a lost set of keys, an unexpected envelope in the mail, and the cup overflows spilling composure to the floor.

My wife tells me to be patient, so do doctors and counselors. But I don’t trust them. I wonder if there is something they aren’t telling me. My bosses at work say take my time, get well. But how long will they put up with this? I used to be a patient person. I sat quietly in traffic and weathered disputes calmly. When I made mistakes, I usually made amends and let what was out of my control happen in its time.

But this kind of fear is not a patient place to be.

I started a new medication this morning. So far I haven’t seen much difference. My wife embraces me and reminds me again to remain patient.

Tonight I hope to sleep better.

Without the nightmares.

Whatever is following me out of those dreams is wearing down my resistance.