what stress?

I had a very stressful year in 1991. I was 21, and working my way through college, when this happened. I:

– broke up with the not-quite-girlfriend
– met a new girl, my future wife
– lost my b-mom to pneumonia
– sold a house and part of a business
– finished the semester at college
– bought a car
– moved to a new rental
– rented out my old house
– got married
– sold 2 cars
– moved again
– transferred to a new college
– got a new job
– lost my dog, then found him again.

Sometime in 1992, I saw a magazine article telling me I needed to reduce stress, and there was a scorecard to tell me if there was stress in my life. Almost every event that had happened in the past year was on the scorecard, and the result suggested that I should be in therapy. Imagine that.


bowling for katy

A short story about teenage drama.

Junior year at Goldville High School, 1987: I had a huge crush for three years running on Katy, a clarinet player who wore too much makeup. One time I tried to show her how much I liked her by giving her a frog leg. From biology class. Left in her locker on top of a book. Oh, the screaming.

Anyway, one day she sidles over to me with a twinkle in her eye, and I’m feeling lucky. She gives me a folded note and says “open it later”, and keeps walking. Of course, I open it immediately. “Our church is having an all-night bowling party Saturday. Would you like to go? ___Y ___N ___ I’m indecisive.”

YES! A church thing is almost like a date, right? An hour later I drop my answer in her clarinet case. “I guess so … are you going?” She turns around and gives me a look and a smile, as I peek over my music stand at her.

Saturday evening: I arrive at her church and scan the parking lot. I see another girl from the band, Tina, and we start talking. I told her why I was there, but she looked dubious. “I really don’t think this is a date,” she said. Moments later, Katy walked up and gave me a little punch on the chest, and we talked for a few minutes. Not a bad start, I’m thinking.

Another moment later, this sassy dude with spiky hair ambles over … and starts sucking face with Katy.

I’m stunned, and Tina is beside me trying to control spasms of laughter. After Katy pulls her tongue out of this dickhead’s tonsils, she says “hey Rob, this is my boyfriend Lee.” Clearly, this would have been good information previously, but it was now useless. Lee and I look at each other and give the typical male “whassup?” as I reluctantly shake his extended hand. Tina is now pretending to cough to cover her laughing, and I am uncomfortably stuck in an awkward situation until the chaperones tell us to get on the church bus.

Tina and I sat together, leaving Katy and Lee to swap fluids several rows back. Tina and I ended up spending the rest of the evening hanging out together, chatting in between bowling very poorly. On the bus ride back, Tina leaned over on me and went to sleep, but not before warning me not to try any “funny stuff”. I promised, and we slept for a little while. As the sun rose, I realized I had lost a potential girlfriend but gained a new friend. Not a bad night.

Of course my other friends had a good laugh, but it all worked out for the best. Years later I find out on Fakebook that Katy became an ultra-religious conservative and attended a racist bible college.

signs of bipolar

I had symptoms of bipolar disorder as far back as maybe 11 years old. Even at that time, I knew something was wrong with me. I definitely had depression, long periods where I would be in a crappy mood all the time and I wanted to isolate myself from people. During high school I had deep recurring depressive episodes that grew worse.

On the other hand, I realized I could anticipate when a hypomanic episode was on the way; I almost felt like I could hear it coming in the distance, and I knew it would cause me problems. I called it a “dangerous mood”, and it was during those times that I said and did stupid and hurtful things without regard for consequences or safety. I also developed a lot of obsessive thinking and rumination during that time. While that is not necessarily a symptom of bipolar, it was another facet to my struggle with undiagnosed mental illness.

My symptoms became worse as I moved into my 30s. When I was mistakenly diagnosed as having unipolar depression, I believe taking the anti-depressants made things even worse. Soon thereafter I went into the hospital, but the roller-coaster ride continues to this day.

image credit: kurumi.com

stairway to heaven

Another memory of Lisa from my senior year.

Normally I would hang out near the band room (I was such a band geek), but near the end of high school I was getting tired of that scene. I needed a change, I needed to expand my horizons a little. I was relatively happy the last half of that year, looking forward to a future away from Goldville. I had a few good friends, I was doing well in school, and I was feeling adventurous socially.

One spring day Lisa dragged me out of the band room, and we spent the majority of lunch sitting in the quad, typically the hangout of the “in crowd” and very much the social focal point. Normally I avoided this place, but on this day the grass was a little greener, the April sun warming me inside and out, and I was encouraged rather than unnerved by the sound of people laughing and chatting. I ate a thick chocolate milkshake with M&Ms, the candy freezing hard, crunching in my mouth. We joked, we watched people, we talked about whatever.

The library aide had rolled out a stereo system and big speakers, typical for springtime. Led Zeppelin IV was playing. It was the first time I had really listened to the song Stairway to Heaven. I felt every note. I was very quiet, taking it all in, seeing what I had missed out on during my self-imposed exile from the rest of the world, saving the memory like a video in my brain. Lisa looked over and asked me if I was okay – I must have drifted off into my mindscape again.

Yeah, I was good. I had my best friend, I wasn’t nervous, and I felt the music. I felt alive.

family christmas

[Fishrobber Classic – 12/18/2011]

Most people get more sentimental during the holidays. I’ve always thought it is strange to put such an emphasis on family and giving and feasting during this time, when the rest of the year should be equally important. Of course so many people have bad memories, or just sadness; maybe that just proves that most families are more messed up than people want to admit.

When I was little, my Christmases were pretty good compared to many people. I got lots of presents, not knowing or caring at the time how much of a financial strain it was for A-Mom. When I realized how much she sacrificed to save up the money to buy me things, it became a lot less fun. That, and the Old Bitch screaming insults and telling us how everything we did was shit, and dodging the 20-year stacks of newspapers that couldn’t be moved.

The biggest thing missing for me was the fact I had no brothers or sisters, aunts and uncles and cousins, not even a dad to share Christmas with. All we had was our dysfunctional fighting unit: me, A-Mom, and the OB (no one wanted her, especially her family). I wanted to have a house filled with warmth and love and lots of family, not bitterness and hate and anxiety.

Fast forward to age 16, Christmas Eve. My best friend Lisa (not girlfriend, that’s another post) invited me to come over to her house for the evening, and A-Mom let me go (because she liked Lisa too). It was like something out of a dream for me: a warm fire, lots of family in the house, music, games, happiness, love, no anger or yelling or fighting. They made me feel like part of the family for the evening.

I was almost overwhelmed, and a little emotional. Lisa took me to her room to talk about it, and I tried to explain how it was just what I had wanted for so long, and it all seemed so perfect. “Perfect,” she laughed, “you think this is perfect?” She said that both grandparents and her mom were already drunk off their ass as usual, her dad had broken something in anger in the garage, and her brother was pissed off at dad and spending the night at someone else’s house. I didn’t care, I told her, and it was true.

The first girl I ever loved saved Christmas for me.

shame on you

It feels like I remember every embarrassing thing I have ever done. All the times felt like I was the center of attention, thinking about all my flaws and shortcomings, while other people probably didn’t even notice me. I obsess over these moments endlessly, thinking about how I felt when the embarrassing moment occurred, or even worse, how I felt about when I eventually realized how stupid I was earlier.

I still feel ashamed for many things in my past. All the inappropriate things I have said at the wrong time, all the stupid things I did to other people, all the mistakes I’ve ever made … they replay in my head frequently, at the least opportune times. I have made apologies to a couple of people for things I did or said, and they accepted my apology gracefully, but it doesn’t erase in my mind the fact of how I feel about these things.

Shame has always been a defining factor in my life. My adopted mother and her adopted mother shamed me constantly, making me think I didn’t deserve anything, and that anything I did to call attention to myself was wrong. I learned early from my schoolmates that doing anything outside the ordinary was a source of embarrassment and shame. As you can imagine, having bipolar as a teenager (and into adulthood) caused me to do more stupid things than ever before and resulted in continuing humiliation when I looked back at my actions.

My intelligence, and my reputation as the smart kid, caused other kids to tease me and exclude me from their social circles, and I learned to hide my intellect to avoid being the focus of attention. In 4th grade I deliberately failed during the school spelling bee because I didn’t want the spotlight focused on me, the person who was expected to win. Because I had more advanced schoolwork than the kids in my classes, I was often separated from them, suffering the indignity of having my own special corner in the classroom, or even worse, being sent to the “special” class where I could work independently. [Funny thing is, the “special kids” were some of the most genuine and kind-hearted people I knew.]

Sometimes I would forget who I was, and get a little false confidence to try something; these times would usually result in the most awkward moments of my life. The 6th grade talent contest comes to mind, when for some reason I thought I could be the emcee and tell jokes in front of the whole school; I failed miserably, and I felt people making fun of me. [Whether they actually made fun of me, I don’t know, but I was my own worst critic.] After these failures, I would retreat into my shell again.

There have been very few times when I was in the spotlight and I actually felt good about it: making a great play in baseball, or nailing my solo during the band performance, or winning the marching competition my first day at college band camp. Some of those memories where I actually accomplished something are still good, and I remember those times very well. But the memories of the times where I failed, or did or said something ignorant or embarrassing, are much stronger than the good memories, and I relive the shame of those moments daily.

the manic road trip of 2004

One of my undiagnosed manic episodes centered around a road trip in May of 2004. I was sent to training course in Las Vegas by my employer at the time, and instead of flying there, I decided to drive our trusty van 2000 miles. Driving has always been therapeutic for me, as have the Sierra Nevada mountains. I had been in a severe funk prior to taking the trip, so I thought a long drive through beautiful scenery would be a great pick-me-up.

I drove through Sacramento to Lake Tahoe in snow, then south to the tufa formations of Mono Lake. I climbed a cinder cone and visited an obsidian formation in the forest near Mammoth Lakes. I couldn’t sleep that night, due to cold and excitement, so I ended up hanging out at an all-night gas station. At first light I headed for the Bristlecone Pine forest in the White Mountains, then continued through the desert to Vegas.

After my last day of training, I won about $250 in the casino, then I couldn’t fall asleep (still slightly manic). I checked out of the hotel and went to the old downtown casinos at 2 in the morning, then took off for home at 4am. I started falling asleep while driving through the Nevada desert; the song “Time” by Pink Floyd probably saved my life by waking me up when the alarm bell sounded. I drove straight through to home in about 21 hours, stopping at Death Valley and Yosemite National Parks, and being dangerously tired on the way.

I didn’t have a crash or a spiral after the trip, more like a slow letdown. After having a great experience, returning to the everyday world was deflating and depressing. I returned to work, wishing I was in the mountains again.

I’m glad I took the opportunity to get away by myself for a few days when I really needed it. I will always have the memories and the photos of that trip, and it reminds me that even in the middle of a chaotic time in my life, I was able to have such an enjoyable experience. However, I made some poor decisions during the trip. Who lets a manic person loose at a casino, and why was I climbing granite outcrops in Yosemite? I could have lost a lot of money, I could have fallen off the rocks and died, and I could have fallen asleep while driving and killed someone else.

At the time, I wrote:

I think the trip was in general the most uplifting and healing time of my life. Right when I really needed it, I got the opportunity to be alone in the landscape I love so much, to take some beautiful pictures to look at later, but more than anything to just let the pressures and demands and negativity just slip away … feeling the beauty in the landscape and in the forest that honestly I think many people can never feel … I was exploring everything – forests, valleys, plants, small furry creatures, large outcrops of basalt and tuff and obsidian, volcanic craters and peaks, joshua trees, lizards and cactus surviving at 10,000 feet, 4,000-year-old trees, earthquake faults, tufa deposits, glacier-carved canyons, alluvial fans, rain shadows, playa lakes, microclimates, glacial erratics. I was so unafraid and content and free, I actually found it safe to let myself talk to people … At those times it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks or says, you are simply enjoying life in that moment.

[When I arrived in] Las Vegas, I had a little anxiety episode … After the beauty and solitude of the natural world, [it] was quite a shock to me. That feeling passed soon, but it was interesting to me how shocking it was, letting me know that I was totally immersed in the escape mode of my trip. I walked the Strip, looked inside a few places, but really returned to feeling alone, detached, and invisible while I was there. … I could have done stuff with other people attending the class, but I didn’t feel comfortable, I just wanted to be alone.

I will eventually post some photos of the trip so all 3.2 of you readers can see some of my favorite places. [here’s the link.]

love in the friend zone

As I entered high school, in the aftermath of years of emotional abuse, I was a psychological train wreck. I put on a front for everybody, because that’s what I learned as a child: It’s nobody’s business, they don’t need to know, you can’t trust anyone other than your dysfunctional family. I became an actor, playing a role just as well as anyone in the drama class in high school. I had “friends”, but they knew nothing about my life other than what I allowed them to see. Everybody thought of me as the smart guy who had everything going my way; I felt like a fraud. I had the stress of being a teenager, the stress of portraying the overachiever I was expected to be, the stress of undiagnosed early-onset bipolar, and the stress of recovering from an abusive childhood. I was at a breaking point, and I wondered what it would be like to die, though I didn’t have any suicidal plans.

Lisa was the first person I knew I could trust with everything. We had become acquainted over a couple of years of friendly competition in middle school, but when we got to high school we became much closer and started hanging out together most of the time. Rumors flew of course, but at the time we didn’t care, we were just having fun being friends. I realized she wasn’t being superficial, and she wasn’t going to pull the football away at the last second. Even in my confused and fragile state, I understood that she was a true friend.

There was one day when something had triggered me, and I was in one of those mixed depressive states I have come to know too well. I was on the verge of tears all day, but also ready to fight with anyone who crossed my path. At some point I hid myself away in an unused corridor and cried so hard it physically hurt, the sadness and anxiety and anger just pouring out of me uncontrollably. Somehow, Lisa found me, and she sat down and cried with me. It made her sad that I was hurting so badly, and her empathy touched me deeply. No one had ever been there for me in that way before, and it was unbelievable that anyone could care for me so much.

My love for her grew from friends to something more. I was so immature emotionally, and maybe I saw her as a caregiver as well as a friend and a potential romantic partner. Eventually I got the nerve to bring up the topic, and finally I asked her what she thought of being more than friends. She gave me the “it might ruin our friendship” speech, and from anyone else it may have sounded fake, but I believed she was being genuine.

I accepted what she said, for the time being, and our friendship was fine, but I was always looking for an opportunity to convince her she was wrong. That opportunity never arrived, for various reasons. We both had relationships come and go, and we remained friends, but she was who I wanted to be with. I would have followed her anywhere if she had given me any kind of indication that she loved me in the same way I loved her. Anywhere.


Part of me still misses what we had at the time, and I have thought a lot about what a life with Lisa might have been. I used to IM her and write her manic e-mails in the pre-Fakebook days, but she eventually stopped replying (probably because my messages were bizarre and obsessive). I still dream about her, and I’ve written poems and blog posts about her. I’m friends with her on Fakebook, but we never chat or message each other; if she wanted to communicate with me, she would have by now. I could never tell her the million thoughts I have had about her, because it would be too disruptive to both our lives. It would be unfair to her to drag her into my messed-up mind.

I know that between us, I am the only one who is still obsessed with our ancient history. I’m not a perfect person, and I know hanging on to memories like this is unhealthy to me and potentially damaging to my current relationship. I know I should forget those days, but I don’t know how to let some things go. I love some of those memories, but sometimes they fuck with my brain. Maybe other people forget their memories from those days, and they are better off for it. Maybe it helps them move on.


I saw your picture on Fakebook, loooking slightly windblown in a sweatshirt and jeans, braving the Mendocino weather. You were leaning on a smooth bleached log in the sand, surrounded by friends, enjoying the moment.

That was supposed to be my picture.

I took you and our friends camping on the beach. I showed you the creatures in the tidepools; you got pinched by a crab, and I kissed your hand to make it feel better. We walked up the beach for an hour, and returned closer than before. The group drank and played games by the fire, and I told you this had been the best day we ever spent together. Your deep brown eyes hinted at something more, and later that night we broke through the “friend barrier”. I cooked everyone breakfast, and you surprised the group by giving me a long, full tender kiss; in response to everyone’s stares, you smiled and said “thanks for breakfast.” Best campout ever.

I saw your picture on Fakebook, and but for a twist of fate, I would have been the one behind the lens.

Of course the world moved on, as did our lives, and here we are years later in separate worlds. As tidepools are abandoned by the receding tide, so do the feelings of love, sadness, and missed opportunity become more isolated over time … until one photo brings the flood of memories back again.

karma and punishment

My daughter Nicole and I were talking about karma, revenge, and punishment the other day. She thinks it is wrong that our society’s need for “justice” revolves around revenge for the aggrieved or their family. I told her this concept has been around for thousands of years. Some Eastern cultures specified revenge punishments for certain crimes, and that carried over into the biblical/Western society as well.

She thinks that the purpose of prison should be to keep dangerous people away from society, and that non-violent criminals should not have to go to prison. I tend to agree with this, but right or wrong, I have been indoctrinated in a culture that says crimes must be punished. It would be difficult for me to advocate forgiveness for non-violent crimes, but perhaps there are better ways for punishment to be given: halfway houses, extended probation, and monetary fines for those who can afford it.

I don’t really believe in the concept of karma and the universe taking care of itself. I constantly see bad things happen to good people, and bad people (i.e. those who offend my value system) seem to get ahead in life. Whatever karma is, it doesn’t have the ability to right the wrongs in the world. If there were justice in the universe, I would be there to see vile, disgusting people get what they deserve.

Maybe this is wrong, but I wish bad things to happen to distasteful people. [The subject of the “yearbook” post comes to mind.] I want punishment for bad deeds and offensive behavior. But Nicole asks if I would be happy to see something truly tragic happen, like the death of a loved one, or a debilitating disease, or being paralyzed in a crash. That’s not what I want; it’s apples and oranges. For me, justice is proportionate to the crime being committed. When someone cuts me off on a snowy freeway, I would love to see them spin out and slide into a ditch, but I don’t want them to be injured. Likewise, when someone is a bully, I want to see them get bullied or humiliated, but I don’t wish them bodily harm.


Twenty years ago I was badly injured in a car crash caused by a habitual drunk driver with a revoked license. He had several prior convictions, but this charge of aggravated vehicular assault was the most serious. It was a slam dunk case, and he was quickly convicted. Under Oregon law the penalty was a mandatory 6 years in prison. The judge asked his family to speak, and they said something to the effect that he was a good person who made mistakes, and that sending him to prison would be a loss for their family. I was asked to speak, and I said something like: my family almost lost me for good, and he should be punished, but I hoped he could get treatment while in prison.

I still have a bad taste in my mouth from what happened at the time. I think the driver deserved to be punished, but was it a violent offense? Maybe the sentence was just in that society was protected from his drunk driving for 6 years, but hard time in prison may be too much when a low-security residential institution may have been more appropriate. I thought at the time I wanted him to get treatment for his alcoholism, but I have seen cases where treatment didn’t work, and the drunk slips back into the same behavior. Maybe this was his last chance, and I was the unlucky one. I know this event changed my life forever, and I’m sure it changed his life forever as well.