Navigating Uncharted Waters

November, 2013.

I’ve managed to “win” my first NaNoWriMo, and give myself a victory treat by going to see a movie. I go see Frozen. It’s good, and I enjoy it a lot, but I’m processing that “like it or love it?” feeling I have. Mostly my thoughts are about racial representation (which the film does poorly on) and female representation (considerably better), as well as the somewhat cipher presentation of Elsa as a gay character. But more importantly, there’s something else sitting there in the back of my head.

A couple weeks later, I go see it again. And again. Over the next few months, I see it at least a dozen times, often manufacturing an excuse by going with a friend or family member, but often enough just by myself. It’s a film I needed to see. Need to see. In many ways, it’s the most important piece of fiction I’ve encountered in my life.

At Emerald City Comic-Con 2014, Frozen Fever is big. Many, many people are talking about it and selling prints and generally making a big, Frozen happy atmosphere that I fall into comfortably.

I chat with Jay Edidin about it, and they indicate that after the hype build up, when they finally saw it, it didn’t quite move them. I can understand that. I managed my first showing before the wave crested. Before it became a phenomenon. And for anyone who didn’t get swept up into that, it might just seem like an enjoyable, well done, Disney musical. But, I add, in Elsa I saw something that reflected me. I saw myself in a fictional character, pretty much for the first time in my life.

I repeat this conversation with several people over the course of the convention weekend. I don’t know if it comes across as anything other than fanboy babbling about the latest cool thing, but for me it’s important to try and get this out. There’s something that I want to convey that so far has been elusive.

There are two things I’m sure of about Elsa. One of them is that she suffers from mental health problems, primarily anxiety.

In June of 2014, thanks to the ACA, I’ve got medical insurance that’s something beyond the “get in an accident and maybe you won’t die and go bankrupt” level.

In the previous decade plus, I’ve probably been to a doctor twice, when I scoured around for a free clinic to take a look at my hand, which had broken out in a painful way during a cold snap. The people at the clinic were nice, but it’s only open for a few hours on Saturdays, in addition to being well out of the way from where I live. I’ve researched the plans and doctors as meticulously as I can, but I largely settled on a decision because the doctor is just a few blocks from my apartment. Being able to walk to appointments seems nice.

When the doctor comes in, I feel like a load’s been taken off my shoulders in short order. We establish what I think is a rapport, and she explains that they try to take a holistic approach to health, seeing the physical and mental as combined. I like the sound of that. She gives me a little worksheet of questions regarding mental health and a packet of information on what to explore, both in terms of counseling and medication. I leave feeling like I’ve got a plan for how to proceed.

Over the next year, I’ll contact the doctor maybe three times, for various ailments, including shingles. I’m thankful I have insurance, but somewhere along the way I let the plan I had fall by the wayside. I still haven’t seen a counselor or spoken to anyone about medication.

Part of this is due to problems with the system. Navigating my way to physical health is easy enough, but mental health is seen as an additive for the insurance, so requires an entirely different navigation system. I make a few calls here and there, but don’t make any headway. Eventually I just let it drop. It’s too much work to try and pull it together, and I’m mostly surviving.

In early 2015, I get a call from my supervisor at work. I’ve been slacking off. It’s not the first time. She gives me a warning and mentions vaguely about possible cutbacks. I say I understand and that I’ll do better. I’ve been doing the job for nearly ten years at this point. It’s comfortable and familiar and not especially difficult. I do it at home, in my pajamas, while marathoning TV shows on Netflix in the background. There are worse ways to earn a paycheck, but also better ones. It’s a contract position, and while it was exciting and full of promise when I got it, by this point it’s just become a rote activity.

Of course, some of this is a reflection of the change in the company. No longer are there any plans for new and exciting games. An acquisition by SEGA (which held promise and excitement at the time) has turned the studio into one that’s localizing Japanese content rather than developing new material. But some of it’s also me. I’m bored and it shows. It’s also reflective of other issues.

I start guessing when I’ll get the next call. I assume it’ll be in April. It actually comes in June, about a year after that promising first doctor’s appointment. During the phone call from my supervisor, I have warring emotions: complete ambivalence for an action which I’d fully expected to happen at any time, and shock that it’s happening right now. I cry a bit and hang up. Before they cancel my account access, I manage to send off a hurried thank you and good luck to my co-workers in our group chat. Several of them I doubt I’ll ever speak to again, even as I see their birthdays come and go on Facebook.

A few months later, half the remaining support staff will be let go. Less than six months after that, SEGA will announce that they’re closing the studio entirely and letting everyone go. I wasn’t just a one-off firing due to my poor performance, but a harbinger of things to come.

One of the questions in the doctor’s mental health questionnaire is something like “has a mental health problem ever impeded your ability to work or caused a problem at work”. At the time I answered no. But now I’m not so sure.

I’ve long been resistant of self diagnosis. Too many people present it in a cutesy way, like “this is my OCD” which always seems facile and missing the real meat of what these problems entail. If you haven’t gotten a professional diagnosis, then how will you really know? I wonder. So I look askance at people who self-diagnose their mental ailments and I resist saying that I have any such ailments myself, at least until I get a professional diagnosis, which I’ve avoided up until now.

Part of this is the fear. The fear that I do get one and come up clean. The fear that the problems I have aren’t because of anything particularly wrong with me, but just that I’m a fuck-up of a person.

But in my discussion with my doctor in that one, illuminating appointment, I try to bring some of the thoughts that have lurked in my head in the months since I saw Frozen for the first time and the years previous when I’ve probably just subconsciously looked at myself and wondered. Part of what I’m not sure about, I say, is that I only have one frame of reference to view the world: my own. I don’t know whether I’ve got mental health issues or not, because there’s no other baseline to compare against.

I’d like to speak to a counselor, and my doctor agrees. But see the aforementioned pitfalls of navigating insurance and how very, very tiring it is to try and figure out. And also the need for phone conversations. Which are The. Absolute. Worst.

But even if I haven’t made the headway I’d like in the direction of professional diagnosis, I do start to try and process what I am and what I feel.

What I’ve gotten are two concepts that generally cover the times when I’m pretty sure I’m having mental health issues. And I’m fairly certain, contravening my position against self-diagnosis, that I suffer from both anxiety and depression. But I don’t like to call them that. One of the problems with mental health issues is that our entire language to describe them can be incredibly misleading. Depression is seen as this sort of grand morose sadness, and maybe for many people it is, but it doesn’t feel that way with me.

The first concept is The Fog.

The Fog is an enveloping thing. It muffles sensation. It closes me off from the world, setting me at a distance, where it’s difficult to emotionally connect to what’s around me. During periods when The Fog closes in, I tend to retreat more than normal. Far from being something I feel in my brain, The Fog seems to largely exist in my ears and eyes to give a sense of unreality to the world. The Fog isn’t sad, but it’s obstructive, and it takes energy to work through it. Regular, scheduled activity makes The Fog easier to navigate. It’s a lighthouse which keeps me from going adrift.

But, as previously noted, I got laid off from my job. I lost that focusing anchor for what to do with myself. Even if I was largely trying to ignore the duties assigned to me, I still had it as something around which to build my day.

Without the job, I make the decision to try and start my writing career. Flying in the face of pretty much all advice to do so WHILE holding down a regular paycheck, I decide to make a go of it anyway, even though I haven’t laid any of the necessary groundwork. Some of this is the hubris of a mediocre white man. Some of it is a lack of options. I’d done my previous job for a decade and gotten very little that makes a compelling case for “hire me!” Writing is the one thing I feel like I have any skill at, even if I don’t have any good idea for how to make money doing it.

Over the course of 2015, I write and submit short stories, animation pitches, comics pitches, and work on a few of the novels I’m picking at. I collect several rejection letters and no sales. The Fog, it turns out, is omnipresent, and it’s incredibly difficult to keep moving forward without any positive feedback.

I reach out to a few friends to try and get them to read and provide feedback. Few agree, and none get around to reading anything enough to respond. I consider reaching out to more distant acquaintances, friends who are actually professionals, but stop myself because THEY ARE ACTUALLY PROFESSIONALS, and I can’t afford to pay them without a steady income. More than that, I can’t see myself as a close enough friend to ask them a favor.

In NaNoWriMo 2015, I get my third win by cruising past 75k words. It’s my third straight win, and I’ve managed to be even more productive for the third straight time. But also for the third year running, though, I fail to have something complete. I start and restart the same novel three times over the course of the month, and feel like I may only have a small fraction of usable words from the whole.

Afterwards, my production drops. I write one more short story in January, and set it aside, for nobody to read. I pick at some other things, but largely stop writing entirely around the end of winter. It’s not that I don’t want to, or that I lack ideas. I tend to spend inordinate amounts of time mentally refining the stories I want to tell. But I know that in order to tell the stories, I need to write them, and with The Fog generally everywhere, I don’t know what or how to do it. Many of my stories feel too ambitious for my meager skills to convey.

When I tell people I’m going to try writing as a career, most of them nodded appreciably and mentioned that they thought I’d be good at it, since I was able to keep myself on task and work from home for a decade. I shrug, because it isn’t true. I lost my job because I wasn’t able to stay on task, and it’s an order of magnitude more difficult to sit down and write, only to get distracted and look up and see that half the day is gone. After a few days of that, I can’t see anything in terms of a goal because of The Fog, and I start to think “maybe tomorrow” which becomes “maybe next week” which becomes some indeterminate time in the future, but probably November, because I’m really good at knuckling down when a NaNo deadline is looming.

Deadlines are great. The hard part is getting to the point where you actually have them.

Somewhere in here, I start to realize that I’ve been coasting without income for the better part of a year. That I’ve managed to finally go through my final paychecks, and that even if I told myself I could keep going for maybe two years, doing that would mean burning through all of my savings, and I start to twitch. So I realize I’ll probably need to get an actual, paying job, and I start to twitch more.

It’s not that I haven’t been looking for work, but it’s been half-hearted. The one industry I know, video games, leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I’ve seen enough friends get burned by it in various ways that I don’t really relish trying to find another spot in it for myself. Still, because of that familiarity, I send off my resume to several positions. Most never respond. Those that do are firmly in the negative category, joining my several writing rejections.

Outside of video games, I’m even more adrift. I don’t have a good assessment for my own skills, and have a strong need to not sell myself too high. (This, uh, can cause issues with selling writing as well, I’m sure.) But I do apply for positions, in a sort of abstract way. If I don’t focus on them too hard, maybe I won’t feel so twitchy.

The second mental concept is The Fizz. Or The Fuzz. I’m not sure. I waffle between them.

The Fizz is like I’ve been stretched taut like a string and then twanged. I imagine I sound like a samisen (the sound of a plucked nerve) when that happens. The Fizz is being tugged in various ways and feeling like if I go in any of them, I’ll be hauled around violently, unable to regain my footing.

Where The Fog exists largely in my senses, leaving me adrift and cut off, The Fizz is mostly in my stomach. Pulled thin and then, pluck, right in my center of being. It’s being perpetually unbalanced, and set on edge. It’s being touched by electrical contacts, and never knowing when they’re going to be set off, sending a jolt through my system which results in unplanned activity.

The Fizz, when it’s present, instills a sense that I just have to not move, not do anything, for fear that what might happen will be worse than inaction. Although it’s not fear, exactly, just this looming sense of chaos.

I sit in the theater watching Frozen and see Elsa hug her arms tightly around herself, trying to keep control over this chaotic power inside of her. I feel a shock of realization and familiarity, as I do that exact same self hug. A tight grip of personal containment, to try and keep some semblance of control over forces to set me adrift and in the full thrall of The Fog.

With each passing rejection, both on the writing and job front, I start to wonder if I’ll ever amount to anything else successful. It’s a demoralizing process, and I I feel increasing unable to fight against these two forces that largely intrude upon every action I take. Even if I can see some way to gain a course correction, the steps I must take, the hoops I need to jump through, makes such efforts a fight against a storm of impossibility.

In March my SNAP benefits are put on hold, since I’m an “able-bodied adult without dependents.” The letter informing me of this phrases it as if I’ve received a gift, since they were granted for far longer than the normal three months I’d have had. This extra time was due to the poor economy, which has now largely passed, so they’re not sure why I haven’t gotten a job but I clearly don’t need help paying for food.

I still have several hundred dollars in my account, still, and I start to plan out how long I can go with them. The end of summer seems possible.

I start to do similar accountings of everything that drains my resources. Rent is insurmountable, but I cancel my internet and decide to make do with the hot spots I can check out from the library, which gives me home internet about 50% of the time for 0% of the cost and doesn’t leave me feeling slimy for giving money to Comcast.

In a way, I’ve figured out how to turtle my life’s expenses, but it’s done without any clear end-game. If writing isn’t going to happen, I can only hope for something else to magically appear. I begin to make vague contingency plans. Maybe I’ll go live with my sister’s family, I think. I can hermit out in their basement and really focus on my writing.

The plans never get anything more than vague, though. In June, a year after I’ve been laid off from my previous job, and two years after that one hopeful doctor’s appointment, I get a phone call while I’m sitting in a no-phone zone in the library, so I don’t answer.

Phones are a tool of The Fizz. I get twitchy when I get a phone call, something that’s been true for a couple decades, at least. The phone ringing is a harbinger of bad news. In the ten years I had my previous job, phone calls were sporadic. Most of our communication happened online, in chat. For there to be a phone call indicated that it was Important with meant that it was Bad News. I probably only had a dozen or so phone calls in those ten years relating to the job, and I can only think of two of them that were positive. One of them was the phone interview (“This is largely superfluous,” I was told, “Because we’ve already met. You’ve got the job.”) and the second was a few years later where I was told I got a raise.

Outside of work, I grew to dread any other phone calls, especially from family members. Once when I was in college, I got a call from my dad. “I have some bad news,” he said. Oh god, I thought, grampa died. But, no, it was my brother, who’d checked himself into a place for depression and such. (My grandfather is still alive, so many years later. He just celebrated his 93rd birthday.)

But my phone rings and I ignore it because I can’t answer it in this part of the library. It goes to voice mail.

When I get home, I listen over the voice mail several times to understand. It’s someone from the library and they want me to come in for a job interview for a position I applied for a few months ago but has forgotten about. It feels like a godsend, but I’m also thinking, pulled by The Fizz, that it’s going to go wrong.

I navigate the instructions: if I can call back by 8pm that day, to call the person who called me. If I can’t, call a different person. It’s simple to write out, but it feels treacherous and yawning and involves so many phones. The person who called me feels like a lifeline. Even though we haven’t talked, I feel a connection that is more sure than this vague other person. But I check the time and realize I’m too late. It’s after 8 and I’ll have to call this other person tomorrow.

I wake up and do so, after mentally running through what I’m going to say. With a speech rehearsed, I tremble as I dial in the number and wait. It goes to voice mail. I let out a small sigh of relief, since I just have to recite rather than interact. The Fizz is in full force, but I keep my voice level as I say my name and phone number and why I’m calling.

What follows is probably very standard for getting a job, but feels very unorthodox for me. My previous jobs I got largely by being in the right place at the right time or by knowing someone who gave me an in. This is the first where I’ve sought it out and reseted pretty much entirely on my own merits. There’s a bit of scheduling to figure out the right interview date. I inform the people I’d put down as references to expect a call or e-mail. I go into the interview and it feels good, even if I’m sure I flubbed a few of the questions. I say a few things that get them to laugh. I take an aptitude test. I meet up with a friend afterwards for lunch and talk about it, saying that I’m optimistic about it. A week or so later, I get another call saying I got the job. In another few weeks, I get through all the required paperwork and orientation and training and I’m ready to work.

It’s not a glamorous position, but it’s something to provide another anchor. Something to help me navigate The Fog when it appears and to keep The Fizz in check. The ironic thing is for me to do the job, I have to answer the phone. I’m on call, only finding out that I’m working if they need me.

Suddenly, that dread about phone calls vanishes. Now if I get a call, it’s good news. “We want you to come work. Are you available?” So far, my strategy when they ask has been to say yes. To prove, counter to all the evidence, that I’m not a flake. To show up and see people and have positive interactions and to make a good impression. The job is decidedly not a long term gig, but it’s a step in the right direction.

It’s not a perfect fix. I know enough about myself that I tend to attach strongly to things, with greater loyalty than is necessary or probably healthy. There’s a sense that if I do anything that gives a bad impression, it will end the job right there. Say no once, and I’ll be fired. Make a mistake, and I’ll be fired. That maybe they’ll realize that I’m a fraud and not really that good at what I’m doing and they could easily do better, so I’ll be fired.

This isn’t rational, especially for the library. The demands on my time are pretty healthy and accommodating. If I can’t work, I just need to tell them I can’t and it’s fine.

But, even if it’s not exactly what I need to be doing for myself, it is helping. I do get out and meet with people. I’m pretty sure I’m making a good impression. And, because of the institution that it is, in the city we’re in, I’m suddenly not worried that the job is going to disappear out from under me. The library isn’t going to up and decide to close a branch and lay off half it’s workers. I even had a discussion about it with someone who told me that in the time he’s been working there (over a decade), there have only been about 11 such layoffs, back during the worst of the recession. And all those people were ones who’d put in their decades and were okay to go into retirement. That’s not the sort of thing that would affect me, far down at the opposite end of the worker pool.

It’s such a different experience than being in video games, but it’s almost totally more positive, even if it doesn’t have the cachet of being a “cool industry.” And it’s given me a sense of direction. Maybe this is the thing that I’ve been needing. I’ve wanted to go back to school and get my master’s degree for years, but haven’t known what for. Perhaps Library and Information Science is the thing I’ve been wanting. There’s still that desperate, treacherous navigation, but it’s something. A dim lighthouse in the distance with which I could bring about to see

The Fog and The Fizz are still present. They still affect me greatly. Even as I’m doing my job, and doing it well, I can see obligations and connections that fall by the wayside. People I should contact and things that I need to do but don’t. I might forget to pay a bill or to go do something I said I would. I know enough that I’m not in an entirely healthy situation, even if things are Better right now. But those steps to take into unknown areas are still fraught with danger. The Fog and The Fizz combine to create a massive “here there be dragons” outside of a small, largely controlled bubble.

And even if I told myself that I’d work to balance the job with the writing, I haven’t put down more than a few paragraphs in the past several months. Yet even with that, I woke up a couple weeks ago and had a revelation. A little snippet became a scene which bloomed into a scenario and a full story. Not complete, and there’s work to do to fill it out with characters and plot, but it felt crystallized in a way that hasn’t happened in a while. It’s exciting and invigorating.

I’m not better, or even managing particularly well, but even if I take no further steps for recovery, I’ll know about that moment, sitting in a darkened theater and seeing a facet of myself made real on screen. “Oh. Oh!” the revelation hits me and I feel a connection and understanding about myself that’s been missing for over thirty years. Frozen didn’t provide me any real answers, but it did make me understand the questions.

Oh. I did say that there were two things I’m sure about Elsa, didn’t I? Well, the other thing also connects to me, but it will have to wait for another time.