This week is the last week of the regular season for NFL football and “my” team, the Cleveland Browns, play against their ferrous city foes, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Rumors abound that Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam will fire Browns coach Mike Pettine after the conclusion of today’s game against the Steelers.

I don’t think Mike Pettine deserves to be fired. I think Jimmy Haslam doesn’t deserve to own a team whose fans have endured decades of hardship and since the return of NFL football to Cleveland in 1999, the head coaching position has been a revolving door that lasts between one and three years. Nothing remains static at the bench, the only thing that remains static is the front office at the very top of the chain.

Now, the Browns have had a total of two winning seasons since their return, a 9-7 finish in 2002 under Butch Davis and a 10-6 finish in 2007 under Romeo Crennel. Davis resigned in 2004. Crennel was fired after the 2008 season. Since 1999, the Browns have been coached by Chris Palmer, Butch Davis, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur, Rob Chudzinski, and Mike Pettine. That’s 7 head coaches in that span. Two owners.

And what this looks like to me isn’t incompetent coaching, but rather impatient ownership. And impatience is tantamount to incompetence. It’s as if the ownership want to just pull a magical season out of thin air where the Browns win the Super Bowl. But instead of fostering a sense of stability, the tendency is to let chaos run ramshackle over the team, to the detriment of its players and its fans.

I know, I know, I say this at the end of every season. And this time I will probably mean it as much as I did the last time I said it, but it bears saying: I’m done with the Browns (if the ownership fires Pettine.) He gets one more season. If they suck again, then you can write him off. But there needs to be stability and not chaos with the team. If you can stick out a couple rough seasons with stable leadership on the field, you should be able to cultivate success. But this 7 head coaches in 16 years isn’t cultivation of success. It’s punting for the hope that next year will be better with different people.

And that’s not team building. That’s team destroying. That’s keeping Cleveland as the laughingstock of the NFL.

And that’s terrible ownership.

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A final goodbye.

Growing up in a household divided by divorce conveys a multitude of different experiences to a child. Of course, there’s the readily apparent competition between the parents, and luckily my sister and I didn’t really deal much with that, there’s the tension between former in-laws, which we did see some of, but there’s also something much greater. When my parents divorced, my sister and I were welcomed into a new family.

The following is going to be an intensely personal post, so if you don’t want to read it, go ahead and close the window. You’ve been forewarned.

My mother is an incredibly lucky woman, I think. Although she and my father didn’t work out, she managed to work her way into a long-term relationship with a genuinely good man who has a fantastic family. James and I didn’t always have the best relationship, as you might expect from a teenager who’s dealing with divorced parents and having to figure out who this new guy is, beefing on your old man’s turf. But I always felt welcomed by James’ family. His mother and father, brother and sisters welcomed Lisa and I into their family as if we were one of their own.

I know that in the previous post I wrote about looking through the past either without enough criticism or with too much criticism, but having maintained a relatively regular relationship with my mom and my stepdad, I think I can eliminate the biases, both positive and negative. I was privileged to know James’ mother, Jeannine. If I said that I remembered the first time I met James’ parents, I’d be lying to you, so I won’t. But I do remember definitively watching the 1998 Winter Olympics with Carl and Jeannine, sitting in the front room where Carl and Jeannine each had their recliners and there was a sofa underneath a bookshelf filled with old bottles, like those you might find tonics and remedies in.

And I remember Jeannine, always asking how I was doing, when I’d come home from college and then even after I grew into being somewhat an adult.

And I remember the last time I saw her a couple weeks ago. In spirit, she was the same woman I remembered from nearly twenty years hence. But her body had finally thrown in the towel. She seemed to be at peace with her situation. She was to be discharged from the hospital and returned home within the day – and she was. Seeing her for the last time reminded me of seeing my dad’s stepdad for the last name. Incidentally, he was also named Carl, a man who I grew up with as my papa, a grandfather in all but blood. I got to see papa for the last time at grandma’s and his home a week before he passed, and the final memory of seeing him sleeping in a recliner struck me because of how normal it was. There was nothing special to it, it was exactly as he had always been. Seeing Jeannine in the hospital was a little different, because I hadn’t seen her in the hospital before. However, everything else was the same.

Much as I felt the love from the man who wasn’t biologically my grandfather, I felt the love from this woman who wasn’t biologically my grandmother. And it was the same love I had always gotten from her and her family for the last two decades. And, Jeannine, that’s all I can say about you and your family. Once I grew up, I understood the love from family, even if it wasn’t from the family that we expected when we were born. And I can’t ever express adequately how grateful I am for what you and your family gave to me – to say nothing of what you’ve done for my mother. You will always be a flame that burns brightly for those whose lives you touched.

And I know that you probably didn’t understand, know, or perhaps cared why I decided to leave the Catholic Church and become Jewish, but there are a ton of beautiful traditions in Judaism that make humanity more divine. And I think the ending of the Friday night service with the mourner’s kaddish and the following phrase is the reason why it strikes me so deeply.

Jeannine Duquette LaFontaine, may your memory be for a blessing. I will probably not be able to make it home to say goodbye one last time before you return whence we all came, but I would rather have my final memory of you be that hour in the hospital that my mom and I spent with you. If there is an afterlife, I know that you will be in the company of the good.

There will be a lot of people saying this, many of whom who were closer to you than me, but I will miss you. Just as I miss my grandfathers. Because, again, you were family to me.

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Hard Shift

“Shades of grey are all that I find, when I look to the enemy line. Black and white was so easy for me, but shades of grey are the colors I see.”

Something I miss about being a kid is that the world was a relatively simple place. Growing up in a privileged location, in a privileged socioeconomic background, in a privileged nation, the world was something where things were rarely bad. I never asked for much, but I think my parents spoiled me. This isn’t to say that they were bad parents or anything like that, but they sheltered me a lot from some of the harsher realities of life.

It wasn’t until a couple of semesters into college and then definitely moreso after college that the world I grew up in was shown to be, for lack of a better way to put it, false. Certainly, my parents worked full-time jobs, my step-dad worked multiple jobs, they plugged and chugged away at trying to give us – my sister and me – the best life they could possibly give.

But somewhere along the line, all the bright colors that defined how I saw life, which gave clear definition and meaning to everything, all of those colors began smudging. And I remember the night it happened.

I was home for winter break, driving home from Plattsburgh doing god-knows-what thing there was to do in Plattsburgh at that time. It was late-ish. Given how northerly the latitude is and the time of year, it may have well been 5:30 pm. But at that point, it was already pitch dark outside. Driving up 87, I remember being somewhere between Beekmantown and Chazy and I looked out the windshield, as one does when one drives. But something caught me that never caught me before: I could see the stars going on and on, seemingly without end. It’s not that I’d never sat and looked at the stars before – once upon a time I could name constellations and identify planets. This time, however, this time was different. As I cruised northbound on 87, I felt something that I had never felt before: small. Insignificant. Cosmically meaningless. And I think that it’s important to recognize our place within the vastness of everything as that. There’s a giant f*cking ball of plasma with temperatures that can spike to millions of degrees Kelvin in the solar corona. And that massive ball of hydrogen, helium, and other basic building blocks of everything heats this planet to a range – from an average distance of 150 million kilometers – that has allowed life to thrive on this planet.

It’s hard to feel big when in our cosmic backyard, there exists the reason for life on this planet, burning brightly, giving us day. And then the other planets. In theory, Venus is more suitable for conditions for life to develop. However, we know that isn’t the case. Despite sharing many similar physical characteristics, the Venutian landscape seems to be a version of hell, buried underneath clouds of sulfuric acid. And then looking outwards, we have our baby brother Mars, which may have at one point harbored an atmosphere and may have had the potential to harbor life.

But here we are. And there I was, driving up along interstate 87 on a cold December night. All of that, logically, should have made me pound my chest and think, “yeah, we’re damn special and we own this joint.” But the opposite happened. I saw the spaces in between the stars – the emptiness. And I thought about that. Can it really be empty? What’s the nature of the universe? At that point, I had learned enough in high school physics to gather that there were ideas that the universe was expanding. And that’s a strange concept to wrap your head around. It’s not like the universe has a border where can go out to the edge and yell across the chasm into something else. That isn’t what cosmology has taught us. The universe is like a balloon that started off as something as small as an atom (maybe smaller, we don’t know) and then something happened. That’s the big question – what happened? What flipped the switch to create fundamental particles? Did the fundamental particles already exist and then there was an unexpected interaction between these fundamental particles to cause, literally, the universe’s largest explosive growth that hasn’t stopped since time literally seems to have not existed roughly some 13.8 billion years ago?

I sat there as my car gradually decelerated, I having lost the ability to focus on driving while thinking about how incredibly vast the universe was and how incredibly small I was in that context.

And for a solid two years, I couldn’t see beyond that box. It was me versus the universe. And I was on the losing side of that battle. Until one day I met someone who has been a friend to me since. We had a weird relationship at first, but it developed into something meaningful, confusing, and sometimes frustrating. But meaningful. And on a spring morning in 2006, we were hanging out underneath a tree and my eyes opened to the reality of life. It isn’t me versus the universe. It isn’t even us versus the universe. It’s us in it together to survive on this planet with what little time we’re given. By dint of biology or godhead, humans and life have a finite shelf life. Interestingly, so does that large ball in the sky which provides the conditions necessary for life. But we’re all here together, each of us messed up by circumstance of life, being fed lies about the nature of things, being tormented by bullies, being taken advantage of. And when she and I sat under that tree on that beautiful spring morning, I stopped feeling alone.

Don’t get me wrong, I was still an ass, but I didn’t feel like my life was a lonely trek anymore that no one could possibly understand. I’m not going to mention names, because I think if the guilty party reads this, she will know who she is. But thanks to her – and nearly a decade of growing up – the colors of life are smudged together. And it no longer makes me uneasy. It gives me confidence to know that there are people who day to day face challenges of mere survival and that it is our species’ obligation to ensure the survival of the species. We are beacons of life in a universe that looks empty of it. And while on a cosmic scale, we are incredibly tiny, nothing but motes floating in the wind, to each other we are invaluably important. We provide the support to each other to maximize our worth as humans, be it to explore the cosmos to increase humanity’s realm to being someone who will listen and care for another in time of need.

See, the truth is that we are tiny. The secret is to be great in our smallness.


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You Can Come Back, But You Can’t Call It Home

We were all sitting around the table in the house my dad rented on Point au Fer, just south of Rouses Point. Turkey, mashed potatoes, grandma’s bacon-topped baked beans, stuffing, cranberry sauce. It was all there, a Thanksgiving like every one we’d done before it, except instead of having it at grandma’s house like every year of my life prior to today, we did it in a house that a stranger rented to my father. And everything felt very foreign. Maybe it’s because I watched Garden State for the first time in a long time not two weeks ago or maybe it’s because I feel like Roanoke, now more than ever, is home for me. Whatever the cause, everything felt different, like I was thrust into a place outside the realm of time.

Just after getting into town on Wednesday, I drove through Rouses Point. I wanted a sense of familiarity and comfort, but what I got instead was a glimpse of reality: the things and people who are familiar to me are passing from the scene. Lake Street in Rouses Point is dotted with empty storefronts, the old Wyeth-Ayerst complex across from my elementary school, now housing Pfizer, is a shell of what it was, and it seems like there was an ungodly number of homes for sale. The weather was bleak. Rouses Point was bleak. And it was depressing. And for the first time, where I had grown up no longer felt like home. Rouses Point felt like it was struggling to breathe and as much as I wanted to provide resuscitation to it, there was nothing I could do.

I tried explaining this to my sister and she seems to think I’m nuts. That may be true. Rouses Point is a small village that relied on one large business for too long. Wyeth-Ayerst/Pfizer allowed Rouses Point to continue existing without creating a more diverse economy. And when that leg supporting Rouses Point got kicked out from under it, Rouses Point fell. And having seen Rouses Point fall, I wanted to lift Rouses Point back up, yet felt powerless to do anything. I have no capital to offer, only equity in sweat and ideas.

More confusingly for me, this wasn’t the way my mind had remembered Rouses Point. So I gave it a day. I drove around Rouses Point again on Thanksgiving. I drove up Academy Street, the street separating the elementary school from Pfizer, towards the railroad tracks that effectively demarcate the village’s western bounds. I don’t know what I was preparing myself to expect, if I was hoping that I could see something differently, if I missed something.

But I didn’t. I drove up Academy Street to find a huge portion of the Pfizer campus’ buildings gone, with pipes sticking up out of the ground where laboratories stood. The parking lot on the other side of the street gave the appearance of abandonment and nascent blight; grasses grew in clumps through the tarmac in random locations. That in and of itself was depressing.

What hit hardest, though, was making the left turn on to Academy Road Extension. To my right, between the road and railroad tracks, stood a water tower that had gone in at some point around my high school graduation (2002). In front of that water tower was a plaque commemorating the completion of a water system improvement project. That got a plaque. Homes for sale, empty storefronts, and a plaque.

Meanwhile, I circled back around down Champlain Street to get back on to Lake Street and was staggered by the view of Lake Champlain and the hills of northern Vermont at the horizon. That is how I remembered Rouses Point. Sitting on the rocks at the tip of Sportsman’s Pier on a windy day, with waves breaking hard against the rocks and covering me in lake water. Nature was what came to mind: the sound, the rhythm, the beauty of home. It was nature and the surroundings that made Rouses Point feel less foreign to me.

But it’s not nature that makes a community, it’s people that make a community. And by all signs, the community was gasping for air. I shared that feeling on Facebook and the responses were a pessimistic as I expected them to be. Pessimism has no place in my heart, so I tried to steer to conversation by asking questions. What are community assets? Who has ideas? Where are they going to build on those ideas? What are village leaders doing to stop the annual release of what I assume is plausibly half of the village’s graduating high school class from going into the world without intending on ever coming back for good? I am one of those people. I left without ever intending on making Rouses Point and upstate New York home. I believed that I read the tea leaves and saw a place where there was no future for me. Where are the people who want to work tirelessly to make Rouses Point a place where people want to stay after high school?

Maybe this isn’t a problem unique to Rouses Point. I hear of kids complaining about how terrible Roanoke is and how they want to get out as quickly as they can. Maybe I see Roanoke through rose-colored lenses, because Roanoke is a place where I want to be. Roanoke is a place where I want to raise a family. Roanoke is my home. This isn’t to say Roanoke is without problems, it certainly has its share of poverty, drug usage, some violent crime. But it’s not any different from any other place. Moreover, what has made Roanoke different, for me at least, is that there are people and organizations who are dedicated to making life better for people in Roanoke and the Roanoke Valley. The city is working hard to ensure that talent from Virginia Tech decides to make Roanoke their home. Roanoke offers collaborative business space and a fantastic opportunity for start-up businesses.

What does Rouses Point offer? It seems to me that all that Rouses Point and its civic leaders are offering right now is a good view over Lake Champlain. Because everything else about it, honestly, feels terrible. The Civic Center in Rouses Point looks like hell. There’s a large lot on Chapman, on the western side of the railroad tracks, that is littered with history – the history of when railroads meant a lot to the village. In a sense, Rouses Point and Roanoke have a shared history when it comes to railroads, except Roanoke’s relationship with the rail is far deeper than Rouses Point’s. Norfolk Southern has more or less left Roanoke for Atlanta. It’s a damn shame, but it’s not going to kill Roanoke. Roanoke has a diversity in economy that the North Country of New York should justifiably envy. But when the last pills come off the line at Pfizer, there is no fallback for Rouses Point.

So that brings me back to the question I asked: what is the village doing to keep people from leaving? Every business has its start as a small business. Rouses Point is located less than an hour away from a major international hub in Montréal. What’s being done to encourage people to develop ideas, stay in Rouses Point, and generate those start-ups? Excessive property taxes may be a cause. Someone on Facebook mentioned the cold and bleak winters. I reject the argument of cold and bleak winters. Look north to Montréal and Québec City and you have two large cities well north of Rouses Point with winters more intense. Yet they survived and thrived. What’s missing? What are the connections that aren’t being made?

Those are questions to and for which I don’t have answers. I wish I did, because I want my hometown to have a future and not be a moment frozen in time.


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Thank you, David Bowers

There’s something about the internet that brings out a side of people where they completely lack self-examination and decide to bandy about the lack of self-examination very publicly. I do my best not to assume that one person is a representative of the whole or a small group being representative of a whole. The entire debate – or meltdown – that has occurred on Facebook regarding Roanoke mayor David Bowers’ comments regarding not taking in Syrian refugees and creating a positive equivalency to the internment of Japanese citizens in the United States during the Second World War is a case in point.

Let me be clear, I have very strong opinions on a lot of things. But I am always willing to hear other points of view out when they are supported by evidence and not mere suppositions and when those points of view consider facts that might challenge them. Unfortunately, we tend to self-select our friends and Facebook becomes an echo chamber for our own points of view. To wit, I had the stupidity to engage someone whose mind was set on refugees, Muslims, and Islam generally. And the conversation, in its simplest form, went as follows:

Person: (to another person) War is not pretty. So you think X is the same as Y? I can’t waste my time with you.
Me: Yes, use war to justify stripping away rights. Let me know how that goes when war is used to justify taking away guns.
Me: Moreover, the internment of Japanese-American *citizens* – these were and are people who held American *citizenship* – was patently unconstitutional and the federal government at least had the dignity to admit it was wrong 30 years later.

4th Amendment: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

These people weren’t even given a right to jury trial, they were summarily rounded up, directly in violation of the 6th Amendment: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

Their “crime” was of not being like “us”.
Person: they admitted they were wrong. Ok can’t argue with that.
Person: Good point I’m against taking away gun rights from citizens. We got here because of refugees not citizens. These terrorist hide among citizens some were citizens. I can see how a government may say such a thing as an internment camp is reasonable. Not to say every Muslim must go but have a place for a questionable situation.
Me: My question, and this is a serious question that I would like an actual response to, is how many Japanese-American citizens (or even refugees, for that matter) actually carried out terrorist attacks during the 1941-1945 period? Same question for all citizens or refugees who came from a nationality of the Axis powers.
Person: I cannot answer your question. Is this another way of saying, not all people from a nationality of the Axis power are bad? Would you say, the peaceful majority were irrelevant, when so many innocent people died?…/
Me: Ok, what about when a Christian does ill – or a group of Christians does ill – does that make all Christians irrelevant? That argument is a fallacy.
Person: What Christians are you talking about? Are you talking about the Crusaders that were fighting the Jihad?
Me: Terry Nichols, Timothy McVeigh, Eric Robert Rudolph, “The Army of God”, The Lord’s Resistance Army/Joseph Kony (if you’re looking for a non-American example).
Me: Christian Terrorism
Person: I consider them criminals. Some criminals claim to be Christians.
Me: Okay, well the vast majority of Muslims regularly denounce these people and consider them criminals and not Muslims. What makes them different from you? You can’t have this both ways and be honest about it.
Person: the KKK are a terrorist hate group. They should be taken down. According to some recent news some of our politicians might be members of the KKK. If true Shame on them, shame on us for allowing it.
Me: The KKK isn’t the only one listed in that article. Go beyond the cross burning.
Person: What makes them different from me is Jesus, I follow Jesus.
Me: They say they follow Jesus, too. Which of you is right?
Me: Just so it’s clear that I’m not on an anti-Christian rant, let me share an image from Wikipedia (where I encourage everyone to check these articles out.)

Ryan LaFountain's photo.

Person: if they follow Jesus then we are Christians
Person: regarding the Wiki list every thing is relative.
Person: Thanks, I do enjoy a good debate. But I have to get off this computer.
Me: That comment about the Wiki list makes literally no sense. How is fact, something that can be demonstrably proven, relative?
Person: made sense to me.
Me: My honest and earnest hope here is that you don’t actually believe anything you just typed out and you just spent an hour trolling me. If so, well-played.

(Copied verbatim except for the opening line, which didn’t have appropriate leading context.)

I’m not saying that my point of view is correct, but the proper response to being challenged in a point of view is to consider objective fact. The link this person provided was a biased book that had a specific point of view that it sought to support. Moreover, this person only retrenched in their belief that whatever they believed was right and only what they believed was right, no matter what evidence was presented to encourage that person to think outside of that person’s comfort zone.

And that’s the problem, most people are not willing to step outside of their comfort zone. Most people see their front porch and what lay beyond the horizon is a terrifying place. I’ve lived in several places not Roanoke in my time and have visited places across this country and across the ocean, I’ve looked beyond the front porch. Sure, there are scary individuals and groups who claim to speak for a larger group. But the vast majority of people, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Pagan, atheist, Christian, Jewish… most of us are good people. And this person’s – and the mayor’s – willingness to dismiss an entire group in dire need is inhumane. This is not the Roanoke that prides itself on having 105 different ethnicities within its confines. This is a knee-jerk reaction to the absolute horror that happened in Paris last week.

And that is not the right response. Our system is already difficult for refugees to navigate and they already have to go through an intense vetting process. We have not had a terrorist attack committed against the United States within the United States by non-nationals since 2001. Further closing our doors makes us worse people. We are better than that – I know we are. What happened to the call of Emma Lazarus, that we are a nation with open arms, ready to take in the huddled masses, yearning to breathe free? Where is that America?

The fact is that nativism has always had root in America. However, its voice has never been as amplified before. I don’t believe that cowing in fear before a threat, real or imagined, is the American way. That is not us. Cowing before a group because of a perceived threat gives power to those who actually threaten us. Terrorists exist. I’m never going to deny that. They exist within and without our borders. But closing our doors?

That’s not America. And that’s not Roanoke.


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When the seasons change…

You know, just last month I wrote about having a panic attack and landing in the hospital. Exactly two weeks after I posted that entry, I landed in the hospital again with an even more severe panic attack that I thought was going to be the end of me. I was terrified. Nothing felt right this time, because this panic attack came out of the blue. I’d been working with the Brotherhood at Temple Emanuel on preparing chickens and I’d been working writing a series of meditations on the Kaddish (still working on those) – so I was in a pretty relaxed place. Or so I should have been. While at Temple, I noticed all the early signs of a panic attack – the twitchiness, the sweating, the being able to notice every single damn beat of my heart. There wasn’t a cause. It just happened. I went home to see if the symptoms would go away. I paced around a bit. Nothing worked. I only had the constant feeling of worry that something bad was happening to me, that I was having a heart attack or worse, that I was losing my mind.

I made an immediate follow-up with my primary care physician and I forced myself to change. The first panic attack should have been an alarm – I ignored the alarm. I quit smoking, though it wasn’t much to begin with, and I quit drinking anything with caffeine in it. That has been hard. Periodically, the cravings get to be really significant and I have to remain absolutely committed to becoming better. I haven’t broken on the caffeine since the second panic attack, and it’s been 14 days and 21 hours since the last cigarette I smoked.

I quit smoking at the end of last year kind of on a whim. Somehow it was easy. I’d been smoking since stuff between Holly and I started getting really bad, so while I didn’t regularly smoke a lot, it did happen over an extended period of time. It shouldn’t have been as easy as it was – but I’d done it. I remained smoke-free until February 18, 2015, the day after I was fired from Freedom First. I’d been strong. I had remained strong and committed to it through the first day –  I was too concerned about getting my house in order and figuring out how I’d survive. I was also pretty shell-shocked by being fired for s0mething so inane. But I digress – by the 18th I was feeling stress that I hadn’t felt since the unraveling of the marriage. I made the economically irrational decision of buying a pack of cigarettes. I didn’t know how to deal with the sudden chaos that my life had erupted into. But I know that buzz from a drag of a cigarette made me feel something that felt moderately normal. That’s a terrible excuse. Smoking is an inexcusable act of betrayal against your body. I knew that. I kept telling myself that. And I would go on 2-3 day periods where I was strong and didn’t smoke. But by the time the 4th or 5th day rolled around, it was an itch that needed scratching.

That happened over and over again, even after I regained employment at the end of March.

And somehow, despite that chaos, I didn’t have any panic attacks. I was focused on being productive. I was focused on getting my life back on track, even when it felt like it was careening off track.

Meanwhile, coffee. Coffee and I have a long history going back to college. The first panic attack I had occurred while I was in college after I had 96 ounces of coffee to keep my energy level up while I was struggling to write papers and cope with the realization that I wouldn’t be graduating college on time. Coffee was… just something I did, I guess. I just drank coffee and drank coffee and drank coffee. During the week before the panic attack on September 18, I think I’d averaged 4 or 5 cups of coffee per day at work. And the morning of the second panic attack, I was with… someone special to me… at… Target. And we sat down and talked about the life, the universe, and everything at the Starbucks in Target. I had a 20oz Pike Place blend. She had hot chocolate.

And that was the last time I had coffee.

Later that same day, after cutting up chickens, I had the second panic attack. It was completely terrifying. I demanded that the doctors at least put a stethoscope up to my chest to listen to my heart. Of course, nothing was wrong. My blood pressure was a little elevated, my blood was excellently oxygenated, and my heart sounded fine. The same person I referred to earlier picked me up from the hospital because this time, unlike last time, the doctor advised me that I shouldn’t be driving while under the influence of diazepam. I can’t begin to say how thankful I was and remain for her help that night. In any case, my car was in the hospital parking garage overnight and the next morning was a Monday. I got up at five and rode my bike over to the hospital to pick up my car.

Apparently no one thinks too much of it when someone with a bicycle walks into an elevator at the parking garage at Carilion.

I called my doctor and immediately made an appointment to set out a longer term treatment. I took the day off of work because, unlike the last panic attack where I immediately went to Lynchburg to volunteer at an event for work the following morning, I was more concerned about actually dealing with my problem than running from it. So I went to the doctor. Got put on a relatively light dosage of meds. Made some decisions about life choices.

I had to quit coffee and cigarettes; whatever sense of empowerment I got from them was illusory. The fact was that I had enslaved my body to the stimulants of nicotine and caffeine. And it was causing problems. So I quit them. Cold turkey. At the same time.

And it’s been rough. I’ve been telling friends that I gave up two drugs so I could take up a new one: running. I’ve been working on getting myself back into shape and better prepare myself for a distance run. This spring, I could barely eke out doing a mile in fifteen minutes. I was easily winded and it just wasn’t in me. I have now run or gone for very long walks for every day for the last two weeks, save for last Thursday when Scooter was sick. Last Saturday, the aforementioned person and I participated in a Zombie Run 5k in Salem. I was not ready for that yet. She commented, rightly, that I couldn’t just go screaming out of the gate. I had to learn pacing. I had to learn discipline.

Self-discipline and Ryan haven’t really ever been two things that have gotten along. It’s not that I constantly engage in self-indulgence, but, like with the smoking and coffee, it was easier to say yes than no on some things.

After the first 3/4 mile, I was shot. Every now and again I would have a burst of energy to run around a zombie or to climb / jump over / crawl through or under objects. But there wasn’t any consistency.

I made it a mission to be able to at least not look like an idiot in the 2 5k runs that are occurring on Halloween. My initial effort at pacing myself proved disastrous – the first mile or so I ran out of three on Tuesday was the fastest I’d done since high school. Somehow, I’d managed to keep a 7:20 pace for a mile. But by the time I hit the mile, it felt like my lungs were being stabbed.

So discipline. The next day I ran to the Wasena City Tap Room, it’s .99 miles away from my place. 9:17. Not super fast, but much more respectable than a 15 minute mile and I didn’t feel like dying. I broke a bit of a sweat. I had a beer and dinner. Ran back home. On a full stomach and a beer. 9:31.

I’m making progress. Today was two miles. Pacing was a little slower than I wanted, 10:08/mi, but I’m gradually learning to not come out blazing. And every day this week, I’m adding distance. More discipline. More work. More exercise. More adrenaline.

I hope this new drug treats me better than the other two. Because despite the change of the seasons from summer to fall, it feels like my life has finally come out of an unbearably long winter and spring’s promise for growth fuels my desire to continue improving and becoming better.


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PANIC! at the Hospital

Anyone who has known me for any length of time knows that I’ve dealt with depression and anxiety issues for a while. I’ve written about my most recent experience with depression and I’m perfectly comfortable with talking about how debilitating depression can be for someone who’s normally really anti-depressed. Well, now there’s the anxiety aspect of depression. Depression and anxiety normally go hand-in-hand. Family members of mine deal with both as well. Anxiety is very nearly the polar opposite of depression.

When I’m depressed, I don’t feel like doing anything. Heck, I don’t feel like anything. When anxiety strikes, it’s the exact opposite. I feel everything and I’m feeling it hard. My mind is racing with thoughts, my heart’s beating becomes much more noticeable, every thought, every conceit within my mind starts exploding in unison. My stomach roils.

That was a feeling I had managed to evade for two years until Friday night. Friday night, after a particularly disappointing couple of weeks at work, I went to temple for Shabbat services, as per usual. Not long after I got there, I noticed something was wrong. I felt twitchier than normal – so, pretty damn twitchy. I kept feeling like I needed to wash my hands. Sweat started running down my forehead. My heart’s beating was, all of a sudden, a noticeable action. My brain started sending out panic signals: DANGER, WILL ROBINSON, DANGER! And all of a sudden it felt like my life was starting to replay itself in my brain, that my mind was preparing itself for something really, really terrifying – and that in itself was terrifying, because nothing *felt* wrong. I could breathe normally, I didn’t have chest pains; the basics of my physiology signaled nothing wrong. However, my brain decided to reject data as presented and went into a goddamn tizzy.

Services have started and I’m not making it through songs. My mind is jumping from point a to point b – and not giving me a moment to rest. It is the worst feeling I’ve had in a while. And with 95% certainty, I knew I was having a panic attack. But I wasn’t entirely sure and the uncertainty scared the hell out of me. So I left services with the intention of going to the hospital. And as I started driving, I began relaxing. My brain slowed down. Stuff started feeling under control again. My stomach chilled out.

So I went home.

By that point, I was incredibly hungry. I laid down in bed and waited a while, to see when and if my stomach would come off of its ledge. Gradually it did and I was on the verge of actually sleeping. But instead I had some leftover chicken and beans. Not 10 minutes after I finished eating, the upwelling of panic and anxiety’s strange mania returned with a fury that I’ve never dealt with before. Confronted with an anxiety attack the likes of which I hadn’t dealt with since I was in college, I paced.

What do I do? I know what’s going on, but being alone here is scaring the hell out of me. I don’t want to be alone. I went to the hospital.

And when I got to the hospital, a new feeling: guilt. Seeing everyone that needed obvious help made me feel guilty for going to the emergency room. There was nothing visibly wrong with me, I had done nothing to injure myself, I was not a risk to anyone. But there I was, surrounded by those in need a lot of help. I got triaged in and set into a bed very quickly. And there I was seen in short order by a nurse and intake specialist, both of whom were warm and very nice. My mind let up a bit, I started calming down a bit. Interacting with people who cared about my well-being at that exact moment, not lying about how awful things had been at work and the pressure I felt about whether or not I was constantly screwing up and then the added pressure of whether or not I felt like the job satisfies me. I had no reason to lie, I had no reason to put on a façade that everything was okay.

Everything was not okay. At the moment, lots of stuff was okay: I wasn’t having a heart attack, a stroke, I wasn’t dying. But mentally, my mind threw in the towel. But I was lucky. In addition to the doctor and nurses who cared for me, my friends checked in on me. Rabbi sent me an email asking how I was and other members of the temple called and emailed. Sometimes when it feels like you’re at your most isolated, you find out that the opposite is true. I think the difficult thing for me is to be honest with my feelings to others – that feeling of being afraid that it just sounds like you’re complaining without looking for a silver lining.

So, here’s the silver lining: friends. People who will listen and straighten you up and give you a kick in the pants. Here’s another silver lining: everyone is given a mind with capacity for thought and reason. We have the capacity for change.

Maybe it’s time for change.


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