Oh, Gallagher, if only you knew…
Several months ago, I went underground. I didn’t want to see anyone. I stopped returning most non-work-related emails and texts. I wouldn’t leave the house unless out of obligation or Jaime dropped her well-used “with your family” line–emphasis on “family,” drawn out, slow and steady, like blood through a needle–as in “Don’t you want to go for a walk with your family?” or “Don’t you want to spend a nice little Saturday shopping with your family?” Even if I wasn’t underground, I’d rather spend a Saturday watching a game–any game–than sitting on line while some pimply-faced dumb shit dials a price check on a kiddie pool and children swirl around me like sharks at a Gallagher show, if Gallagher ditched watermelons for carcasses. But when it’s your family, you sacrifice (“Yes, I hate nature, but I’ll go camping…”), you try new things (i.e. allowing someone, in this case, your eight-month-old, to punch you in the face over and over again while you are trying to sleep), you don’t collapse at the Babies ‘R Us check-out from a stress-induced stroke (“Now breathe, Brian…”). A few years ago, I’d believe Gallagher had a new, deathly schtick before I’d believe I’d be one of those guys, a family man.
For many, family means love, pride, happiness, and other words you’d see on those cheesy posters in office break rooms, but for me, family is a loaded gun, and each bullet is a fight over a dead relative, a gambling argument, a drinking problem, five years of unreturned phone calls and letters. If family were a Rorschach Test, I’d see tears, so many tears cresting at the peak of cheekbones and falling down faces, one after another. For me, family will always have the stale stink and metallic taste of ammunition and warfare, and staring down the barrel of that gun upon my son’s birth is what forced me underground in the first place.
Let’s see those hands, Mr. Family Man!
I didn’t understand what it meant to be a family man. I struggled with understanding what my role as a parent, as a father would be (besides, the obvious need-filler), and worried I would be one of those bad parents, whose kids end up in therapy for the rest of their lives, or worse, with faces of meth. I have never seen myself as a breadwinner, as the man who works all day and comes home to his chair, the clicker and a cold beer, while his wife bakes, takes care of the kids, makes home. My mother used to tell me, “You better marry a rich woman” because she didn’t think I wanted to work hard, but that’s not it entirely–I have just never wanted to work for someone else. And now here I was–new house, baby, wife on leave for six-months and then going back to work but only part-time. I needed to make the bread, for the family.
Quickly, I fell into a serious funk–and, by “funk,” I mean I didn’t want to leave the house because I felt so worn by the world. It started about a month after I returned to work from paternity leave in January. I couldn’t really find my groove, unable to fall into the routine I had before the baby, where meals were planned, meetings were calendared and work-outs were scheduled. The combination of a completely demanding job, a part-time obsession with writing, an almost everyday work-out schedule, which feels like a quarter time job, and the all-the-time job of fatherhood, of family, crushed me. There just weren’t enough hours in the day to do it all unless I slept on the train to and from work and the toilet–and that’s it! I couldn’t give my everything to any part of my life and slowly felt myself eroding from the pressure, mostly from myself because, to be honest, I have high expectations. I don’t expect myself to be great at everything, but I do believe I’ll work as hard as I possibly can to be the best I can be, yet I could barely muster the effort. Most days I could hardly get out of bed, curled up on my stomach waiting for this sadness, this frustration to stop pummeling me.
The hours of my job, most weeks easily 50 or more, the pace of nonprofit work, and my desire to be successful at it once energized me, knowing I’d be going to battle everyday for something, for people, I believe in, only when I returned to work, it felt like a battle I was losing, unable to maintain my compulsive approach to my job, which made me question my ability. In the last few years, I had received two grants to support my work, was listed as one of most influential people in the Seattle arts community by a glossy monthly and called “a whiz kid” by the local alt weekly, which also shortlisted me for its yearly arts awards. I wasn’t even thirty-years-old and had my dream job, the position I set myself to earning when I first discovered Hugo House.
“Fuck it,” I told Jaime on the verge of tears. “I’m just another tit for the world to suck on.” Suddenly, my dream job had become a nightmare, a time-suck where I helped other writers, some of whom I thought were very good but didn’t believe they had the ambition that I had, the working-class willingness to do whatever it takes. It didn’t help that I let my own writing languish, in part, because I was too busy helping so many other writers and often found myself wondering as I stared at a blank screen incapable of pounding out my own story–who the fuck is going to help me?
In the past, when my work-load became unmanageable and took away from my writing, working-out–and lots of coffee!–helped me keep up and stay positive, but now when I made it home, I was so exhausted and stressed out the thought of writing or doing anything that required any major mental or physical activity was sidestepped for Sopranos re-runs and the bottomless bunker of fantasy baseball analysis.
Some people talk of the muse like a partner you need to turn-on, get in the mood with some flowers, wine, fancy chocolate, but my creative process isn’t about romance–it’s about routine. I needed to wake up each day and inhale the bouquet of my muse’s morning breath, push back the tangled mass of her bed-head and kiss her soft lips beneath. Without routine, my writing process turned into a series of drunken one-night-stands where I was only left with regret the next morning, and with a larger project like “Fat Fuck,” I wouldn’t get anywhere unless I consistently sat down and pushed myself to write, revise, rehearse and re-live moments of my life that were once easier to drink and party away.
After not writing for months, I became what some might call “a moody fucking bitch” (And by some, I mean my wife…), trudging around the house with a grimace, making conversation almost exclusively in the tone of a barking dog and unable to open cabinets and doors without wanting to continuously slam them shut until the hinges snapped and the frames splintered. Eventually, I explained my affliction to Jaime through the only metaphor that could truly sum it up: “Imagine you haven’t taken a shit in three months. Every time you get on the pot, you push and push but nothing comes. How would you feel? That’s exactly what it’s like for me right now. I know I have to shit, but when I get on the pot, nothing comes. It’s so frustrating.” My writer’s block felt like a medical condition, something terminal, called a name I couldn’t spell and struggled to pronounce.
Are you looking at me, cabinet?
Working-out went the way of my writing, too. Before the baby, I was running three to four days a week, weight lifting three days, pulling two-a-days when a late afternoon run sounded relaxing, but I no longer had the energy, going through the constant existential debate of convincing myself I needed to work-out and then convincing myself otherwise–because I also needed to get to work, to write, to spend time with my family. When it came to each, I was failing myself and everyone else, a weight which over time was too much to bear for someone so dead-set on being the best that I could be.
After several weeks of self-hatred because I wasn’t the person I was before the baby came, because I no longer jumped out of bed every morning ready to fuck shit up and I wasn’t the super dad/husband I expected myself to be, I finally accepted the truth–I was depressed again.
But first I had to point fingers. I thought about quitting my job, about not writing anymore, about how being fat wasn’t so bad because at least I could eat ice cream everyday even though I was disappointed in myself every time I looked in the mirror. I had to be angry about the woe of grant deadlines, about how little I was writing, how “Fat Fuck” wasn’t worth writing anyway. And, of course, I blamed myself. I should have been able to do it all, and if I couldn’t, I should just suck it up and accept reality. I didn’t become the person I wanted to be. I was a family man now. If family was a loaded gun, then self-doubt was a ticking bomb strapped to my chest. I did the math–I was 30 already. Karen Russell and Tea Obrecht had already written bestselling debut novels before they were my age. Keats was prolific and dead by 25, and by the end of the 1800s, completely revered. All I had was a few publication credits, a couple of grants and more ideas than I had time to complete them–or even start them. Was I meant to be this breadwinning family man after all? Was my writing career over before it really began?
Recently, after seeking help to cope with my problems, “baby blues,” I’ve been told, I haven’t felt so bad, but some days, I look at myself in the mirror and answer “yes” to both of those questions, dejectedly, solemnly, with complete regret. Other days, I try to be thankful, to remind myself there’s so much more life, so much more fight, left in me, and I’ll find my place in it all as I’ve done before, although where that is I can’t say with certainty. I just have to trust, to step forward, knowing there will be more ground ahead.