My life has been hellish for a while. If I’m honest with myself about it the decline has been going on for years. There’s precedence for this in my extended family, a streak of sad madness that manifests ultimately in an old age of dementia addled depression. If we make it that long.
This isn’t to say that everyone is mad. There are enough high performers to float the more broken of us through the hard times. I am lucky in this respect and a few others, but mostly I am cursed. My brain doesn’t work right and it tells my body that there are many things wrong already and more on the way. I twist and turn, I sweat, I can’t sit still. I am not psychotic, but I think I might know a piece of that experience, the electricity that courses through your body until you are exhausted. You fall asleep and an hour later you awaken, refreshed enough to feel terrible again.
My great uncle committed suicide by swimming over Niagra Falls. I hope that he felt relief on the way down. More than that, I wish he had stayed alive so I could ask him how to live with this burning inside.
I lived in Tucson, Arizona for many years. They were good years for me. Lots of friends and lots of fun. I lived off of loans, which is a wonderful way to get by, then I was in graduate school pursuing a PhD. I loved it for a time until I didn’t, and then I fell apart, again and again. Depressions and phobias descended on me like mosquitos, so common that I stopped slapping at them. Finally I reached a point where I couldn’t do it anymore. Like I said, I’m lucky, I had solidly middle class parents to mooch off of, and I did, moving home at 33 under the auspices of starting a business, but really to escape the fact that I was truly falling apart.
Moving home is hell. People do it for survival and it makes a lot of sense. If someone does it’s almost always because the other options are far worse, but still, it sucks. In my case, my father was displeased with the arrangement and when he wasn’t toiling he was beaming resentment at me. I worked part-time for an old friend as a laborer in the hamptons, spit shining the dream homes of the fabulously wealthy after a 2 hour commute. I would wake up at 4:30 in the morning to drink coffee and get as high as possible before heading out to join the slow procession of misery that heads east every morning. Of course I was depressed, but my vital signs were being monitored and I maintained myself.
I got tired and bored and resentful of this arrangement. I lined up a job for myself at a farm in Sag Harbor. The same miserable commute, but I thought it would be more pleasant work at the same wage. The owner of the farm was a Trump supporting white guy with dreadlocks and a drinking problem and it took less than a day for me to hate him, but he was lazy and absent and I liked my co-worker, a young guy named Max from Oaxaca. We spoke English and Spanish and Spanish and English and I got pretty good over the course of a month.
My primary interest in working at this farm was that they produced mushrooms. I am not bad at this. In fact, I was better at several aspects of it than the farmer. I took pride in this and hated him all the more as time went by, while he just seemed to warm up to me more and more. He decided that he was going to take me with him to Kennett Square, Pennsylvania to pick up shittake blocks. He said he wouldn’t pay me for this trip, but would pay for my motel room and take me out to the strip club. This is the point at which I decided I would probably be better off quitting. That was far too much time in a truck with this asshole, and there was no way I was going to sit at a strip club with him while he ogled trafficked women in rural Pennsylvania.
Later that day, working in the greenhouse transplanting starts as fast as I could. The farmer came in and began to boss me around, showing me how he wanted me to work, faster but less organized, less comfortable for me, and of course, he was talking at me all the while.
While I worked with him lurking and correcting, some Sag Harbor luminary stopped by, a woman with some association to a private school, and he quickly turned himself to regaling her with the hardships and simple pleasures of the farm life. They left the greenhouse and I returned to doing things my way.
Max smiled at me. He got it. He hated David as much as anyone. He’d worked as his farm manager for years. He got a studio apartment and $12 an hour out of the deal. I got $15 an hour and the use of a camper parked on the property, though I never used it. I preferred to get as far away from David after work as I could and drove the hour plus back to Sound Beach every day, smoking weed and drinking coffee, listening to Propaghandi’s Less Talk, More Rock day after day, crying as I belted out the lyrics to “Refusing to be a Man” on the William Floyd Parkway.
On this day though, David returned with his guest to the greenhouse. Before he could correct my technique again his phone rang and he shoved it in my hand, said he was too busy to answer and to take a message. Leaving aside the fact that nowhere was secretary in the list of duties for which I had been hired, voicemail is a common and well-known function of cellphones and I felt incredulous that this asshole thought it would impress this woman to assert his power over me in the late hours of the day, but I am easily flummoxed and I took the phone. It was a person calling to see if he wanted to renew his prescription for Cialis. I promptly handed his phone back to him, telling him it was about a medical issue.
He became angry, cursing at the man on the phone. The woman from the school excused herself. He made a clumsy effort to explain why he was on an erectile dysfunction medication- what other reason is there for that than having erectile dysfunction?
I drove home without my usual sense of relief. Clearly I would need to quit this job. Things were only going to get worse. The market season would be starting soon and David himself had stated that his tendency towards bossiness went into overdrive at this point in the season. Getting yelled at while he cleared thousands of dollars in market sales from the idle rich summering in the Hamptons was going to drive me to violence. I was already fantasizing about punching him in the mouth, the gut, the groin, until he was on the ground, ready to be kicked.
I cried through what was my weekend. I didn’t want to quit another job. I didn’t want to get another job. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to be alive anymore. It was two years since I’d left Arizona, and it had been terrible. I wasn’t quite so plagued by terror- I no longer thought that the airplanes flying overhead were surveilling me or that random people I met were confidential informants out to entrap me for drug crimes, but I was trapped in a revolving series of miserable exchanges with my father and hopelessly stagnant with no vision of what to do besides advance this mushroom business that serious consideration would have revealed as a foolish and hopeless idea.
Sobbing at the breakfast table with my mother and sisters in attendance, my new baby nephew asleep nearby, I decided that it would be a reasonable thing to go on disability. I didn’t have any knowledge of how this worked as a bureaucratic process, I just assumed that one went to a psychiatrist and made a compelling case that you could no longer work.
So that’s what I did. It went poorly. I got the referral from my primary care doctor, sat down in the office and narrated my sad life to someone in nicer clothes than I owned who would, for the rest of their life, avoid any real experience of the afflictions they claimed to treat. It was at a University facility and so his supervising physician came in. I explained to him that I was having terrible anxiety and anger as I encountered all the incipient Trump voters that made up the blue collar slice of white life. He challenged me, said didn’t it make me the intolerant one that I couldn’t accept opinions different than my own.
I wanted to kill him- to wrap his tie around his neck and pull until the blood vessels in his eyes popped and he was no longer breathing. I wanted to end his life that was no doubt so much better than mine, free of the endless failures, disappointments and breakdowns that characterized my own. But I am not a murderer, though I understand that drive. I simply got up and walked out.
When I got home I examined the bottle of Zoloft that my sister, an NP, had prescribed for me. I opened it and threw it in the garbage. I decided I was done with psychiatry.
There was a moment of joy shortly after this. I drove into Queens with my mother to visit my sister. I was feeling wounded, woozy and weak. I was rapidly coming to believe that I was a loser- the data was in and it was confirmatory. We took an unusual route home, an earlier exit off the expressway than usual, past a series of office complexes where anonymous people did boring work, somehow dulling their urge to run and go to ground in the face of such meaninglessness.
I am a mycophile. Even at my darkest, my eyes are searching the ground for the odd eruption of fungus, and we had torrential rain the day prior. Glancing at the landscaping in front of this monolith to boredom, there were generous flushes of mushrooms erupting from the wood mulch. Improbably, they looked like Psilocybin cyanescens, a powerfully intoxicating species of wood loving mushroom, but my mother and I parked in the lot in her shitty Suzuki Aerio and walked through the geraniums, ignoring the searching looks of the of those people parked over their desks, engaged in unfathomable tasks.
My eyes picked over the mulch, large clusters of recently fruited mushrooms showing the characteristic blue bruising that indicates the presence of psilocin. I took one specimen and took a sore print. In addition to the bluing it produced the right colored spores and so I left my parents house, returned to the office complex and picked most of the mushrooms. I was acutely aware of the possibility of the police becoming interested in someone poking around in the dirt and so I brought my dog along to provide me with some plausible deniability. When I was done I had several wet pounds of fungus. I brought it home and dried it and my many troubles moved from the center of my attention.
This is what I love about fungus. Their very appearance in the landscape is more exciting than their possibilities for alleviating depression and anxiety. There is a shock when passing them, a demand that one species recognize another. They appear in the most unlikely places and assert their power to turn the world upside down.