How Stephen King Pulled Me Out of the Deepest Depression of My Life

Well, it’s been a while. Oops. The fact of the matter is that no matter how well I think I have things going – and in general, I think I have things going pretty damned well – the slightest thing can bring me down. In this case it wasn’t particularly slight, if I’m being perfectly honest, but for the first time ever, I don’t want to talk about it in detail on this blog. At least not now.

To sum up the situation, as a much wiser person than myself said, the country seems to be at a cultural breaking point. In the weeks following the suicide of Robin Williams, awful thing after awful thing has struck this country, politically, philosophically, socially. It’s been a very dark time for the country – and the world – and of course, this affects us all. I’m not equipped to handle such stress, so I retreat into my own hobbies and interests in an attempt to avoid the politics and dramas of the real world. This time, they followed me in. I can’t stress enough that I care very very deeply about the issues at hand, or the things that are going on in my own culture and chosen circles, but the fact of the matter is that my only escape from politics is now swarming in them. Add to this the immensely negative event that I spoke of a moment ago, and I feel it’s fairly easy to see how I got knocked out of orbit just when I thought I had reached the perfect trajectory.

It’s slowly dawning on both my psychologist and I that Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – with the key word being obsessive – is at the core of many of my major issues. I simply can’t let things go that I feel affect me, attack me, or make me feel strong emotions. Since I care very deeply about political and social things, being involved with them can do immense harm to my head. I just can’t stop obsessing. During the events of this summer and fall, I found myself unable to calm down or exert any level of control. I was in a state of constant near panic. My heart was pounding, and every single little stress signifier erupted all at once. I broke out in hives and acne, I had canker sores and mouth ulcers, I was barely able to sleep and my eyes were bloodshot. All of this exacerbated my big issues. I destabilized in a major way. I became paranoid and angry, lashing out at anyone and everyone, latching on to things more obsessively than ever.

This all culminated in me falling into an incredibly deep depression. It didn’t feel quite like the usual ones. I wasn’t down all the time, or bored by everything. I was, however, deeply, incredibly certain of doom. Utter and complete doom. When I’m feeling myself, I’m a very optimistic man. I believe the world will get better, and humanity will endure, and maybe even reach the stars. However, when things go off the rails, I can – and did – become utterly obsessed with death and doom.

I become obsessed with the facts and science of the situation, and to be frank, the current science says things aren’t looking good. Humanity has pretty well doomed itself through our actions and inactions, and we are not long for this world. I become obsessed with death, and the fact that the worst thing about life is that I will never know how things turn out. I’ll never know if we make it as a species, if we survive this time, the closest we have ever come, perhaps, to extinction.

It’s difficult to believe that that’s the case, when you look around. Humanity is prospering in so many ways. We’ve spread far beyond the numbers we should have been able to, technology is erupting into the realm of science fiction at breakneck pace. Despite the way the world is reported by the news, if you look at the numbers, we’re doing better than we ever have. The only official wars currently active anywhere are civil ones, or ones against groups, as opposed to other countries. Violent crime is dropping in many places, worldwide. Things are getting BETTER.

Yet the world IS in danger. The planet is drowning in our runoff and we’ve pushed the ecosystem just about as far as we can before it tips over and takes us with it. The fact is that the universe is not designed to support life. We are in a magic zone that shouldn’t exist, and it’s far more delicate than we expected. If the people who make the decisions can’t wrap their heads around that, we will be gone within centuries. Perhaps sooner.

Once these thoughts get into my head, if there is even the slightest crack, they seep in like so much oil, slipping deeply into my thoughts and feelings, and gum up the works, slowing the gears that turn my mind. Every thought I have, negative, positive, every feeling, every action, has to fight its way through this tarry sludge first, and nothing comes out the other side clean. At this time, there were not so much cracks as there were fissures, and the constant pressure and feel of attack only added to the damage. To put it simply, I was mired in the deepest pit of foul black sludge I have ever been, and I could find no way out. I felt doomed, and because I felt doomed, I was.

At this point, paragraphs in to this meandering, stream-of-consciousness post, you may be asking yourself, “What does all of this have to do with Stephen King? He’s in the title, he’d better do something.” I’ve spoken before about how fiction and horror are deeply important to my life, and I gave brief mention to King, promising to return to him at a later date for a more thorough discussion, and I suppose that there’s no time like the present.

Stephen King is, in my opinion, the greatest living American writer. Perhaps the greatest American writer, period. Perhaps even the greatest that the world has ever seen. As bizarre as it may sound, when I look at this man and the work he does, I see a man who simply doesn’t get enough credit. “But Kyle,” I hear you protest. “He’s one of the richest authors who has ever lived, and everything he publishes is met with a resounding cry of joy!” I know this, of course, and I’m not arguing that the man isn’t famous enough, or paid enough, or beloved enough. To do so would be absurd. No, I say this because I feel like he is more often than not relegated to the role of “pop fiction writer” or “horror author”, when he is so much more.

I argue that though King does write pop fiction and horror, he more than once delves far beyond such things into genuine literature. I feel that he is contributing to the world of art in ways that are not truly appreciated. He writes of philosophy, addiction, love, sacrifice, darkness and pain. He writes of madness, and the ugly things in the world, and the ugly things in people. Above all, however, he writes of the light.

Almost every one of his major works has some force for good, some force, pushing and prodding the heroes in the right direction. They don’t always realize it. The pushes are subtle and gentle, but there’s something pulling for them. He calls it by many names. The Turtle, the light, Gan. In all cases, it works through these people, compelling them to take the actions that will lead to their salvation. This isn’t anything special, of course. The important thing to note is that someone who is considered one of the darkest storytellers of all time writes so often of the good in people.

Stephen King, more than anyone else I have ever known of, takes his inner demons and fears and tragedies, and somehow externalizes them, using them to weave tales that speak to the very deepest parts of humanity, the good and the evil. Perhaps the most obvious examples of this are DreamcatcherThe Dark Half, and of course, The Shining. I could write for pages on the books individually, but I think I’ll save that for a later date. Suffice it to say that each one of these books has a deep connection to the man and his life, as well as his own experiences and personal fears. Dreamcatcher was written after he was struck by a van, largely while he was in the hospital, on painkillers. The Dark Half reflects events from his own life, spurred by the discovery of his pseudonym, Richard Bachman. The Shining plunges deep into his fears about himself – he was an alcoholic struggling with a writing career at the time of its publication, just like Jack Torrance, the main character.

Again, it’s not that the idea of taking one’s issues and imbuing them with power by writing them into tales is new. Far from it. It’s simply that King explores his own depths in a way that few ever have, and finds ways to shine light on even the darkest parts of himself and even then, to show you the light that will overcome that darkness. It’s not what he does, per se. It’s the way in which he does it. His abilities speak to me, in particular, and always have.

Which brings me around to this fall. I make an attempt to read one of my very favorite King novels, It, every October. There’s no specific reason, of course. The first time I read it was in that month, largely in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, my favorite place in the world. This time, I was in the deepest, most virulent depression of my life. I was unstable, I was damaged, and I was on the verge of totally falling apart. Then I finished It.

I ask you now, have you ever read or heard something that struck you to the core? Something that hit you in just the right way at just the right time, and then suddenly, as if from nowhere, you found yourself looking at the world differently, or seeing a new path? I was in the dark, I was lost, and then a quote from It plowed through the sludge that was drowning my mind from the inside out like industrial cleaner.

“Best not to look back. Best to believe that there will be happily ever afters all the way around – and so it may be; who is there to say there will not be such endings? Not all boats which sail away into darkness never find the sun again, or the hand of another child; if life teaches anything at all, it teaches that there are so many happy endings that the man who believes there is no God needs his rationality called into serious question.”

These words… these words struck me. I’ve read them a half dozen times, if not more, but I feel as though I never really read them before. They coursed through me, clearing the sludge from my veins, and suddenly, the wheels were turning again.

This isn’t to say that I suddenly believe in God. The jury is still out on that one, and probably will be right up until the very moment of my death. I don’t think, however, that one needs to be truly religious to see the significance and power of these words. They reminded me of something important: hope is real, hope is powerful, and hope can drive us from our pasts no matter what they may be. It’s time to look forward and to find again the things that I’ve been learning about myself and the world over the past few years, as I turned against my own demons, ready to take them on.

Somehow, some way, though all of his horror, and blood, and inexplicable coincidence, and strange use of parenthesis, and repetition and light, of all the people in the world, it was a horror writer from Maine who reminded me that hope is the light that lets us put the darkness behind us, once and for all. “Best not to look back.” Words to live by.

P.S. Forgive the messiness of this one. I simply woke up with the need to write, and the entire thing sort of stream-of-consciousnessed right out of my head in exactly this way. I feel like I’ve missed a LOT about what King is, and what he means to me, as well as missing out on an opportunity to do his books real justice. I think that you can probably expect me to write more on Stephen King in the future, because I simply feel like I haven’t successfully conveyed my thoughts here. In any case, I hope you enjoyed this, and if you’ve never read any Stephen King, I obviously can’t recommend him enough. Do yourself a favor and go pick up It or The Shining. You won’t regret it.

P.P.S It occurred to me that this sort of glosses over the contributions that my friends and family had to helping me through this garbage. Rest assured, I never would have been functional enough or open enough to see the quote in the way I did had it not been for their support. Thank you all.

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Blastoff

When I was 14, I got to live the dream that so many other young kids don’t, and I went to Space Camp. For those who may not know, the concept behind Space Camp was a simple one. You go to Alabama, away from your family for a week or so, like any other camp. However, instead of camping in the woods, playing capture the flag, learning rope tying and swimming, you went to a barracks, and the counselors did everything in their power to replicate the feeling of astronaut training and space exploration. It was the holy grail of camps.

This was shortly after my anxiety had begun to show, but long before it took hold of my life, and I was just an energetic young man who absolutely loved science and space more than anything else in the world. One of my fondest desires had always been to somehow go to space, and though I knew it would never happen, this was the next best thing. My memory is and has always been a messy business, so I honestly don’t recall much of what led up to the trip. My recollection of this wonderful time in my life begins on the ride there.

My mother and grandmother drove me down to Alabama, the location of the camp, over the course of a couple days. It was boiling hot outside, and I had never been a fan of the heat. So I did everything in my power to stay in the car at all times. I was so excited that I’m genuinely surprised that my panic attack issues didn’t kick in then and there. As if it wasn’t enough that I was on my way to Space Camp, the trip started the day that Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was released. We picked it up in a rundown K-Mart on the road, and I had read more than half of it before we arrived, driven by the kind of energy only a 14 year old seems capable of.

Looking back on the camp, it was probably a lot more threadbare than I recall, but in my eyes it was a gleaming paradise. Everything looked how I’d hoped, from the gigantic space shuttle in the center of the campus, to the hangar-like buildings that housed the majority of the camp. We were ushered inside, shown around, and taken to our bunks.

We got to build water pressure rockets; we were spun in a training gyro, the type astronauts use to learn to deal with disorientation; we went into the nearby woods for a puzzle solving obstacle course, and though it was very hot outside, it was absolutely a blast. I remember using a phone card to call home from a payphone, because it was 2000, and affordable cell phones hadn’t yet completely wiped out the need. I remember spending an entire day in the museum that was attached, and being disappointed when we had to go back to more hands on activities. I’ve always been a museum lover. They’re quiet and dignified in a way that no place else in the world can match.

My entire memory of the place is a single mess of excitement, as if it all happened on a single, vibrant day. Only one day stands out firmly in my memory from the rest, and it is that day that is the point of my rambling little walk down memory lane. The day of the shuttle simulation.

I woke up with a start, a little more tired than usual that morning because my bunkmates and I had been up late the night before. There had been a conversation about girls, and who had a girlfriend back home. To avoid embarrassment, I had told a tall tale about a semi-fictional chinese girl named Wei – based on a real girl who I’d had a crush on in middle school – claiming that she and I were an item. Sorry about that, Wei, though in my defense, I told them that I had never kissed you, because I already felt bad enough about lying about our relationship status. I had a very odd idea about what lies were okay and what lies weren’t, I wasn’t about to pile on another untruth. In any case, I was fairly sleep deprived that day, which may go a long way toward explaining what wound up happening.

The camp crew was split into two halves for these simulations. One would go into a large control room, where each was assigned a job based rather heavily on the real jobs undertaken during a shuttle mission. The other half would be on the “shuttle”, where they would perform simple experiments and puzzles, culminating in a simulated EVA, or extra-vehicular activity: a space walk. Not everyone got to take on all roles, of course, and the space walk was heavily desired. Of course, I wanted it, but my turn on the shuttle would have to wait. First up was the control room.

Here, I excelled. We rotated between a few jobs during the course of the simulation, but I had fun with all of them. There was tracking weather patterns, there was plotting a course, helping the folks aboard the shuttle keep things running smoothly. I had a blast every step of the way during this half. If I’m being honest, this was helped by the fact that I was working with a cute girl from England by the name of Elizabeth, and I was, after all, a 14 year old boy. Unfortunately, I had already lied a bunch about having a girlfriend, so it was too late for me to do anything about it. Such are the dangers of trying to make yourself look good at camp.

In any case, I greatly enjoyed my time in that room. Finally, however, the time came. We strapped ourselves in for the launch simulation, and “up” we went. By this point, the heat and excitement of the day had begun to take its toll. Combined with my late night chat sessions, I was already exhausted. We performed the first couple of simple experiments without incident, and then it was time for the EVA.

My tired nature and the fact that I secretly wanted to stay in the shuttle to keep working with Elizabeth made me cringe when I was picked to perform it, but I nodded firmly with what I hoped was an impressive, eager smile on my face, and stepped to the door, gearing up. My partner and I put on the small, replica spacesuits, locked our “tools” into place, and they swung open the airlock door, and we stepped out into… a gym. It was pretty much just a big gym.

There was a large scaffolding alongside the wooden construct that was the shuttle simulator. There, my partner and I were strapped into large harnesses that resembled EVA rigs, that attached to complex pulley systems. The idea was that once strapped in, you’d be able to manipulate yourself up and down along the scaffolding as if weightless. We had twenty minutes to climb the scaffolding and complete some puzzles, “repairing” the space station. My partner took off like a shot.

Despite my earlier reluctance, I found I was no longer tired. I gripped the scaffolding tightly, gritted my teeth, reached up and pulled with all my strength, catapulting myself… about ten inches. I essentially went nowhere. I have no idea if I severely misunderstood the operation of the device, or if it was somehow broken, but as my partner scaled up and down the tower effortlessly, I just sort of hung there. I spent the entire twenty minutes struggling with my harness, and got literally nothing done, much to my embarrassment.

After that debacle, we re-entered the spacecraft. As we entered, the counselor called us all into the main chamber of the shuttle, to congratulate us on a job well done, and to explain how the next part of the simulation would work. As he spoke, my partner took off his space suit. Red with embarrassment and completely wiped out by the effort of the struggle, the lack of sleep, and the sweltering heat, I decided instead to lean back against the hull of the ship. The moment the counselor finished talking, the simulation resumed, and that’s when it happened.

I began to doze off, and awoke again with a snap. As I jerked forward, my elbow caught the door release control. Alarms blared, the lights turned red, and the door flew open. I had just accidentally voided the airlock. As far as the simulation was concerned, I had flushed the entire crew, who were all in the room at that moment, into space. As I had been too sleepy to remove my spacesuit, I was the only survivor.

Mouth agape, I stared at the counselor, who stared back. He was trying as hard as he could not to laugh. It’s probably considered bad form for a counselor to laugh at an awkward, embarrassed child. He passed that test with flying colors. I would have failed. Looking back on it now, I can’t help but laugh at the doofy, stumbling kid I had been. I was mortified, but the counselors took pity, and allowed us to continue anyway, even though the computer recorded the mission as a failure. Save that one incident, we passed. I’m still of the opinion that we never should have had the possibility of failing, as I’m reasonably sure that the airlock of the real shuttle isn’t held together with velcro.

The week came to a close. Elizabeth and I exchanged e-mails, but we only sent one or two before new schools and new teenage lives brought the exchange to a close. My mother and family picked me up, and I had finished reading the Harry Potter book before we got home. It’s strange, looking back, how my memories before and after the week are so much clearer and more powerful than those of the week itself. I’ll never forget the real Wei, but I had to strain to remember Elizabeth’s name, and if I’m being completely honest, I’m not sure I got it right. All the fun I had, all the wonderful moments and days, have blended together into one, a pleasant feeling more than a true memory. Meanwhile, my incredibly embarrassing day is burned into my mind permanently. Memory really is fickle at best. It’s okay with me, though, that that odd, largely unpleasant day is the one I remember the best, and I look back on it fondly. It’s made a great story to tell.