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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The Importance of Fiction

My life is ruled by fear. I sat here for twenty minutes trying to come up with a less dramatic phrase than that, but I couldn’t. From the minute I wake up to the minute I manage to fall asleep – usually far later than I intend to – I’m terrified. I have no doubt that this remains the driving force behind my absolute adoration of fiction. My entire life has been wrapped in stories, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

It began early on, I can tell you that much. When I was a kid, I devoured storybooks like there was no tomorrow, and it wasn’t long before I was reading adult novels. I think that even then, I knew that someday I would love horror, though if you can believe it, I never really saw horror films or read horror novels until I was 16. When I was a little boy, however, a combination of two things put a lock on that door for quite a while. Firstly, I saw part of Child’s Play 2 on TV at a Halloween party a friend was having. Secondly, I couldn’t stop reading scary story collections for kids. Bruce Coville’s wonderfully creative little collections come to mind, and to this day I can retell some of the stories point for point, though I read them nearly twenty years ago. The one about the little kids who wish it would never stop snowing and get their wish, as the world was slowly buried in ice. The story about the boy who literally fell to pieces when his parents got divorced. One stuck with me more than anything else, though. I don’t remember the title, and I think to look for it now would be to ruin the magic, but it was a tale of a young boy, who, while asleep, had an out of body experience, floating above his bed. As he floated, amazed, a plane collided with his house, sweeping his body away, leaving him a disembodied spirit. He roamed the world, seeking a body of his own. The tale was haunting and beautiful, and I had never read anything else like it. To this day, as I think of that story, I hear the beautiful tones of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, which played in my head during the entirety of the tale.

There were many, many others as well. A story about a grave digger with room for one more. An irish folktale about a creature who wanted his tail back. Murderers and thieves and monsters and things that defied description, I couldn’t stop reading about them if I tried. I had my mother take the books away and put them on top of the fridge, to keep them out of my hands until I was old enough, but it didn’t work. I would climb on a chair to get them back. Finally, I found the willpower to put these things away, by sliding from “More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” to science fiction.

When the film of Jurassic Park came out, I was seven years old, and I couldn’t go see it. My solution was to read the book instead, which was, of course, far more violent. I loved it, and it marked a transition point for me. I devoured Crichton’s entire works, and rapidly moved on to Asimov and Wells. From science fiction, the transition to fantasy was natural enough. Tolkien, Pratchett, Pullman, Lewis, I read them all. The incomparable Chrestomanci novels by the late, great Diana Wynne Jones have been a guiding force in my imagination since the day I picked up the Lives of Christopher Chant on a whim. These, of course, lead me to Harry Potter, sparking an obsession that lasts until today. I would pick a genre, author, or story series, almost at random, and I would read voraciously, and with great speed. I read the entire Borrowers series in a single 24 hour period, not daring to shut my eyes for fear of losing the magic. I can honestly say that these were the best moments of my life.

Movies fascinated me as well. As my teenage years approached, I would ride my bike to libraries and rental places, pockets jingling with quarters, collecting cans and looking on the ground everywhere I went for lost money and change, and every single solitary dime was spent renting movies, games, and paying library fines. Ah yes, video games too! As technology advanced, it became possible for a medium that had once been reserved for Pong and Super Mario Brothers to tell stories of genuine depth and interest. The Legend of Zelda, with its bare bones technique, spoke to me of  a larger story I could only dream of. The Final Fantasy franchise gave me rich, fascinating characters and deep, sympathetic villains the likes of which had never been in any films. I soon learned that video game stories had far more in common with books than movies, especially since at the time, they had to tell most of the tales in text. It was around this age that I discovered comic books, as well, the so-called modern myths.

This sparked a fascination not only with Spider-Man and Batman that have pursued me far into adulthood, but with the true myths of ages long passed. I began rapidly reading books detailing different versions of every myth imaginable, from the tales of trickster gods, to the monster slaying, half-divine heroes of the Greek and Roman tales. The location of these books in the library lead me inexorably to books on cryptozoology, psychics, and other strange and spiritual tales of the modern world. All of this coming together got me through to the day when I saw the movie Aliens, the first horror film I had seen since I was a child. At the time, I was adamant that I would never read or see horror again. I knew that my fascination with the subject bordered on addiction, and that once I began, I couldn’t stop, even when I terrified myself into being unable to sleep for days. My best friend at the time talked me into it, and I watched it in his basement, white-knuckled. Even then, at 16, I was beginning to exhibit signs of the anxiety that would eventually dominate me, but it was far milder, and I was able to overcome it more regularly. I took a deep breath, steadied my shaking hands, and proceeded to watch the most awesome two hours of film I had ever seen. It turned out that I had been right to be concerned. From that moment, I was addicted. Within a week, I had seen every Alien and Predator movie, and I rapidly branched out, renting every horror movie I could lay my hands on.

That entire summer was spent in the basement, huddled around VHS tapes of the Friday the 13th series, Freddy Krueger, Michael Meyers, Candyman, the list is endless. That was also when I picked up the single book that would affect my life the most deeply. Stephen King’s The Shining. The moment I read it, I was a different person. I attacked the King catalogue with an attitude akin to defeating an enemy. I HAD to read everything he had ever touched, and I tore into them, going for the kill. He lead me to Dean Koontz, who is another, admittedly smaller obsession of mine.

I’ll probably do blog entries on what individual series of all these things mean to me at some point in the future, but this is going to be more about the overall feelings I have toward fiction than any specific obsession. The purpose of that long, meandering, semi-stream of consciousness rant about how I found all of these things was simply to demonstrate one important fact. Fiction is and always has been the foundation of my life. The interesting question, and what I’m trying to answer even to myself by writing this, is WHY?

It’s easy enough at the start. As a kid, I was fairly awkward and strange. I didn’t make friends easily, so I resorted to fiction for entertainment and pleasure, as well as companionship. Stories couldn’t hurt me or betray me, and they were always right there waiting when I was ready to return to them. It remained that simple throughout all of high school. In the years that followed, however, I sank deeper into anxiety, delusions, and a lack of control, all brought on by the advancement of schizoaffective disorder and bipolar.

I reached a point, one I’m still basically at, though medication and therapy have provided some improvement, where all of my energy was spent in forcing my mind not to constantly worry about the future and the inevitability of endings in the real world. I’ve sought more and more fiction over the years, using it to recede from reality when it becomes too much to handle. The older I’ve gotten, and the worse my anxiety has become, the more I’ve become connected to two specific areas of fiction. Video games and horror.

Video games give me control that I feel I can never have of this life. They give me strength, and power, and allow me to relax a little bit, something I’ve never been able to do. People tell gamers to get a life fairly often. To this, the best response I’ve ever heard is “I have many lives.” Video games allow me to experience the impossible, and I can think of nothing more beautiful than every form of art we have coming together to allow someone to live a story, to BE the hero, to BE the villain. It’s a miracle in my eyes.

Horror, too, is all about control. I live in a constant state of fear. When suddenly seeing an unexpected bottle of sauce can send you into an irrational sense of dread, that fear can easily spread into the fear of BEING scared. I’m not just afraid. I’m afraid to do anything because I just know that there will be moments of fear within every action. It’s crippling. Horror lets me choose the exact time, nature, and location of my fear. It gives me control where otherwise I’d have none. I think I’ve instinctively understood this since I was a child, and that’s why it’s so addictive to me.

When I bury myself in fiction, I’m able to go on. Coupled with a powerful imagination, it gives me the ability to experience things that many people can’t even conceive of. It allows me to fight my way through the fog of anxiety and loneliness and feel truly alive in a way that nothing else ever has. When I read, I cease to see the page or the words. I’m there, in the head of every character, living what they lived, feeling what they feel. I catch myself acting moments of these tales out, exploring the words and motions, diagramming moments of action to see just how things worked. I’ve always had a huge difficulty accessing my own feelings, even though I know that they’re there and understand them quite well. Equally, I have difficulty connecting with the feelings of others. Even though I’ve always been able to sense and understand them, connecting to them, caring about them, has often eluded me. Books change that. I don’t know why, but for some reason I find that I’m able to access emotions that are otherwise lost to me when I read, and that gives me what I need to act and to feel. When someone I know is in crisis, I don’t necessarily feel for them. I feel for a similar character in a similar situation, even if I have to create that myself. Looking at the world through the lens of fiction is what allows me to interact with it.

Before my anxiety became too great, I used to couple this approach with my natural detachment and imagination to act. To me, it was the ultimate form of losing myself in fiction. I would be shaking, nervous, pale, deeply in terror, right up until the moment my foot hit the stage, and then I would be the other person. Kyle would become a gentle voice in the back of my head, and whoever I was playing would take over. I never for a moment felt like I was acting. It felt like tapping into some other world, and finding a new person waiting for me. I could be powerful, I could be popular. Using a fictional character as a bridge, I could feel. I still manage this often in my day to day life, but it’s simply not the same. The loss of acting is what I would consider one of, if not the greatest loss to my mental state.

Looking at it now, written down, my mind seems even more contradictory than it feels. I understand emotions, and can portray them better than most. I know this, because I fake almost all of my external emotions in day to day life, only able to connect to people through a lens of fiction. This is only possible, though, because of my lack of control over the ones I actually feel, and the detachment that results.

When I write, I exert that level of control on an entire world, which is intimidating to me. I reach blocks because I become concerned about the world I’m creating. I genuinely worry about the consequences for my characters. I find that this persists in other areas of my life as well. When playing an RPG, a type of game in which one traditionally controls a party of many characters, as opposed to a single one, I begin to feel bad that I’m underutilizing any given character. I want them to feel needed. It’s absurd, but it’s something I’ve never been able to shake. I feel like the worlds we create are every bit as real to the people within them as ours is to us. I feel like we may be background players in a story being told to someone else. From this, my friend Fernando and I have latched onto the concept of the Metashow.

The Metashow is the idea that we are characters in a sitcom or drama that some other universe somewhere is watching. Many people would argue that our lives aren’t particularly interesting or funny, but to them, I point out that all you need is 22 funny minutes a week. If enough interesting and funny things happen in your life and your friends’ lives to add up to 22 minutes a week (48 or so for an hour drama) then certainly you have enough for a show. After all, we never see the characters in Friends, or How I Met Your Mother, or Community on a commute, or doing their jobs without incident. It makes sense to me. After all, it’s mostly agreed now that there are multiple universes, and if they’re truly infinite, sure there must exist somewhere in the spectrum a world where I’m a character in a show. With this in mind, I often catch myself making decisions based on dramatic themes, or acting for laughs like I’m being watched when no one is around. It can be awkward and strange, and I often feel embarrassed for doing it, but mostly I just find myself thankful that we don’t live in one of the post-apocalyptic shows, or a musical comedy universe. Our world seems to be made up mostly of sitcoms and thrillers.

This concept is very similar to the one that drives me to believe in the supernatural and spiritual side of existence. Intellectually,  I know that ghosts, the afterlife, magic, fairies, leprechauns, and all things of the sort are likely total bunk. However, I find that choosing to believe in them, wanting to believe, to paraphrase a certain fictional hero of mine, makes life far more interesting and tolerable. If you go through life believing that at any given moment, a leprechaun may leap out from behind a bush, things just feel more interesting and magical. Of course, this can play into my paranoia and delusions, and make things far worse, as well. Which is why I keep a bottle of holy water in my room. It’s not because I believe in vampires. It’s in case I’m wrong about them.

This leads me to the most important thing about fiction, and why I’m so enamored with it that for all the negatives it can cause, all the downsides that have always come with it, I’d never change the fact that it’s so deeply ingrained in me even if I could. The world is beautiful BECAUSE we can so easily enter many more worlds. I don’t know if I believe in god or not, but I believe this: when it is said that he created us in his image, I am certain that it’s meant that we were granted the ability to create. To tell stories. We can take nothing and create whole worlds, and that makes each and every one of us divine. We can use incredible, absurd situations to tell human stories, and people like me can use them to connect to others when we may never have otherwise been able to. Fiction is both an escape from reality and a celebration of it, and that makes it the most sacred thing in this world.

 

Note: A truly, deeply heartfelt thanks to every author I mentioned here by name, and to all the ones I didn’t. I wouldn’t be who I am today without every single one of you.