Wednesday, January 23, 2013

How to Not Disappear

"Allie, don't let me disappear. Allie, don't let me disappear. Allie, don't let me disappear. Please, Allie."

--J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

When I was 20 years old, I had a total breakdown.  It took the doctors a while to figure out what was wrong with me.  Eventually, we all realized it was something called "Depersonalization Disorder."  It's very hard to describe.  There's a movie called "Tarnation" directed by a gay man named Jonathan Caouette.  This movie captures the feeling better than anything.  When I watched it, I cried, not because I was sad, but because I felt empathy and solace that there was someone in the world who knew what it felt like.

When it was really bad, it was almost totally debilitating.  It feels like you are detached from yourself, and not in a peaceful "Nirvana" sort of way, but more in a "holy-shit-I'm-losing-my-mind" sort of way.  The best I ever did to describe it was this sentence:
I feel like a headless ghost, like I'm disappearing.
It never really goes away.  There is no cure.  What you have to do (and this is unspeakably difficult) is accept it, and keep going forward, keep living your life.  When I was around 25, I re-read The Catcher in the Rye.  I'd read it in high school, but I didn't really "get" it until I was a 25-year-old college student with a weird mental illness, living with my parents, and struggling to figure out what the hell I was supposed to do with my life.  That book, like, spoke to me.  Especially this part, when Holden is wandering around New York City, and this happens:
"Anyway, I kept walking and walking up Fifth Avenue, without any tie on or anything. Then all of a sudden, something very spooky started happening. Every time I came to the end of a block and stepped off the goddam curb, I had this feeling that I'd never get to the other side of the street. I thought I'd just go down, down, down, and nobody'd ever see me again. Boy, did it scare me. You can't imagine. I started sweating like a bastard – my whole shirt and underwear and everything. Then I started doing something else. Every time I'd get to the end of a block I'd make believe I was talking to my brother Allie. I'd say to him, "Allie, don't let me disappear. Allie, don't let me disappear. Allie, don't let me disappear. Please, Allie." And then when I'd reach the other side of the street without disappearing, I'd thank him."
The idea of feeling like you are disappearing and wanting desperately not to feel like that resonated with me.
Around this time, I moved into an apartment in downtown Fullerton with some friends, graduated with a degree in English and decided I'd rather die than work some corporate job.  So I just kept going to school.  I entered a Master's program because, for me, reading and writing were the only things that didn't feel like a total waste of time.
Art became important too.  In the depth of my illness, I took a lot of art classes at Fullerton College.  I learned how to draw and paint and take pictures and make videos.  For me, art was more than a fun little hobby.  It was my bridge to reality.  Even though I felt like I was disappearing, when I created something, it was there.  It existed.  And I made it.  It was evidence that I was not a headless ghost, that I was real.
It's funny, the paths our lives take.  Somehow, my friends and I decided to open an art gallery in downtown Fullerton, Hibbleton Gallery.  Opening the gallery changed my life.  Suddenly, I was not a ghost.  I was a very visible part of a community.  Despite all the financial and other struggles of owning an art gallery, it became the vehicle through which I "found myself."  I discovered that this was something I was good at, that had meaning for me, and I just ran with it.
I've never stopped.  Now, almost five years later, I'm part of this jubilant and exciting art scene in Fullerton.  The weird shy kid with the mental illness is now some kind of public figure, a leader even.  I say this with a strange mixture of humility and pride.  I'm humbled at the success of the Fullerton art community, and I'm proud to be an important part of it.
Though I still struggle with my illness, I no longer feel like I'm disappearing.  I feel very real and alive, and a part of something that matters.  If you feel like you are disappearing, don't despair.  Follow your heart, don't be afraid of other people, and run like hell toward your own beautiful, weird dream.

Here's the trailer for "Tarnation" directed by Jonathan Caouette

1 comment:

  1. Art can turn a terrifying thing into something beautiful. Like this post, Jesse. Kind of like a miracle. I love you.--Dad