As of today I’m not longer an employee of Brooklyn College or CUNY. I won’t get into the details other than to say that I had a Provost and an Associate Provost who both had my back, then the Provost left, a new one came in who wasn’t enamored of me, and she fired the old Associate Provost and brought in a new one that had an immediate issue with me. Thanks to my union I had 6 months to get ready before they could actually get rid of me, but unfortunately that has proven to not be enough time to get another gig under current conditions. I’ll keep looking.
I have a couple little things going that will help and another book payment which will tide me over for awhile. In the medium to long term the issue is simply that it’s unclear if I can get hired with my history. But I’m keeping up my spirits and trying to focus on the positive, especially no longer having to do a job I didn’t care for in an unhealthy environment. There may be an announcement soon about my future plans, I’m not sure. On to the next thing.
I had to say goodbye to my beautiful boy Miles this weekend, after more than 13 years together. I don’t know much what to say other than that I loved him completely and will miss him forever.
Some of you will know that Miles very nearly left us almost exactly five years ago. He came down with a condition called IMHA, and the vets told me he would likely not survive. Then the condition caused him to have a stroke during what was one of the very worst nights of my life. They told me he’d never leave the animal hospital. But thanks to the generosity of many strangers on the internet, I was able to raise the $13,000 his six days in the hospital cost, and he survived. I have never forgotten the generosity those strangers showed and never will. These five extra years have meant everything to me.
Things were not easy afterwards. He had to relearn to use his body, and even years after the fact I could tell the difference in his gait, how he struggled to get onto the couch. We went through, I think, nine different medications at one point or another following his stroke. I came very close to losing him some four months or so after. In order to try and prevent another stroke, he was put on blood thinners, but they were causing him to have terrible nose bleeds. In a weekend I filled a garbage bag full of paper towels saturated with his blood. And after watching him struggle that way, along with all the other struggles, I resolved to end it. What stopped me was a thought that I couldn’t shake as I looked at him: that this was a creature who would never ask, why me?
Today I find myself unable to adjust. It is remarkable how caring for him has determined my schedule, the feeding and walking. Even now I feel like it’s been too long since he’s been out and that I should grab the leash and call to him. He has been the rhythm of my days and I am alone and unmoored without him. Now I am forced to stay inside an apartment that could not feel more empty. Only my cat Suavecito helps. Those last few days Miles had wanted what he always wants, which is to be near me, physically, curled up next to me on the couch or at my feet or in bed, and I am grateful.
Miles was the gentlest being I’ve ever had the privilege to meet. He was everything I could ever want in a dog. I will never have another.
Hey friends, I’m happy to say that after a solid two weeks or so of illness I have felt near 100% the last two days. The fever is gone and the cough is now rare. I’m not sure if I had Covid-19 but whatever I had I seem to have beaten.
Here’s why I don’t know if I had it. Earlier this week I called the Covid hotline for NYS and was finally able to get an appointment for a test, this morning. The lady said to be sure to write out my appointment number on a piece of paper and bring my ID. I show up this morning to the parking lot of an old Sears and flash the ID number to the state cops. But they say “no walk-ins.” And I said no, I’m not a walk-in, I have an appointment. And the fucking guy says “you need a car. It’s a drive-in test.”
Setting aside the fact that the lady on the hotline said not one word of this, WHAT ABOUT PEOPLE WHO DON’T HAVE CARS IN FUCKING NEW YORK CITY.
I’m on day 6 of a persistent fever I can’t shake. It’s quite mild feeling – I have no idea what the temperature is because I don’t have a thermometer and I’m not about to go to Target to get one. I have a very occasional and sporadic cough but generally I take DayQuil/NyQuil and feel fine. I also have a weird taste in my mouth but what I read says the virus makes you have no taste. I should really call and check but as I understand it they don’t think mild symptoms need treatment and it’s supposedly really hard to get a test in the city right now.
I’ve already been pretty religious about social distancing and I’m being extra careful now. I’ve switched to delivery groceries. The only trouble is getting my creaky old dog out to pee and back four times a day. Keeping the six feet distance isn’t so hard on the street even in Brooklyn, but avoiding neighbors in the building is harder.
Who knows! It could easily be any other kind of bug. I feel shitty when I wake up in the morning and I take some medicine and feel fine. This strange season gets a little bit stranger.
You must socially distance yourself, and I am. It’s our duty in this moment. And it sucks, completely, but no one seems comfortable saying so.
Look, I have always understood the utter necessity of the measures we are taking, and I have followed the precautions recommended by experts from the beginning. I am 100% on board with the program and you should be too. I also am incredibly annoyed that this virus has become yet another excuse for people to engage in the only activity the internet enjoys, which is competitive righteousness. Everyone insists on being the only person who really, truly is down with the program. “I ALONE RECOGNIZE THE TRUE DEPTHS OF THIS PROBLEM! I AM THE LAST RESPONSIBLE MAN!” The sheer pomposity of it all.
And that has led to this atmosphere in which people are afraid to publicly admit their sadness and anger over all that they’re giving up. That’s deeply, deeply unhealthy. The first step in coping with loss is to recognize it, to understand the depths of your own pain.
Think of all that we’re giving up – concerts, museums, parties, festivals, drinks with friends, dates, football games, dinner with loved ones, travel, the presence of others. These things aren’t some trivial luxuries that only the privileged would mourn. They are the stuff of life. In a world that insists on replacing real pleasures with their sad virtual equivalents, these things are more vital than ever. We have been social distancing ourselves for decades – Uber to avoid the subway, Seamless to avoid restaurants, Skype to avoid face to face contact, podcasts and video game streaming to avoid real friendships, virtual reality to avoid real reality. This is the parasocial age, the age of the human facsimile. And now this. We have to acknowledge everything that we are losing, the things that make the human race human. We can’t do that if people treat acknowledging what we’ve lost as some betrayal of the need to look serious. And I’m so afraid that people are never going to come back, that they’ll get used to this new world and our last essential human connections with people we don’t know personally will be severed forever.
A couple weeks ago I lost one of my closest friends. It was a punch to the gut. And mutual friends and I said at the time that what we needed was to come together and mourn together, to memorialize him. Because the only way out is through; the only way to survive the pains of the world is to acknowledge them in their enormity. And now we can’t. We can’t bury our friend, thanks to this. And I’m so mad about it. I’m so mad. And you know what? I get to be mad. I am entitled to it. Just as I get to be mad that I might turn 40 alone in my apartment, that I may not travel again for years, that I won’t get to wander the halls of the Met anymore, that I will have essentially no ability to meet someone I might fall in love with, that I have no idea when I’ll next get to give my nieces a hug. I get to be mad about those things. And high school kids who’ll never go to graduation get to be mad, and the terminally ill who have to spend their last days indoors get to be mad, and so do people who just want to enjoy the spring in their local park. We all get to be mad.
The human cost of the disease and those it will kill is enormous. The cost of our prevention efforts are high as well. You’re losing something. You’re losing so much. So you should mourn. We’ve lost the world. Mourn for it.
The first night I met Nick Tucci, I kissed him. One of my oldest and dearest friends, he died last week, of an illness, and I have been spending the last several days not processing, not even mourning really. I’d need to process first and I just can’t. But I suppose I should back up.
It was our sophomore year of high school, fall of 1996. My buddy Brian Biegen, who I had befriended that semester, had invited me to his Halloween party, and I was excited and intimidated in that way of high school social events. I had my tight crew of friends already, Ben and Adam and Matt and more, and in that wonderful way when you’re young, my social world was also growing, with no loss to my old friendships. (Make new friends and keep the old, you know?) And I needed it, as my home life was wreckage and was destined to get worse in the months to come. So I needed things to go to, people to spend time with, anywhere to be but home. And Brian had asked me to his party, and I was surprised and charmed.
Brian specifically mentioned it as a chance to meet Nick. Through some strange quirk of scheduling Nick and I had never shared a class or club or sport together. (For some inscrutable reason in Middletown CT grades 6-8 students are always divided into three “clusters.”) But Nick and I knew each other by reputation – even beyond the fact that he had kicked my ass in an all-district spelling bee. It wasn’t hard to know of Nick’s reputation; he loomed large, even then. There was always a quality about him that was larger than life. And he had come up in Bio, as I chatted with Brian, my old friend Jamie Clark, and Scott Walsh, who I would go on to become close friends with. So that was one little part of the reason I was excited for the party.
It was outdoors; we really just kind of kicked it around Brian’s neighborhood. (This made my “costume” of my father’s pajamas somewhat less then ideal, given that it dipped below 40, but oh well.) Some people got candy, if I recall correctly. I seem to remember that the party kind of split in two, two separate groups. Other than the cold I had a fine time, as we just wandered and goofed around (yes there were girls there), threw rocks at street signs, talked shit. And I got to know Nick a little bit.
Oh, so the kiss. At some point the topic turned to gay rights and gay panic, which was probably as sophisticated a conversation as you can imagine. Nick mentioned that he was progressive and secure enough to kiss another man, and I quickly said that I felt the same. The challenge was basically on – if I remember correctly Jason Coleman dared us – and so we exchanged a quick peck, maybe two hours into our friendship.
Looking back now, of course, in a world of woke discourse, you could see it as unenlightened. There is a macho quality to that sort of display, and on some level the point was “see how not gay I am, I can even kiss another dude.” But give us a break. We were 15. And as ridiculous as it may be it was a declaration of principles for both of us. That’s one of the things I loved most about him; he lived according to principle. He had a stern and unapologetic sense of how he thought life should be lived.
The following Monday in class, Brian asked me what I thought of Nick. In some words or another, I told him the truth: that Nick was the heat. He was the heat. I’m not trying to be arch or poetic, here. I’m just trying to use the best language I can. Nick was someone who burned, all the time, burned with intensity. And it was clear from the moment I started to get to know him. He was someone who was fully himself, and that person was totally unconcerned with other people’s attachment to the quotidian and laid back. He was going to feel deeply and to display those feelings without reservation.
That year I would get deeply involved in the high school newspaper, Blue Prints, as he already was. In time we would both go on to be editors, and spend many long hours with our friends Rachel Kamins and Jonah Schulz and Heather Cosgrove debating the editorials that we took so seriously. (That paper was really, really fucking good, by the way, no joke. 987/1000 from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association and frankly I think they sold us short.) And I would come to share classes with Nick, and to see him at the gatherings put together by the burgeoning Party Crew. But mostly we just became friends in the uncomplicated way that you do when you’re young and that you spend the rest of your life wishing you could get back.
One day we were talking shit about the tattoos we’d get once we were old enough, and he was saying how cool it would be to have them going down your fingers, spelling out a phrase. A couple years later, when we were 18 or 19, he got sick and had to take some time of from school and went off to Chicago to recuperate. And when he came back he had tattoos on his fingers. So of course the challenge was on, and that summer my friend Cara Frank Brooks and I went to get our first tattoos, and today I have tattoos on my fingers that I am only half-embarrassed of. (I wish I could follow his example and not feel any embarrassment at all. The man once got a skull tattooed in the center of his palm.)
Here was a guy who was a football star, champion track runner, amateur boxer, weightlifting enthusiast his entire life. He was certainly macho. He was also one of the most wonderfully pretentious artists I’ve ever met, someone who attacked the work of being an actor with the same blind conviction he did anything and who was willing to wax philosophical about whatever abstruse aesthetic theory you can name. I’ve seen him cry on multiple occasions. He was so traditionally masculine and also such a sensitive, feminine guy, so surprising in his emotions. And he wore it all without pretense or artifice.
When I moved to New York I was intimated, though I never would have admitted it at the time. And of course Nick was there, helping me move into my new apartment, introducing me to cool people he knew, showing me Ridgewood. It was such a comfort to have someone like him nearby. We didn’t see each other often, the last few years; we didn’t have to. We’d reconnect after six months and go belly up to some bar and talk for hours, him hitting me with his idiosyncratic (to say the least) politics, me waxing philosophical about what it meant to be a man in the world today. And me telling, for the hundredth time, how I could have gotten an A+ from our teacher, and his father, Mr. Tucci (always Mr. Tucci to me, always) if I had only bothered to proofread.
When I think of Nick, and I think of his intensity, I think of the fact that he gave me permission. Because his intensity was so direct and so defiant, it gave me permission to be intense myself; it made me think that intense was a thing that a person could be, that it wasn’t embarrassing, but rather a facet of being fully alive. I never had any choice; we are what life makes of us, not what we make of ourselves, though Nick and I spent decades trying to prove otherwise. In being his own intense self, his ceaselessly direct and utterly committed self, he showed me another way, though I have never been quite strong enough to take it.
After I ended up at the hospital, two and a half years ago, wracked with mania once again, I didn’t want to see anyone. Well, that’s not quite right. I went into a year of almost total exile because I did not want to see any acquaintances, to see anyone with whom I had any kind of a normal relationship, to see anyone who was a casual friend. Being forced to go to work to see people who knew my name and did not know me was torture. But I was comforted by the faces of strangers, and New York mercifully provided them. And I survived because of the people with whom my relationships were as intense as my heart, even as my fire was doused by a half-dozen drugs – my family, my Snow School brothers Ben and Adam and Ben, Matt, Heather, Cara, my ex-girlfriend Liz, and a handful more that I wish I could name. And of course one of the first people I called, when I was ready, was Nick. I did not tell him about it. I didn’t need to; it wouldn’t have made any difference. In time it became clear that he had heard about it, and of course he didn’t care. He was who he was, and he took me for who I was, and as in all things he was thoroughly and only himself, and he was my friend.
It’s been more than a year since I’ve seen him. Like I said, it was like that. We’d drop in and out and it was always like no time had passed at all. I always trusted that it would always be that way. And now I’ll never see him again.
Here I feel like I should end with some wisdom, with some saying that explains it all, some uplifting thing. But I can’t. I want to see my friend, and he’s gone forever. I feel like I’ve been cut in half. All I want is to hear his voice again, with that endless conviction, telling me that someday we will understand all things. All things. All things.
I’ve written about this before, so maybe this is just part of the greatest hits. I don’t know.
We are living in an era in which we have ostensibly seen improvements in the visibility of people living with mental illness and in public understanding and support for them. From my limited vantage the average American seems more aware of specific disorders and the symptoms associated with them than they were in my youth. We are, at least, less likely to be confronted with overt stigmas against having a mental illness and more inclined to understand that many millions of Americans suffer from one.
It has not all been progress. There is a weird sense in which the effort to destigmatize mental illness has led some people to sort of sunnily ignore the myriad negative aspects of having one. I have been frequently confused by people who, having learned of my mental illness, react by essentially expressing the attitude that my illness must not impact my behavior or otherwise threaten my grip on life. This is well-meaning, I guess, to think that mental illness is so normal as to be unworthy of mention. But it is the opposite of what those with mental illnesses need, which is precisely an understanding that mental illness alters behavior – that the mentally ill are not the camera-ready crazy dreamers the movies have sold to you, but regular human beings who are flawed in all the normal ways and have the added problem of reduced impulse control, delusions about the current reality, and compromised cognitive functioning.
At an extreme you have the new and bizarre ritual of people insisting after a mass shooting that a shooter could not possibly be mentally ill, as mental illness never compels people to violence. (To say otherwise would be to promote stigma.) But some mentally ill people, a minority but some, most certainly are inclined to violence when symptomatic, and it only hurts their interests to pretend otherwise.
(This question is not the same as the question about whether people who suffer from mental illness are responsible for their behaviors while symptomatic. I am, personally, but that’s a far different conversation than I want to have.)
I suspect that in fact recent woke norms about mental illness have contributed to one of the most casually destructive attitudes one can have: the sense that the only real expression of mental illness is in psychosis. Mental illness is normal, so it becomes relevant only in those cases where someone is so far gone that the facade of normalcy crumbles. But mental health symptoms are spectral, not binary, and in fact most people become symptomatic gradually, with no clear break between a lucid reality and a delusional mindset. And in these stages, these grey pre-psychotic areas, help can potentially be most effective: it can save people a great deal of problems by intervening before they hit someone, before they spend all their money, before they make paranoid threats, before they commit the behaviors that they then have to account for when they are in recovery and thus in their most vulnerable state.
The problem is that the system seems set up to make getting help in these stages impossible.
My experience in 2017 seems typical. My bipolar cycle is exceptionally slow, depression and mania building in turn over the course of months. I certainly don’t envy people with rapid cycling bipolar disorder, but the alternative offers its own challenges. For me it is a perfect example of the classic trope of the boiling frog: my cycles descend on me so slowly and gradually that I don’t notice them until they are at such an acute stage that they become unmistakable. In a depressive phase this is tricky because depression makes things like getting to see a psychiatrist for meds and securing a therapist seem like an impossible mountain to climb. In a manic phase the condition is worse, as the paranoia makes me view treatment with suspicion and thus anyone who suggests it as a potential enemy who is working towards nefarious ends.
Events and my own bad behavior made treatment impossible to avoid, though I was able to stave it off long enough to inflict permanent injury to my own life and to treat others inexcusably. I was forced into care. Most importantly, my brother got involved and came up to New York to get me into treatment, without which I think it would have required arrest before I would have entered into any kind of program.
We first went to a facility that has a dedicated psychiatric emergency room, which seemed like the place where my problems were most likely to be taken seriously. And yet when I got worked up there the doctor did not take me seriously. I was ambulatory, I was communicative, I was unrestrained, and these facts alone seemed to signal to him that I was not a candidate for emergency psychiatric care. This despite my loudly stated and deeply sincere belief that there was a conspiracy working against me and that they would soon turn to violent means to hurt me. He asked me about my first break when I was younger, an event which certainly qualifies as full-blown psychosis and ended with me shot up with Haldol. He seemed unimpressed.
Eventually it became clear that we were doing a dance that, I have to believe, happens all the time: the admitting psychiatrist would only entertain admission if I indicated I was a danger to myself and to others – that is, if I was willing to say the magic words that can trigger involuntary commitment. But giving up control over my life and being forced to placate shadowy authority figures to get it back was utterly against the desires of my paranoid mind. I was facing a far-too typical dilemma: how I could get admitted without being committed. How could I prove the severity of my problem without triggering the potentially devastating consequences of involuntary commitment?
This is the terrible bind people with mental illness sometimes find themselves in: the sense among loved ones and even medical professionals that people lucid enough to know they need help are therefore too lucid to need help. That is the Catch-22, the bind. And experience suggest to me that it represents a clear impediment to care. How many people with a deep need for care have declined to seek professional help for fear of ending up in involuntary commitment, giving up their personal autonomy in the most basic sense?
I’m sure some would question whether someone who was lucid enough to attempt to avoid involuntary commitment was really experiencing a psychotic episode. Well, first, for me specifically, it makes sense: my manic states are characterized by extreme paranoia more than anything else. I see enemies everywhere. Knowing that the intervention of medical personnel invites risk of catching a 9.27(a) changes my paranoid behavior and gives me a very convenient excuse to avoid treatment. More to the point, it seems to me that progress will come precisely when we stop seeing manic states in binary terms of psychotic and minor. Too many people in the mental health community seem not able to understand that for many, there are periods in which the need for help becomes obvious to the conscious mind even while the perceptions of that mind become more and more distorted.
Leaving that hospital in Staten Island was one of the most brutal “what the fuck do I do now?” moments of my life. Ultimately sheer pragmatism pushed me in the direction of outpatient care: while there were surely private facilities that would have taken me on as an admitted patient, navigating the thicket of America’s health insurance system made inpatient care seem impossible. It took days more, and some deeply unpleasant medical misadventures while in a manic state, but I was able to connect with a doctor who got me on a short-term antipsychotic that made possible my adherence to a full treatment regimen, including long-term oral antipsychotics. I got lucky. I had the right friends and the support of family and enough money on hand to pay out of pocket. Many people don’t have those things.
I recognize that inpatient care is not appropriate for all patients or in all cases. I understand that in New York at least there is a city-wide effort to steer more patients away from costly hospital stays and towards outpatient care. I even broadly agree with that effort. And some would say that my experience demonstrates the system working, that outpatient care has worked and that pursuing it was more appropriate than being admitted for days or weeks. I don’t know, maybe they’re right.
I do know, though, that the conversation with me and that ER psychiatrist was a deeply unhealthy, disordered thing, both of us stalking around a legal definition that would compel him to act in a way that I found untenable. I am certain that this dynamic plays out all the time. I recognize that the life of an ER psychiatrist is likely difficult and that, given how often they experience psychosis, anything less than a full-blown case might seem like a waste of time. But there has to be a space between involuntary commitment on one hand and sedatives and the street on the other. One of the most basic needs of someone seeking psychiatric care is to have their problems reaffirmed as real problems, and yet bureaucratic and legal entanglements push doctors to see patients first as potential vectors for liability. It’s just not healthy for either side of the equation.
Triage is a fact of life in medicine. But the triage nurse should not be a formidable barrier to care, and too often, I have reason to believe, they are. If I fall out of a tree and tell my doctor that I think I broke my leg, that belief does not somehow complicate his or her diagnosis of whether I in fact did. And if I, now 17 years removed from my first diagnosis, am capable of acknowledging to medical personnel that I have descended again into manic hell, that should not confuse anyone into thinking that my condition is therefore not dire. If we are to dismantle stigma, let’s dismantle this one while we’re at it: the pernicious and false notion that people who can perceive their own illness aren’t really ill.