And that's not just a joke. This past September I really bottomed out. I started telling my friends something that I'm sure scared the shit out of them. I had submitted a favorite unpublished short story of mine to a wide array of possible landing places earlier in the summer, and in early September I received the final rejection, and my heart broke, and I decided that I was going to kill myself the following April.
Why not immediately? Because there were other parts of life I enjoyed besides authoring the art in my heart, and six months would be a nice little quiet coda before I finally gave in to the continuing chorus of my life's awful score.
"No matter how hard you try, no matter how hard you work, you will lose when it matters most, so you should just kill yourself, you fucking idiot loser."
And for the record, I did not start out that way. I was a happy and hopeful kid, which has me convinced that pessimism and optimism are reactions to life, not predictors of future outcomes, and that people are drawn to optimism because it's proof of the optimistic people being the recipients of life's arbitrary dispensing of good luck, and who doesn't want good luck on their side? And conversely pessimism is therefore poison because who doesn't want to avoid bad luck whenever possible?
If things had turned out more hopefully for me in a fuck-ton of ways throughout my life, the chorus of my score wouldn't be that I should kill myself, I promise you.
I won't list my woes here, because that's not the point of bringing them up other than to say that the April Decision was the tip of an enormous iceberg, and that that iceberg is and was a very real thing consisting of a great many memories and moments wherein even a sip of success was always followed by a god damned kick to the face.
I've walked my life in my shoes; this is not about waking up sad and feeling blue for no reason, and it is not only about my art being a commercial failure.
Sometimes I tell this story to strangers—including the scroll of woes I'm omitting on this blog—and about half of them have the same question: "Wow, that...wow. So how were you planning on doing it?"
We'll get to that.
The point is I'd decided to do it, and it was a very real thing. And while I thought a weight would be lifted off my shoulders when I'd finally made the decision, things only got heavier and worse.
I had a crush on this girl I really liked—I thought maybe she'd been sent to my world to existentially rescue me from the oblivion of absolute failure in everything I considered important in life—but instead she fucked everyone I know except me, including my best friend at the time, and essentially exists in my life now as a constant reminder that I'm an unattractive loser.
Which all only seemed to confirm the decision.
Let's talk about fitting, because what happened next is proof that real life really does spin a great tale. What happened next is that I was finishing up a shift at La Fiesta when my old friend Derek and his wife Mary and their child Mack came in, and I greeted them with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. Derek and I used to play baseball together and have been friends for a long time (he was our great team's catcher), and he married Mary shortly after I moved back to Cleveland from Los Angeles. They'd already had Mack together, I was in the wedding, and I was relieved to see that Derek had married someone who was much more in touch with reality, haha. Anyway, and terribly sadly, soon thereafter Mary was diagnosed with a pernicious and persistent form of cancer, and for the last few years she's been fighting her ass off.
It's significant that Mary was there that night because she was always the person I checked my misery against. No matter how bad things were, I wasn't undergoing intense life-or-death medical treatment.
Here's the problem with that, though, and why it didn't ultimately sustain me: I'm both selfish and empathetic, so it only makes me more depressed to know that others have it worse than I do.
In fact, Mary has actually scolded me for my suicidal tendencies on a few occasions, and has shamed me for complaining, which is her right, but as I've mentioned, I've walked in my shoes all my life, and I would argue that reaching a point where you are desiring to die might indicate that there are actually worse fates (perhaps more subtly worse) than having to undergo intensive life-or-death medical treatment.
And there are those who might/will argue that I'm an asshole for suggesting that "someone whose depression could be cured with a pill" could complain that he has it worse than a cancer survivor, and I would argue that there are only some forms of depression that can be cured with a pill, and therapists are the blind leading the blind, as all the psychologists and psychology majors I've ever met were trying to figure out why they were so fucked up.
And the worst part is, all the other purveyors of wisdom are just as clueless. I mean, they might have a thing or two of real value, but the rest of what they say has gaping holes that always bleed my faith dry.
I've had to patch together my own nameless philosophy, and look where it was leading me.
Anyway, it's fitting that Mary was there because she has the most miserable biography I know personally, and the fact that my April Decision didn't unravel when seeing her again seemed to only cement its correctness further into place—cement on cement at this point.
And then my parents—the adorable Vic and Sue—showed up and sat at the the next table down from Derek and Mary's.
That was not a common occurrence—usually my work involved me nodding at people I obliquely knew and otherwise turning into a Terminator programmed to clear all finished things and refill all unfinished things.
But I eventually got phased from my hosting position and sat down with my parents, and once again they asked me why I looked so depressed, and I told them about pretty much everything but the plans to kill myself.
It was a dark conversation.
Besides the coda of my life, there was also the idea that it's always been the thought of my parents' terrible grief that suspended my self-destruction. And the morbid thinking went that by April the family would have my brother Joe's children to curb the familial woe of my passing.
I don't think people get it, but I was facing the idea that by following my heart, and steadfastly dedicating my time and effort towards my heart's requirements, I had wasted the majority of my life, and that I didn't know what to follow next, if not my heart, because it's not like my brain was trustworthy, seeing as how much it had let down my heart, despite both's greatest efforts. So I was so lost that I was beginning to weigh the existential balance of nonexistence—not only beginning to but had pretty much seen the scales tell me their wretched conclusion.
That's kind of what we talked about, until suddenly there was a young man talking to everyone at our table.
My friend and coworker Joey Priore is a prime number, and by that I mean I've never known anyone else like him. He is a unique individual—a reductive way of describing him briefly would be to ask you to picture a manic-depressive currently on the delightful side of manic—and he was circling around the restaurant that night, and he ended up at the table full of Donatellis, where he said, "Oh, Dan, I'm so glad I ran into you; I've lined up a show for 9/11—I mean, you know, not FOR 9/11, but on that night—and anyway I think you should come up there and join me, man, and do some jokes, do some stand-up comedy, because you're so funny, bro, and I just thought you should do it."
I hemmed and hawed, and then he was gone, and my parents were looking at me like, "Well, you're going to do it, right?"
And of course I was, but not because they expected it of me, but rather because of a bizarre clinching reason: On the morning of the actual 9/11, I first heard about the attack while on my way back from an 8:00am class. That class's subject? Public speaking.
A convincing coincidence, to this desperate fucker right here, at least.
So I decided to do it, and I ducked into the "Stand-up Jokes" draft in my Gmail, and I sought out my material, and I started to practice it, alone and to my friends, like, conversationally.
And then it was 9/11.
I barely slept the night before, and all day the idea of the night's performance bounced around in my my mind like a starving gorilla in a banana factory. I was not looking forward to it, but something within me was telling me to go, and eventually the day slowly paced itself to the point where I could leave.
I headed for a dive bar in a fairly shitty part of Cleveland. It was early September and yet already unseasonably chilly, and it was raining with that perfect cadence that is the textbook definition of Rain—the steady kind where huge pools of water begin to slowly accumulate in parking lots that were formerly safe to cross with ease, and yet now must be crossed as if solving a simple riddle involving important little differences in depth, lest thy ankles get annoyingly wet.
Anyway, once I zigzagged across the parking lot I entered a shitty dive bar and saw that Joey was not there yet, so I ordered a beer and got into a conversation with one of Joey's friends—C', twenty-fiveish, handsome fella, and clearly a smart person who is so troubled by his intelligence he uses drugs, like the way I use drugs. So we got along fine, but at that point I was a person who just wanted to die, so I was looking around at this shitty dive bar and talking to a dude who was telling me about getting healthy while I could see two puncture-holes in his forearm. It just made me more depressed, until eventually Joey showed up, and I found that even he couldn't pull me out of my despair, which was only being exacerbated by the idea that I, in the mood I was in, would soon be called upon to try to make people laugh.
I drank Guinness and talked to C' while Joey set up the stage area—told him the story of how, on my birthday, the woman I liked and had been flirting with for months had ended up being raped by or regretfully fucking this creepy little gremlin person I know—and I couldn't shake my shitty feeling, so I told them both I was going to go try to take a nap in my car and recharge myself, maybe. They said fine, and off I zigzagged back through the tides of the parking lot, through the cold rain.
When I got inside the car, I just stared through the windshield, at the raindrops plopping on the glass and distorting the trees and sky and power lines. I found it interesting enough that I recorded a small sample of it on my phone, and then I went back to just staring at it. I probably also smoked a quick one-hitter just to try to rescramble a brain that had already been scrambled to diarrhea, but the main thing I did was stare through that windshield, at those raindrops, while, I swear to you, I felt all the life and life-energy draining out of me—I was accepting it, that outcome. I was allowing myself to just empty, because I was done with everything I was filled with, not in a good way but in a final way—DONE. Fuck this, fuck that, just let yourself drain; your animation has led you into snaketraps your whole life, now let yourself just die, you miserable fuck. The eternal slumber of death is, to some, like trying to wake up from a nightmare is, to others.
Fuck the April timeline—I was just done.
One day I realized that I had reached my mid-thirties and could fit everything in the world I owned into my aging Jeep Cherokee, and it's not like I've been trying to live simply. To quote one of my own jokes, "I'm a lot like Gandhi, except he didn't own anything on purpose." And I realized that in a way that sad fact represented all the truth of my life: a tremendous failure from within, an insignificant failure from without. I would pack all my belongings into my Jeep and find somewhere solid to fucking slam that Jeep into, with a tank full of gas, with the intention being that I'd die on impact and then I and all of my useless shit would burn, to be all the more easily disposed of without being remembered, for why should there be any commemoration of a fucking shitty emo narrative?
That was the plan, that was my thinking.
Instead I sat there and watched the windshield, and I emptied of energy and the desire to live, until it was all gone, and I was still just sitting there, looking at all that glass and the distortions from the water—I wasn't even praying for help, wasn't asking for direction, was just a lump of quiet, given-up humanity. I truly wish I could describe the reality of that moment to you—something utterly unique in my life. I've ALWAYS had a plan, always known exactly why I was doing what I was doing, and yet it had led me to that moment, that moment of utter emptiness of any desire of any kind, to live, to be happy, anything. I sat in that emptiness, and it might have only been minutes, but the clock of life was frozen, and it stayed frozen, until something happened.
Deep within my body, and totally unbidden, I felt an internal sensation like a pilot light being ignited, and then felt the quiet roar of warmth, and then a question thundered through my head and bones and entire being: "ARE YOU SERIOUSLY NOT GOING TO FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE?"
The power and incredulity of whatever within or without me voiced that question supplied its own answer, because I started crying as hard as I've ever cried in my life, just sloppily bawling—neither in joy nor in woe, but rather it felt like a swollen body of dammed rage had broken within me, and was flooding everything out, washing everything away, to begin the renaissance.
The paradigm shift.
That moment alone in my aging Jeep, when an internal or external God finally spoke up, that's the most important moment of my life so far, and I still cry every time I think about it—am full of tears now, as I type this (and will be later, when I proofread it).
By the time I stepped out of that car, into the steady rain of night, my internal composure amounted to, "ALL RIGHT, YOU DUMB-ASS DAY-LABORERS, WHO'S READY TO HEAR SOME FUCKING JOKES?!"
Here's my thinking: Back when I used to play baseball, I was a big-time pitcher, and I actually enjoyed it when I had to pitch with the bases loaded, because then there was just absolutely no margin for error, and that challenge always drove me to my best performances. And I think the April Decision was me loading the bases of my life, to see how I would perform, and what happened is that because the bases were loaded, the idea of something that I'd been thinking about for fifteen years—performing stand-up comedy—went from being nauseatingly terrifying to simply something I would do as a bucket-list thing before I fucking killed myself.
No big whoop.
It was no longer nearly as scary, and what happened is that Joey Priore played a set and then introduced me as the night's stand-up comedian, and I performed the jokes I'd brought, which garnered absolutely no response other than, at one point during one of my favorite jokes, which involves not wanting to live near black people, two concerned white women yelled out, "You're gonna get shot!"
Zero laughs and two warnings about how black people were going to murder me for one of my jokes.
Afterwards, I felt nothing: neither pride nor disgrace. (Today it's darkly funny to me when I think about how my comedy career began by bombing on 9/11.)
The problem with the show was that nobody there gave a fuck either way. While Joey was performing, C' and I were the only ones clapping and paying attention, and while I was performing, Joey and C' (and the two concerned women) were the only ones listening and responding.
The only other feedback I received was from C', who advised that I get in front of an actual audience, because he thought my jokes were pretty funny, but he also knew the limitations of the dive-bar crowd, especially at my nascent phase of development, so he told me to go to an open mic he knew of, in Mentor.
The fact that it was in Mentor is significant, because remember the chorus of my life? It started with the city of Mentor.
What I mean by that: Remember how I mentioned my formerly being a good baseball pitcher? Well, that was partially because I almost never stopped working towards being the best baseball player possible when I was a kid, from throwing baseballs at trees in my backyard to refining my delivery in the basement in the dead of winter. I was on the all-star team for basically my whole playing life, and we were incredibly good, but we could never beat the all-star team from a large local neighborhood called Mentor.
(And how fitting is that name for teaching one a life-lesson?)
Skip to my senior year, my team is ranked sixth in the state, I am undefeated as a pitcher (am, in fact, on my way to being awarded second-team all-state status), and our playoff opponent is none other than our old nemesis, Mentor. We'd still never been able to beat them, but we had the better team by then, and it was our time. If my life were a movie, this was when we would finally slay the Red Dragon.
Except my life isn't a movie (or at least it isn't an American movie).
I worked my god damned ass off as a baseball player, and in the most important game of my life, against my longtime rival, I pitched, and we lost 4–3. I didn't pitch or hit all that well, and neither did any of my teammates. All that potential, all that time, all that work, and defeated by the same dicks as ever.
So fucked. So incredibly fucked.
Fortunately for my psyche, but unfortunately in general, I already had one foot out of the door when it came to baseball, anyway, because despite all my success, I wasn't hearing from any colleges, and in my heart I knew it wasn't really the true love of my life.
I was a kid who read books of poetry on the bus to away baseball games. I still remember reading a novel called The Beach on the bus, totally enraptured by and jealous of the smooth flow of Mr. Garland's prose, and then I'm sure I dominated whoever it was we played against, as long as it wasn't Mentor.
So eventually I fuckin' walked away.
I'd had all the fun I was ever going to have with baseball, and I walked away—but only after working my ass off and losing twice, once to Mentor, and again to the machinations that left me with exactly one scholarship offer, to a school that, when I visited it, basically came off as an expensive trailer park full of idiots.
I turned all the focus of my life to Writing. I went to Ohio University and studied Magazine Journalism, History, and Philosophy. All of it was to feed the same directive: accumulation of knowledge, refining of voice.
I accumulated knowledge, I refined my voice, I wrote books and jokes and screenplays and poems, I read the same but by the best and of course found myself wanting but in that wanting inspired to keep moving forward, into that delightfully brilliant atmosphere of excellence. I didn't even bother submitting my writings anywhere; it wasn't about that yet.
When I felt ready, I went back and edited and rewrote my old books and self-published them, and then I wrote new books, and did the same with those.
I submitted other things to publications and agents; they garnered a little bit of interest and yet were all ultimately rejected.
Now you're caught up to the beginning, where my books' sales were a fucked piece of shit, and I wanted to die because the chorus was still happening: "No matter how hard you work, it's fucked, bro, so just kill yourself, you fucking pussy loser."
And it had happened again, and again.
As to the wisdom of speaking to myself in such terms, like I have throughout all of this, I agree that it's fucked, and I swear to you I'm working on it. My problem with completely switching to blissful positiveness is this piece of wisdom I culled from an entertaining fan of history: (I'm quoting this from memory, so it's probably not exact, but the gist is there.)
"Nations ascend the staircase in wooden shoes and descend the staircase in silk slippers."
I believe my woeful opinion of myself essentially forces me to constantly refine my edges, to improve my inner and outer existence—always looking to climb the stairs, even if it's in wooden shoes.
It comes down to striking the right balance—the wooden shoes are fine, but is the hair shirt necessary?—and that is part of the work that lies ahead for me.
Ultimately I decided that I needed to see if I actually had any ability at performing stand-up, and I took C''s advice, to go to that open mic and perform my jokes. For it to count on the bucket list, I needed to hear the boos or the laughs—telling jokes to liquor bottles turned out not to count in my mind.
I didn't tell anyone else about it, just went myself, signed up, saw that the crowd included a very young girl who would be potentially traumatized by my fucked-up jokes, so I moved myself down the list and figured she'd be gone by the time I went on.
But of course she wasn't. She was still there, and suddenly the host had just handed me the microphone, and everything was quiet and expectant. I took off my sweatshirt to reveal my Mayfield Athletics T-shirt, because the long-awaited comeback had begun.
I speak rapidly, and I basically verbally sprinted through my jokes, but I noticed that I was getting some response from the young cool people near the bar, whereas a huge area of the bar/restaurant around the little girl was just absolutely mortified.
Anyway, I finished my set, and the first thing the host said was, "Hey, it takes a lot of guts to get up here, folks!"
As I was heading out, a few people said, "Good job," (including a really pretty waitress), but I figured they were just being nice so I didn't go kill myself in the parking lot.
And it was toward that parking lot I headed. I had gotten a few chuckles, but it wasn't a roaring success, and I just wanted to go, but for some reason as I got to the parking lot, a familiar voice from inside of my head said, "YOU JUST DID IT—YOU DID THE THING. NO MATTER HOW IT WENT, YOU DID IT. GO BACK INSIDE AND HAVE A DRINK TO CELEBRATE WHAT YOU'VE DONE, YOU SELF-DEFEATING PIECE OF SHIT."
And hey, I follow all-caps voices in my head when they're being usefully instructive and humorously ironic.
So I ordered a Guinness and sat there drinking to my bucket list, and that's when C' circled around and said he'd seen the set and thought it was pretty funny and that "Dude, that super-hot waitress was loving your jokes. She was even loving the jokes she wasn't laughing at."
I knew who he was talking about, and I tore away from C' to find her, and while on the way to find her I came across an older guy who stopped me and smiled and said, "Nice set, man," and I said, "Oh, yeah? You really liked it?" and his smile disappeared, and he said, "It was all right."
Anyway, I then chased down the cute waitress ("Bree") and asked if she had actually enjoyed my jokes, and she said, "Yeah, dude, your fuckin' jokes are funny!"
She was by far the sexiest woman in a building full of surprisingly attractive women, and she thought my jokes were fuckin' funny. Fuck yeah, bro.
Of course, she had a boyfriend, of course, but still...she was exactly who any heterosexual man would want enjoying his jokes.
As far as I was concerned, in that moment, I defeated all those Mentor fuckfaces. You beat me in baseball? I make your girlfriend laugh!
It's an artistic form of self-expression, like writing, except most people these days are interested in doing things that are as easy as possible, and reading is way too much work, I've found, whereas sitting and listening to some guy talk is super easy, and people can eat nachos while they do it.
So as you can see, I'm still writing, kind of, including a lot more poetry recently, but I've also taken on another challenge, because it scares the shit out of me, but it ain't as scary as something else.
It's the good kind of scary, instead.
I've decided to head towards that sensation more.
And (so but then) I admit it was ballsy and perhaps even improper of me to disclose everything I've admitted here, but it's because I believe there's possibly an important message behind all this: There has to be a reason depression exists in so many people's lives these days, and it can't just be so we can destroy it with medication.
It's telling us something.
And hey, the woman I've been dating just left me for a guy she met at an open-mic I brought her to, so it's good to know that I'm going to grow from something that, right now, feels like my heart was just fed into a paper-shredder.