Finding the Brink at the Edge of a Cliff

The most intense flood of relief I’ve felt in years came when I placed the barrel of a rifle underneath my chin the evening before Election Day.

Finally: no more attempting to hold things together, no more trying and trying and trying to be happy. No more wondering what more I could do if therapy and antidepressants weren’t cutting it, if quitting my job to follow my dreams did as much as playing video games all day in college. Which is to say, nothing. No more anything. I thought I’d succeeded in pushing away anyone who ever cared about me. And if no one cared, then that meant I didn’t need to care anymore either. Finally, was the only word I could think. Finally.

That was, at least, until my wife walked in just after I’d loaded the magazine.

Something was always wrong. I just didn’t know what. No one else did either. Mental illness runs in my family like a hereditary birthright. This was normal. We knew nothing else. And even after years of therapy and medication, I could not imagine anything else. I ran aground time and time again. I was out of ideas as well as energy and hope and just a general will to continue. This past year, horrid for anyone with a soul or at least bills to pay, had thoroughly depleted me. Beyond just the looming sense of doom, the noxious atmosphere hanging over all our heads, it was easily the worst in my own personal hell.

I started and quit a job in two months that I thought was going to last me for decades. I thought I finally grabbed the brass ring. Not so. Quite the opposite was waiting for me. Then the pandemic hit. I didn’t last long after that. My health, physical and mental, quickly started to spiral. My antidepressants were increased twice, but to no avail. So I did the only thing I thought would help and quit on the spot. And for a minute? It did help.

Then the minute passed.

The months that followed were a tidal wave slowly rolling to shore. I was free and clear from that awful job, but what did that mean for the next job? Was it the job, or was it me? Could I work again with my particular cocktail of mental and physical chronic conditions? What did it mean for me if I couldn’t? I’d be dead weight. I was dead weight. If the job killed the engines, then leaving it started the nosedive.

I wouldn’t realize until later that I was caught in the trap of a misdiagnosed mental illness, that I was in freefall and flailing. Looking for anything to hold onto or at least keep the blinders on. And each time I found something? The winds changed. Every therapy appointment was a new solution. Whatever I’d found the week before didn’t fit anymore. Inexplicably. It must be something else, then. Right? Wash, rinse, repeat. Until I got tired of looking around for an answer and in the process drove a lot of the good out of my life, drove a wedge between myself and those who loved me.

I came so close to tying the whole thing off with total blackness. In the days before and after, I thought about the release many times and in great detail. So much detail, in fact, that after learning rifles were not ideal for home defense, as the round can penetrate through walls and injure a neighbor, I started to think about which way I would lay in the bathtub so not only would the mess be minimized but also mine would be the only death. I even tested the sit of the muzzle to be sure I wouldn’t just suffer a brain injury and become a vegetable for someone to take care of. I am profoundly lucky that my wife had not gone to sleep as I thought. Profound luck is the only reason I am still alive. I made it to the next morning and an emergency psychiatry appointment.

And, lo and behold, I was correct. Something was seriously wrong. After taking a deeper look at some of my symptomology I was diagnosed with not just Bipolar Disorder, but Bipolar II Disorder. The condition is notoriously hard to diagnose and worsens over time, leading some experts to declare it the worse of the two varieties. Traditional Bipolar is characterized by the low-low’s of clinical depression and full-blown mania with (sometimes lengthy) spurts of normality in between; but Bipolar II is not so clear-cut.

Again and again I saw the metaphor of a snowball rolling downhill, noticeable only at dangerous proportions. Only my snowball had a little help. Bipolar Depression, already a cause for mood dysregulation and personality disturbances, becomes incensed when unknowingly medicated with an antidepressant. Hypomania goes from simply excessive to dangerous. Mixed episodes increase, and your mood cycling becomes much more volatile and rapid. I became far more aggressive and agitated than happy or excitable. My life had turned into a game of Russian roulette, the gun pointed inward and outward and upward and downward. But now, with my revised diagnosis, I could finally see the gun.

Suddenly all the pieces started to fall into place. I soon realized this had been happening for many years. I never had any throughline or baseline to work from. My interior self operated entirely of its own accord. My emotions (and consequently my feelings toward people) seemingly changed with the wind and without any rhyme or reason. I ran down so many ghosts in life and in therapy, shuttered myself into so many roads forward, that I’d ended up nowhere I wanted to be and with no way to get back.

You see, this illness–undiagnosed or, worse, misdiagnosed–is not unlike being caught in limbo. Nothing is real, everything is changeable, including yourself. You pinwheel through a chaos of emotions and personality disturbances until you’re not you anymore. Put simply, it is hellish. For yourself and everyone around you. You can imagine how much pain and destruction you’ll do to yourself and leave in your wake by following a broken compass. So step one was of course getting a new one.

That reorientation came in the form of a little white pill called Lamictal. The change, while not immediate, has been profound. Each night I log my mood for the day, checking with my wife to be sure I’m not deluding myself. And I can’t believe I’m able to say I haven’t had a bad day, much less a mood swing, in well over two weeks. That hasn’t happened in a long, long time. When I’m happy, I’m just happy. Calm, contented. When I’m down, I’m just down. I can turn away from negative thoughts and hardly ever feel the compulsion to brood.

I haven’t felt this way in over a decade. I finally feel like I have choices now. That I’m not chasing these weird emotional winds that vanish and reappear and blow in different directions, obeying this supposed and secret will of the universe.

But this hasn’t come without a cost. All of this has been really hard to bear. Harder to bear, I think, than if I was anyone else. One thing I’d always been able to hold onto is my durability. That I was a survivor. Because truthfully I’ve survived a lot. I’ve kept climbing whatever mountain this is even when I was too weak to stand. And I really, really thought I’d got high enough to not worry anymore about falling. Until I did. All the way to the bottom. I suppose it’s not surprising. Even the best climber tires out if the summit never gets any closer. But now that I’m at the bottom, free to rest and recuperate, I can see all the paths to the top for the first time. The mists have cleared. I know which way to go now.

So in the end I am glad this happened. I am proud to say this was all for the best. I don’t know where any of this goes from here. Except to say that when you’ve hit your nadir, the only way to go is up. A lot of work remains to be done; but I am hopeful for the first time in many years. Truly hopeful. Not guardedly, not suspiciously or waiting for the other shoe to drop. The other shoe has dropped. And I am still alive. I want to remain alive and to rebuild my life. Put simpler: I ‘want’ again, and not to be dead or forgotten. I have a feeling that nearly succeeding with self-obliteration will have been the best thing to ever happen to me.

~~~

Don’t get as close as I did: get help if you’re thinking about the unthinkable.

A Dirge For Harpies

I have survived
Too long, too much
Indeed, withstood
To fall now
Down, farther into greater shadows

The light will not drift
I will not allow that
I have allowed too much
Already

Piranhas orbit
Rude carrion
Crawl across the spine
However bent, however broken
Taking little pieces of me
Viciously, delightedly
Careless

No longer

I will not bear their weight
But rise
Anew, fresh in the morning
Their snares, fog
Their hooks, mist
Burnt off under
The touch of the sun

The tunnel has lengthened
But not grown too long
Not yet
To swallow any hope
Of reaching the end

So long
You feeble
Fickle
Febrile
Flock of witless vulturous
Harpies
You amalgam of offal
Disgorged from a creature as
Deceitful, as pathetic and simple

I am broken clay but
There is more to the stone
Than there is to you

Cyberpunk 2077: More Than Just A Game

It’s an experience, and I don’t say that lightly. I’ve been religiously playing games since I was old enough to hold a controller and reach all the buttons. Before I could go through the whole alphabet, I could go through every level of Super Mario World. So when I say that Cyberpunk 2077 is one of the best games ever made and easily the most immersive, even at its bug-ridden launch, it’s not without some amount of weight. And I’ve already sunk in roughly ~20 hours since the game first came online at 7:00 PM EST on December 9th, with each hour building to some crescendo I keep expecting to come. And I know I haven’t hit the high water mark yet. I’m fully prepared to be blown away, perhaps literally.

Your introduction to the world of Cyberpunk 2077 is through the eyes of V, a rough-and-tumble mercenary who’s lately returned to their netrunning alma mater and the game’s main setpiece: Night City. And what a city it is. An elegantly mad gestalt of genre tropes that are so seamlessly blended and remolded that you barely notice them at all. Part Blade Runner, part Neuromancer and part Snow Crash–each titans that spawned a genre–this simultaneously glittering and grungy metropolis is host to a delightful hodgepodge of cultures, aesthetics and social classes. And all of this is backlit by neon and holograms, permeated with the sort of debauched and euphoric techno-misery that only cyberpunk can conjure.

Navigating my way through Night City, dropping in on gangsters souped up with cybernetic implants, hacking soda machines for fun and profit, driving around in my robotically bulky yet sleek car, I can confidently say that this is the first time in all my years of gaming I’ve been able to say that I really feel like I’m in the game. CDProjekt Red have succeeded in crafting their masterwork of a complete gaming experience. You don’t question for an instant what you see relative to the setting. The combat is fluid and has weight to the point that even using the standard weaponry is a total joy. If you remember seeing something in a movie, you can probably do just that thing. Almost every part of the environment is traversable and makes for a multitude of approaches to any objective or self-assigned task, not least of which are the many open world missions that dot the map and bring the city alive in their own right.

And this is to say nothing of the story. One might be tempted to deride it as cliche, an overdone and tired homage to greater works that falls flat. But this is not so and for the very reason that the homage is carried off so well. Like many cyberpunk stories, and even cyberpunk adjacent games like Shadowrun, Cyberpunk 2077 centers around a heist, the details of which I won’t reveal and mostly because I haven’t gotten that far yet. I’ve been too busy, you see, gallivanting around and cutting clean through Night City’s seedy underbelly with my katana. But what I’ve seen so far is nothing short of thrilling, if not for the simple fact that I don’t have to distort it to fit my idea of playing through a Blade Runner or Neuromancer. Rather it is a perfect reproduction of what that experience would look like. Each character I meet is meticulously crafted to set the scene, to enliven and broaden, and yet so familiar that I feel right at home in the backseat of a fixer’s limo. I have to do no work, and what a gargantuan relief it is.

It is, it is…

Cyberpunk 2077 succeeds everywhere that Deus Ex: Humankind Divided fell short, and precisely because CDProjekt Red didn’t take the easy route. You aren’t a cop, a corporate operative or special agent for some kind of cyborg control unit. Those are villains of a different kind, no different from the pushers and fixers. You’re just lowlife scum like the rest of the downtrodden masses that populate Night City. Only you just so happened to have survived long enough to make a name for yourself and trick out your body with cybernetics. Indeed, you only exist above the rest because you were just more brutal and resourceful than the rest. As such, merc-for-hire V doesn’t exist outside the system or its effects on the world around them: You’re an intrinsic part of it, spat out from its ugly chrome womb and molded into a killer. The luxury of looking down and looking in on this twisted reality, brought about by corporate oligarchy and runaway technological advances, does not belong to you. Those in power are as distant to you as the heights of the towers you look at from the sidewalk. Like the police chief in the original Blade Runner says, “If you’re not cop, you’re little people.”

And in the world of Cyberpunk 2077, little people only have one way out from under the boot: cutting through or stealing from enough people to buy a chance at freedom. We’re just lucky it’s so damn fun.

The Substrate of the Purely Villainous

Any true aficionado of the villainous–of antagonists in film, literature, interactive media–knows that the truly diabolical are not those with mundane or even sympathetic aims. They are those whose reprehensibility is alien to us, unnerving in their capacity for estrangement from the normal motivations which occupy our species. We, as consummate consumers, eventually tire of plot after plot instigated by the villain’s lust for power, vengeance, wealth or just plain lust. What retains the ability to frighten is rather what we cannot understand save as an abstraction, something so insidious that its mere existence is an affront to our conception of reality.

Indeed, only these antagonistic forces evoke the sort of mortal terror that not only puts the protagonist’s goal at hazard, but also their soul. Doubly so if the metaphysics of a soul are not implied by the narrative, for then these villains alone transmogrify physical danger into the metaphysical. They embody forces of nature more than they inhabit real people or mortal coils. If anything, their mortal coil indicates that something is very off about them. Their appearance is of one who has a too perfect understanding of how to clothe oneself in the trappings of everyday humanity. An idea of clothing not as an expression of the self, but a shell to inhabit for the simple fact that one must inhabit a shell in order to inhabit the world. One cannot go nude. If one goes nude, one is a monster. Horrid and bare to the world. These villains we are concerning ourselves with are not monsters, or at least not by conventional definition, but something else. What they are is perhaps best drawn from what they represent: Quandaries and Intrusions.

Each one of these characters holds in common that they are just human enough to evince some ephemeral link to a rational world. But they are closer to aliens playing dress-up than they are to real people you might meet out in the world. However, neither are they sociopaths or chameleons. Again, their purpose is to cast doubt on their human nature while also maintaining a distorted approximation of it. The element of their horror is drawn from that fact, that they are tangentially related to normal everyday life while at the same time occupying the underworld, in some ways the True World, that is its substrate. It is this heraldry from another domain that unnerves us, a domain in which the mundane concerns are transmuted into their most absolute incarnations. This is what makes them Quandaries, this transmutative property, and that they pose such a question to the nature of human existence itself. Put simply: They offer the most horrible decision point for the human question. Put simpler: they are the rock amid the river of human experience.

For instance, and perhaps most notoriously, No Country For Old Men is defined by primary antagonist Anton Chigurh’s fatal obsession with the outcome of a coin toss. He is the personification of inevitability, of misfortune and, in some ways, death itself. But his relation to normal things, such as the character Carson Welles, and the comparatively normal world of bounty hunting moors him to our real world and so exemplifies his difference from it, transmutes him into something almost inhuman. We are left with the dual sense that he is certainly human, but so perverted as to become something like a force of nature. His insistence on the chance of a coin toss brings this to the fore by offering the grounds for a seemingly peaceable encounter that gradually becomes understood as representing the incipient obliteration of the self if not navigated correctly. All the while the Quandary is expressing horrifying calm and certitude. It is disconcerting to say the least.

Perhaps no other character in creative media inhabits this concept more than The Cowboy in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. We are not even given a name or the slimmest backstory to this advent in the film. But he is strictly human. His appearance is strange, but readily understood. His manner is strange; but surely there are strange enough people in the world, not least in Hollywood? What really grounds him is his relationship to the story at large, his insistence that one particular girl be cast in the film (and not Naomi Watts) that lies at the center of the plot. A seemingly mundane concern that in any other movie would be given enough exposition to justify his connection to it. But not so here. In fact, it is this absence, this only tangential connection that transmogrifies his conversation with the fictional film’s director into something more than a binary choice over the casting of a lead actor. Before they even reach this demand, it is heavily implied that if Justin Theroux’s character doesn’t wisen up, something very bad will happen. Something that goes beyond the ordinary, something on the order of the total obliteration of the soul.

Indeed, the entirety of Mulholland Drive is this way. It showcases the intrusion of the unreal into the mundane, which is perhaps Lynch’s finest quality as a filmmaker. Those in the know will also be aware of the infamous diner scene. However, I don’t consider that representative of a Quandary, but an Intrusion. Much like the Mystery Man in Lynch’s Lost Highway, this scene does not represent some sense of absolute moral judgement, but rather the absolute meaningless of the mundane world in the face of an otherworldly and almost Platonic truth. Twin Peaks famously embodies this quality, with the Black Lodge being literally cast as intruders into the normal world and order of things, albeit brought about by human error. And unlike Quandaries, which force us to confront the ineluctable and the inevitable, Intrusions remind us that there is a world both within and outside our own that renders our struggles and connivances and frustrations as the petty flailing of moths about a flame.

Together these characters personify two concepts that are present in nearly everyone’s day-to-day life: the fear of death and its moral judgement or accounting for one’s deeds; and the knowledge that there is a secret world which permeates or exists outside our daily lives. The one is responsible for bringing to the fore all that which haunts us and forces us to reckon with it, hence the Quandary they represent. The other is responsible for the things we would rather not think about or contemplate, the scope of which would perhaps drive us mad, hence their Intrusion into our world. That they act as avatars for very existential threats and fears that are recurrent throughout our lives elevates these villains into something timeless and pure, empowers them to reach deeper into our psyche than any common creature or killer. True fear cannot exist without true evil, and true evil is only invoked by that which we cannot understand–only recognize as dim constructs of our own souls.

What Happens When They Give Up?

It is important to note the chief similarity between main and side characters. That is, at any point, a main character might become a side character and vice versa. Their lives could stop. This is what helps them achieve personhood, this imagining them as people with control over their lives and not bound to some linear quest. Ultimately, this is what we want for our own lives. Besides entertainment, it is why we consume culture. To live vicariously through the thankless decisions of another that we might in some way find answers to our own dilemmas.

I am often reminded, in telling stories, of a scene in the Kubrick/Spielberg picture A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. David (played by Haley Joel Osmet) is telling Joe (Jude Law) of his plans to keep looking for the “Blue Fairy”, a distortion of the Pinocchio myth that the rest of the movie plays on extensively. He hopes to become a real boy so that his adoptive mother will love and accept him. It is a heart-wrenching tale that, for me, always hit too close to home (much like the original Pinocchio). In the scene, Joe implores him to instead give up his quest. He tells him that his mother’s love is not real and never could be real, no deeper than her love could be for a pet. He suggests David just stay with him and await the incipient destruction of humanity from the safety of the robot-friendly city. The story could have ended here, and not progressed. Another character, the main character, in a revision of the script could have happened upon them. Weighted with their own past and destination, the pain of David and his strange friendship with the pleasure-bot Joe would have been only a pale reflection to the main thrust of the story.

Thinking of character and plot this way not only helps flesh out the side characters, but develops the protagonist. What if they didn’t proceed? What reasons do they have not to? What palpable will or necessity drives them on if the consequences of settling down into history are not really that dire? This method also performs the function organically. You’re asking true and genuine questions of yourself and of your characters, as if you were them, rather than sitting down with a sheet of paper and filling in the blanks.

Motivation: etc. etc.

Worst fear: etc. etc.

Traumatic origin: etc. etc.

You see where I’m going with this. Perfectly fine books are written following the fill-in-the-blank formula. Many of them. But I know from my own work that things feel more alive, the narrative more present, if I’ve done as much as I can to create things organically. Formulas produce expected results. They can be relied upon. But isn’t it sometimes more entertaining, for the writer and the reader, to fuck something up and watch an explosion?