A little over a year ago, I sold out my integrity.
I gave up my perfect job – as a cashier at Earth Fare, not your average grocery store – because I had moved into a subsidized senior living high-rise, where they told me as I was moving in (after putting my application a year before) that – between my Social Security check and my earnings at Earth Fare – I had too much income to live there. Giving up my Social Security was not really an option, so I quit my wonderful job (the only real problem with which was that it paid lousy wages – $11 an hour, nothing like a living wage).
Within two weeks, I was pathetically depressed. Desperate to get out of this depression, I decided that I was missing my job and went over to Earth Fare and got my job back. (I am, honestly, magic with customers and they love me there.) “So now I’ll move – I don’t really like living in a high-rise two-room apartment in the middle of all the concrete downtown.”
My loving, well-meaning friends absolutely jumped in my shit. “You have moved way too much in the last year.” This was true – I almost never seemed to get along with my roommates (the only way I could live in a house, which my dog needed) – the only exceptions being one new friend and the husband of a woman who liked me at first and invited me to live there, and then learned to hate me and my adorable 5 lb. yorkiepoo dog Toni. (I think it may have become a problem between the husband and wife that he liked me so much.) “The rent is cheap there and you will finally have stability. You won’t need roommates. You can live there the rest of your life if you want.” (Most people do just that, leaving only on a gurney.)
So I dutifully quit my job again and committed myself to somehow make the cursed apartment work for me and little Toni.
It didn’t work. And not having the job – the structure, the identity, the community of staff and customers – was very, very bad for me. Over the next eight months, the life energy gradually dripped out of me – drip, drip, drip. I got suicidally depressed and – with support from a close friend and the building’s wonderful counselor Donna – went to the hospital after, in a kind of hysterical state, coming very very close to going to the top of the 13-floor building and jumping.
I shifted into mania and came out of the hospital happy – high, actually. I organized and performed a hugely successful “Something Rises 2019 – Majo’s Comeback Tour” poetry concert. That night after the wonderful poetry concert – having truly been in the zone with those 78 people – I was extremely happy, content and peaceful.
A week later I was again in tremendous pain from depression. (The core symptom of what I call my “depression” – because it alternates with mania – is a very painful physical contraction through my whole body, like every cell is in a vice. The shrinks, for 30 years, have never known what I was talking about – it doesn’t fit any of their models – and have always pretty much ignored this reporting). I spent most of the next week in bed – mostly isolated from other people, especially my world-class circle of important friends. I got progressively more depressed and – exactly like the previous time, just five weeks earlier – felt that I could not bear the pain any longer, and prepared to make my departure. (Again by jumping off the roof). I understand there is actually a long history of people doing just that – which, however, the management of the building works hard to minimize.
Coming out of the hospital after two weeks in what felt like a sensory deprivation tank (my fellow patients almost all were suffering from dementia), I was still almost as depressed as when I went in. My really very good hospital psychiatrist apologized to me in a very heartfelt way that he was very sorry they had not helped me – that they really had tried every medication that they thought might be helpful, but obviously nothing worked.
I had an appointment with my regular psychiatrist the day after I came out of the hospital and told her, “Don’t let me fall through the cracks – I’m still in danger.” She said, “Your hospital psychiatrist made that very clear in his discharge summary, which they faxed to me. He said you are still a serious suicide risk. They let you go only because you really, really hated being there – and they couldn’t think of anything else to do for you. And because you told them that you were safe, that you were not thinking of hurting yourself – even though they didn’t really believe you.” And, in fact, I was consciously lying to them – I was ready to say whatever it took to get out of there.
I spent the rest of the week in bed. My behavior and language were so similar to before my two brushes with suicide that my really good friend Tom Kilby got very worried about me and called me every day.
A week after I came out of the hospital, on June 26, my new little dog Pancho (Toni had very sadly died on October 1) got up in the middle of the night and acted like she was going to be sick. I got her out of the apartment and took her for a walk through the dark, mostly deserted 3 a.m. streets of downtown Asheville. Walking down an eerily quiet Patton Avenue, very near Jubilee’s back door, out of the blue several things came together:
“You gave away your integrity. You gave up a job you loved and that was made for you – to take an apartment that you knew was not right for you – because your loving, well-meaning friends told you to do it. You always knew they were wrong, but you didn’t trust your instincts and bowed to their pressure. It’s time to take your integrity back.”
I came home from that walk as charged up as I had been dispirited at the beginning of it. That afternoon I got my job back – it took about thirty seconds. Even though I had quit twice in six weeks a year before, when I said to the store manager Brandon that I wanted my job back, he totally lit up and asked, “When can you start?”
Now that I would be making too much money to stay at Battery Park Apartments, that night I started to think hard about my escape. Wednesday a week later, in the morning I said to a friend, “I need to find two roommates and a house we can afford. That task feels a little threatening, but I really feel like it’s going to work. I seem to deal better with male roommates. My favorite roommate of all time was my friend Tom Kilby.”
That same day in the afternoon, I was shopping at Earth Fare. I now was employed again at Earth Fare – as is Tom and our old roommate, and his current roommate, Will. I ran into Will in the store and was bending his ear while he loaded a frig with kombucha. I vented pretty much the same way I had in the morning.
“I need to find two roommates and a house we can afford.”
“When do you want to move?”
“Around the end of September. Why?”
“That might be perfect.”
“I want to move in with my girlfriend right around then. I have been feeling a responsibility to find a roommate for Tom and Ian” (Tom’s 19 year old son, who really likes me – and vice-versa). Within a week, I had met with Tom and Ian and we had a plan in place. All three of us are very excited about this. They both love Pancho.
Will had asked me how much a month I was paying at Battery Park. I said, “It’s really cheap – $380. ” I assumed Will’s house – he owns the house – would be a lot more expensive than that. $500 plus utilities has seemed to be pretty standard for house share situations. Will said, “I can match $380. I’m not looking to make money off of this – just to get the mortgage paid.”
Something has really changed in me since I decided to reclaim my integrity. This sometimes-too-nice guy has become assertive in ways that sometimes shock people – and feel really great to me.
The social scientist Brene Brown says that her research has shown that the personal quality that correlates most closely with happiness is open-heartedness – and the quality that correlates most closely with open-heartedness is solid boundaries. If we trust our own capacity to say “No”, we feel freer about saying “Yes”. Without ever thinking about it or consciously willing it, my personal boundaries have become a thing of wonder. I don’t suffer fools gladly and won’t let someone stay standing on my foot: I start by nicely asking them to get off my foot – but if they don’t I escalate, in stages, just as much as is necessary to get them off. All this makes me very happy.
At Earth Fare – a place where I have always been loved, admired and known for being outrageous and funny – I am now way more outrageous and funny. And I will also let myself be crabby with customers in ways I never would do before – especially when their behavior is begging for it. My signature intervention with customers (and staff) has always been to validate them – to find something fresh and positive and genuine to appreciate about them. I am now way more enthusiastic and intuitive at this than ever before. This girl had gotten about two words out of her mouth when I erupted with, “You’re really a fun person, aren’t you?” “Yes, I actually really am. How did you know?” I didn’t know how I knew – I just knew.
While my “depressive” physical pain continues non-stop, 24/7. there are ways I can take my mind off it – including reading the Washington Post online, which really kinda helps, I ain’t kiddin’. But the primo distraction is standing in front of a customer at Earth Fare: it’s a performance, it’s show time, it’s the Majo Show – it’s a total blast. It’s what I was born for. It’s what I have been shaped for in these 72 years, For two hours at a crack, I feel no pain. When I get a ten minute break and head outside, my hand has not touched the front door before my pain comes back. It is worst in the morning when I get up – until I open up my laptop and start to surf the Washington Post – and then in the evening when nothing is going on. But it can also kick up at the checkout if things get slow and I don’t have a customer in front of me.
While the physical “depression” has honestly been kicking my ass, the affective depression that most people associate with the word “depression” never seems to touch me. In the six weeks or so since my “Integrity Day” (that’s how I have marked it in my calendar), I have never been blue or worried or anything. I have never stopped liking myself – even (or especially) when someone else is not liking me. And, as I get way more assertive and emphatically hold my boundaries, those situations where I piss somebody off are more common. Their upset typically feels like a sign that I am doing something new and very right.
I can feel emotional pain (maybe more acutely than ever), like when a dear friend called me yesterday and – in so much pain herself – told me a horrific story about the sudden accidental death of her cousin two days before. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and cried mightily through her whole telling of it. I’m crying now remembering this call. But, while what happened to this guy – and is now happening for his wife and three kids – seems so terribly wrong, I still know that I am not wrong, that inside of me I am safe.
I have never, in six weeks, in any way disliked myself (my old depressive specialty), felt guilty or blamed myself in any way. I see myself do things wrong, but all that seems very fixable. I still have problems, like making $11 an hour and seeing my 24 hour a week job shrink to 12-18 hours because corporate is putting the squeeze on every department in every store – but more than ever I trust that “every little ting, is gonna be alright” – in Jubilee-speak, that “all shall be well”.
I sing all the time these days. I’ve never been a great singer, but that isn’t stopping me. I sing to my dog a real lot – almost non-stop. I sing in the woods – loud – and never worry that another hiker might come around the corner. I really belt out the songs that I know so well and love so much at Jubilee – and I actually sound really good to me. People turn and look at me. They may be thinking “Jesus, he’s loud”, but I imagine they are thinking “Wow – what a beautiful voice.”
I seem to be so much a new person – sometimes just like Majo on steroids, but other times like somebody I don’t know but like a lot. I seem suddenly so awake! The other day, just for laughs, I googled the word “enlightened”. I didn’t find any definitions that seemed compelling to me, so I wrote my own list of qualities (which will soon, maybe even tonight, appear in this blog under the title “Enlightened”). Not too surprisingly, I guess, this list that I just created looks a lot like me in the last six weeks.
What do I know?