The File Cabinets and Chalkboards in my Head

Imagine walking into a room of file cabinets. Upon crossing the threshold, you notice an order and cleanliness about the place. There is no door, only a doorway to this room. The file cabinets are all the same color, size and shape. Even the little labels on each drawer match, with bold printing in a simple font. There are just as many cabinets on one wall as there are on another. The lighting appears to be more than sufficient to remove, replace or read files without causing eye strain or headache. The paint is a neutral color, not boring and not brash. The carpet looks and feels new, and it compliments the paint, cabinets and furniture. There is a soundtrack playing from an unseen speaker that you find neither too loud nor too soft, and it seems to be noticeable only when you want it to be. There is a solid table and padded chairs for reviewing the files that wait to be placed into or pulled out of the cabinets. On the table sits a small stack of writing paper and an old coffee mug full of sharpened pencils, quality pens and yellow highlighters. On one wall hangs a large whiteboard or chalkboard for big ideas or collaborations for times when a mere pen and paper just won’t do. There is some communication equipment neatly arranged and accessible in one corner. While the room is neither perfect nor imperfect, it appears to be fully functional and organized enough to complete whatever tasks the room is set up for. It seems like a pleasant place to spend some time.

Let’s say purely for point of reference, that the file room I just described is a typical human mind and what I’d like to do, completely against better judgment, is to invite you to my file room.

Since you’re a guest, let’s take the direct route today, a route that not many people get to travel. The public route to my room is like an obstacle course without a finish line. Picture the people at the mall who use the “You Are Here” maps. But in this case the maps don’t make any sense and are designed to take whoever on a complicated trip that ultimately leads them back to the same map. Truth to tell, some people never make it farther than the lobby.

It hasn’t always been like this; over the years I have worked on it quite a bit, little by little. There is usually so much confusion and distraction that by the time anyone gets anywhere close to my file room, they are so exhausted and frustrated or confused that sooner or later they stop trying to find it. That is the point, after all……

There is a lot at play here, and I’ve always been on guard about letting people see my files, for lots of reasons. I realize, too, that what I do isn’t what you would call “typical.” There are a lot of people I know who consider hindering anyone’s access to their rooms a huge mistake. They want people to see their room, to sit at their table, to take notes, and to even go through some of the cabinets. Some people actually welcome people in. Nonsense.

As we walk, I’ll share some of the how’s and why’s of keeping people out of, and away from, my file room. You’re going to know once we get there, anyway.

First, and probably easiest to explain, I am an introvert. No, no, no, not just an “introvert.” I am an IN-TRO-VERT. I’m just built that way. The fact that we are talking about it now, or to write or share any of this stuff usually carves chasms in the very room I try to protect. I religiously dislike attention, and a quick “aww shucks” deflection is usually the first sign of that. If it continues, I’ll usually change the subject. I’m not trying to be rude, I’ve just never been comfortable telling people I’m uncomfortable. On the flip side, I am completely comfortable telling others what a great job they did at something, and to be sincere about it… It’s a one-way street. The guy must be weird in the head, right? And that’s just one of the symptoms of introvertitis. Introvertism? Anyway…

I’ve tried, over and over (by all kinds of unhealthy means) to make myself an extrovert, or at least a little less of an introvert. For years I left a wake of confused and hurting people in my past because my inner conflicts seeped out past the walls of my file room, and I never really knew how to deal with it. However, after years of disastrous trial and error, I have made one discovery and that is: I really hate crowds. I would rather spend a month in our storage shed in the backyard than go to a social event. Ten times out of ten. I just can’t have tons of people in my room because there isn’t enough space for everyone at one time. I think you’ll understand better when we get there.

A second barrier to my room is a bit more complicated and has sometimes been messy. This barrier is almost impenetrable. It’s barbed wire and land mines and lazers and all the gadgets one would expect to see in an action movie, it just isn’t anywhere near as glamorous. Really, it’s this meat grinder-mix of shyness, introversion, depression, anxiety, ADD and the remnants of addiction, all glued together by shame. My addiction story is for a visit on another day. And shame is a destructive, toxic, evil force that kills. For the record, shame is not guilt. Guilt can be useful and constructive. Shame has no redeeming qualities.

I’ll give you a quick thumbnail since we don’t have all day… the opposite of depression is vitality. The opposite of anxiety is serenity. The opposite of order is Attention Deficit Disorder. And, holy crap, the ADD….. Let’s just say that a typical grocery list looks like this: bread, milk, butter, eggs. My grocery list tends to look something like this: Bread, car keys, you are my sunshine, ants are so cool, where the f*** did I put the grocery list?

I know what you’re thinking. Medications, right? Therapy. You’re paying attention and I know where you’re going with this. But, I can’t do medications. I’d very likely abuse the benzodiazapines and stimulants because, well….. because they are benzodiazapines and stimulants. I am an addict after all, whether I’m using or have been clean for a week or a hundred years. Just can’t do it. But, therapy is good. Support groups are good. I have no problem with either and I’ve been that route more than once in years passed.

Careful, we’re getting close now………Watch your step.

The final roadblock to my file room is actually fairly subtle. It is the societal norms, taboos and subjects that simply just aren’t fun to talk about. Not only are they not fun, often they are quite painful and come to the forefront only out of necessity or emergency. Stigma…… Misinformation…….. Ignorance……… We don’t talk about depression at the dinner table. We don’t talk about suicide on a night out. We don’t talk about anxiety while at a game. We don’t talk about addiction when family visits………….Unless we have to.

Extroverts are often seen as confident, successful and even preferred, while introverts appear to be less than or different from the “norm.” Men don’t cry, and they shouldn’t show feelings. That’s been a long-held standard. We still live in a world where depression and anxiety are widely viewed as weaknesses and addiction is seen as a lack of will power. An ADD diagnosis is brushed off as a lack of discipline and laziness, “If you would just concentrate!” These types of issues are usually other people’s problems…… until they hit home. When and IF people do concede that these conditions exist, often they are given tags to lessen or separate them from other, more “Valid” conditions. One of my favorite labels is “invisible illness.” Because there isn’t a bone sticking through the skin or surgical scars, that means that somehow it must be qualified another way. Marginalized. Set aside. Stigma and bias are still alive and well regarding mental health issues and addiction, regardless of the progress that has been made. Both sadly and conveniently, it serves as steadfast justification for keeping people out of my files….. But don’t kid yourself. There isn’t much about any of these conditions that is “invisible.”

That’s it…….just ahead. After all I’ve told you, you can’t possibly be surprised by the door. And you can’t possibly be surprised by what you see, now that we are here.

First of all, I apologize for any distraction caused by the speaker. It goes on and off, sometimes just random clips of things, sometimes it’ll play the same damn thing over and over and over. Sometimes it’s just static. It’s weird, but I’ve gotten used to it.

I tried to tell you about the grocery list. Papers all over the place. Drawers open, chalkboard filled with scribbles and gibberish, folders on the floor, the table piled with stacks upon stacks of files. Posters and maps on the walls. Pictures of people no longer with us. Framed photos of teams I was lucky enough to be a part of. Articles cut out and strewn everywhere. Paper clips sparkle here and there. Post It notes throughout the room in a pattern that may suggest that one of my grand daughters may have walked through and stuck them on whatever she wanted to, and that’s quite possible.

HOW CAN YOU FIND ANYTHING IN HERE???

You should maybe sit down, once I find a chair for you. Look, I tried to keep everything in here organized. I tried all the way through school, into adulthood and for a long time after that. I would clean my locker, only for it to be a disaster again in a few days. I would attempt to organize my thoughts to try to explain why my thought process was so jumbled and fragmented. But when I tried to speak, it often fell apart on the way out of my mouth.

To many, my room looks like a disaster. It may look like someone ransacked the place, and sometimes that is what I do to find stuff. In my own little office at home, for instance, I actually have an old chalkboard that I scribble on. I have files and piles of dead trees that make sense to only me. I have an old wooden bowl that holds notes I have scribbled on whatever paper I could find. Grocery items on the same piece as ideas and goals. It’s a controlled chaos, more than anything, I just don’t fight it anymore.

After years of trying to be “typical,” I’ve come to accept that I am whatever it is that I am. I don’t think it’s a matter of better or worse. Maybe it’s more of a style, a unique style, like handwriting. And we adapt. We just do.

Please bear with me while I continue to rummage through my file room and attempt to sort through the mess in my head so I can try to get my thoughts out in print……..my original intent was to tell my story the best I could, in hopes to help someone else……….but I am starting to notice that just maybe the person I might be helping the most is…me. I’m no writer, for sure. But writing has become a neat way to take scattered thoughts and fragments of ideas from the wood chipper my mind can sometimes be and cut and paste them into something fairly coherent.

This has been a different kind of post, and I appreciate the fact that you stayed through to the end. Thank you for reading, liking and/or sharing my posts. It means a lot to me, and I hope something in them can be of help to you or someone you know. Thank you.

What do you do? Is your file room similar to the one in the beginning, neat and orderly? Is it more like mine, some sort of paper bomb epicenter? Have you had to do things to adapt the way your mind works due to circumstances in your life? Do you let people in? Do you keep people out? Introvert or extrovert?

Whatever you are, be you. The longer you’re not, the harder it will be for you, or anyone else, to find their way to your room.

Standing on the Shoulders of the Littlest Giant

It seemed as though he had been on the edge of that board forever. During that forever, he had changed from shivering to vibrating and his lips had turned the shade of purple that we had all become accustomed to seeing during that change. The breeze that day was cool, and considering his lack of any body fat of any kind, it may as well have been January. During the occasional day like that at the pool, sometimes the rest of us would offer up our towels for him to use as blankets so he could warm up and so his lips could inevitably return to their natural color. But this day was different. This was a day of reckoning….that is, as much as a ten year old boy would probably dream there was to reckon.

He stood there looking down at the water, which was exactly one meter below the toes he had curled over the edge of the big, old diving board. It just looks so much higher the first time you get up there and stand on the edge. Surrounding the water he was staring into was six or seven of the older kids who had been treading water since before he had inched his way out to the end of the board, and who were patiently trying to reassure him that, despite being terrified and half frozen, he was about to do the single greatest thing in his life thus far. And those of us who had already leapt from the death-defying one meter mountain top knew exactly the pure joy that awaited our friend whenever he finally got tired of vibrating.

Years ago, the swimming pool in town was the place to be on a summer day, any summer day, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. There was a time when a kid would actually have to plan to get there early to claim a spot big enough for a beach towel on the huge cement landscape that surrounded that beautiful, crystal clear oasis. And the sounds… The radio that sat in the check in/lifeguard/clothes storage booth window that could be heard across the lake in town as it played one of the local radio stations during open hours. The smacking sound a lifeguard’s flip flops would make as they walked on the cement. The old diving board could be heard clear on the other side of town, too, with its familiar, “ka-klunk, ka-klunk,” which signaled that another kid had just been launched into the air and would soon be splashing down in ten feet of perfect, chemically-balanced paradise. The pool was an ideal, coconut oil-scented melting pot of sorts, and it was a daily fifty cent adventure we were always excited to take at that age. Big kids, little kids, young adults, old adults, boys and girls, and with each neighborhood in town represented and recognized. This melting pot was pretty efficiently managed by sun glasses-wearing, whistle string-spinning, sun screen-nosed lifeguards. They were, more often than not, pretty lenient with most of our adventures, and usually pretty forgiving of our pranks.

Back on the board, lips ever purple and his whole being still vibrating, our friend was listening to one of the bigger kids who was in the circle of water treaders. He was trying to convince our friend how safe it actually was to step off the board and toward the water, surrounded by strong swimmers who cared about him, as well as the handful of others of us who were either standing on the pool’s edge or resting on the side in the water. His toes relaxed and his arms came unwrapped. Then, in a flash, his arms jerked back up around each other and his toes re-curled around the edge of the board. This went on for what seemed like days, and I am sure it seemed a lot longer than that for our friend.

Our friend was smaller than most of us were at the time, and I guess it had always been that way. Smart, funny as the day was long, and adventurous as any of us were, even at the age when it seemed we were always exploring something. But he always had the heart of a lion. He always pushed through things that could have been made more difficult due to his size, things that the rest of us made look easy or took for granted. I guess the board thing was no exception.

But he had passed his test, along with the rest of us. The test, which consisted of swimming across the pool and back without touching the bottom and then treading water for a minute, was easy for him. He swam effortlessly and could hold his breath like no one else I’d ever seen, which was weird considering he was asthmatic. In fact, I’m sure that he took the test more than once, while helping and guiding other aspiring big kids to achieve their own utopias. Almost every little kid dreamed of a few seconds of weightlessness thanks to the spring of the board, and the following entry into the world below the water’s surface. We idolized the big kids and their flips and spins and defiance of gravity. This is why we took the test, after all, so we could leave the shallow water behind and plant our flags on the diving board like big kids. It was our destiny, and it was Destiny Day.

“What if I don’t come up?,” I remember him asking.

“That’s not possible, I bet your head won’t even get wet,” one of the big kids replied, still calmly and patiently treading water with the others, while the rest of us continued to watch on around him. All this after what seemed like three or four days of watching our frozen friend ever so slightly bob up and down on the end of the board while fighting off a rare case of mid-July hypothermia.

A line had begun to form behind our friend by the steps of the board by this time, but no one said anything or acted like they were in much of a hurry. In fact, it seemed that at that time, the only thing the entire pool was interested in was whether or not another little kid would graduate to big kid status. The excitement was genuine due to the fact that if it were to happen, it would surely be a case of one of the smaller little kids becoming what would have been the littlest big kid in the history of the whole diving board area.

And then it happened. For those who were at the pool that day all those years ago, they will probably tell you that it happened in slow motion. First, the unfolding of the arms and the one after another uncurling of toes. A slight bend the knees. A deep breath, deep enough where he could have spent three hours at the bottom of the pool and still not run out of air. Purple lips pressed tightly together, and for a second or two, the vibrating and teeth chattering stopped. Pause, and then he did it. He stepped off the board.

He hung in the air for what seemed like a lifetime. All of the big kids in the circle reached up in unison like some precursor to synchronized swimming. As our friend fell closer to the water, they were reaching up to the sky to meet him. He finally splashed down and things sped back up to real time. As I remember, his head barely went under water and then he popped immediately back up to the surface, both under his own half-frozen, destiny-driven, adrenaline-fueled power and from help with the big kids who were making sure he was safe, just as they had promised they would.

As the last water drops returned to the pool from the splash heard ’round the world, a chorus of whistling, clapping and cheering broke out at the pool, only to be drowned out by our friend’s flopping and splashing wildly as the big kids , still surrounding him, tried help him stay afloat in the middle of the deep end of the pool. Why all the distress after such an amazing accomplishment? He was trying to swim as fast as he could to the ladder so he could get out of the pool…….So he could do it all again.

***************

A thousand lifetimes and millions of miles have passed since the day that Arni Anderson made his jump. I could have shared instead the story of how he contracted chicken pox and I didn’t, and went through it smiling the whole way. Or when one of the bigger kids in the old neighborhood helped him ride the big red two-wheeled bike that all the other little kids were scared of. Or the day he climbed the huge pine tree across the street from my house until he was so high we could hardly see him.

Issac Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The idea that we are farther along because of those who have come before us goes back to the time when people first recorded history. Those who made an impact on us in some way, although they are no longer here, can also serve as the shoulders we stand on.

I could have also shared a long story of his passing at such an early age, and how the town literally shut down the day of his funeral. School was closed and businesses stopped. His church was packed full, shoulder to shoulder, front to back. Upstairs, downstairs, hallways, stairways, aisles. Or that his friends and the community as a whole was rocked by his loss, for sure, but that we will never know the depths of loss his family felt. Or that no one really knew at that point how to move on. We just did. Sadly, that was more years ago than I care to remember but his memory always remains close within me.

Sometimes I go through the park when I’m back home to visit. I’ll stop by the pool and watch for a minute or two. It never takes long to be transported back to the old sounds and smells, and to the day that some forty years earlier, the littlest giant let me begin to stand on his shoulders.

In memory of a dear childhood friend,

Arnold “Arni” Anderson