Here is a little about me. Actually, this is the first chapter of a book I am writing, a biography about my transition from an old unhappy life into a new, self-realized life. This bio may not resonate with many of you like my articles do; but this is where all the writings on my website come from. And even this beginning of my bio is not written in an egoistic way to brag about a life; just the opposite, I probably come out looking not so good or spiritual or wise as you would expect.
The writing is at times visceral and harsh. But I’m trying to write it in a way that, like everything else on my site, will perhaps clarify something within yourself, your own journey to self-awareness and healing and dealing with problems.
Here is chapter one of the book I’m currently calling ‘Find Your Right Life’, the story of my transition. There is almost no writing about my young life… because my life of self-awareness did not truly begin until I realized I had always been unhappy. This bio is mainly about from that moment onward…
FIND YOUR RIGHT LIFE
Part 1: The Leaving
I was still a youngish man, thirty-two, when I left my old, dying, known life behind, and dove into an ocean of the new and unknown. It was 1pm in the afternoon, February 1, 1996, and to this day, many years later, I still measure my transition into my true life from that point, despite perhaps even more powerful events that have shaped me since then.
At 1pm I was sitting on a packed box, one of the four or five small cartons containing the meager last of my worldly possessions I’d just packed that morning, furniture and other goods having been given away already. Beside me lay my backpack stuffed with clothing, bare survival essentials and a little food, the pack frame trussed with a sleeping bag and tent. It looked like a scant barrier between warm comfortable life, and the unfriendly cold winter outside.
I had one hour. An hour to change my mind, yet again. An hour to think about the many past years that had herded me inexorably toward this final jumping-off point. I sat there feeling my strange serenity in the middle of the room, looking through my reflection on the wide sliding-glass doors of my eighth-floor apartment, a long last look over the city and ocean I loved and was leaving.
There was a dry colorless snow blanketing the city near and into the distance, and a biting wind blew frozen steam sideways from grills and chimneys and then merged into the fog over the ocean. It’s the only city that ever truly felt like home to me – and I’ve lived many places – but now that I was leaving, the city seemed coldly indifferent, turning its shoulder to me like an uninterested stranger. Inside, the apartment light was a warmth surrounding me against the dark grey colorless icy outside; my boxes could still be unpacked, my cozy abode could still put its arm around me and say, “stay”, I could find a way, scramble to borrow money to stay another month or two.
Yet staying in this comfort… now offered less comfort to me than to exit, to walk outside in an hour, my backpack on my back, five dollars in my pocket, out into the unforgiving Canadian winter elements. I could see only a short, grim, and narrow future, to be hungry and frozen, maybe dropping in my tracks and freezing to death tonight, in the dark and the snow and wind, there on a roadside out in the country, hitchhiking to no destination because I had nowhere to go, other than just ‘away’.
How did I get to this point, of preferring – or at least, accepting – that future, and leaving behind all the comfortable things and people in my life?
Amazing, our minds… to be able to review thirty-two years of an interesting, a good life, all in one hour of sitting, looking over my home city and contemplating being dead before tomorrow. A good life… but the wrong life.
So let’s back way way up. How did I reach this hour that looks so bleak?
ALWAYS IN THE WRONG LIFE
Growing up, I was in the middle of things, like any kid, but also always alone. My family – father, mother, sister – were the best anyone could ask for, and we had a healthy, loving upbringing. My father was a forest ranger and our family life revolved around that, which included moving from town to town often, as he was transferred every couple of years. Always moving, leaving friends and home town, meeting new friends and settling into new homes, in beautiful towns around British Columbia. The kind of life that people like to wistfully hear about: travel and camping adventures, hiking in the mountains, canoeing lakes and rivers, deer and bear, campfires and fishing in the summer, skiing in the winter, rides in small planes and helicopters since I was young. I was part of this family and life… but I strangely felt alone. Different, apart from my parents and sister.
Though I could not understand it or put it into words, I knew that my family, my friends, seemed to be ‘right’ in their lives, like they belonged exactly there, doing just that; but I felt like I belonged somewhere else, doing something different. It’s difficult to explain this in any way that makes sense to anyone who hasn’t had this feeling; I just knew that I felt wrong, I felt I was living the wrong kind of life, that I was in the wrong life.
This feeling was hazy, unseen, nothing I could put into a clear sentence or even think about consciously back then, rather it was a palpable ‘feeling’. During my childhood and teen years it manifested in vague ways; my parents and sister would be excited about going skiing for the weekend, and although I enjoyed skiing I would have this stifling feeling, trapped with the family but not wanting to go with them, of wanting to stay behind, alone, reading comic books or playing around the yard. In grade six there was a school camping trip planned; although I’d camped often with my family, I did not want to go on this trip for a few days with my whole class, I wanted to be alone. So in the weeks leading up to it, while our class planned all the equipment and food each of us would need, I worried and worried until I was so tight, constipated, that I couldn’t go on the trip because I was, literally, constipated badly. My class made the weeklong trip, while I lay around the house in pain until my folks took me to the hospital for an enema, ha ha. But it was a classic case of a child pretending to go along with the group because it was a ‘fun thing’ and no one would understand why I simply didn’t want to go – I didn’t understand – yet something inside me felt so violently against spending a few days camping with my classroom friends, that I made myself sick to avoid it. I could not put this feeling into any words, or even acknowledge it to myself at that young age, but this constant feeling of not wanting to be part of most things others enjoyed, was very strong in me.
This feeling carried on into adulthood, in all aspects. Even something as simple as going to a bar with friends, a nightclub with a girlfriend, working a job, seeing a movie, going on vacation, going out to dinner – whoever I was with would seem like they belonged there, were enjoying themselves and immersed into whatever was happening, while I, though pretending to enjoy myself and be a part of what was happening, was usually counting the minutes until I could leave, would always be the first to mention leaving, wanting to be alone, be doing something else. Though I didn’t know what, because when I would leave and be doing something else, alone or with someone, I would still have that exact same feeling… of wanting to be doing something else. How do you win? Where do you go, what do you do, when it feels wrong at each turn and yet you can’t seem to find anything that feels right?
THE SUCCESSFUL YOUNG MAN FACADE
Anyone outside looking in would, on surface inspection, discern I had a great life. A beautiful upbringing, a loving family to give me a healthy and balanced start. Add to that an uncommon harmony of ability: I was gifted in body and mind. In debates and reasoning things out, seeing clearly, I could run circles around most of the people in my life. Physically I was exceptionally coordinated and could excel at sports easily, quickly, with little training. Creatively I could learn and then express myself with a talent that others would marvel at. I began martial arts, and even higher belts, more advanced students, would ask me to clarify things though I had trained much less than they had. In the fine and commercial arts, in styles from realism to cartoon to abstract, I could quickly become adept in any medium, from pencil to watercolor to oil to sculpture. When I began learning guitar and singing, and started a small three-piece band with some friends, after a few weeks I was already writing ditties and songs my buddies liked much better than what they were coming up with… and they had been musicians for most of their lives. I simply had this natural, birth-given ability to become good, quickly, at just about anything, and to know how to create things that I and others liked, artistically and commercially.
Since the mid-1980’s I’d been working in comic books, drawing and writing them, traveling to conventions, signing autographs. That was fun and rewarding in an egoistic way, always nice having people look up to you, having some solid accomplishment, something on paper you can hold in your hands and show people, hear them say, “Wow, that looks great, you’re really talented!”
That made me feel good in a shallowly-validated way, but it didn’t make me feel fulfilled. I could be proud of my work, but still not feel like it was the right thing to be doing. I found that what you’re good at doing… is not necessarily the thing that makes you happy. What you’re skilled at, is not necessarily what brings you fulfillment. I was becoming a very skilled artist and writer, but it wasn’t making me any happier.
So we arrive at the early 1990’s: we see a young man who was handsome, in great shape from bodybuilding and martial arts, had the interesting career of writing and drawing comic books for Marvel Comics, lived in the city I loved, was crazy about girls and money and music, liked cars and motorbikes, going to comic conventions and stores to sign autographs for fans, had a movie agent through comics and was starting to write scripts…
…Yet still felt I was in the wrong life; still felt, while doing anything and everything, that I wanted to leave, to go, do, be, something else. Someone else. None of my life made me happy. I was doing the things I liked to do, and yet I was not happy doing them. I realized I had felt that way for my whole life but just hadn’t been consciously aware of it. Always wanting to leave, always unhappy with what I was doing. With what I WAS.
AHA: FINALLY ADMITTING UNHAPPINESS, OUT LOUD
This is an important moment: the moment when you finally have the maturity of mind, the self-awareness the truly wise people speak of, to lift a veil within yourself, to part a curtain. This is a crossing-over point where something ‘there-but-hidden’ becomes something exposed to the clear light of day in your mind. Your entire daily existence might be shaped by something hidden inside you, yet you might go for years, decades, into old age, even die, before you will consciously acknowledge and clarify what that something is. There can be numerous ‘Aha’ moments in your life, little ones and life-altering ones.
This was my huge, initial Aha moment: when I actually said out loud to myself, in clear words, that I was doing all the things I loved, but they were not making me happy and never had, in fact that I was becoming more miserable and empty each year, each month and week and day. That was the fork in the road, the point at which I purposely, consciously began to look into… changing. Up until then, I’d been blindly ‘leaking’, as I describe it; since I hadn’t consciously said to myself I was unhappy, I couldn’t take any conscious steps to change, alleviate that unhappiness, so the unhappiness inside me ‘leaked’, forced its way out through behaviors I didn’t understand and wasn’t consciously thinking about.
This realization was revolutionary for me: how could I have been unhappy for my entire life, have felt like I was in the wrong life, and only just now actually become consciously aware of it, able to say it out loud in a sentence? That first veil of self-awareness lifted; so this is what is meant by self-awareness. Such a small, subtle membrane separating almost thirty years of blindly feeling something, blindly reacting to it every day… and then actually seeing it. It’s like that hidden thing has now become its own animal, you can see it. I’d been stressed by many things ever since I was a child, blindly reacting to those things… and with the veil lifted, I could suddenly say, “Oh, this is stress! I get it!” I was suddenly able to look past the things stressing me, and able to look at stress itself as its own creature, with its own existence. Oh, this is unhappiness! Oh, this is shame! Oh, this is arrogance! Oh, this is fear!
Once you ‘get’ the veil of self-awareness, the next years of your life will go ‘pop pop pop’ as those little membranes burst, the membranes between blindly having it… and consciously knowing what you have. With that first little burst membrane, the next months and years were a slow peeling apart, looking at what I was, changing myself, now using this invisible but miraculous new tool of unfolding layers of self-awareness.
EVERY DIRECTION ENDS WITH NO ANSWER
This inner unveiling began around 1991, after I’d first admitted to myself out loud that I was unhappy. I began to search for an answer to why I’d always felt so wrong, so unhappy, so ‘in the wrong life’. This was more than an idle curiosity; of course I could see that everyone around me also wanted some changes in their lives, were working towards their dreams, were complaining about the things they didn’t want or couldn’t escape. That is human nature, to feel this imperfection and to want a more harmonious and authentic life. Most people generally accept their place in the world, can cope with it, even while they’re striving to change and improve certain things. With others whose circumstances are rough, even awful, like those having lives of abuse, living with war, poverty, torture, terror, addiction, there’s an obvious impetus for them to want to escape that kind of ‘wrong life’. But I’d had a very good life in a stable family… so what could drive me to feel so unhappy, so wrong?
For me, everything felt wrong. It was a feeling, rather than a solid, obvious set of circumstances. With me, this feeling soaked so thoroughly, universally through my body and mind that it grew to encompass all aspects of my life; I was becoming so unhappy, simply could not cope with the life I had anymore, needed to change, because it didn’t feel like ‘me’, in any way. This growing self-awareness in me was also a two-edged sword; my blossoming awareness was peeling back the layers of façade I’d spent a lifetime sculpting, this whole ‘successful, talented, strong young man’ thing, and it was revealing just how deeply and destructively this ‘in the wrong life’ thing was wreaking havoc through me. And it was revealing just how necessary it was to find out what the ‘right life’ might be.
I didn’t know how to find that. There was no book or outline for it, so I tried what I could think of to change things; I tried new jobs, I altered the ways I’d go through a day, tried to think of new interests that I might enjoy, causes I might become involved with, new cities or countries I might move to. More concisely, it wasn’t that I wanted to try new things, so much as I wanted to see how I felt doing new things. I’d try something different, and it wouldn’t make me feel any better. Or I’d try a different way of doing something I’d already been doing, and it wouldn’t make me feel any better.
Since drawing comics involved zoning out to the rest of the world, sitting still and concentrating on a little square inch of paper for so many hours each work day, I started to feel very confined by drawing, I wanted to find things to do that kept me active, open, left room in my mind to think. I wanted to try things I hadn’t tried before, things that maybe used to scare me, things I hadn’t considered I could do before. I had been lifting weights for many years, and now I began martial arts, then started security work bouncing at concerts and night clubs. Martial arts and ‘confrontation jobs’ had always intimidated me so I thought I’d face that and jump into the new experience.
I began hitch-hiking. I gave my car to a friend in January of 1991; I found the hitching style of life, being at the mercy of peoples’ rides, walking the roadsides, camping out in the bush, not sure when I was going to reach the next town, not sure if I’d enjoy the next ride or if it would be very uncomfortable conversation… all that ‘not knowing’ became very important to me, that exploration into difference.
Before that time, when I’d drive or fly or bus, the travel was only a means to reach the next city. If I could have avoided the trip and gotten there without seeing all that scenery and spending that time, I would have, because the excitement was all about the next city, the next girlfriend, the next neat project, but it all had to be in the city, it was never about the journey, it was about the end goal.
So I started hitch hiking and facing all that not-knowing, that in-between. I had food in my backpack, a tent and sleeping bag, water, a knife… and I walked. I wasn’t interested in standing at the edge of a city and thumbing a ride, because that’s all about going destination-to-destination again, and my hitch hiking was about opening up to the in-between journey. So I’d walk to the edge of a town, then right past any other hitch-hikers standing there, and I’d keep walking, even for hours out of town until I felt like sticking my thumb out. Just to be walking towards something different, towards nothing, no place.
If I didn’t get a ride, I’d go off in the trees and pitch the tent. If I was in a vehicle and I felt like stopping by some forest or waterfall or stream simply because they were pretty, I could get out there. Hitchhiking, just looking at that open road in front of me, looking at the gravel as my feet walked towards it, was one of the most opening experiences that contributed to what I’ve become. Even now, years later, when I’m stuck in a town, an apartment, a hotel, a job, I look out to the hills, I want to be walking out into the wild, hitchhiking. I love it. I’d walk along, sing at the top of my lungs, sit down by a creek, hike into the trees, smell the fresh plant scents, feel the breeze. I had so many adventures. Different things that happened to me, things I saw that I would never have seen driving or flying. Scary things, wonderful things. I’ve been picked up by the whole range of humanity, from the divine to the creepy, the helpful to the dangerous, in all manner of vehicles and situations.
I tumbled through many adventures I could have written into an exciting and entertaining book on hitchhiking. But I had no interest in writing that book; an entertainment book about witty or poignant hitchhiking stories would be just another project that ‘wasn’t me’, wouldn’t bring me deep fulfillment or any closer to feeling an authentic life. I was searching for something deeper, something all-encompassing, some spark that would ignite my whole soul into feeling alive, feeling worthy of this life.
Hitchhiking opened my mind and heart in many ways, but it still didn’t provide an answer. My unhappiness was still here, gobbling up my heart and thoughts, my life energy. There were times I felt very depressed, stressed, sad; I did know depression for a long time back then, knew what it was like to beg for night to come so I could sleep and escape feeling this way for a few hours, knew about waking up and not being able to drag myself out of bed until noon, just lying there staring at the walls for hours; but I always knew this feeling wasn’t a… chemical thing, something that needed medication and therapy. I intrinsically knew it was something in my mind making me feel that way, something that needed changing, and I knew that if I could change something about the way I was thinking and living, I would start to feel better, happier and clearer. I had no idea what that thing was, though.
TOXIC BREAKDOWN OF A LIFE
So the dissolution of my known life became well underway. It was messy, a downward-plummeting spiral, rather than a gentle sifting-apart. It was a five-year desperation of casting-about, seeking answers in dozens of directions. My home life, work life, creative life, health, relationships, stability slowly cracked apart; the cracking accelerated and after months and years it corroded into being outright toxic:
I worked only sporadically, so I was usually broke or nearly so, and lost most of my possessions. I would hitchhike for months, looking for a place where I felt happy. While far away, I would even let go of all family and friends, thinking, “My family must want me to find happiness, a good life; if that means I must be away from them to find this happiness, change myself completely, let go of all people and places from my past… even if that is the price, I’ll pay it. And they would have to pay it, too.” I was so sad for a short time, thinking that I might have to never be with my family again if I needed to change that completely. Thankfully it was not the price; whether near them or away from them, I was equally unhappy. The answers, I found out, were not to be found geographically, simply through moving somewhere else, to be away from some people and around some ‘new’ others. Maybe if the people in my life were toxic to me in certain ways, that would be part of the answer… but they weren’t. I had good people.
I began reading material that, in my younger and egotistical life, I had chided, even scorned: religious books, spiritual books, self-help books. I opened up to the Bible, the Sutras, the Upanishads, the Tao, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the major tomes of the major religions. I opened up to The Blue Cliff Record, Jiyu-Kennett’s The Wild White Goose, The Life And Times Of Milarepa, Bankei’s The Unborn, and many other books by contemporary and ancient masters of wisdom, enlightenment, religion. I opened up to Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, Tony Robbins, Dale Carnegie, Richard Bach and other famous self-help and spiritual vanguards of our recent times.
I started journaling, writing what I was thinking and feeling each day. That was also when I started ‘conversations’ with myself – just to say things out loud. I’d grown up learning that people who ‘talked to themselves’ were weird, crazy… but when I needed it, it came to me naturally: late one evening I was so stressed, so needing of help and an answer, I was walking along the seaside promenade near my apartment and came to a pretty point that branched out into the bay. I stood there, looking out over the bay and up at the stars, and pleaded out loud, “What do I do?” Without meaning to, I then answered myself, out loud. Then I carried on a whole series of questions, answers, conversations with myself in both roles, ha ha, and it felt as normal as breathing. It was the first time I’d ever done that, and I hadn’t heard of it before. Neale Donald Walsh did this and became famous with his Conversations With God series of books; I was doing the same thing, though I never considered my conversations being ‘with God’, I hadn’t seen those books and perhaps it was before those books were even published. I expect many people have come to this process on their own. I found the process normal, clarifying, cleansing, and occasionally still do it to this day, in both talking and journaling form. I found that my thoughts, ideas, feelings had been knocking around inside my head, kind of like hazy mush, and I wanted them said, I wanted them clear, and I felt that in order to say them out loud, converse them, write them on paper, meant I’d have to make things very clear. I knew on some basic level that ‘clear’ would help. Things had to become un-mushed inside my head.
Still, no book, no religion, no personal journaling brought me the answer to my feeling of unhappiness, of being in the wrong life. Some things did help; I’d read a passage, a comment, a truth written by someone, and it would help clarify something I was feeling or thinking. I’d have more Aha moments, breakthroughs to clarity and self-awareness about things, but nothing would fill or remove my emptiness and unhappiness, nothing would alleviate the wrongness, the angst that kept my life spiraling downwards like a warplane shot out of the sky.
I vaguely guessed that I needed to make a ‘break’ from the things I was taught to think while growing up, from parents, teachers, society, media. I needed to find out what I thought of things. I know that during work, relationships, travels, most people can cope with everyday life and just ruminate over these things a little bit, fit it in between the cracks, so to speak. But I couldn’t. The search, the trying to find what I thought about things, somehow for me was much more important than all other things in life, and I couldn’t cope with those other things unless I was on this search. The search was everything.
So, I would draw comics for a while, write for a while, make some money… and then I’d stop for a few months and live off that money, just think and travel and move cities and change things. When I became broke, weak, and tired of being broke, I’d work again.
FINALLY AN EXTREME TOXICITY
Eventually I evolved – or devolved – past trying different things for days or weeks, to the point where I was scrambling in many directions every single day, changing by the hour; one moment I’d decide I would call Marvel and draw a comic book, was making plans, then the next hour I would change to wanting to leave it all behind, take my backpack and go wandering. An hour later I’d be thinking of becoming a professional musician, writing songs, cutting an album, being rich and famous; the next hour I’d switch and want my own martial arts dojo, train and teach all day. The next hour I’d want to forget all the creativity and projects and work, hide in some anonymous steady job, maybe serve in a restaurant, get back to some health and pay bills regularly for a while again; then I’d want to write my own books, movies; then I’d…
…You get the idea. It was like that, every day, like a cornered animal at bay, jerking left and right, looking for any way out. Agonizing decisions, trying to figure out what to do, where to go. For those five years I vacillated, changing circumstances by the week and month; I’d crash with some friend for a month or two, begin a job, then rent an apartment for a few months, then quit work, let go of my possessions again, hitchhike, walk around the continent. I’d have money for a while, eat, try to get health and strength back, then the unhappiness would squeeze out that lifestyle, and I’d ‘need time to think’, would quit work and go broke again; then I’d become so unhealthy after months of this, I’d work to have money again; then stop and go broke again. Ate, starved, ate, starved.
Yelled, screamed, cried, searched, cast about. Crashed with friends, then out hitch hiking again. Then crashed with family, then out hitch hiking. Then into a motel for a while, then out camping, sleeping wherever, in the woods, the roadside. I’d hitch hike in Canada, come back, through the States, back, through Mexico, back. Return to work again. Stop and go broke again. Always searching, trying for some new circumstance, some new combination of circumstances, some new knowledge that would feel ‘right’. Something, someone, to tell me the answer to my unhappiness, my wrong life.
As I mentioned, I don’t want to write a book about all my hitch hiking trials and adventures, but here’s a long paragraph – all you’re going to get – encapsulating a few short months during that intense search. I’m just going to ramble in a tedious run-on paragraph, so scroll to paragraph bottom whenever you get tired of it. Start:
Hitchhiking alone in Mexico for a few weeks where, as I cleverly and laughingly told people, I ‘caught every sickness that wasn’t a disease’, like two colds, sunstroke, diarrhea and vomiting, food poisoning, constipation, sometimes going a few nights without sleep, becoming exceedingly worn down, hallucinations from the combination of sickness and sleep deprivation and sleeping outside – I’m just speaking of my wearing-down, but there were also constant wonderful happenings in Mexico too; then returning to Victoria, Canada, late one evening, needing a place to crash and rest after my Mexico trip, calling my most recent girlfriend, who proceeded to give me a piece of her mind and then hung up on me; calling an older girlfriend who finally said to come over; walking an hour, almost to her place at midnight, then seeing her approach me in her car, turning her head away as she passed me walking under a streetlamp, obviously having been talked out of this mistake and heading to her current boyfriend’s for the night; finding a nearby city park and rolling up in my tent, like a sausage roll, under some bushes for the night to keep dry from the rain; hitch hiking up-island the next morning, staying with a friend in one town and doing a little assistant comic book art for him (Todd McFarlane, creator of Spawn) while I crashed with his family a few days and drew backgrounds for the issue of Spider-Man he was drawing at that time; spending a sunny day out on his sailboat; getting paid for my drawing assistance, then dropped off at the edge of town; hitching to another small town, crashing with another friend who shared a small house with three buddies, all of whom partied the night away so I didn’t sleep; early the next morning I rolled my sleeping bag – among the others who were passed out around the room – hitch hiked to the small seaside town of Ucluelet where I hung around the local rough bar after hearing that that was where the fishing boat owners and workers hung out, introducing myself to every gruff captain and deckhand until one of them hired me, going aboard a fishing trawler the next morning to start work; getting very sore and seasick after only two long workdays fishing on a tossing trawler, finally we and the other boats were chased to shore by the gale-warning storm and waves much higher than the boat; hitched back to Victoria where I crashed with a friend in the city, sleeping outside on his balcony because I’d spent so much of the last weeks outdoors that I felt stifled inside his small apartment; broke and not wanting to eat much of his food because he didn’t have much income, so becoming even weaker; phoned another friend who I’d learned was in town, this friend had recently moved to Victoria and was now managing a store that sold home gym equipment, so he hired me on the spot (it went like this: ‘Who is this? – Neil! Want a job?’) and I went to work selling fitness machines and assembling them in peoples’ homes around the southern island (lots of stories from that job, too); I finally rented an apartment of my own; Marvel Comics sent me the script to a movie by James Cameron (of ‘Avatar’ and ‘Titanic’, etc), Cameron had selected me out of the available artists at Marvel to draw the comic adaptation of a movie he was releasing soon; I was broke at the time, but I still turned down the very lucrative offer because drawing at that time would have been intensely stressful to my agonized mind, there was simply no way I could meet the intensive deadline; after a couple months I became so unhappy again I stopped working at the fitness store, went hitch hiking to Calgary and down across the border, across the northern U.S. to Wisconsin, down the Midwest to Tennessee and Mississippi (long, hot days of walking, very few pick-ups down there, knocking on peoples’ doors to ask for water, etc), back up through Pennsylvania and New York state, across the border to Toronto, across Canada and back to the west coast; then borrowed money to stay a month in a hotel in Victoria, where I started writing and drawing my creator-owned comic series for Marvel; rented an apartment to draw in; then stopped working, hit the road again… you get the idea now. I think all that encompassed about eight months or so…
Always searching, trying, moving, changing circumstances, becoming more worn out physically and unstable circumstantially, for years. Think of the book and movie ‘Into The Wild’, about the short time Christopher McCandless underwent a similar search. He did much the same as I, (and at around the same time, it turns out) but unfortunately after two years he was worn down enough to make final decisions that led to his death. I understand his reasons, his irresistible drive to search, completely; I underwent this search-for-truth for more than five years, and I was fortunate enough to survive. It is a dangerous lifestyle because you’re always in new, unknown territory, always in a weakened body-state, always into unfamiliar situations with people, cultures and circumstances you don’t quite know how to exist safely within.
It was vicious, those years of intense stress, change and confusion. Searching for something out there that would make me feel happy, or at least feel like I was in the ‘right’ life, not the wrong one.
TUCKERED-OUT SOUL; FAILING
After years of this search, at some point I knew I was failing. Thirty-two years old, and after more than five years of this search and turbulent descent from health and success into dark desperation, by the end of 1995 I could think of nothing that would save me. A strong, creative, very intelligent and capable young man, had cast a life line in every direction around him, towards different jobs, interests, places, people, books, religions, and had slipped and slid downward into this skinny, ill, broke and in debt, lost and haunted wreck that could not find any circumstance that felt like ‘me’. That felt authentic, good.
Except for momentary social touchings, fingertip visits with a friend for a few minutes, shallow how-you-doing phone calls with family for a few minutes once or twice a month, I no longer had regular close contact with anyone. I was in an unknown zone; didn’t know why I was so unhappy, didn’t know what to do, didn’t even have the maturity of enough self-awareness to be able to explain to people that I was unhappy and was searching for something. As a young man, I had been so fortified by my own successful ego – the smart guy, muscular, amazing artist, good looking, great future – that this falling-apart now made my ego far too insecure to even admit to anyone that anything was wrong, that I needed help. I kept my drowning soul very hidden; friends and family could feel me withdrawing from them and from my interests, could on some levels see me slipping away, and yet I was so smart intellectually that I could still hide from them the fact that anything was very seriously wrong with me.
Somehow I spun everything, every answer, to make it sound more normal, so people wouldn’t worry, or wouldn’t judge me or look at me strangely. I always intimated that I was in control, just ‘working at things’ or ‘taking a little time off’. Looking back, it’s so funny – or tragic – that I could lose sixty pounds and still be minimizing it, something like “Don’t feel like working, just wanted to think about life a while longer, don’t have enough money for the gym, not eating much.” And make it sound so every-day normal, and the people around me never called me on my bullshit, that way. No, I didn’t know what was happening, and was far too insecure and terrified to acknowledge to anyone outside myself that I was in severe trouble. I knew no details that I could explain to anyone, so I gave no meaningful details. Kept ‘my-mind-is-falling-apart’ as hidden as possible.
INCREDIBLE, QUIET STRESS: FEAR
My stress had become acutely intense. Most of my intensity was… fear. I knew I wanted, I needed, to stop work, stop life as I knew it, stop what I’d been doing. I knew I needed a big open space in front of me to just think and grow. Yet each time I stopped work so I could think and grow, I’d quickly become broke, homeless, dependent upon other people, have them stressed about me. When family or friends or even strangers had to feed me and put up with me being in their homes, it’s stressful for everyone. I was so stressed about survival, health, coping, being judged. A lot of guilt and self-deprecation.
I started to feel incredible pressure between those two polar opposites; on the one side, needing to stop work and needing open space in front of me to think and grow and change, and on the other side needing to work, needing a place to stay, food, trying to maintain some body size and health.
The striving, the search had taken its toll. I had lost around sixty pounds finally, the young muscular body now worried down to a pale bony scarecrow. Intense daily stress and unhappiness never abated, I didn’t know what to do, for hours each day, for weeks and months at a time.
I literally started yelling, and pounding my knuckles against things, a last and primal bid to escape the intense stress. This would happen often, practically daily. Sometimes I’d yell out loud, long and hard, get calls from other people in the apartment or hotel, even the police, thinking something horrible was happening.
Sometimes I didn’t feel like dealing with peoples’ reactions to my yelling, so I’d yell into a pillow or towel. Yell, long and hard until I didn’t feel that horrible stress inside for a few hours that day. I’d be hoarse for days afterwards. If I couldn’t yell, I’d go find gravel and grind my knuckles into it. They already had calluses from martial arts, I would grind and punch them until they cracked and bled. Whatever that pain does to you, it relieved some of the stress, some of the fear. If you yourself haven’t felt that incredible soul-encompassing stress, then hearing about this feels awful and painful, even sick, crazy. When I look back and remember doing those things to myself, it brings me the same feelings you’re feeling now: wow, that guy was really in trouble, really messed. But when I was under that horrible stress, and it needed an outlet, that’s when pain became important, physical pain became some kind of an outlet to empty my nerves of stress and fear.
I don’t fully understand it, but I do understand its existence and necessity. I’ve seen it and felt it, and now I know why other people under great turmoil can cut themselves, scar or burn themselves privately, or want to smash things. I know that feeling. It’s like you’ve got powerful circumstances pushing in at you from every side, you can’t move left or right, forward or back, outside or inside, and yet you’ve got this massive pressure forcing you to move in some direction… so how do you move? What do you change, what do you do, if you need the stress gone right now, but there’s nothing in your life you can change to remove the stress? Some people cut themselves, some people put a gun to their head, some people take it out violently on others, before they learn better tools to deal with the circumstances in their lives that cause them that pressure.
That incredible, quiet desperation is implanted into many of us during some period of our lives, it pierces into our core and clenches our spines and minds with an indomitable bullying fist; it is caused by something, and it won’t be there forever, but for that time we have it, where did it come from and what do we do? For many of us this stress is a hidden, often unknown razor blade punishing our soul. Since we keep so much of it hidden, the healthy outlets often do not find us, and we end up in silent, visceral explosion, finding our own animal release under a seemingly impossible burden.
IT ALL BOILS DOWN TO DYING
When I was broke, I’d have a small meal or two each day, if that, received from whoever was housing and feeding me at the moment. Once, after weeks of eating hardly anything daily, I went for a whole week, seven days, with nothing but water, after already being very weak and depleted. I could hardly walk. What would normally be a half hour walk into downtown, would take four hours. I would faint once in a while; once right in the middle of the library I sunk to my knees and almost passed out, just from weakness and stress. One day I’d be sleeping all day, hiding, earplugs in, escaping and resting; the next day I’d be trying to exhaust myself so I didn’t think, didn’t fear any more, training martial arts so fast and hard, by myself, until I literally saw stars and blacked out onto the floor, then revive and continue exercising outside in the rain until I was shivering and soaked and coughing uncontrollably. My all-over-the-place extremes led, naturally, to a toxicity that munched away at all my bodily systems. My breathing was irregular and felt wrong. My heart felt wrong. Muscles and joints became injured and sore. My stomach, my whole alimentary system was unhealthy in many ways and – I later found out – also had an ulcer starting.
Poor sleeps. Intense stress. Yelling. Crying. Constantly moving. Harming myself physically. A haunted, cornered animal. All those things eat away, corrode your health. That inescapable stress every hour, for months and years, bites up your muscles, chomps up your organs and systems.
Finally, I was dying.
I admitted it to myself. I was dying.
After this second big ‘Aha’ nexus, when I admitted to myself that I was dying and that I had no idea how to solve my unhappiness, my energy to keep striving, in any direction, simply left me. My present life, my old life, simply died. I had exhausted all directions, all options. No one could do or say anything that helped, even those who on some level recognized that I needed it. No book or system or religion had the answer. They had answers, but not the answer, for me. On the outside was my veneer of being smart, okay, in control, maintaining the external façade even through my weakest times, while internally all my fuel was gone, I was operating on the barest traces, on the remnant fumes of my soul, each day.
I wasn’t exactly depressed during this later period, in the sense most people think. I was still doing things, constantly active, constantly striving, traveling, hoping. But I’d failed my life. I didn’t have an answer. To keep trying to find an answer, to keep going, to keep working and feeding this life that didn’t feel like my own, was killing me.
BE HONEST: WHAT IS IT THAT IS REALLY KILLING YOU?
I don’t know when the realization came to me, I don’t remember any specific ‘Aha’ for this one, I think it just vaguely gelled over those last few months when I looked at myself in the mirror, so skinny and ill and dying… somehow it dawned over me that only one thing was killing me:
The fear of doing what I wanted to do.
Fear of the consequences. I knew I wanted an open space in front of me, to think and to change, to find out what this different way of thinking was inside of me, just to see it, let it happen. I knew that couldn’t happen while I was in a normal life, working a job; this change, this exploration, needed space, lots of space, it wasn’t something I could just think about for an hour or two each day between washing dishes and TV and bedtime. And what was killing me was the fear of what might happen if I allowed that space. My fighting against truly committing, taking that big irreversible step into the unknown, was destroying me.
ONLY ONE REAL PATH FROM HERE ON
There were only two options left: since I could create or find no life that I wanted, and my daily life was now so acutely painful both mentally and physically, one option was to exit life itself; take control in one final act, take my own life, check out, then all the pain is gone.
…I could stop trying, stop controlling, and just let.
Let it happen. Let anything happen.
Stop trying to live. Stop trying to survive. Stop trying to find. Stop trying to heal, to be happy. Stop trying to control any direction or outcome.
That… felt right.
Oh my God… that feels right.
For the final few months of 1995, the intensity of terror and stress of those years had bottle-necked into such an acute nightmare, without even a minute of peace, and this tiny, gentle decision, the decision to stop trying… gave me the first true peace I’d felt in my entire adult life.
Hmmm: to let go of keeping-going, of trying for anything? It would probably become indescribably messed up and difficult, people would worry, I might get no help, I’d remain weak and broke, people would judge me, I might become more ill, starve, have no place to stay much of the time, sleep outside… and I knew it might kill me.
But I also knew that it was only a might… it might do all that. And I knew that what I was doing at the moment, if I kept resisting this change I wanted to go through, was killing me.
So somewhere along the way, I somehow accepted all consequence of what I wanted to do. I said to myself, I felt these words, something like, “Okay; do this thing you have to do. And accept whatever consequence it brings you. Whatever consequence. Because you have to do it.”
A feeling of such rightness settled through my heart and down deep to the center of my stomach. I could breathe again, I could see things around me again. I can’t say I felt happy, but I felt more peace. More clarity. I didn’t feel depressed or intensely squeezed anymore, which illuminated a little about where my depression and stress were coming from. I was scared and a little sad, but I felt better, in a way, right after I made that decision. Peace with it and acceptance of it.
Stop trying, start letting. You read about this concept, hear about it from the wise, but realization of it doesn’t pierce to your marrow until you absolutely need it to. I didn’t get this from a book, from any person; my life and mind simply ran out of options to try, so the only thing left was to not-try. It was the first peace and rightness I’d felt… maybe ever.
WHEN YOU’RE TRULY ‘IN’ THE DECISION, CHANGES HAPPEN FAST
It only took two or three weeks for things to happen, after that decision. Since I was now almost broke and didn’t intend to strive for money anymore, I broke my lease in the apartment I’d been renting the last few months, a place I absolutely loved. I let go of my furniture, belongings, plants, giving them good homes with people who liked them. I let go of martial arts, exercise, music, art, writing, doing. I let go of having any direction, of thinking there might be a place to go to, any area or city or country that would make me happy. By this time I hadn’t dated in five years, and I let go of ever considering having a romantic partner again. I let go of wanting to upkeep my good looks, my dreams of a future, my hopes for long life and health, success, comfort.
I let go of thinking that any answer existed, anywhere and from any source. I’d been looking for the answer to my emptiness. I’d been looking externally, at places and jobs and people and books, and I’d been looking internally, trying to pull the answer out of my own soul and knowledge. But I decided that if there was any answer, I had no idea what it was, no idea how or where to find it, no control over whether or not an answer ever appeared to me. I decided to stop trying to save my life, to stop forcing anything to happen, decided to do nothing that I wasn’t absolutely urged to do, to deal only with whatever was literally thrust upon me, to take no initiative myself; to just LET.
I would let whatever happened, happen. I would face everything thrown at me during this ‘letting’. And I would not run from it, I would accept and face any consequence. ANY consequence.
THE HOUR DRAWS TO A CLOSE
So after that lifetime of ‘wrong life’, and those five or six health- and lifestyle-destroying years, there I sat, thirty-two years old and dying, on a box in an empty apartment, at 1pm in the afternoon of a cold winter day. A friend was arriving at the end of this hour to pick my boxes up and drive me to the edge of the city, where I would start hitchhiking. It was winter, windy and cold outside, and I had no destination. He’d asked if I wanted to stay with him for a few days before I leave, but why would I? Just sitting around for a few more days, suffering, hoping for something to happen, waiting for the inevitable? That would be more trying, hoping, and I didn’t have any more trying and hoping in me. It was time to leave, to exit my trying-and-hoping lifestyle that was killing me.
Looking out over the city, for the first time in my life I was so calm, it was crystal-clear what I was doing: I was letting go of an old, dead life, a life that never felt like mine, a life I had spent thirty-two years in some effort of ‘leaving it’, whether or not I’d been conscious of that.
I was about to let a new life materialize in front of me, one footstep at a time. I had no idea what it would involve, or if there would even be one more tomorrow for me. On one level I was terrified, I did not want pain and death, yet I was also calm and it was now right to truly risk everything in order to take my very first, authentic footstep.
My friend phones; he will be here in about ten minutes. I have ten minutes of warmth remaining. I look down across the wintered city, then focus near to my reflection in the door, then back to the city. A few dollars in my pocket, not even enough for fare to take the ferry off the island, and a backpack to strap on. I thought, “Here we go.” I figured I’d be dead that night, frozen at the side of the road, my family never knowing what led to that happening. That’s what I thought. And I accepted that. I didn’t want it, but I accepted that consequence, if that’s what needed to happen.
I didn’t know if this would take a day or a year. Somewhere in my mind I thought maybe this would take a year or two. Then things should become clear and I could return to my life, become healthy and strong again. Right? Can I survive that long, in this vast unknown I’m about to walk out into?
I couldn’t know it then, but it would take seventeen years. And I’d never be able to return to any of my old life.
But my friend will buzz the door in a few minutes, we’ll each carry out a couple boxes, I’ll return to pick up my backpack, drop off the keys, and walk out of my apartment building, and LET.
2. The Letting
I do not work for five years. Things become even harder, and the ultimate darkness… but also they become beautiful. Five years of just exploring inside myself. The old mind dissolves, no one knows me, I do not know myself.
3. The Finding
Slowly, piece by piece, I discover what it is all about, what I am all about. Why I had been so empty, unhappy, and in the wrong life. The wrong mind.
4. The Me
After seventeen years of such intense journey and seeking, added to the initial five years of breaking-down… after twenty-two years of this process, how could anyone fail to ‘find themselves’? And become immeasurably strong and clear within themselves?
Thank you for reading Part 1 of my ‘journey to myself’. I hope to finish parts 2, 3 and 4 also, spanning the next seventeen years after Part 1 ends.