Wednesday, November 25, 2009
My worst Thanksgiving was the one where I ate a Swanson turkey TV dinner, alone. I think I was about nineteen at the time, and in the midst of a brief depression.
My brief depression lasted about fifteen years, roughly from the ages of eight to twenty-three. I won't go too much into the gory details, but I was a miserable kid, adolescent, teenager, young adult. My moods ranged from unhappy to inconsolable despair. I made several (probably half-assed) suicide attempts as a teen, one of them in 1970, after attending the first Earth Day festivities at Union Square. Now Earth Days fill me with relief mixed with a twinge of nostalgic misery.
From a bright, outgoing, skinny kid I turned into a chubby recluse. I started gaining weight during a hellish summer at sleep-away camp, when I was eight. By around ten or eleven I was pretty much a hermit, keeping to my room, refusing entreaties to come out and play. I wanted to be invisible. I used to walk down the street staring at my shoes. By junior high I made a new set of "friends" and discovered pot and alcohol (and antiwar demonstrations). LSD was reserved for special occasions, like concerts at the Fillmore East or all-night Marx Brothers marathons at the Elgin Theater, on Eighth Avenue. There was a crowd I hung out with, till all hours, but I wouldn't say that more than a few were real friends, though I remember some of them quite fondly--brilliant, funny kids, all troubled in different ways.
Things got a little better when I got to college and started discovering my voice as a writer. But my psyche was still fragile. I think I may have turned down a Thanksgiving invitation when I was nineteen and chose to "celebrate" alone with my Swanson TV dinner.
The real turning point in my life came when I moved to the East Village, in 1979. For a Brooklyn kid, finally getting to Manhattan was a triumph. I felt I finally had control of my life. And I was fortunate to dive headlong into one of the most vibrant literary and performance scenes the city has ever known.
I don't think I've ever been really, truly miserable since. I joke that I've had more than my quota of misery. Even when I was unemployed for the greater part of a four-year period, not so long ago, I didn't despair. People would ask if I was depressed. "Not really," I'd say. "I'm anxious all the time and unhappy some of the time, but I'm also happy most of the time, at the same time. I'm emotionally multitasking."
You can't second-guess or judge anybody's misery. You can't tell a depressed teenager that they have everything, or that they're being selfish, or that things will get better (even if they usually do). Their despair is real, I know. If I could tell a teenager on the brink of suicide anything it would be: hang in there, I know it's unbearable, but there'll come a time when you can call the shots, when you can tell all the people who are fucking you over to go fuck themselves, or ignore them, it'll be your choice.
And this Thanksgiving, if you know anybody who's lonely and depressed, invite them to dinner. They might even liven things up. Some of the funniest, most entertaining people I know are miserable.