A few months back my old buddy Ed tracked me down. We used to play baseball together, but he moved away, we lost touch, etc., and we hadn’t talked in a good 15 years. It was great hearing from him and I really enjoyed catching up.
As we were talking on the phone, though, something telling happened. He cut me off in mid-sentence at one point. “Sam, what’s wrong?” Huh? “Are you okay? You sound really down.”
Well, nothing out of the ordinary was going on. I was just sort of being who I always was. But Ed hadn’t been there as the frog boiled daily for more than a decade. All he had was a before and after, side by side, and there was something noticeably off about the after.
He was right, too. I don’t want to delve into a lot of detail here, but those close to me know that the rise has been a rough one since about 2000, and it got rougher and rougher as the decade of the ’00s progressed and turned into ’10s. Professionally a couple of horses got shot out from under me, and my long-time conviction that I was meant to be an educator turned out to be wrong, and I made a couple of decisions that, while they were sensible at the time, I’d like to have a second shot at. I found myself working harder and harder for less and less, and as is the way of modern corporate America I got well and truly screwed a couple of times even though I was doing a great job. It’s not personal, it’s just business.
Financially I let myself get talked into a couple of bad decisions that cost me my ass.
And on the personal front … Again, the details aren’t really necessary here, but it’s not a secret that I’m divorced, and during those years I completely and utterly lost my self. I lost my passions, I lost so many connections to the world and to the friends who made it such a wonderful place, and in the final act I immured my emotions in an effort to simply survive the emptiness. There were a couple of attempts at relationships post-marriage, and they only made a bad situation worse. Much, much worse.
Physical issues didn’t help anything, either. I developed Type 2 Diabetes and a debilitating inner ear disorder that robbed me of my athleticism. Forget playing soccer and basketball and baseball – some days it’s damned hard just to stand in place. And Diabetes – well, it helped once I realized that it causes depression and that the dark moments weren’t “real.” Didn’t mean they weren’t there anymore, but at least I knew that I didn’t really want to off myself. It was just the disease whispering to me when no one was around.
Mark Everett, aka E, put it so aptly in a song once upon a time: I became “a most unpleasant man.”
Those who knew me before the fall – I guess some of them maybe boiled along with me, not consciously aware of what was going on, but certainly I was no longer the upbeat, energetic presence I had once been. It went from “Sam is coming over!” to “Sam is coming over.” Others were aware and did what they could, but I’m not sure what could have been done. At best I was a dead weight, as likely to take you down with me as I was to be dragged to shore.
Others drifted away – either unconsciously or consciously, and with no small amount of regret, I suspect.
Then there are those who didn’t know me before, those who met me once the downward spiral was under full steam. There’s no question that I have been harder to get close to over the past decade. I have maintained that yes, I can be a challenge, but ultimately I’m worth it. Certainly the first half of that proposition was right, but the second?
There are nonetheless a few folks with whom I have cultivated friendships during this period, and the thing I have been thinking about lately is that they have never actually met me.
Until now. See, I have known that I was a damned chore for awhile, and I have tried to address it as best I could. I have healed, although not as quickly as I’d hoped I might, and not without a lot of permanent scarring. I have worked to chart a course toward what I truly care about in life and to establish some rules about not losing my focus. I have rid my days of things that weren’t fulfilling me and also of the things that remind me of the lost years.
An example: I spent 35 years as a poet, and I like to think a pretty good one. But it didn’t get me where I wanted to be, and perhaps made things worse. I’m one of those guys who can’t write when I’m happy, so my success as an artist hinged on misery. It is true that art can help us address our pain, work it out, turn it into beauty and hope and affirmation. It is also true that art can be an addiction. In order to produce more beauty, we have to indulge the agony, embrace the void.
I don’t know. It feels like I sometimes put my unhappiness on a pedestal and worshipped it.
So I polished off that last book and retired. There are ways of indulging my artistic jones that don’t demand torment. Ways that make me happy. Ways that help me engage with actual audiences who appreciate me.
Then there was the tipping point. My long, unfulfilling, fucked up career journey took me, in August 2013, away from Denver, the city that has become home, to Seattle. Where, again, the wheels fell off, as another round of sociopathic corporate bullshit punished the innocent so that the rich could have still more money. (Sorry – occasionally a moment of righteous rage still seeps through. I’m human.) And then, as part of the process of trying to claw my way to the surface, I would up in a small city that was a really, really lonely experience. But, thanks to even more corporate upheaval, I was able to engineer my way back to Denver, back home to Colorado. It helps to know how big companies work sometimes.
On the afternoon of November 25, coming down highway 287 out of Laramie, I hit the Colorado state line and I don’t think I’ve stopped smiling since. For the first time since late 2000, I feel like myself again. I have the energy back. I have the verve, the drive, the attitude, all back. I can smile and mean it.
I look back on all the years I spent trapped inside the skin of that most unpleasant man and … part of me wants to cry, to grieve for all that was lost. But another part of me thinks there has been enough of grief and that it’s time, from here on out, to indulge the joy I feel in being back from that black sojourn through the wasteland I made of my own life.
To the old friends who stuck with me through it all, thank you more than I can possibly say. I resolve that I will do all I can to reward your faith in me.
To the new friends, those who have only gotten to know me in recent years, I look forward to introducing you to the real Sam Smith. I think you’re going to like him.
And to the old friends who drifted away, I understand completely. I hope you’ll give me another chance.
For 2015, and for every year beyond it that I live, I resolve to be a source of energy and joy and support for everyone who chooses to be my friend. Your life will be a better place for my presence in it.