Dead Things

When I was in high school, I read the novel First Blood, which is the novel that the Rambo movies were based on. As is often the case, the movies were very unlike the book.

In the novel, John Rambo, a homeless Vietnam vet, is passing through a small town when the local sheriff tags him as trouble. Keep in mind this is in 1972. The novel talks about Rambo’s beard and unkempt appearance. The war was just ending, and many folks returned to broken dreams and brought their nightmares with them.

One thing the author, David Morrell, does well is we are privy to the inner thoughts of John Rambo, a homeless trained killer. Early in the novel, he sees a dead cat on the side of the road. It seems like it was a nice cat, he thinks, and wonders what series of events caused its demise.

Then he thinks that that is one thing that has changed for him after the war. He notices dead things more.

Trauma changes your brain like that.

On the other side of my burnout, my brain changed, and then after the trauma of 2020 and 2021, it changed some more. I, too, notice dead things more than I did before. I, too, wonder about the stories that led to their destruction and empathize with the people who experienced the loss.

And I crave predictability. Routine. Safety. I love to read, but I bet I have reread every novel by Rex Stout and Agatha Christie at least three times in the last five years. I’m currently on my 5th marathon of Murder She Wrote. Formulaic fiction is my comfort food, where I won’t be surprised, and there is no real tension, and I’m not emotionally involved. I bet I haven’t read any new literary fiction in 5 years. I miss it so.

I hadn’t read any John Grisham in a decade, and on a lark, borrowed an audiobook of one of his novels to listen to on my walk. It was not amazing, but OK, and I was into the story, and there was a moment when one of the characters was about to do something self-destructive, and I had to turn it off. I still don’t know if they got arrested for drinking and driving.

I get tired much easier than I used to, despite my being in much better shape than I was then, and getting much more sleep than I did then. My temper is shorter than it was, and yet I’m less eager to fight. Not because I am afraid of confrontation, but because I know it’s not good for me. Or them, honestly.

Crowds freak me out a bit. I’m thinking that I will stand six feet from people until I die. Every single ambition I had in early 2015 is gone. My life changed, and then the world changed. A lot of people died. And we all acted like they didn’t.

I no longer desire to “go viral” or write sharable content. Viral content is mostly content that evokes strong reactions, and I don’t really want to do that.

I want to write my stories, go for my walks, feed my chickens, plant my flowers, worship at my little church, and work to improve my city and state. I just want to have an ordinary, boring life. I just want us all to make it.

Trauma changes your brain like that.

Two Years.

In about two weeks, it will be the anniversary of the last time I did anything that involved other people that didn’t include worrying about COVID. It was a funeral for a friend’s dad, and while we had heard stories of COVID, it felt sort of like SARS did – like a thing that had happened to some people, but that didn’t really affect anyone I actually know. After the funeral, we stood around in the parking lot, no worries about distance or masking, and talked about toilet paper shortages that were already happening, and how ridiculous it all seemed.

It was a simpler, more innocent time.

The Boy was a week away from his last normal week of school, before the spring break that would actually end his school year months ahead of schedule. We had house guests, who stayed with us a week – the last normal week for any of us.

And then a year of pure hell would happen.

The 12 months after March of 2020 were ridiculously hard. I don’t think I realized at the time just how hard. I’m good in a crisis, am able to strip away inessentials and focus on the problem at hand, so I let a lot of things go during that time – things like self-care and routine – and couldn’t do a lot of things that were important to me, like eat with friends and be in the larger world, while scrambling in order to take care of people. I’m pretty sure the combination of having people who depend on me and people who read my writing kept me alive that year.

But it was still a horrible year. This morning, I saw that I had posted this on Facebook a year ago today:

A global pandemic.

Political uncertainty.

Foster children.

Dad’s death.


Trying to scramble to pivot and keep our income afloat in the midst of extreme economic uncertainty.

The death of at least 8 people I personally know from COVID.

The extreme stress of being worried about bringing an almost certainly fatal disease home to my wife who has no immune system.


Spending thousands on car repairs, only to have to scrap it and buy another car after all.

Watching paid speaking and consulting gigs reschedule, then reschedule again, and then cancel.

Losing grants and donations as donors’ and grantors’ priorities shift because of the changing realities.


A winter storm that brought my city to its knees, and left it there.

It’s been a horrible 12 months for my mental health. I know I am not alone with this, but for 12 months I have had legitimate reasons why I am not operating at my best, and I am just tired of it. I want to be back at full strength. I want to feel productive again. I am at about 40% of pre-pandemic capacity, and some days that 40% is a stretch goal.

I told someone the other day that this whole last year has felt like a really bad normal year, but while wearing a weight vest. Everything is harder, more expensive, lasts longer, and is more exhausting than normal.

I don’t have anything inspirational to say here. It’s hard. It just is.

I learned a long time ago that it sometimes helps to say out loud how hard it is, and to say it where others can hear it.

That way, if it’s hard right now for the folks who hear it, then they will at least know they are not alone.

Yeah. That guy was in really bad shape.

I remember how low I felt at this point last year. Spring is always my favorite time of the year, but spring last year felt like an endless winter. Everything was dead, and felt dead, and looked dead.

Over the year that followed, I would personally know another six people who would die from this damn virus, as the nation lost hundreds of thousands more. Delta and Omicron would destroy all the plans we had of a year where we could return to “normal”, despite the literal miracle of the vaccines. Our political situation, while more superficially calm, has gone from “aftermath of insurrection” to “brink of nuclear war”.

And yet.

Over the last year, I would write well more than 100,000 words. I would start a new blog, and a new newsletter that would quickly grow to half the size of a newsletter I have written for seven years. I would develop new sources of income. I would begin a daily practice of both writing and moving, and would learn to pay attention to my diet in a healthy way for the first time in my life. As a result, both my blood pressure and glucose levels would decrease to healthier levels, and I would lose a hair over 50 pounds.

Growing up in the evangelical end of the church, we were taught to expect change to happen instantaneously. The Apostle Paul, on the road to Damascus, had this watershed moment, where he was struck by an overwhelming force, and as a result, had no choice but to change his life’s direction.

It’s never been like that for me. Change for me has always been quiet, slow, and nearly invisible, but striking in retrospect. So I’m grateful for the times that Past Me has admitted it was hard, the times he told the truth about what he was going through, the times he bore witness to the pain and grief, if for no other reason than to leave a signpost so Current Me could look back and mark the truly miraculous ways things have changed for the better.

My depression is more under control these days. I spend about 10% of my time on deliberate practices to keep it managed: I control my diet, prioritize movement, pursue connection, and write like my life depends on it.

It’s two years later. People are still dying. We are on the brink of nuclear war. And the daffodils are blooming in my yard.

When your routine is off.

I am a creature of routine. This shocks people, but it’s true.
I wear the same four shirts over and over. I have two pairs of pants I wear almost every day, unless I wear shorts that day, when I will wear one of two pairs, or if I have to dress up, in which case I wear that nicer pair of pants I own. I alternate between two pairs of shoes, no matter the clothes I have on.
I drink my coffee from the same mug nearly every morning, wake up at the same time nearly every morning, eat one of three things for breakfast, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, to quote the king.
Flaubert said to “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” I like that a lot.
But sometimes things throw the routine off. Like right now, Renee is out of town to visit her family, so three cats and I are living the bachelor life here in this tiny apartment.
Which is fine – I lived by myself for a long time before I got married, and I do all the cooking anyway, and while I struggled a bit with wondering what sort of cat food we buy for the cats and where we keep the trash bags, I am doing fine.
Except that the routine is off, and things fall through the cracks, all of which makes me feel mega uncomfortable, like I am wearing someone else’s clothes.
So this morning when I woke up feeling off, I just put it down to the routine and the changes and got up to make my coffee the same way I do every morning. And in making the coffee I moved something on the counter and saw my pillbox – the one with the daily little boxes for each day of the week that I use to track the medication that keeps my depression at bay – and that it was amazingly full.
It seems I had not taken a single pill since Monday morning. In other words, I missed three doses. No wonder I am off.
Before you ask – I’m fine, and in a good place and not really depressed, just off – again, like I am wearing someone else’s clothes. But it does feel a bit disorienting. It’s the most doses I have missed in a year.
But one side effect of all of the mess that is my head – the ADHD, the chronic depression, the learning disabilities I have and all of that – is that you tend to blame yourself when things like this happen. Instead of thinking, “Of course you are disoriented – your life is a bit chaotic right now”, which is what my counsel would be to anyone else in this situation, you tend to see it as a personal failing. Like you don’t want to be healthy enough, or you are not trying hard enough, or maybe you just are not enough.
All of that to say, I cannot wait for my wife to return. I cannot wait to move into our permanent home, and I cannot wait to have a regular routine again. For me, it really is a matter of life or death.