Long-Form Essays

I Have No Mouth, but I Must Scream

“Very rarely do you catch me out/
Y’all done ‘specially-invited-guest’-ed me out/
Y’all been tellin’ jokes that’s gon’ stress me out/
Soon as I walk in, I’m like ‘Let’s be out.’”

– Kanye West (Kids See Ghosts), “Reborn”

A little background: as you may or may not know, I’m no longer on social media. Overall, that’s been good for my mental well-being, but it’s obviously meant that I’ve missed out on quite a lot. Birthdays, anniversaries, babies, reunions, changing addresses – I’m always the last one to know, if I ever find out at all. I was able to live with that, since I still saw most of the people I like on a fairly regular basis.

Then… the ‘rona.

What’s funny is that when the lockdowns first ramped up almost a full year ago, I was the one helping people mentally cope with it. Me, the unemployed guy who has to live with his parents to keep from going homeless (if you’d told my younger self that that’s how I’d spend my 40th birthday, I’d have told you to go to Hell). I started sending mass e-mails in which I would BCC a helluva lotta people to send words of encouragement; to consider this massive detour before we all got to hangout once again.

I mean, how long would we possibly have to be in lockdown?

With no end in sight, my messages continued. After George Floyd, they’d often take on a more overtly political tone, but they remained messages of encouragement to help people I knew and admired get through a crisis for which our generation was in no way prepared.

Since I got so few responses to the messages (I always start off telling folks that I’ll gladly take them off the e-mail list if they wish), I thought of them messages as something most of the folks either ignored or clicked on out of courtesy. A couple of weeks ago, a colleague dedicated an episode of her feminist online education show to shout out to the people and things that have helped her “keep it together” during this now-year-long lockdown. Me and my messages were one of those things.

I should take that acknowledgement as reason enough to feel grateful and reassured. I should do that… but I’m barely hanging on as it is.

If you’ve been following this site for many years (which I doubt), then you probably know that depression is a beast that creeps back up on my every now and then. I’ve only officially written about it once, but it’s not as if it’s gone away. In fact, the subsequent 11 years have done just as much to exacerbate it as they have to alleviate it. Between never-ending job woes, a tumultuous six-month relationship, worldwide racism, and more, I’ve had more tear-my-hair-out moments than I care to recall.

The difference is that in the past I had my art. Writing, directing, acting – I did them all on a regular enough basis that I was at least fulfilled, if not a big success. Even as castings have slowed down for me over the last few years, sliding into my new role as a professional art critic meant that I still had an active voice in the art world, even if my face was no longer seen as often.

And, most of all, I got to stay in the Bay Area, always within reach of the 7×7 city where I was born. That’s no longer a certainty.

In my last entry, I noted that even though my now-twelve-year job hunt continues to frustrate me, the combination of freelance journalism work and a recent reply from a potential employee gave me a sense of optimism I haven’t felt in a long time. Shortly after posting that piece, I was reminded that optimism in and of itself is never enough: my parents my father is eager to move away from the Bay Area. Far away. He’s wanted to for years. I always thought I’d find a job before he was able to pull a proverbial “trigger” on the whole thing, but he’s become far more determined in the past year. Hell, he’s become more determined in the past few weeks, putting several factors into motion.

There isn’t much I can do about it because, again, this or be homeless. The thought of being out of control of such an important thing in my life is killing me. The thought of having to leave the area I call home – and all the safe spaces it provides – is killing me. And the fact that I’ve spent the last twelve years actively (but unsuccessfully) reaching toward the one thing that would help me avoid this sort of choice being made without my consent is something that really kills me.

This is a country that tells its citizens they should consider themselves lucky to even have jobs, as they will magically lead to success beyond your wildest dreams; and my father is of a generation which believes this lie wholeheartedly. When one hasn’t achieved all of that, despite my best efforts, I can’t help but feel like a complete and utter failure. Now, my failure has me potentially being dragged away from the one place on Earth where I’m guaranteed find peace.

Sure, it’s possible to find it elsewhere, but “elsewhere” isn’t here.

I don’t have a “circle”. What I mean is I don’t have close-knit group of folks to whom I can reach out and share my fears and frustrations. I’ve always been bad at making friends and even worse at keeping them. As much as I hate to admit it, social media made it easier because after I did the short work of making a friend (my FB connections never got over 250 because they were always people I knew and I regularly dropped folks with whom I hadn’t spoken in a while), social media did the work of keeping in touch. Everytime someone had a gig, a party, or a casual get-together, I knew about it instantly.

By stepping away from that years ago, it was like being the one animal not drinking from the same stream as the others. This past year has only intensified the loneliness of it all because now I don’t even have the odd chance of running into these folks again. And I am not on anyone’s list of priorities when it comes to reaching out.

And that’s another thing that gets to me: I don’t have anyone or any place to really let loose anymore. Most of the time, I just wanna run out the front door and scream ‘til my lungs collapse and throat goes hoarse, but I can’t. I can’t because a Black man doing that will draw suspicion (ie. the cops). I can’t do that because the parks, playgrounds, and open athletic spaces I used to frequent on my jogs have all closed in the hopes preventing super-spreading. I can’t do that because everywhere I – even out in the open – requires that I wear a mask for safety of both me and those around me, and you can’t give a proper scream with a mask on.

I’m forced to bottle-cork everything that’s driving me crazy, and that’s just making me crazier. Were I able to afford a shrink, I’d gladly pay for regular therapy, but that wouldn’t solve my financial or employment problems. The other day, my mother walked past my door and saw me with my face in my hands on the verge of clear mental breakdown. She sincerely asked what was wrong, but what I could I tell her? What could I possibly say that wouldn’t just be dumping my problems on her shoulders? What could she say to me that would truly put my mind at ease and not make me want to burst out of my own skin?

No. I won’t do that do her. So, back in the bottle it all goes, inevitably waiting for the opportunity to make my head explode.

So, how the hell did I – or rather, something I wrote on a semi-regular basis – become someone’s go-to for mentally maintaining when it’s so easy to fall apart these days? What the hell could I possibly have done right that would truly inspire someone else to put forth their best effort?

When I began writing my lockdown messages, I’d end them by imploring the reader to take a breath and say once out loud “We’re going to be okay.” I stopped using that phrase after the post-George Floyd political turn of the messages. Shortly after, I began writing “I’m rooting for you” to them. It seemed less of a vague platitude and less likely condescend when things didn’t go. And I mean it every time I say, I really am rooting for all these folks to pull through. I honestly wish that they come out the other side of the pandemic with a renewed sense of purpose and determination.

Maybe I’m just now coming the grips with the fact that I’d really like someone I know to say it to me?

This is my dilemma: leaving social media hasn’t totally disconnected me from the people most likely to give me that reassurance, but it’s put me out of their immediate memory. I could have asked my mother to say it, but I don’t feel it’s right to put my emotional burden on her shoulders. I don’t have the kind of relationship with my siblings where I’d even ask them.

The intelligent part of my brain tells me that I’m not nearly as alone as the emotional part feels. That doesn’t change the sense of helplessness that comes with being swept up in a life-changing circumstance that is not of my doing.

The best I can do is remind myself that even if I am unfortunate enough to no longer live in my hometown, at least I’ll be alive. That’s been a tricky proposition lately, what with a worldwide pandemic killing millions of people.

I don’t feel better, but I can do for myself what I do for others: if I can root for them, I can root for me.

Who else would?

2 replies »

  1. Well, I don’t know you, and my experience is obviously mostly/entirely different, but this, and the post on depression, affected me. I know what that (depression) is like and I can think of worse things but only by thinking pretty hard. Thank you for writing this. I’m not sure you can really root for someone who you don’t know (there’s a dialect problem here: that sense of ‘root’ isn’t native in my UK dialect, so I don’t have the built-in intuition as to what it means), but if you can I do. And if I’ve been rude to (at) you on jwz’s blog, which I think I have: sorry.


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