Friends

I must confess that I never was Mr. Popularity, not as a kid or an adult.   I may have not had legions of acquaintances I considered friends, but I am fortunate to have had a few I felt I could tell anything and not be condemned for my confessions or thoughts.  It was tough for me to make friends as a kid because I had different interests than most people in my town.  I loved reading about science, history, and foreign cultures even as a little child.  This didn’t endear me to the neighbor kids much as I didn’t really like tossing around the football, playing basketball, or any other games grade school kids are supposed to like.  I was usually one of the slowest runners and least coordinated children in my grade school.  Of course this singled me out for some ridicule from school mates.  Being the really smart kid who wasn’t going to hide his smarts didn’t help my social life either.

As a result of not having much for friends as a child in a town that was lacking for choices of friends compared to most places, I spent a lot of time alone.  I would often wander in the back yard or the allies and make up stories in my head.  I often continued these stories and characters for weeks and even months at a time.  I wish I would have written some of these down.  But I was afraid I’d be ridiculed for being creative by my school mates and family members.  Every time I brought home a piece of work from my art class I was proud of, my older brother and even some of my cousins would critique it and tell me how awful it was.  I kept a diary one summer in junior high but my brother found it.  After that I kept my creative streaks to myself.

My saving grace came from two really cool friends I met as a pre teen.  One was an artistic guy who introduced me to some really cool music like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Metallica, AC/DC, etc. that I still listen to occasionally even twenty five years later.  He also introduced me to cool artwork.  We admired everything from the Renaissance masters to Andy Warhol.  He taught himself how to play guitar just by listening to rock albums.  He became quite good and even played in a band for awhile.  Like myself, he too had problems fitting in during our school years.  When we were in sixth grade in 1992, he and I would be talking about the news from the presidential election.  While many of our classmates were discussing the latest Denver Broncos game or Michael Jordan commercials, he and I would be critiquing old Ross Perot’s latest television specials with his graphs and pie charts.  Naturally, our school mates thought us kind of odd.

The other really cool friend I had growing up was another artist type.  She and I thought alike.  We liked each other right away.  As she was home schooled until high school, we didn’t have the shared misery that was middle school.  Like myself and my other close friend, she wasn’t really interested in sports or popular culture.  Even in our early teens we spent time discussing art, philosophy, politics, literature, and science.  Her family and mine were among the first to get in home internet back in the mid 1990s.  She also taught me how to get free songs online.  I never did this because the internet was very slow and costly in those years.  And since it was old dial up, it tied up the house phone line whenever I wanted to go online.  Kind of tough to download the latest Green Day or Ice Cube songs when dad was telling me to get off the computer because he was expecting business calls.

I also had some other cool friends in my church youth group.  But since most of them lived in different towns and went to different schools, I didn’t get to spend as much time with them as I would have liked.  We did spend time together at summer camp for a couple weeks every summer.  But it just wasn’t the same as seeing them everyday in the halls of school.

After I graduated from high school I moved onto college.  Even though I have more friends from college I stay in contact with than high school, the friendships just aren’t quite the same as the ones I managed to save from my middle and high school years.  I loved college.  Even though I was going through the trials of adapting to life with a mental illness, I had some amazing times.  Dated some more in college than I did high school.  But, looking back on high school, I think that my best friend being a girl was what killed my dating life more than anything.  Yet, I wouldn’t trade those experiences at all.  Besides, high school dating is pointless nonsense and too much drama anyway.

My social life dried up once I got into the adult world and many of my friends moved away and got married and had families of their own.  Fortunately, thanks to facebook and easy communications, I can keep in contact with my college friends and high school acquaintances pretty easily.  Even though I wasn’t Mr. Social Life in high school, I made an honest attempt to be polite and considerate to my classmates.  Sure I butted heads with a few kids in my school, but what teenagers don’t experience social drama and strife?  It’s all part of learning how to socialize and be an honorable human being.  And, unfortunately, the only way to learn this is to go through the trials yourself.  It’s not like you can have that knowledge uploaded to your mind, like in The Matrix movies.

Even though I don’t socialize much in person anymore, I still occasionally make new acquaintances online.  Most of these people have similar interests and participate in the same online forums and discussion groups.  Once I figured out how to sort through the various trolls and trouble makers, socializing and making friendships online became a pleasant experience.  Granted, it’s not the same as making friends in middle school, high school, or college.  But, seriously, how many people make their best friends when they are adults?  My biggest regret about my friendships is that I haven’t heard from one of my two best friends (the guitar playing guy) since 2005.  And, sadly, he’s not the type of man to spend time on facebook or going to class reunions.  Haven’t seen him in years but I still miss our conversations.  I don’t know if anyone makes the same kind of friends as adults that they made as teenagers.

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Letter to My High School Self

High school graduations are this weekend in my home state.  Many of these kids will be going to college, some to the military, others to work or travel or do missionary work.  It was eighteen years ago, in 1999, that I and my cohorts graduated from high school.  That was half of a lifetime ago.  I’ve been legally an adult now as long as I was a juvenile.  An incredible amount has changed in my life, and the world at large, since that Saturday May afternoon in the farming village of my youth.

What follows is a hypothetical letter to my eighteen year old self, mainly about things I wish I knew in my younger years that would have made my transition to the world of 2017 easier.  Too bad I couldn’t do this for real, I’d tell my younger self to buy stock in Amazon, Facebook, and Tesla when they first came out 🙂

Dear Zach,

You have just graduated from high school and now the world awaits.  I know you are looking forward to college much more than you did high school graduation.  That’s understandable.  For many people, high school is some of the roughest years of their lives.  You definitely had your problems in school, but those are now past.  Some of the people you went to high school with you’ll never have to be around again.  College will be better in many aspects.  You’ll get to pick what you want to study.  You’ll have more say in who your friends are.  The bullies and idiots will be in the minority.  Besides, most people will be too busy with their own lives to harass you like you got it in high school.  You may not think so now, but someday you will be thankful that you’re smart and nerdy.  Within the next fifteen years, you will see so much science and tech advances that you will realize that, yes, nerds really do rule the world.  No one is going to care that you weren’t a star jock or class president in college.

Speaking of sports, I know there were some aspects of high school football and band you hated.  I know you didn’t like the summer practices at six a.m. or the macho atmosphere of the locker room.  But be happy you got to play.  Playing football on Friday nights is the closest you’ll ever get to being like a gladiator or warrior.  Be happy you got to be in the school pep band.  It’s the only chance you’ll ever get to feel like a rock star.  Most thirty year olds don’t get to stand out or preform at anything.  Even though you didn’t have a great social life in high school, be happy you went to a smaller school and had opportunities to be involved in many different activities.  Most of your college friends and coworkers who went to much larger schools won’t be as well rounded as you will become.

Don’t feel guilty if you don’t work your dream job out of college.  Most people won’t.  In fact because of the technology advances I talked about earlier, many jobs will be taken over by computers and machines.  So many people will be in that place where they’re working jobs they didn’t train for.  It’s not a failure on your part, it’s just that the world is changing much faster than people even in 1999 could anticipate.

Also, don’t feel guilty if you struggle at dating.  In the future, almost everyone will struggle at dating.  Besides, you will see many of your classmates go through divorces and marriage issues as the years pass.  Almost half of marriages will end in divorce.  And in the future, many adults will forego marriage entirely.  Surprise, so will you.  But being single isn’t bad.  It’s actually quite peaceful at times.  Some really big achievers in world history never married or had children.  You’ll be grateful you never got married.  Trust me.  You always had a hard independent streak in you.  That’s only going to get stronger with age.

Don’t take the opinions of others too seriously.  People in general can be quite dumb at times, so their opinions are almost never right.  The only person you have to answer to at all times is yourself.  Guard your integrity.  Be a man of sound character even if most people around you are liars and cheats.  Yes, cheaters do prosper.  But people will not honor their prosperity as much as they condemn their lack of character.  This was true in the past and will continue to be true.

You will have victories.  You will have struggles and losses.  People will come and go out of your life.  But hold onto your close friends and family.  Be happy you got to know your grandparents.  They won’t be around forever.  Be content and calm no matter what happens or doesn’t happen.  You will change your mind and thinking about almost everything several times over during the next eighteen years.  The only people who have their life philosophy set in stone at age eighteen are fools who are setting themselves up to be obsolete and out of touch with reality.  Like I told you, major changes are coming.  You wouldn’t believe me if I told you some of the things you will see before 2017.  You’ll just have to see them for yourself.

Be happy that you traveled and were open to new experiences in your youth.  The older you get, the tougher it will get to just travel or try new things.  Continue to be open to new experiences.  It will put you far ahead of most adults in your life.  Speaking of adults, don’t just think that because someone has gray hair or more money that they are smarter or wiser than you.  Many times they won’t be.  Some of them were just lucky.  And chance does play more of a part in your life than you would like.  You like the thought that you have a lot of say in your own destiny.  But in reality, you really have less control than you would like.  Sometimes things just happen that aren’t your fault or because of your hard work.

Remember to relax and know that life is a competition only against yourself.  Never compare yourself to anyone else.  You can’t live their life and they can’t live yours.

Sincerely,

Your 36 year old self, May 2017.

Social Struggles and Being Single with Mental Health Issues

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I had only five people I felt I could tell anything to in my entire life until I went to college.  Two were school friends, two were grandparents, and one was a cousin.  I really didn’t have any true friends outside of my cousins until I was eleven years old.  But I guess that happens when you’re the odd smart kid who’s too proud and stubborn to hide your smarts and eccentricities.  Maybe I would have done better in an environment where I wasn’t the odd man out all the time.  But I’ll never know.  It was lonely.  But I eventually came to prefer to be alone most of the time because I didn’t fit in among my classmates. I didn’t learn much in the way of social skills until I was well into my twenties.  Even at the age of 35 I still feel like I’m behind the curve in the way of social skills.

Today none of my friends and confidants live in the same town I do.  I moved here because the job prospects and health care in this town were better than my home town.  I wanted to start over.  Yet the older I get I find the less opportunities I have for traditional socializing.  I have better socializing and more in common with anonymous posters on Facebook and youtube forums than I do with people in my hometown.  I really don’t like the idea of going back to work because 1) I’m tired of dealing with the same old office politics and low grade hostility I’ve faced at every job since age sixteen and 2) my confidence in my work performance is gone.

I really don’t like the idea of going to mental health support groups because the ones I’ve been to I’ve seen too many people who can’t or won’t learn from their mistakes.  I can’t claim to be perfect on this myself, but at least I don’t ask for advice and then just do the same old nonsense over and over.  I just don’t ask for advice anymore.  I won’t go to AA or NA because I don’t have drinking or hard drug problems.  I won’t go back to college because I can’t afford it and there really aren’t that many 30 somethings in college, at least not from what I’ve seen or will get to see.  I certainly refuse to do the bar scene.  Last time I was at a bar was three years ago at a New Year’s concert and some girl chatted me up and was all sweet to me just to make her boyfriend jealous.  I still don’t know how I talked my way out of receiving  a beat down on that one.

It seems there aren’t any options for singles in their 30s to socialize outside of work and the bar scene.  Don’t start with the religious organizations idea.  There aren’t any singles over 25 in those organizations, certainly not men (unless you want to be a Catholic priest or monk).  I might join a gym in a year or two after I lose another 70 pounds on my own and can actually keep up with some of those guys and gals.  When I was a gym member I felt embarrassed watching some of these people who looked like marathon runners and body builders and I was having a hard time doing thirty minutes on a treadmill.

I imagine there are lots of lonely and single people in there late 20s and older out there who would love to do some activity that doesn’t involve working, drinking, or church.  I read an article that stated that, according to the 2010 census here in USA, there are more unmarried adults than married adults.  First time in U.S. history that has ever happened.  Granted this includes divorcees, widowed, and probably live in long term relationships.  But I have no intention of ever marrying and I’m completely content with that.  Would have been cool to have married the proverbial college sweetheart, worked in medical research (I wanted to be a research scientist since I was five years old), had the 2.3 kids, cat and dog combo, and picket fence kind of life.  But that is an illusion from an era that no longer exists if it ever did.  But a lot of social organizations and businesses are flat out missing out in not trying to attract singles in their late 20s, 30s, and older.

I wouldn’t be surprised if within 10 to 15 years you’ll see a lot of single men and women in their late 40s and early 50s who were smart and tight with their money in their younger years who find themselves financially independent and able to retire if they want.  I imagine for every person who has $50,000 plus in student loan debts, there is at least one other who learned a trade at a two year program or someone who got out of a four year program with little to no debt.  I also know guys who didn’t even go to college who worked on oil wells, in mining, and farming and made close to six figures by their late 20s.  And these guys are saving most of their money.  I also know guys who started in the military in their early twenties and are staying in for the twenty years required for a pension and they’ll transition to civilian work in their early forties while the military paid for all their education. Many of these young professionals (currently in their 20s and 30s and thus invisible to most people) are living minimalist while being smart with their money.  In short, there’s a lot of potential business and money that is being completely ignored because singles in their 30s are not a traditional demographic with any real numbers.

I don’t socialize much but not because I don’t have the money to.  With zero debt and some emergency money now stored away, I could afford to go to the sports bars most evenings or to concerts on weekends.  But having nerdy dork interests in a small town setting doesn’t lend itself to good socializing.  I’m also interested in exercising but I don’t have the build to run marathons.  I’m the only person I know who lifts arm weights while watching Star Trek: Enterprise reruns.  Just because a dude is smart and interesting he doesn’t always fit in to all social situations.

What Mental Illness Means For Me

I have occasionally been asked to describe what exactly what having a mental illness is like.  Now I don’t get as annoyed with such questions as I used to.  I mean, it is an honest question by people who, for the most part care.  Yet, I am still at a loss to describe my mental illness in a ten to fifteen second sound bite.  I haven’t always been mentally ill, so I can still remember from my childhood and teenage years what it was like not to have to deal with the crippling depression,chronic anxiety, delusions that seem so real (even when I try to convince myself they aren’t), hallucinations that, left unchecked, can be overwhelming by themselves, among other maladies that are associated with paranoid schizoprenia.

The crippling depression can, at times, leave me such that I literally don’t have the motivation to do much of anything.  During the times of depression, I will often alternate between times of intense sadness and intense anger.  I will usually try to isolate myself from physical contact with others during these times.  It’s nothing personal, I just don’t want to have the risk of a confrontation with anyone at these times.  I still can communicate with friends, family, counselors, support people, etc. by means of phone, e-mail, etc. but I don’t risk much personal contact with anyone during these times.  I certainly won’t be driving on the road during such episodes.  Far too risky.

Anxiety is another issue.  In my case, anxiety makes it impossible to hold most kinds of work.  I have tried and failed at several types of jobs, ranging from salesman to factory worker to maintenance man to graduate assistant.  I’ve really lost count of how many jobs I’ve held over the years.  I really have a hard time handling fast paced work where the public is involved.  So that alone eliminates many jobs.  The only job I held for longer than one year was a janitorial job where I primarily worked alone, could set my own priorities within limits, and I wasn’t bothered as long as the job was done well and on time.  Another issue about anxiety and mental illness is old fashioned office politics.  I never could figure those out.  Because of my anxiety, along with my paranoia, I often thought my coworkers and bosses were out to nail me.  Throw in depression about the whole deal and it meant for unpleasent work experiences all around.

The depression and anxiety doesn’t just effect my working life.  It also effects whatever social life I have.  My social life anymore consists of a few really close friends, some casual acquaintances, and my family.  I don’t have any friends from my previous jobs as I’ve lost contact with all of them (or wasn’t at the job long enough to make friends).  I haven’t dated in seven years.  The idea of going out on even a casual date scares me bad.  I just don’t know how to bring up the whole ‘I have a mental illness’ without scaring off a potential date.  There are times that complete solitude is overrated.

I have covered only part of what mental illness means to me.  I’ll have to cover the rest in a future post.