Tuesday, March 9, 2021

48. It's Okay Not To Feel Okay

"I don't want to die, but I ain't keen on living either."  -- Robbie Williams 

There have been several times I wasn’t doing so well. I appeared okay from a distance, I probably told people I was “fine”, but I was not so fine.  And to make things worse, I wasn’t used to being very kind or accepting to myself about the fact that I wasn’t okay.  

I spent five years living with a friend/brother named Jhan Dean Egg.  We met in the Summer of 1993 and survived many trials and tribulations with housemates over the years.  Jhan was always open about living with HIV and he had come to trust that I would help and support him in any way I could.   

In the Fall of 1996 Jhan sat me down and asked me if I would be the legal executor of his will.  He didn’t have much in material values to distribute, but it was important to him that his wall-to-ceiling music collection was distributed in a very specific way, in a very specific order.  I assured him I would follow his wishes, signed the paperwork, and forgot about the whole thing.  His health was good, his energy was high, his seemingly never satiable craving for boys was constant. 

In mid-summer of 1998, Jhan’s health deteriorated, quickly.  The cruel part was that his brain was deteriorating before his body, and he was aware while it was happening.  At 27-years-old, nothing could have prepared me to watch my 33-year-old friend decompensate before my eyes.  Late into the night of Sunday, December 13th, 1998, Jhan died in my arms.

There’s an emotional punch that comes with witnessing loss, an energetic weight I can only describe as “heavy.”  After his death I felt emotionally and physically tired.  No amount of sleep or rest or carrying on with “normal” activities replenished the persistently drained energy I carried day and night. Furthermore I began experiencing panic attacks on Sunday nights which only contributed to my sense of overwhelm and exhaustion. 

When I had consented to carrying out his legal wishes two years prior, I had not comprehended what the act of removing his CDs from his shelves would entail.  His CDs were his life, they were like the only family or security he ever experienced.  I felt like I was putting parts of his body into boxes and shipping them out every time someone on his list told me which discs they wanted.   My fatigue made it difficult to make the calls on the list, and that only prolonged the time and emotional labor demanded of this obligation.  I was sad, I was tired, I was angry at him, I was drowning.   And I didn’t want to admit it. 

All of this was taking place while I was well into my third year of working 50-hour work weeks - an inherently inhumane and exploitative hazing ritual required by the California Behavioral Board of Science.  Interns seeking to get licensed as a Marriage and Family Therapist in the state must complete 3000 supervised hours within a limited amount of time.   The opportunity to obtain such hours are usually in non-paid settings, so one must balance a practicum, a paying job, as well as school work and family.   Combining all of that while losing a best friend to AIDS was just a little too much.    

Adding fuel to the fire, Jhan had technically been a hospice patient in a setting where he had been verbally mocked, emotionally abused, and made to feel physically unsafe, hence why he chose to come back to our home to die.  After he died the facility reported his passing to the police and essentially accused me of murdering him.  There was of course no merit to this, but it did require me to get legal representation to deal with the police harassment for several months.

So I was not okay.  And I didn’t want to deal with it.  

This all came to a head right before my 28th birthday, in April, 1999, at a school-based internship.  I was supposedly doing play therapy with 5th graders in Alvarado Elementary School in Noe Valley.  In truth, those kids were providing a healing outlet for me, not the other way around.  The agency I was working was chaotic (as they often are) and I was already on my third supervisor of the same academic year.  I had barely met her when I sat down on her chair and found uncontrollable tears spontaneously gushing out of my face for the next hour.  I couldn't stop crying, I could barely breathe.  She was very kind about the whole thing,  and in between the sniffs and dry heaves we talked about the fact that this may be a good time to take a break from trying to be a therapist. 

It was in this spiralling tsunami of drama that I met a man with whom I fell “in love” and quickly got swept up in a whirlwind romance.  The “excitement” of being with someone who was older, well known, more experienced, more confident, allowed me to escape from my daily pain and panic, which made me vulnerable to his emotional abuse and verbal aggression. 

And then I got evicted from the home Jhan and I had shared for over five years.  So, yeah I was not okay.  But I had a famous exciting boyfriend so I didn’t have to deal with it. 

The guy lived in Palm Springs, California.  It was while visiting him in the Desert in the Fall of 1999 that I had a revelation:  “I’m not okay.  I’m not healthy, I’m extremely tired.  I am definitely in no position to be anyone’s therapist at this point, and after three years of begging for unpaid hours in California I have very little to show for it.  I just want to live in the Desert and wait tables by a pool.”  And so I moved to Palm Springs, and got a job waiting tables by a pool.  It was bliss.

I moved in with the guy, which lasted all of 78 days.  And after everything burnt up (literally), I decided to stay in Palm Springs.  Nothing like being homeless, friendless, with no career to speak of, in a new town, to force you to realize you’re not living your best life. 

With much support from my family I began to rebuild.  For the first time in my life I lived alone and was surprised how much I enjoyed it.  I began making some friends with co-workers at the restaurant.  I wasn’t okay yet, but definitely was on my way.  I spent six months taking time to breathe, allowed moments when I didn’t feel great, when I didn’t feel healthy, and accepted that I may never get the required hours to be a licensed therapist.  But if I could slow down, stop having panic attacks, save some money, share some laughs with my co-workers, then maybe I could start to heal from the previous year and be in somewhat decent-working-order again.

Eventually I decided I would return to pursuing my dream of becoming a therapist in California but ONLY if there was a healthy and paid way to do it.  Two days after giving myself a health ritual in

the Indian Canyons, a living saint named Don Wardell walked into the restaurant by the pool.  We had a long talk about health, healing, and the naturally replenishing spirit of Desert energy.  Don listened to my hopes, my struggles, and then assisted me in getting an interview to work at Desert AIDS Project.  To me this signified an opportunity to stick my toe back into the professional waters of working in a therapist/social services capacity again, but to do so in a way that did not feel inherently exploitative or inhumane as other work settings had.  I got the job, found a way to start getting hours again, and eventually did get my therapy license three years later. 

Death, trauma, eviction, abuse, panic, professional failure, and a police investigation — all within 16 months. So although I was not okay for a while there, I learned at age 28 and 29 how to begin to be loving and gentle with myself.  I learned it was okay to slow down, step off the professional conveyor belt, take time to wait tables by a pool in Palm Springs. 

It was okay to feel defeated, it was okay to feel humbled, it was okay to feel grief, and when it was time, it was okay to get back on track.   It was okay not to be okay.  Knowing I can make it to hell and back has proved quite valuable in the years since, especially during the COVID pandemic.  Having lived experienced that it's okay to slow down, breathe, take it one step at a time one day at a time has proved invaluable, and lets me know I'm going to be okay in the years ahead, even if and when I'm not feeling okay.  

Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist helping individuals and couples enjoy life with peace, purpose, and pleasure. His books "Absolutely Should-less" and "Rational Relating" help people experience connection with joy, serenity, and meaning. His work has been featured on CNN Health, The New York Times, MSNBC, USA Today and more. He can be reached at Damon@DamonLJacobs.com or 347-227-7707.

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