Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Happy Birthday: In Defense of the Worst Year of My Adult Life

At the last hospital visit before my birthday, the nurse said I’d had a bad year. Nurses tend to be far more positive, so when she said that, it stirred me.  In the last couple months my mother, friends, fellow writers, and even acquaintances I didn’t know were following my story said this was a bad year for me. I don’t want to agree.

I turn 33 on Thursday. Last week I realized that will mean it’s been twenty years of this neuromuscular syndrome. For our anniversary, my body began rejecting medication, and the latest thing the doctor put me on only endows me with new and unwanted side-effects. Much of 2014 was waking up every two hours with muscle spasms, of being unable to think straight, and being so beat down I couldn’t even write anymore. Family begged me to take it easy on myself, to just take May easy. May slips so easily into June, especially when all you do is suffer.

Part of me knows I’ve done more than that. As my mind’s been bogged down by pain, I reach for oversimplifications more than I ever used to let myself. Depression is alleged to work like that. So I dwell:

-A construction worker tossing a bag of concrete off a roof, coming down at me, and for a split second realizing I wanted it to kill me rather than send me to physical therapy again. It missed.

-That one doctor appointment, and the indignity of having to read what was happening to me off of notes because I didn’t have the wherewithal left to say it off the top of my head.

-The night I made a cry for help and instead my friend spent hours browbeating me about feminism.

-The suffocating feeling of a quiet night alone in early May, with no distractions or excuses, and realizing I couldn’t type a single sentence of fiction. Like someone sliced the tendons in my soul.

With all the confirmations coming from people who knew me, at some point I caught myself saying this was a terrible year. Maybe my worst year since the syndrome first hit, or the purgatory of returning to middle school while handicapped. In the middle of saying this out loud, though, I stopped myself.

I don’t like it when people say, “Fuck this year.”

The people who said 2013 sucked, I’ve noticed, tended to hate 2014. This bad summer became this hard Fall became this bitter Christmas. I believe in the powers of habit. Anyone can build a tragic destiny out of hating their days.

Was 2014 a bad year? 32 ends for me tomorrow, but I’ve got four months left on the calendar. And more importantly:

-The meals I shared with my mom? If I outlive her, I’m going to miss her. Do I condemn a year as bad when it granted me these moments and memories of her?

-I love playing Spelunky; some nights it was all I had the brain power left to do. I love re-watching Lost. And when Max and Ross got me a ticket to join them for Stewart and McKellan’s Waiting For Godot? Reading Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys (thanks Paul), Ted Chiang’s The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling, and Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes. Stephen King, the writer whose works gave me hope at 13, still reads well in this darkness. The time consuming this art wasn’t bad.

-Before things went to Hell, from January to March, I wrote a novel faster than I’ve ever done. In the middle I got bronchitis and went delirious; if you count only the time I was strong and home, I wrote it in two months. And I wrote a short story that might be the best I’ve ever made – it’s neck-and-neck with only one other for the most proud I’ve ever been of a short. Now ironically as I was writing this post, the rejection e-mail arrived for that very story. But one still has to ask: were writing these things bad?

ReaderCon happened this year, and contained this dinner.
It was splendid, even for someone going deaf.
-There are prolonged periods now when I have no patience or empathy. My mind gets so overwhelmed by illness that those things core to my values evaporate, and I’ve come to think that’s who I am now. Yet that’s a lie, because this year I’ve made some friends tear up from laughing. I’ve talked at least three people out of critical mental periods. One weekend, I think I prevented a suicide. How could I ever be so petty as to say, “Fuck my 2014,” when I spent part of it saving a life?

The fears are all there. With all my problems, will a publisher ever want to work with me? Will friends stick around? Some have already left. There is an exquisite horror to watching someone you loved distance themselves and then vanish from your world. Then there’s the compounding horror of not feeling, and only remembering that you’re supposed to feel. So now I wonder: if I get worse, will everyone go away?

Even if I sink like Atlantis in the coming years, 2014 would still be better in comparison. If 2015 is better, it won’t come from damning all of this. After all the doctor visits, and today starting yet another new medicine, I don’t know what a better future comes from.

Then again, I couldn’t have written this post a month ago. So if the year keeps getting worse in the House of Wiswell, how do we account for this?

Posting this today, when I’m still 32. I know what I want to post tomorrow. You can be here for it if you want.


  1. Bittersweet and wonderfully written
    Take care eh?

    1. Doing my best to take care! Glad you enjoyed the writing. I hesitated to post this fearing it was too self-indulgent.

  2. Being able to take an honest look at everything the year brought, bad AND good, is a benison. You're an impressive guy, John.

  3. You are strong and I admire you so much. So does this puppy:

  4. Chris and I think of you and talk about you often. We may be quiet friends, but we are here, and we love you. Here's hoping for more silver linings in this cloudy time, and someday soon, a fresh dawn.

  5. Beautifully conceived and written. My best wishes for an unabashedly excellent 33rd year! So pleased that VP put you in my life. ~ Nancy

    1. I loved meeting you, too, Nancy. Until this morning I hadn't even thought that Viable Paradise 17 was part of my 32nd year. I've been so trapped in this calendar mindset. VP makes this an even bigger year of my life.

  6. Love you, John. I mean that. I know we don't see eye-to-eye on everything, but reading what you posted and thinking how quick I am to whinge when I don't have anything to complain about, really -- not like a lot of people I know, who DON'T whinge. Thank you for this post -- you should bottle it. And a very happy birthday to you, along with wishes for the best possible rest of this year and 2015.

  7. Sartre may disapprove of your exuberance, but I say fuck that guy. There are superheroes in philosophy.

    1. I have to imagine Mudkip is a virtue ethicist. Pikachu is probably a utilitarian. Snorlax is definitely a deontologist.

  8. Great perspective on things, John. You can't be at the bottom if you pulled someone else up. As far as being self-indulgent… well, if you can't do that on your own blog, where can you do it?

    Here's hoping the next prescription does what's needed and Year 33 is better than Year 32!

  9. Even is the year is being a tough one, you can still write a damn fine blog post! Hope you have a great birthday.

  10. John, you know how to look at life. If you look at it negative, it will never change. Those moments and the people you affected this year alone are priceless.
    And happy birthday early.

  11. I'm sorry I haven't been around for you this year, John. You are still my favorite short story writer.
    I've had a pretty bad year too, but my health seems to be improving. I feel guilty when I see my sister and people like yourself becoming sicker.
    Stay mentally strong, my friend.
    From somebody who doesn't celebrate birthdays, I hope you have an amazing one.

    p.s. It is already your birthday in Australia, so you have my permission to start celebrating now.

  12. Your ability to focus on things (and friends) outside of yourself and to have such perspective into what you're actively going through is truly impressive. You have earned my respect and admiration countless times over. Things aren't always better or worse, but they're always different. If there's anything you can count on from 33, it's that it'll be different.

    P.S. If I'm ever not around, it's because I'm avoiding the internet, not you.

  13. First off Happy Birthday (will probably say it again tomorrow.)
    Second, good outlook! Don't let yourself dwell on the negative. Yeah, have a pity party on a really bad day, but never stop trying to pick yourself up. You're an awesome dude and I love reading your blog.

  14. Wiz,

    There is so much humanity at the core of all that too often envelopes you - you manage to always display this so elegantly, in spite of your pain and travails, and this my friend is at the epicenter of who you truly are. Know that this self is always there though sometimes inaccessible by all the shit that life deals us all and in the fiber of that truth lie the son, friend, colleague and self you will always be - respected, loved and admired. I'm proud to virtually know you through your work. You have much courage and my deepest respect. Happy, indeed, Very happy Birthday.

  15. I have a huge respect for you! I wish you happy birthday and I want to thank you so much for yet another life lesson!

  16. Happy early birthday! Please remember to make a wish or two on your big day. Sending positive energy your way!

  17. Thanks for this, John. I turn 51 in a couple months and 50 has been a strange year with a lot of extremes. After my mother died a couple of weeks ago, I started getting thinking that I just wanted this year to be over. But then I remembered the good things of this year and wondered if that was fair. This post settles it. I'll carry through the last quarter of 50 with as much grace as I can. Thank you.

    And, it's good to see you turning phrases like "Like someone sliced the tendons in my soul." Glad your writing voice is back!


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