There’s a Bruce Springsteen song I used to sing at the “Coffeehouse” shows I played while I was a student at Penn State. Well, there were a few, actually, but the one I’m thinking of is called “When You’re Alone” (from Bruce’s Tunnel of Love album), and in it contains the lines:
There’s things that’ll knock you down you don’t even see coming
And send you crawling like a baby back home
Those lyrics proved prophetic to me in September of 1997. If you had asked me just months earlier (as one presumably well-meaning person that I looked up to had): “How long are you gonna give this whole music thing?” I’d have answered (as I did) with something like: “I don’t have a timeline for this. Why would I? Thinking that way is completely self-defeating – it’s like giving up before you’ve even tried!”
Moving back in with my parents just as I was turning 25 was, for me, both the ultimate concession of defeat and, also, a testament to the condition I was in. When my mom suggested I “come home” one day over the phone lines from Philly to Nashville, I simply couldn’t think of a better option. I was exhausted/spent/depleted in just about every sense of those words, and no doubt pretty desperate, as well.
The Process of Processing My Experience
The immediate thing to attend to was the depression. It was debilitating, and recovering from it was by no means simple, and certainly not characterized by consistent forward progress. And then there was the debt I had accumulated (not substantial, certainly not by typical American standards, but enough to overwhelm me at the time). I ended up staying under my parents’ roof for just under a year, and spent another two-plus years in the Philly area.
Once I was even collected enough to do so, I tortured myself by endlessly turning over one particular question in my head: Where had I gone wrong?
What was my biggest mistake(s)? Would it have been wiser to move to, say, New York City (or somewhere else), instead of Nashville? Should I have formed (or joined) a band rather than go it solo? Should I have targeted venues other than colleges in booking my “tour”? Should I have spent all of my efforts targeting booking agents, rather than attempting to be one myself? Should I have waited until I had more – and perhaps better – songs before making such an all-out effort to launch my career as I did?
Or…was it simply the case that, for whatever reason(s) known or unknown, nothing I would have or could have done would have made any real difference in the end? Was it cruel (or, at least, indifferent) Fate simply dictating that this was not “meant to be”, regardless of how badly I wanted it, or how hard I worked for it? Was I possibly even better off, in some completely incomprehensible (to me) way, to not have my dreams come true?
Over and over I struggled with these questions. ‘Round and ’round I went.
Another thing I (later) pondered: Was this “crash” inevitable? Would a similar derailment have occurred in time even if I had succeeded…because there were deeper issues that needed addressing? (My conclusion: very possibly.)
The truth is I didn’t, and don’t, regret any of those above-mentioned decisions I made. How could I? I was doing what I most wanted to do, and I absolutely believed in what it was I was doing. I was following my heart – and my strongest instincts – as best I could at the time (even if it, ultimately, rendered me the emotionally raw mess that ended up back at my parents’ doorstep).
No, if there was ever any regret to be had (and there would be plenty, actually), it had very little to do with all of that. And much more to do with my inability to bounce back.
One of the most difficult things for me to come to terms with, once I even realized it was the case, was the fact that I had seemingly lost all desire to continue pursuing music as a livelihood. Once I was able to come to a sufficient degree of acceptance regarding that, the even more dumbfounding (and “unforgivable”) truth was that I had pretty much lost interest in writing and playing music altogether (especially writing). Music was the only thing I had wanted to do, and for so long…how could I simply give it up? And what did it mean if I did? What did it say about me?
I tended to be pretty hard – perhaps mercilessly hard – on myself in answering these questions. I told myself: what was so horrible? I had worked really hard, sure, and things hadn’t worked out as I’d hoped or expected. But what was the big deal?? I was reacting as if something tragic had occurred. It’s not like I had been threatened with or subjected to harm (bodily, or otherwise) against my will, or anyone had died, or someone I loved was seriously ill, or I had come down with some kind of major illness myself (actually, I arguably had…it was called depression, but that didn’t really count). What was stopping me from trying again, at least once I felt better? Nothing and no one but myself.
I faulted myself for being any number of undesirable things, but these were probably the Top Three:
1) Weak: Clearly, a stronger person would get up, dust himself off, and try again, right? At least, at some point?
2) Not Good Enough: I must have been lacking in some fundamental way. Was I not a good enough singer? Songwriter? Strategist? Human being? Whether or not I could put my finger on what it was exactly, I judged myself as deficient.
3) A Fraud: If I had truly loved music, and wasn’t just out seeking fortune/fame/glory, why wasn’t I continuing to write/record/play? What had been my motives really?
Thorough as it may have been, this self-directed inquisition never seemed to help much at all.
Whatever the truth of the matter as far as my character was concerned, the one thing that was hard to deny (even if it was hard for me to accept), was that I had been traumatized by all of this. My own doing or not, I was pretty deeply wounded. I’m not even sure, quite honestly, as I write this nearly 17 years later, that I ever fully recovered.
Suddenly this Big Question (“What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?”) resurfaced from its Rip Van Winkle-esque slumber:
Okay, fine, I (maybe) no longer want to be a Musician. So…what would I like to do NOW, in light of this unexpected, unanticipated, but apparently real turn of events?
This was the new thing for me to agonize over (there has to be at least one, right?!). I had always been a passionate person. Even if I was truly beginning to accept that I was giving up my pursuit of a music career – and, apparently, even writing/playing music for its own sake – what passion/pursuit was going to replace this? There was a pretty huge void to fill, and I was clueless about where or how I might redirect my focus and energies. Whereas music had seemingly found me – came knocking on my door with a sledgehammer, as it were – I couldn’t make out any other “replacement” calling, regardless of how much I quieted down and strained to hear even a whisper of one.
An office job, meanwhile, proved to be an ironic sort of lifesaver at this time. For one thing, it distracted me from a great deal of emotional turmoil. It also helped me gradually climb out of both debt and (along with this) depression, and enabled me to move out of my parents’ house to my own (shared) living quarters. I was rewarded and actually (gasp!) appreciated for simply showing up, having a pulse, being reasonably competent, and being reliable to a fault. Importantly, I think, the job was in a realm in which I had no particular interest (and, hence, zero emotional investment). I worked for a “mechanical equipment distributor” – a manufacturer’s rep who hawked product lines of construction equipment (pipes, seals, pumps, and so forth), bidding on numerous projects in the tri-state area.
Life is weird, huh?
In the early months of 2000 (a brand new year, decade, and millennium), I started doing things that were indicative of an emergence from my long season of depression.
I had always found solace in hiking but, much more often than not, did this as a solo activity (occasionally, I’d go with a friend). But once I joined the Delaware Valley Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club, for the first time in my life I began hiking with groups of other people. One guy I befriended this way, Terry McAdams, invited me to join him on a weekend backpacking trip he was leading in northern PA (on the Loyalsock Trail, within the boundaries of the ominously named but beautiful-in-actuality World’s End State Park). At 27, I had never spent a night outdoors in my life – had never even been camping before, let alone backpacking. But Terry, knowing me to be an enthusiastic day hiker, was very encouraging and even loaned me a whole bunch of extra gear he had, including a backpack and a tent (and another friend, Lyn, was kind enough to loan me a sleeping bag for the trip).
I remember taking my first few steps with this oversized THING on my back onto a steep bit of uphill trail leading us out of the parking lot and into the woods. The parallels between this experience and that of my first-ever triathlon (almost three and a half years later) are striking to me now. In both cases, a moment of anxiety came over me in a flash, but was very short-lived. In both cases, I pushed through my doubt and took a leap of faith that I would manage okay. And, in both cases, the simple decision to do this would end up changing my life in profoundly unexpected and positive ways.
To this day, I am grateful to Terry for his life-changing invitation and vote of confidence in me.
That summer, in addition to plenty more day hikes, I also went on an amazing week-long “hut-to-hut” backpacking trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with the AMC, a truly invigorating experience.
The Next Move…
The other significant thing I did was sign up for a couple of adult education classes through Main Line School Night. As mentioned in part two of this series of posts, I had a childhood yearning to be an actor but, once I had been bitten by the music bug, any inkling to pursue that interest fell by the wayside. Since I had never actually explored acting, and was still curious about it, I enrolled in a class.
The class proved to be a lot of fun, and confirmed to me that I had a certain proclivity for acting. I was comfortable onstage and loved performing, and it showed.
So…when the class was over I decided to try my hand at some community theater. That fall, I played the part of Virgil Blessing in a production of Bus Stop, and immediately followed that with a role in Roomies, a comedy written and directed by local playwright Nancy Frick.
And, in line with my tendency when I become interested in something to really dive into it, I immediately followed that with a move to L.A. 🙂