In late May, the authors at Kindness Blog asked of its readers the following question: “What moment in your life can you look at and say, ‘That’s when everything changed?'” I responded in brief and received later that day to a request to elucidate on my response and that my post (link to the original post at Kindness Blog) would be featured on their blog. And since I didn’t have an “About Me” page, I figured, what the heck, though not a typical “About Me,” it fits the criteria. So this is what I wrote:
What moment in your life can you look at and say, “That’s when everything changed”?
Dedicated to Neil Young
On the day when I can say “that’s when everything changed,” my best friends—my little razor blades—sat tucked away in my suitcase nestled under my stacks of black shirts, black death metal shirts, shirts with names of bands like Dismember, Grave, Obituary, and Cannibal Corpse. I can’t remember whether or not I brought my pints of vodka. I don’t think I did. But it didn’t matter, see, for I knew the liquor cabinet in our mountain cabin was stocked full of booze.
If this passing image doesn’t paint an accurate enough picture of who I was the day I can say “that’s when everything changed,” at home I had a chest of drawers topped with a bookshelf. On said chest of drawers I kept two black candles on either side of my vinyl recorded titled “Lie” my none other than Charles Manson. Above my altar stood my Time-Life Serial Killers volumes. I knew them all by name. I knew their stories. I wanted to be like them. Trouble was, I didn’t know which one to be like. And at the top of my bookshelf I hung what I had cut out from my Deicide shirt. It was a brief statement, in white block letters, consisting of three simple words: “I killed God.”
In brief, that was who I was when I can look back and identify that night on the deck with my dad as the time when I can say “that’s when everything changed.”
I was 17.
Yes, I fantasized about being a serial killer. When travelling on BART I would look out the window and fantasize about where to hide bodies. But part of me just couldn’t do that. Part of me couldn’t hurt a fly let alone another human being.
I “balanced” fantasizing about killing another human being with fantasies of killing myself. But then I would think about my mother. I would see her draped over my dead body, blood from my wrists pooling on the floor. I saw how I had destroyed her. At that time in my life, I did not so much care for my mother. I thought I hated her. But I could not do something like that to her. Though I would be dead, I could not stand the thought of putting her through misery. And much as a part of me could not hurt a fly, so too did I recognize a part of me really loved my mom and—still to this day—I very much attribute the love for my mother to keeping me alive through several very dark years dominated by fantasies of death.
Two years prior to the night in the mountains I discovered—ironically in the very same mountains—I really liked alcohol. And just like my music, the harder the better. Everclear in the morning, before school. Beer, maybe some wine coolers or whatever struck my fancy, at work. A little vodka or rum—or whatever, it didn’t matter—before I went to bed. Now I wasn’t a full blown alcoholic then—this wasn’t every day, mind you. That would come later.
And as much as I liked to drink, I liked cutting myself even more. This was my addiction. And this was at a time before self-mutilation “came out of the closet” so to speak. Before Princess Diana admitted she cut herself and the phenomenon of self-mutilation was brought into the public eye and teenage girls would go to their school bathrooms to have group cutting sessions. As far as I knew, I was the only one who took razor blades to his arm to slice his veins.
That was my addition. I still remember those feelings of what I now know are referred to by psychologists as “dissociative states.” The feeling of floating, of not really being present, and the “feeling” of numbness. Of course since I was numb, I never felt the blade’s bite. But I remember the feeling I got when I saw the blood. This was life.
Blood is the life.
God…Who, let us not forget, I killed.
And I would hold my arms up to my mouth and drink in that life, sometimes even wash my face with it.
But then the feeling would subside and I would float away again, numb.
The razor blade to my veins (I have good veins for cutting) I would cut two, three, four, five times…whatever. The more the better.
I imagined those wounds as bright red lips; they spoke in a language I could not express in words. But I didn’t have to. I understood them and I didn’t have to explain anything to anyone. Our conversations were between us. In those moments, life was beautiful and there was love.
So that is what things were like for me that summer night when I was 17, sitting on the deck with my dad, my little friends in my suitcase waiting, just waiting, when he said, in reference to music on the boom-box, “This is Brian’s brother in law.”
There was nothing much to the statement as you can probably imagine. But something in that moment changed. In the early 80s Brian was my dad’s student and, as a freshman, on my dad’s basketball team. I met Brian probably when I was 4 or 5. Brian and my dad stayed friends and I would grow up knowing Brian.
I have no idea why the fact that Brian’s brother in law is Neil Young mattered that much to me. Sure, I’d heard Neil Young, whether solo, with Buffalo Springfield, or Crosby Stills Nash and Young plenty of times—that was my dad’s music.
Perhaps it was a combination of things: the night, the Sierra Mountains, our cabin, the warmth of August, the quiet, and Neil Young.
But just saying Neil Young doesn’t help all that much, for Neil makes lots of different styles of music. This was not Neil with Crosby, Stills, and Nash. This was not Neil with Crazy Horse. This was Neil’s newest album, Neil with the Stray Gators. This was “Harvest Moon.” For lack of a better description, a super chill album.
Now recall for a moment all I listened to was death metal. Hard. Fast. Low, guttural vocals. Songs about Satan, corpses, dismemberment, etc, etc.
That was all I listened to.
Now, there with my dad, I was listening to who? Neil Young on acoustic guitar singing about some girl who walks into a diner, Neil thinking about this woman, how “one of these days” he’s gonna “sit down and write a long letter?” About his dog?
This was when everything changed. When we returned home from vacation, I bought “Harvest Moon” and would spend as much money buying Neil Young albums as I spent on metal. And Neil then opened the door in that I began listening to the Doors, to Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, and the Allman Brothers.
So listening to Neil was the night everything changed.
It changed. But things were not altogether different.
I still listened to metal. I still drank. I still cut myself.
And I would continue to cut myself for the next year and a half, until I was in college. I am happy to say that now, as I write this, it has been almost 20 years since that last time.
And I would continue to drink. And drink heavily. That would last for a great many years later and I am happy to say that now, as I write this, I am less than two weeks away from 2 years sober—the longest stretch of time without a drop of alcohol since I had my first Keystone at 15.
I cannot say exactly what it was about Neil that changed everything. I don’t try to understand it. All I know is that it changed.
As I sit here coming to a close, I think about it. Maybe Neil was like a light in a life filled with numbing darkness. Of course this light did not fill my darkness, but there was a light somewhere out there, far off in the distance. A light that Neil helped me see and his music guided me toward.
Maybe Neil was like water in a life dry, brittle, and cracked. A barren existence where nothing grew. Maybe Neil, this water, found its way to the bottom of those cracks. And maybe he was the seed too for it was in listening to Neil Young that I can identify the moment in my life I can say, “that’s when everything changed.”