Category Archives: Health

I Never Talk to Strangers

"There is no ocean, John. There is nothing beyond the city. The only place home exists is in your head."

The 1998 film Dark City, directed by Alex Proyas and starring Rufus Sewell, is one of my all-time favorite films, right up there with Blade Runner, 2001, and Pulp Fiction.

In the movie, John Murdoch (Sewell) wakes up in a seedy hotel room in a strange city where it is always night. He has no memory of who he is, where he is, or how he got there, but he knows that something isn’t right. He finds himself with an overwhelming desire to get to a place called Shell Beach, a sunny seaside hamlet that is presumably his hometown. It’s a place where he believes he can discover his true identity and find the answers to all the questions that bedevil him.

John spends a good portion of the movie trying to get to Shell Beach, while piecing together the clues about his identity and the nature of the city he’s in. Shell Beach appears in postcards and on billboards throughout the city, and it’s even shown on the subway map. Unfortunately, nobody can seem to remember how to actually get there, and the subway line to Shell Beach turns out to be an express train that blows through the station without stopping. Every supposed path to Shell Beach ends up going in circles or turns out to be a dead end.

Through a series of events, John ends up in contact with Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), the one person who seems to know what’s going on. John forces Schreber at gunpoint to take him to Shell Beach, and is led through a desolate quarter of the city down a canal and then through a maze-like series of dark alleys and corridors. They come to a doorway and open it.

What first appears to be a bright blue sky and ocean beyond the door turns out to be just another Shell Beach billboard. It is at this moment when John faces the reality that there is no ocean, no daylight, no blue sky. Shell Beach is nothing more than a figment of his imagination.

“There is no ocean, John,” Dr Schreber explains. “There is nothing beyond the city. The only place home exists is in your head.”

I had an epiphany like that last Wednesday when, after a lot of research and soul-searching, I came to the realization that I most likely have Asperger’s Syndrome. While online quizzes and Wikipedia articles are no substitute for a professional diagnosis, my findings were consistent and conclusive, and I have no reason to doubt them. All the traits and symptoms fit me to a T, and the stories of other people on various support sites could have easily been my own life story. After years of trying, the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle finally fit together, and the picture it formed is both a relief and a curse. Looking back, I’m shocked that it has taken me this long to make all the connections. This isn’t a disease that needs to be cured or a defect that needs to be corrected, but it’s something that needs to be accepted and dealt with as I move on with my life.

So, what is Asperger’s? is a good starting point, and here’s what they say about it:

Asperger Syndrome (AS) is generally considered to be a form of autism. Unlike the more severe forms of autism, people with AS exhibit little or no impairments in their speech (at most a mild delay in early childhood). But like many people with autism, they have a level of intelligence at least in the average range and often in the above-average or even superior ranges. And as with all other forms of autism it is characterized by varying degrees of deficits in social interactions and non-verbal communications. More specifically, people with AS have difficulties, sometimes severe, in perceiving the world from the perspective of another person and in “picking up” on the social cues (facial expressions, bodily gestures, tone of voice, etc.) that constitute such a significant part of many human interactions. As a result, having AS can mean having great abilities or talents in certain areas, but can also mean never living independently, never holding down a job for any extended period of time, and perhaps never even enjoying an intimate relationship. At the very least, it often means being an outcast and even subject to victimization in school, in the workplace, and in personal life.

(Full article here.)

Some common traits of Asperger’s:

Difficulty reading the social and emotional messages in the eyes: Those with AS don’t look at eyes often, and when they do, they can’t read them.

Check. I remember meeting a woman in a bar last year, and within the first five minutes of our conversation, she asked me why I wasn’t making eye contact with her. That thought had never even occurred to me, but I realized she was right. Unfortunately, sometimes I end up overcompensating for this, and my eye contact gets interpreted as a stalker-like glare. For whatever reasons, I find it almost impossible to maintain a happy middle ground between these extremes.

Making literal interpretation: AS individuals have trouble interpreting colloquialisms, sarcasm, and metaphors.

Check. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve misinterpreted somebody’s joke or smart-ass remark. Oh, you really don’t have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell me? My bad. (Oddly enough, though, I’m sarcastic as hell when it comes to my own sense of humor.)

Being considered disrespectful and rude: Prone to egocentric behavior, individuals with Asperger’s miss cues and warning signs that this behavior is inappropriate.

Check. Although I can usually handle myself in social situations nowadays, or at least manage not to look like a complete ass, I find myself having to make a very deliberate effort at things that seem to come naturally to most other people. I was born without a social filter, so I have a tendency to either say what’s on my mind or (more likely) not say anything at all. Read on:

Honesty and deception: Children with Asperger’s are often considered “too honest,” and may even proclaim themselves to be “honest” or “frank” as a way of explaining their behavior. They have difficulty being deceptive, even at the expense of hurting someone’s feelings.

Check. I’m incapable of lying or deception, no matter how much there might be a need for it. Not that I’ve never tried, but I suck at it. By the same token, I generally assume that other people are always being honest and truthful with me, and it’s always a big shock to my system when that turns out not to be the case.

Inadequate nonverbal communication: their facial expressions, hand gestures, and other forms of body language, are usually limited.

Check. My intentions have been misinterpreted so many times that I seem to have developed a perpetual poker face in response, an Invisible Anti-Intimacy Force Field™, and it can only be deactivated by a select few who have earned the proper security clearance. If somebody tries to breach it without authorization, my internal defenses instantly go into red alert, and my IAIFF™ automatically activates an additional layer of armor plating. (I used to be much less picky about who I gave security clearance to, but after a few people with less-than-noble intentions got past the IAIFF™ and did lots of damage, I had to tighten up my security protocols a bit.)

If you’re reading this blog, you’ll note that I have a much easier time communicating via the written word, and it should come as no surprise that a significant portion of my social interaction takes place in chat rooms, instant message windows, and on various online discussion forums. Whenever I’ve developed romantic feelings for somebody online, things always seem to go fine until we actually meet face-to-face.

Becoming aware of making social errors: As children with Asperger’s mature, and become aware of their inability to connect, their fear of making a social mistake, and their self-criticism when they do so, can lead to social phobia.

Check. If you really want to torture me, just throw me into the middle of a party full of strangers and tell me to “mingle” for a while. Sometimes I get lucky and engage in some decent conversation if I meet the right person, but more likely I end up going home even more lonely and depressed than I was when I showed up.

Better yet, find a way to put me on the spot and watch me squirm. A couple years ago I was at a bar with some people I barely knew from my health club, and it turned out to be Karaoke Night at that particular bar. Oh, joy.

A couple people from our group took turns at the microphone and generally made jackasses of themselves before somebody had the brilliant idea that I should go up and do a song. They may as well have asked me to shove a sharp pencil through my left eyeball, which incidentally, I would have gladly done rather than sing karaoke.

I resisted, but of course that only fueled their desire to see me up there. When it became apparent to me that these assholes weren’t going to drop the idea, I finally got up from the table and walked toward the microphone, with my group wildly cheering me on behind me. I kept on walking, past the microphone and out the front door, got on a bus, and went home. I never spoke to any of those people again.

Differences in speech: They display less speech intonation than neurotypical persons. Their speech may be perceived as “flat.” However, those with AS also possess superficial fluency in day-to-day conversation.

Check, sort of. If I’m talking to people that I’m comfortable with (usually the same people who have gained security clearance to bypass my Invisible Anti-Intimacy Force Field™) about subjects that interest me, I seem to do just fine. Many other times, though, I generally sound about as emotional as Stephen Hawking giving a lecture about particle physics.

A sense of paranoia: Because of their inability to connect, persons with Asperger’s have trouble distinguishing the difference between the deliberate or accidental actions of others, which can in turn lead to a feeling of paranoia.

Check. Many times I feel like I was born with a third eye in the middle of my forehead, but for some reason everybody else can see it except for me. Although people are usually too polite to mention anything about it directly to me, they always talk about it amongst themselves whenever my back is turned, and it’s always on their mind whenever they’re forced to interact with me. See that group of attractive women at that table over there? The ones laughing and giggling? They’re talking about me and my third eye. And that friend of mine who declined my Facebook friend request or never responded to my message? She actually hates people with third eyes, but doesn’t want to hurt my feelings by saying so. I just know it.

Managing conflict: Being unable to understand other points of view can lead to inflexibility and an inability to negotiate conflict resolution. Once the conflict is resolved, remorse may not be evident.

Bullshit. That paragraph is wrong, and I’m right! End of discussion.

Sense of humor: Although jokes can be grasped at an intellectual level, the emotional worth of humor is not appreciated. Smiles and laughter may appear unnatural with some people with AS.

I actually have a pretty healthy sense of humor, but I find humor in unusual places and situations. The more absurd the better, which is probably why I love shows like South Park, Seinfeld, and Monty Python. That stupid pun you made? I’m not impressed. But a goose and a toddler fighting each other in a boxing ring, with spectators placing bets on the outcome? That would be fucking hilarious.

Awareness of hurting the feelings of others: A lack of empathy often leads to unintentionally offensive or insensitive behaviors.

Check. Although it’s rarely deliberate (and if it is, there will be no question about it), I’ve no doubt left a long trail of bruised egos and hurt feelings in my wake. Most of my lessons in interpersonal relationships have been learned the hard way, and I’m sure I still have many more lessons to learn. It’s not that I don’t have empathy; it’s just that I have a very hard time showing it.

Repairing someone’s feelings: Lacking intuition about the feelings of others, people with AS have little understanding of how to console someone or how to make them feel better.

Check. My close friends know that I’m a good listener and that I’m always willing to hear what’s bothering them, and sometimes I can even offer practical advice on whatever problems they’re having, but I’ve never really been good with the whole consolation thing. I’m trying, though.

Recognizing signs of boredom: Inability to understand other people’s interests can lead AS persons to be inattentive to others. Conversely, people with AS often fail to notice when others are uninterested.

Check, although I’m getting better about this one. I used to talk people’s ear off about things only I found interesting, but I think I’m getting better about cutting myself off when the other person obviously isn’t interested. That’s not to say I still don’t occasionally slip into old habits, though.

Reciprocal love and grief: Since people with AS have difficulty emotionally, their expressions of affection and grief are often short and weak.

Check. Affection and physical touch are difficult issues for me. If I’m being touched by somebody I have feelings of affection for, I generally can’t get enough of it, but I’m very clumsy and awkward when it comes to initiating physical contact. For people I don’t have feelings of affection for (and this includes the vast majority of people out there), I prefer not to be touched at all. I don’t mind a handshake or maybe even a quick hug, but anything else will probably rub me the wrong way.

In romantic relationships, I live in mortal fear of making an advance and being rejected, so I usually end up playing it safe by simply never making any advances. On the very rare occasion when I’ve made the first move, it’s usually ended up being very forced and awkward.

The good news is, each time a relationship successfully advances to the next level of physical intimacy, I can usually maintain that same level of intimacy without too much trouble. For example, early in my relationship with my first girlfriend, the simple act of holding her hand represented a huge step for me, and I had a very hard time trying to get to that point. Once we got to that point, though, I never had a problem holding her hand afterwards.

Sex, though, is something I struggle with a great deal. Later in that same relationship, we had a date in which I came over to her place for dinner, and then we cuddled together on her sofa to watch a movie. After the movie, we began making out. So far so good, as we had done this a few times before and I always enjoyed it.

This was probably the heaviest we had ever made out to that point, and I was horny as hell. Problem was, I had no idea if she wanted to go “all the way” that evening or not, and I really had no clue how to find out. I soon found myself having a full-blown panic attack there on her sofa, as my heart began pounding and all the oxygen was sucked out of the room. I’m not sure what I was more afraid of: That she wanted to have sex and I was going to disappoint her by not performing well enough (or at all), or that she didn’t want sex and I was going to ruin the relationship by attempting to go for it against her wishes. Nothing happened, and I ended up going home and taking a cold shower that evening. To this day I have no idea what my girlfriend was thinking, and by the time it occurred to me that I should have just asked her, the moment was long gone. I do fine when the boundaries are clearly explained and understood, but I’m terrible when the rules are unclear.

Grief is a bit more difficult. It’s not that I don’t ever feel grief, it’s just that I’ve usually done a pretty good job of keeping it bottled up inside me. When I let it out, it’s usually in private. I always attributed that to my classically British stiff-upper-lip family background, but maybe there’s more to the story. When my paternal grandfather died in 1993, I didn’t shed a tear until a year or two later, and then only when it was triggered by something completely unrelated. At that point, I sobbed for hours.

Lack of participation in chitchat: They are not generally interested in, and do not participate in idle chat and gossip.

Check. Sorry, hair stylist, but I’m just not interested in discussing the weather with you. Sorry, taxi driver, but I’d much prefer to look out the window and not engage you in inane banter. Sorry, roommate, but I really don’t give a flying fuck about the Giants game. Sorry, date, I’ve tried my best, but we can only fill so much time talking about what was on TV last night.

Preference of routine: They prefer routine work, and are not able to cope well to changes, even small ones. Such disruptions from routine can cause stress and anxiety.

Check. I have a daily and a weekly routine, and although it has a certain amount of built-in flexibility and isn’t carved in stone, I find myself getting upset if that routine somehow gets disrupted. My morning cup of coffee while reading the New York Times, stopping to grab another cup of coffee on the way to work, taking a short walk outside during my lunch break, sleeping in on Saturdays, my Sunday brunch at Le Monde, my glass of sherry on Sunday evenings: These are all little things that, as long as I can keep them up, somehow assure me that things are right with my world. If I move to a new city or these routines somehow get altered, I always feel a bit off-kilter until they’re re-established or until I develop new ones.

Coping with criticism: People with AS are compelled to correct mistakes, even when they are made by someone in a position of authority, such as a teacher. For this reason, they can be unwittingly offensive.

Check. This used to get me in trouble all the time at my last job, where my bosses took any correction as a direct threat to their authority. Luckily I’m now at a job where my input is welcomed and encouraged, and I’ve developed a reputation for being sort of a quality control guru. I can’t turn in any work unless I’m confident that it’s flawless, and in written communications, I generally regard sloppy grammar and spelling as crimes against humanity.

Speed and quality of social processing: Because they respond through reasoning and not intuition, AS individuals tend to process social information more slowly than the norm, leading to uncomfortable pauses or delays in response.

Check. I can’t always get my mouth to say what my brain is telling it to say. I can rehearse entire, drawn-out conversations in my head in which I perfectly articulate all the things that are on my mind, but when it comes time for me to have such a conversation in real life, I usually end up freezing and stammering.

In addition to the traits listed above, many Aspies have a very low tolerance for intense light sources or sudden, loud noises. I know I certainly do: I prefer low light levels at home and generally prefer overcast days to bright sunlight.

When it comes to sound, I love steady sounds such as rainfall, the ocean, subway train motors, or air conditioners (in fact, I find it almost impossible to sleep without some sort of background white noise such as a box fan), but I have a hard time dealing with very sudden or abrupt noises such as banging pots and pans. I also find it impossible to follow a conversation if there’s a lot of background noise, such as at a loud bar or party.

The other night I was riding the subway home, and the guy sitting across the aisle from me was subconsciously tapping his fingers on the metal grab bar… It just about drove me up the wall, and I probably would have moved to the next car if my stop hadn’t been coming up shortly.

Right now my roommate is closely following college basketball games on TV, and I’ve been trying to figure out why I loathe basketball with a passion that passes all human understanding. I’m now pretty sure it has something to do with the squeaking of the players’ shoes against the polished wood floor of the court, the crowd cheering and yelling, the referee’s whistle, and the loud buzzer that sounds periodically throughout the game. All those sounds are like fingernails on a chalkboard to me, and they make me want to throw a brick through the television whenever my roomie has a game on.

One of the most significant Aspie traits is that we tend to have obsessive interests in various subjects; anything from trains, fire engines, Latin, church liturgy, books, deep fat fryers, you name it. I’ve had a number of such interests that have come and gone over the years, but there are a few particularly strong ones that I’ve had forever, and they never seem to go away.

When I was a kid, I was designing stuff left and right: Buildings, trains, sailboats, space ships and space stations. Other kids would play with Transformers or G.I. Joe action figures; I’d be designing my 27th dream house. Now I’m in the architecture business and I design buildings for a living, so I guess I can’t really call it a hobby anymore. Architecture has lost a bit of its novelty since I started doing it for a living, but I still enjoy it most of the time, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. Ask me to solve a difficult design problem, or put me out on a construction site, and I’m like a kid in a candy store.

In a somewhat related vein, I’m fascinated by how cities develop and grow, urban infrastructure, and comparisons between cities. Give me a chance, and I’ll bore you to death about the symbiotic relationship between New York and Chicago.

I also love trains, especially electric passenger trains such as subways. I love learning about the trains themselves, as well as the infrastructure that supports them. I can identify every class of subway car on the NYC subway system, and I can tell you all about the differences between the former IRT, BMT, and IND systems. Always the life of the party.

Like our friend John back in Dark City, I’ve been spending my entire time in this world looking for clues, trying to find out why I’m different, and getting frustrated when none of the paths I take to find my own Shell Beach ever seem to work.

I never gave up hope that I would eventually get things sorted out. I just needed to find the right job, finish my degree, marry the right woman, move to the right city, wear the right clothes, put on the right cologne, and somehow everything would fall into place and I could live the normal, well-adjusted life that most other people make look so easy.

Now I’m standing there in front of the wall, finally aware that there is no Shell Beach, no special place that feels like home, no magic solution that will make everything right. Like it or not, this is a permanent part of me and it isn’t going to go away. I can’t go home because I’m already there, and always have been.

So, how do I feel about all this?

On one hand, I’m feeling a great deal of anger, resentment, and sadness that I’ve pissed away 32 years of my life trying in vain to “fit in” and “be normal”, and feeling that my social awkwardness and lack of empathy were the result of some sort of moral failure on my part… Only to now discover that this is who I really am, and it isn’t going to change. My issues were plainly visible to my parents and all my teachers, but nobody lifted a finger to find out what the deal was. For 32 years I’ve been told by well-meaning but clueless people that, “You’re just shy,” or “Just be yourself,” or “Things will work themselves out when you’re ready.” I’ve been constantly whipped, beaten, bullied, and shunned for being different, and I’ve been made to feel like I have some sort of horrible character flaw for being socially awkward, not showing the proper amount of empathy, or neglecting my schoolwork in favor of exploring my interests. More than one potential girlfriend has told me that I give off the vibe of a stalker or serial killer. Hearing that on a first date certainly does wonders for the self-confidence, especially when you’ve heard it so many times before.

On the other hand, it’s a huge relief to feel like I’ve finally put enough of the jigsaw puzzle together to have some clue about what makes me tick, and I’ve already found some great support sites online that seem to be full of interesting people I can actually relate to. It gives me hope that I can find some like-minded people to build a community with, and maybe find somebody to share the rest of my life with. Imagine being a foreigner in a strange country your entire life, having different customs, speaking a different language, and never fitting in despite your best efforts. Then, out of the blue, you stumble into a neighborhood in some forgotten corner of the city where everybody speaks your language and shares your culture. It may not be home, but at least it’s a safe place.

Looking back, many of my closest friends over the years have been people who also show at least a few Aspie traits, and who went through similar nightmares while growing up. It shouldn’t have been that way. Nobody should have to grow up feeling like they’re alone in this world.

The good news is that Dark City has a happy ending, and John discovers that he has the ability to create Shell Beach on his own terms. I guess I’ll have to do likewise.

Stitches and Spasms

Today was a rough day for me, probably my worst day since the surgery. This morning I took my shower and, while drying myself off, gently bumped my right arm against the wall by mistake and immediately felt a painful POP from my shoulder… Sort of like when you crack your knuckles, but with a much bigger pop. Since then, my shoulder has felt incredibly unstable, and I’ve been having occasional painful muscle spasms throughout the day. Muscle spasms by themselves would be bad enough, but combined with the instability in the joint, these spasms have the effect of momentarily causing my shoulder to dislocate, which hurts like hell.

Luckily, I already had a follow-up appointment scheduled with my surgeon this morning to have my stitches removed. (Instead of a huge wad of dirty gauze stuck to my shoulder, I now have four Band-Aids.) I told him what happened, and he didn’t seem too concerned about it, but said we should keep an eye on it. The doc basically said that with all the swelling and such, some instability is to be expected, and that muscle spasms aren’t totally unexpected, either.

As for the pop, the surgeon felt pretty confident that his repair work should be able to withstand a minor bump in the shower, and that he had successfully tested my shoulder for full range of motion before he put it back together on the operating table (and while I was still asleep, thankfully). He would have been more concerned about my shoulder coming apart if I had fallen down or something like that.

As such, I’ve been relying heavily on my Vicodin today, which has made productivity at work almost impossible. Fortunately, the Vicodin does a good job of numbing the pain, and it does it with a minimum of dizziness, nausea, and sweating. Unfortunately, it also has the effect of pretty much knocking me unconscious for a couple hours. I spent all afternoon at the office doing everything I could just to stay awake, and getting absolutely no work done. Maybe tomorrow will be better, although I’m toying with the idea of taking the morning off. At least I haven’t had any more muscle spasms since this afternoon.

I have another appointment with my surgeon in two weeks. I’ll be happy when this whole ordeal is over.

Progress Report

One-handed typing is much more of a hassle than I imagined it would be. With both hands I’m a pretty fast and accurate typer, but with just one hand I feel like I’m back to grade school hunt-and-peck… Much slower, and a lot sloppier. My postings will probably be rather short during this period.

Using the mouse with my left hand is also a bit of a hassle, but not as bad as I feared. I haven’t tried any AutoCAD stuff, though, so things might get interesting when I return to the office (most likely Wednesday).

So far the Vicodin is doing a decent job of keeping the pain under control with a minimum of side effects, but even with the Vicodin there’s always sort of a dull, general pain. And with my arm in a sling all day and night, my elbow and hand often get rather stiff and painful. This is going to be a long six weeks.

My dad came up from NC for my surgery, and it’s his first visit to NYC since the mid-1960’s. I managed to take him around to some of the highlights of the city, which he enjoyed. On his last visit to New York in the 60’s he was rather disgusted with the city and swore he’d never come back, but he seems to have gotten a much better impression of the city this time around. He heads back to North Carolina tomorrow morning.

Hello Mr. Vicodin

Well, I survived my surgery… So far. For the first several hours afterwards, I was under the effects of a nerve block in my shoulder that made my entire right arm completely numb. Now that that’s worn off, I’m in a considerable amount of pain while waiting for the Vicodin to kick in… And I’m hoping to avoid some of the more unpleasant side effects of said Vicodin.

Doc said I had an “interesting” injury, but he was able to make the necessary repairs without any trouble. I’ll be in a sling for six weeks, and then I’ll have several months of physical therapy. In the meantime, though, I’m getting a crash course on how to do everything one-handed, and I’d consider it a huge accomplishment just to get some sleep tonight.

Good times…

It’s On

Friday, February 22nd is when I go in for surgery. The doc will attempt to go arthroscopic at first, but if he gets in there and sees tons of damage, he’ll probably need to go old school with a full incision. My recovery time will be greatly dependent upon which method he ends up using.

Under the Knife

I finally had the appointment with my shoulder doc, and my insurance company gave the green light for surgery. Since this is a preexisting condition my doc was worried I’d get socked with a $30,000 hospital bill if the insurance company denied my claim, but it turns out my firm’s group policy has no exclusions for preexisting conditions. If they did, I wouldn’t have been able to have surgery until October at the earliest. I call the surgical coordinator tomorrow to schedule the surgery, which will probably happen in about 4-6 weeks.

One of my parents will be making the trip up from North Carolina for the occasion… My mom has never been to NYC before, and my dad was here once the late 60’s. So, in addition to dealing with the surgery, I’ll be playing host and teaching mom or dad how to ride the subway, etc.

After the surgery, I’ll be in a sling for about six weeks, and then I’ll have about six months of physical therapy. And when all that is done, they’ll take a look at my left shoulder and see what’s wrong, if it’s still bothering me then. Looks like I’m in for an interesting few months.

My deadline to apply for degree conferral is tomorrow. In order to graduate in June, I’d have to pay the school $100 and submit tons of paperwork tomorrow, and commit myself to doing lots of schoolwork between now and the end of May. With this surgery business (along with BMCC dragging their feet in processing my application), that simply isn’t going to happen.

My BA degree has already been 14 years in the making… What’s another few months? As long as I don’t get too far behind, it shouldn’t impact my plans to start my M.Arch. in fall 2009.


While my mental health issues have been the predominant focus of this blog lately, one of my nagging physical health issues has apparently reared its ugly head again.

In my last blog entry I mentioned that, typical of most Aspies, I tend to develop obsessive interests about various subjects from time to time. Back in the late summer of 2004, while living in NYC the first time, I took up a strong but ultimately short-lived interest in whitewater kayaking. I had never been in a kayak before, but was anxious to try it out and see if it was something worth getting more seriously involved in. The first step in that process was to sign up for a beginner’s kayaking lesson.

So, on September 11, 2004, I headed down to Chelsea Piers for my first lesson. I changed into a wet suit, and the instructor and I went over a few basics on the pier before launching into the Hudson River. I launched first, and splashed around a little bit in the water while the instructor got situated into his own boat. So far so good.

Meanwhile, another group of people were in the process of launching a huge tandem canoe into the water nearby, and for a minute it appeared as if they were going to launch it right on top of me. I slightly panicked, lost my concentration, and promptly flipped my kayak. At this point I suddenly found myself upside-down and underwater in the Hudson River.

An experienced kayaker in this position would have performed a simple Eskimo roll to get back upright again, but I wasn’t an experienced kayaker, and hadn’t yet been taught how to perform such a maneuver. Rather than attempting to roll, I decided to pull my cord and eject myself from the boat. I did so, and quickly swam back to the pier.

At some point during that process, though, my right shoulder exploded. I’d had problems with this shoulder when I was younger, but it had been years since it had given me any trouble and I had almost forgotten about it.

My dislocated shoulder quickly popped back into the socket on its own, but not before the damage had been done. For the next several weeks I was in agonizing pain, and the slightest movement of my shoulder would cause it to dislocate again. I could hear the bone grinding whenever I moved it, and it felt lik a bag of gravel.

Along with the rotator cuff, there’s a ring of cartilage called the labrum that holds your shoulder in place. MRI scans confirmed that my right labrum had literally been ripped in half, and that the ball of my humerus had been damaged. You know it’s a bad sign when a surgeon with 30 years experience operating exclusively on shoulders looks at your MRI’s and says, “Shit, that’s interesting!”

Surgery and a lot of physical therapy would be required to get my shoulder back in working order. Unfortunately, the day after I scheduled the procedure, I was laid off from my job and lost my insurance coverage. Fixing the shoulder would have to wait.

I moved to Oregon a short time later, but stuck to exploring whitewater rivers via hiking trails rather than by boat. By January or so, my shoulder was no longer in constant pain, but I still had to be careful about how I moved it.

When I moved back to Chicago in March and finally got insurance coverage several months later, I went in for some more MRI’s, and the doc wanted me to try some physical therapy before he operated. The PT didn’t help much, but I ended up declining surgery because the pain was no longer severe enough to justify it, I was beginning classes again and didn’t want to deal with the disruption, and I was worried about being screwed over by my health insurance provider based on some stupid loophole in the policy. (They had already sent me a $2000 bill for the MRI’s, and I was afraid to find out how much I’d end up paying for the surgery and weeks of physical therapy.) The doc said my shoulder should be okay as long as I’m cautious about how I move it, but that it would need surgery sooner or later.

Fast-forward about two years.

Last night I was on the sofa watching The Big Lebowski. I had my arms up behind my head when I felt a powerful sneeze coming on. I sneezed, and my right shoulder promptly popped out of its socket in a very familiar manner. It popped right back in again, as usual, but not before causing a huge amount of pain… And it’s been sore and unstable ever since, just like old times. Living in New York City apparently causes my right shoulder to dislocate without reason or warning.

Now that I actually have a pretty good health insurance plan, it looks like this would be the right time to start the process for having this thing fixed for good. From what I remember being told last time, the surgery will be done on an outpatient basis, I’ll be pumped full of interesting drugs for a few days, and then I’ll need a few months of physical therapy sessions.

Now I’m wondering if I should go ahead with my plan to enroll on a fairly intensive courseload this semester, or if I should hold off (and delay graduation) until I get this shoulder fixed.

And a happy Monday to you, too.

Ghosts of Philadelphia

While my feelings toward Chicago began as very positive and slowly became more negative over the years, my feelings toward Philadelphia are much more difficult to categorize. Chicago now seems relatively bland and homogeneous to me, but Philly is a city of polar extremes. In the same way that Philly contains stunning beauty and horrific ugliness only a few blocks apart from each other, I look back on my time in Philly as some of the best and worst days of my adult life.

Philadelphia first came onto my radar screen in 2000, while I was still in Boston. I had been living in a summer sublet in Brookline while trying to trying to find permanent housing in anticipation of starting classes at the Boston Architectural Center that fall. I thought I had secured a place to live down in Jamaica Plain, but those arrangements fell apart at the last minute, leaving me with very little time to find something else. (It didn’t help that I was now competing against a billion returning college students for the same twelve apartment vacancies.) Boston sort of rubbed me the wrong way anyway, so I took this as an opportunity to leave the city altogether.

Before I left, though, I had found out about the architecture program at Drexel University, which was structured in a way similar to that of the BAC: Students work full-time during the day, while attending classes in the evenings. At that time I thought it was the perfect scenario for me; I could go to school and pay my bills. During a weekend visit to New York, I made a side trip down to Philly to scope out the city for the first time. Given that SEPTA’s R7 train goes through the worst of North Philly’s ghettos on its way to 30th Street Station, my first impressions of Philadelphia were somewhat less than stellar. Drexel’s architecture program and Philly’s affordable housing market were strong attractions, but I decided to shelve those ideas and give Chicago a second chance. I moved back to Chicago a week after Labor Day, having spent just three months in Boston.

The next two years back in Chicago turned out to be one dead end after another, though, and Philadelphia was looking better and better to me. I visited Philadelphia a couple more times and explored more of the city, I got accepted into the architecture program at Drexel, and finally moved there on Labor Day of 2002. At first I rented a bedroom across the river in South Jersey, and a few months later I got my own one-bedroom apartment in Philly’s verdant East Falls neighborhood. In the meantime, I had begun classes at Drexel, I was working full-time for a mid-sized architecture firm in Collingswood, and I had developed some close friendships within the Canterbury Club, the Episcopal campus ministry for UPenn and Drexel. I had also purchased a newish car, and I had begun corresponding with an attractive woman from out west (on whom I soon developed a major crush). Things were looking pretty good, and my only regret about moving to Philly was that I hadn’t moved there straight from Boston two years earlier.

In addition to the positive life changes, Philadelphia itself was turning out to be a fascinating city to explore. The downtown area is loaded with historical sites and colonial charm, while some of the outer neighborhoods and suburbs were lush with varied topography and mature trees. Fairmount Park should be the envy of every American city; imagine mile after mile of Chicago’s Lincoln Park waterfront combined with ravines, waterfalls, and hiking trails like you’d find in the Appalachians. Most of my social life revolved around the beautiful Penn campus, and we often branched out to a variety of interesting bars and restaurants in town. Within a few weeks of my arrival, I seemed to have discovered everything in Philly that I had found lacking in Chicago.

Things were going pretty well for the first six months or so, but the cracks began showing soon enough. The first major problem was my workload: Between my full-time job and my part-time classes, I felt like every ounce of my energy was being sucked right out of me. I was able to keep up with it for a while, but it eventually began taking its toll. Putting in a full day’s work at my job became harder and harder, as did putting in the required effort on my school assignments. I felt like I was falling further and further behind, and my long-simmering clinical depression began to rear its ugly head again. A nasty case of food poisoning in January was quickly followed by a month-long bout with the flu, which sent me reeling physically.

The fatal blow came on my birthday in March. My love interest out west had earlier announced that she would be visiting Philadelphia on her spring break. I have a bad habit of getting my hopes up way too high when it comes to relationships, and that bad habit kicked into overdrive when she announced her visit. She’d come visit in March, we’d finally meet face-to-face after months of instant messages and phone calls, we’d fall in love, and we’d live happily ever after. With everything else in my life finally working out well for a change, why should this be any different?

She arrived, we met, we had a good time, and… A day later she called me at work to slam the brakes on the whole thing, without explanation. All my high hopes came crashing down, and I was in shock. I knew all along that I had been setting myself up for a huge letdown if things didn’t work out, but I had fallen hard for her, and those are the times when any sense of logic or rational thought goes right out the window. To make matters worse, for the past few weeks I had been wearing my feelings toward her on my sleeve at work and around my friends, and the implosion of that relationship became a very public spectacle. My Canterbury Club friends took me out for my birthday dinner that evening, but I managed to single-handedly turn the party’s mood into that of a funeral. I don’t think my friends appreciated being dragged down into my dysfunctional relationship issues, I sensed a subtle cooling-off of a couple friendships afterwards.

The relationship meltdown by itself probably wouldn’t have been enough to send me into a downward spiral, but combined with everything else, it was the final straw that set a vicious feedback loop of anxiety and depression into motion, and I felt my life spinning out of control.

The first casualty was school. I abruptly withdrew from my classes in April when I found myself utterly lacking the energy to finish a major project before its due date. I was already up to my ears in tuition debt, and I had no hope of repaying it before the next quarter’s registration deadline. I also felt that my performance at work was seriously slipping, and that I needed to put every effort into keeping my job.

It was too late. I got fired in May, and with a bureaucratic snafu in collecting unemployment benefits, my financial house of cards began to rapidly collapse. The states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Illinois were each telling me that I needed to file my unemployment claim with one of the other two states. Then, it turned out that my former employer had never reported my income to the state of New Jersey, making me ineligible for benefits until I could get more paperwork filled out and verified. I finally began receiving benefits after several months of navigating a warren of red tape, but by that point I had gone the entire summer of 2003 with zero income. Job interviews were few and far between, and given that my car had been repossessed in July, my work options were very limited.

One afternoon in August I received an eviction notice from my landlord’s attorney, informing me that I had a week to vacate my apartment. By this point I felt like I was completely backed into a corner with no escape, and that every endeavor I had attempted in my life had been a failure and would always be a failure, be it work, school, relationships, financial security, or even simple friendships. I decided that I was going to get very drunk that evening, fill my bathtub with hot water, climb into it, and slit my wrists.

Before doing so, though, I went to Evening Prayer at St. Mary’s Church, which had been my one daily routine during this time. Mainly I just wanted to let God know that I’d soon be meeting him face-to-face so that I could tell him to fuck off in person.

During my walk to the train station and on the ride into 30th Street Station, I began to realize just how dangerous of a place I was in, and that I needed to get myself some outside help, fast. I probably should have gone straight to a hospital, but God knows what they would have done to me once I arrived and told them what was on my mind. (And given that I had no insurance, God knows how much it would have cost me.) I had the feeling it would only make my problems much worse. I began hoping that I’d bump into one of my Canterbury Club friends at the church. That didn’t happen, so afterwards I walked down the street to the house of a couple friends who lived nearby.

By some miracle they happened to be home, and had invited some other friends over for a barbecue out back. They had recently gotten married, and there was a large keg of Yuengling left over from the wedding reception that needed to be consumed in an appropriate manner. They invited me in, and I actually had a pretty good time. One of the other people at the party happened to be a landlord in Philly, and when I told him about the eviction notice, he explained how the process works in Philadelphia, that what my landlord was doing was illegal, and what steps I needed to take to keep my apartment.

The group of us spent the evening sitting on the deck out back, passing around a glass boot filled with beer. When a person finished off the boot, they’d have to tell a story to the group before refilling the boot and passing it on. I got very drunk that evening, but instead of opening up my veins in my bathtub, I crashed on their living room futon for the night. I still felt incredibly shitty about life, but at least I had gained some breathing room.

My friends probably have no idea how close I was to suicide that evening, but I’ll be forever grateful to them for answering their front door when I rang the bell. I honestly don’t know how this story would have turned out if they hadn’t.

Having hit rock bottom, things began to improve very slowly. My first unemployment check finally arrived, retroactive to when I had first lost my job. I was able to catch up on my rent, buy some groceries, and head up to New York to purchase an old Volvo beater in Queens for $300. More importantly, I finally began regular counseling and medication at a community mental health clinic in my neighborhood. It was a slow process and nothing changed overnight, but the clouds eventually began to lift to the point where I could start taking steps to rebuild my life over the next few months.

One of those steps involved becoming more aggressive in my job search, and I made the decision to move up the road to New York City. My closest friends in Philly were making plans to head off to seminary and wouldn’t be around much longer. The job market for architects in Philly was dismal, and I had begun to mentally associate Philadelphia with all the misery I was going through. The city itself has an inferiority complex so thick you can cut it with a knife, and Philadelphia’s notorious self-loathing hangs like a dark pall over the city. I began to feel like it was contagious.

While my time in Philly had served an important role in the grand scheme of my life, I felt like the city had become haunted by my ghosts, and I wanted nothing more to do with it. One night in February I loaded up a U-Haul truck and moved to Brooklyn, and I began working at an architecture firm in Manhattan a short time later. With that, my time in Philadelphia was over.

My life over the next few years had its ups and downs. Within a few months I had become burned-out with New York City, and eventually moved back to Chicago yet again, but not before spending three months exploring the mountains of western Oregon. Back in Chicago, I spent a couple years getting my life back on track to the point where I felt like I was ready to give New York City another shot. That tale is recounted elsewhere in this blog, and is still a work in progress. So far it’s been looking good, but nowadays I try to be much more cautious about getting my hopes up too high.

The funny thing about Philly, though, is that sometimes I wonder if I gave up too easily on that city. My major regret about Chicago is that I kept moving back there only to be reminded of why I left. I should have moved away much sooner, and stayed gone. But If I have any regrets about Philadelphia, it would be the nagging feeling that I might have moved away too soon. Maybe there was still some untapped potential down there that I never fully took advantage of.

Earlier this month I decided to rent a car and head down to Philly for a concert back at St. Mary’s Church on the Penn campus, the same church I went to when my thoughts were at their darkest. (My high school friend Kevin in Poughkeepsie was to join me, but a sprained ankle forced him out at the last minute.) I had made a couple of brief visits to Philly since I had moved away, but this was the first time I had a chance to get outside Center City. I wasn’t able to spend as much time in Philly as I wanted, but I after the concert I was able to grab a cheesteak at Jim’s and then take a short drive around town before hitting the Turnpike back to New York.

I wasn’t sure how I would feel about being back there. It brought back lots of old memories, not all of which were good ones. But overall, it was nice to be back, and I even found myself a little homesick. Not enough to make me want to move back there again, but enough to make me wonder how things might have worked out if I had decided to stick around a bit longer. The city no longer felt haunted, and I’m hoping that maybe I’ve finally made peace with the ghosts I left behind.