An Open Letter to Joe Hill

Do people even write letters anymore? I guess things like this, “open letter” posts, and the odd email exchange are the closest we get to letters these days.

I’m going to try to be as elegant as I can here, on the extreme chance that Mr. Hill happens to see this, as I wouldn’t want to embarrass myself. So forgive me if this post sounds more formal than my usual ones do. And I know this is going to be long, and that a lot of it won’t seem to be related, but just bear with me, please. It’ll all make sense. And Mr. Hill, if you’re reading this, I hope you stick through it too.

If you’re reading this and you don’t know Joe Hill, I implore you to go look him up and read any of his work you can get your hands on. You’ll understand why I offer this stronger-than-usual recommendation by the time you’ve finished reading this post. What I’ll say here is that Hill is a writer, larger in the horror genre. I won’t detail his connections, though they are by this time fairly public. I don’t feel it’s necessary for me to explain something which he did not make public when producing his work. It’s not my place.

I’ve known Hill’s name for awhile now, but it was only a few weeks ago that I finally got around to picking up the most recent two of his three novels, Horns and NOS4A2. If you’ve followed this blog for any significant period of time you know that I’m a horror fan, and that I usually use Stephen King as a metric for “good horror.” That metric needs to be amended, however. Joe Hill has dethroned the King. Here’s how:

Before I read Horns, the only book I can remember having any sort of real visceral, physical reaction to is King’s ‘Salem’s Lot. There were times when I reading it that I had to close it for a minute and take a few seconds to breathe. Horns is another story entirely. Horns had me reacting incredibly strongly — psychically, psychologically, the whole bit. To the point where I had to not only close the book for a minute, but actually put the damn thing down and do something else entirely.

I don’t use the word trigger lightly, in terms of psychology, because I feel as though it’s being bandied about these days to mean anything that mildly upsets someone. Trigger, as I see it, is really something that sets off a psychic reaction so strong that it’s as though you were back in the event that initially caused the reaction. Cases of flashbacks in post-traumatic stress disorder are the obvious connection here, but triggers can be related to other mental illnesses or events that have strongly impacted the psyche during a period of or immediately leading to a period of said mental illness — think depression, bipolar, etc. Horns had moments that were triggering for me. And while I make no secret of my own psychological issues, I did not think that I was someone who would be able to say “Yes, this thing was a trigger for me.” Despite that, or in fact, because of that,  Horns is easily one of the most incredibly written books I’ve ever read.

NOS4A2 was fantastic as well, but not quite as hard-hitting, at least for me. But my lack of similar reactions doesn’t negate how amazing it is as a piece of literature. But while I loved it and couldn’t wait to read it, Horns is what made me fall in love with Hill’s work. NOS4A2 was just some delicious vampiric icing on that cake. In truth, it’s not really related much to this post, but I didn’t want to mention that I’d read it and then not say anything about it or how much I enjoyed it. It would simply be unfair.

Now we’ll get to the part that makes this an open letter to Joe Hill.

See, I have to thank Mr. Hill, deeply and truly, from the bottom of my now-forever-changed heart. Because it’s been about three years since I last considered myself a writer of anything other than blog posts and Facebook statuses. Which are all well and good, and I would never say that I’m not proud of my blog posts. But writing, real writing, the kind I used to love doing, creating characters and events and, sometimes, horribly killing or maiming those characters, that had been eluding me for a long, long time.

Buckle up, readers, we’re about to get personal here, more than I ever have on this blog. But in explaining all of this, for the sake of total honesty and for my own sake, it’s time this was all laid on the line.

My Freshman year of college was about as good as it could be expected to be. But it was only after the fact that I was hit with the full effects. See, as the start of the year, I’d ended a long term relationship, and not too long after found myself in a new relationship. One which turned out to be less than healthy for me, but that wasn’t something I would be able to see until the very end of the year. After ending that, I was emotionally drained. I honestly don’t remember much of that period of drainage, but I’ve been told that I was in a bad depression for about two weeks. At this point, the last thing I’d written as far as fiction goes, a story which I’m still quite proud of, was finished around late November/early December of 2011. I wouldn’t write anything else for over three years.

I reunited with my former girlfriend, the one I’d left at the start of college, and had an excellent Sophomore year, during which I was finally able to really get on my own feet socially. I made some of my closest friends that year, people who I still talk to and see frequently.  But at the end of the year, a key thing went wrong. My closest friend was more or less forced to leave our school. What makes this particularly bad is that she’s an international student. I can’t exactly hop a train to India. it wasn’t until the next semester that this would fully impact me.

One of the problems with the human mind is also one of the things that makes it amazing. You can be doing all sorts of things and not think about one specific thing — but unconsciously you’ll still be working it over. Have you ever worked on a crossword puzzle, put it down, and returned later to find you know more of the answers? That’s your brain working on things while you’re not even thinking about them.

In retrospect I think this was what happened over that summer. Three long months of time off, enjoying time with my family, my girlfriend, seeing old friends, and while I was in touch with my dear friend from India, I wasn’t really thinking about the fact that she was gone, because even if she were still at the school, she’d be home for the summer anyway. So it wasn’t until the first semester of what should have been my Junior year that the disaster struck. I found myself in a deeper depression than I’d ever experienced, and while I can say now that my friend’s departure was certainly one aspect of why I was depressed, it’s not the only one. There’s at least one more that I can think of, and that one’s biological.

What some people don’t know about bipolar disorder is that it comes in multiple forms. There is, of course, the stereotype, the one that manifests as two extreme conditions — long periods of depression and long periods of “mania,” which is a state in which someone is easily excitable, highly energetic, etc. You know, how you might be after downing five RedBulls to get through a paper the night before it’s due during finals week.

But there are other forms of bipolar, where the manifestations are different and hard to distinguish. “Mania” might appear not as hyperactivity but as, say, recklessness. Reckless spending, staying up all night on a whim, things like that. I use this example because my mild form of bipolar manifests in this way. In both of my completed years at college I spent a lot of money — as in, I ended up broke at the end of them.

There’s another thing about bipolar, which is that if it’s treated with anti-depressants rather than mood stabilizers, it can get worse. So when I say part of my problem that first semester was biological, I say that because I didn’t even know I had bipolar — and wouldn’t for a while yet — and though my psychiatrist apparently had suspicions, I was being treated with anti-depressants regardless. So it’s no wonder that after being diagnosed as depressed back in high school and being on the same medication for so long, I’d finally had some serious ramifications — two pretty good years at college that I can now say had a lot of my “mania” tinging them, and then my would-be Junior year, where the switch flipped and the depression kicked my ass harder than if I’d gone ten rounds with Ali.

I say would-be because I never finished. I dropped out that first semester to get help, only after the administration had noticed I wasn’t going to classes (and though they didn’t know it, I really wasn’t doing much of anything). That email from the dean woke me up to the state I was in.

So I returned the second semester of the year, and had a pretty good two weeks — good classes, I was working with my favorite psych professor in her lab, and we were getting more snow than was healthy, which meant a lot of cancelled classes and my girlfriend spending days at a time visiting because her campus was snowed out too.

But as you probably guessed by now, two weeks was all I got. My control over my depression was still tenuous at that point, and I knew it. I was building up momentum and had I been able to keep doing so, I’d like to think I would have been able to just keep going. I tell myself that, but I don’t really think it’s true.

At any rate, two weeks went by and I was feeling great. And then my world was shattered, and I left school again. Semi-permanently, as it were, given that I’m not back yet with no definite time frame as to when I’m returning.

I hate myself for using a cliché like that — “my world was shattered” —  but it’s the most apt description I can give for the events that followed those two weeks. You see, even when you’re twenty years old and in college, your family still has a great influence on you and is still a big part of your life. Perhaps even moreso than ever. You’re reaching the age where you’ll soon start thinking about starting your own family, and in that endeavor, if you have a healthy family, you’ll probably at least unconsciously try to model your future on the model of your own family.

So you can understand how finding out about my father’s extramarital activities would break my spirits.While he assured us multiple times that there were never any physical relationships, and there’s nothing that I’m aware of that strongly confirms or contradicts his affirmation — that’s his truth, and whatever others believe is their business, and I’m not taking a stance on the issue, least of all here — his relationships were emotional, which was arguably worse. My father was never abusive per se, at least not to me and my sister, though Lord knows he wasn’t verbally or emotionally good to my mother, but there wasn’t a lot of emotional support coming from him. In truth, while I wouldn’t say I resented him by that point, I certainly knew — or thought I knew — where things stood and where my support was coming from.

What made things worse was that the girls (you’ll understand the word choice in a moment) he was having these relationships with were all around my age. In other words, young enough to be his kids. Or his kid’s girlfriend, who seems to have been one of these relationships, unwittingly according to her. And though I hadn’t written for over two years at that point, he was using his writing courses and our small press as a means to start these relationships. A point which I’ll return to soon.

As though my parents’ strife and separation weren’t enough, as well as all the stress of those many months before my father was finally able to move out, about two weeks after it all happened, my girlfriend decided it was time to call it quits. In plain, simple, factual terms, keeping my own emotions out of it, what happened was we’d been talking about when we were getting together next, and suddenly she said, and I’m more paraphrasing than quoting most of this, as I no longer have the phone the texts were on, “Do you think we should take a break while all of this is going on so that you have one less thing to worry about?”

You might have already guessed that this was a pretty big shock — what had happened to the conversation from five minutes ago? — but I thought, maybe she just thinks she’s being considerate of my feelings and my situation. I told her in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t another thing to worry about and that I didn’t want to “take a break.”

The response, and this is a direct quote, one that has refused for over a year to leave me, was short and heartbreakingly to the point: “Well, I do.” That was that. Oh, I certainly made a point to note that she’d done this over text, something she’d sworn never to do after I’d been cowardly back in ’11 and done that myself, a fact which she’d never let me live down. And she gave the excuse that she thought I couldn’t talk on the phone. Without even trying. I don’t know what the circumstances were that led to this thought, and frankly while I have my own theory as to why it all went down the way it did, it’s a moot point, because what’s done is done. Also I don’t feel it’s right to discuss my ideas here because whether they’re true or not, there’s no point in my putting things out about someone that I have no facts to support. My feelings are my own, and I will not do anything that might be construed as defamatory. It’s not good for anyone, least of all me.

If you’ve read Horns, or you are, in fact, Joe Hill, you might see now why certain parts of the book were triggering.

What followed all of this was months of depression and finally serious treatment — three weeks in an outpatient program at a psychiatric hospital, three weeks in a less intense outpatient program at a different psychiatric center, and then on to my current regimen of weekly one-on-one and group sessions as well as psychiatrist appointments at whatever frequency is deemed necessary to track and work with medications. It was during this time that I was finally correctly diagnosed and treated with the proper medications. And after all of this treatment I finally started to get back to something resembling normal, both psychically and in “real” life, as it were. I finally got my driver’s license, at twenty-one, and shortly after got a job in retail, something which I do plan to write about eventually — but that’s something for a separate post entirely. It’s been nine months now since I was hired, which is nine months of structure and life, nine months that I’ve been able to live and function without having some sort of breakdown cripple me and leave me feeling like a shell of a human.

But for about eight of those months, something still felt missing. That’s over three years since I’d last written, if you’re still keeping track. I’d gotten back my functionality, I’d gotten back my focus and for the first time in what felt like forever was able to read books again. But I was still not quite right.

I’ll step back for a moment and offer a little more conjecture about my situation. See, for some of the time since that last story, I’d thought about or even tried a bit to write, but wasn’t really able to get anything out. When the proverbial shit hit the fan in February and everything I knew was upended, I think the “writer’s block,” if you want to use that term got worse. And it’s only right now that I’m noticing that part of that was probably because writing felt tainted. My father using writing and publishing to set up his relationships was a sort of betrayal that kept my creativity blocked on a level so unconscious that it’s taken this post, after all this time, to finally figure it out.

Writing was something we shared. The press was something we’d shared. So his abuse of those things was a psychological blight that I couldn’t even begin to fathom while I was still so close to the events.

We’re on good terms now, my dad and I, in case you’ve been wondering. While I can’t say that I forgive him for what he did, I can look past it to who he is now after all of the help and treatment he’s gotten and continues to get, and I can appreciate the new relationship we can and have been building. The past is the past. It’s not always pretty but it’s not the present, and that’s what matters.

But anyway, back on track. The point is, it was about a month ago that I finally read Horns, and that’s when something finally clicked.

This is the part where I get back to Joe Hill and why this post is an open letter to him.

Horns, difficult at times to read as it was, was the book I needed to finally fully reawaken the passion for literature and writing that had been locked away for so many years. Something about the book woke me up. I dug out the start of a story, an idea I’d had for years and never made work, and found that it was still a solid start — only a few paragraphs, but a start. And things started flowing, finally, joyously. I wrote until my hand cramped and it was wonderful, a pain I’d not felt for a long time. I’ve spoken here before about why I write with pen and paper, how it’s a closer connection between thought and form and how it’s almost spiritual, how it encompasses almost all of the senses. And feeling the motion of the pen, the paper beneath my hand, smelling the ink and the pages and watching the words flow out, hearing the nib scratch ever-so-slightly — it was like a drug.

I’m currently working on that project, and another one that’s cropped up since then. And I have yet a third on the back burner, sitting and waiting for me to pick it up and start it. I feel more alive and creative than I have in years. And it’s thanks to Joe Hill and his wonderful work.

And I truly believe that, too. I don’t think it was just a case of finally having gone long enough without writing that I was able to do it again. Because just a few months before Horns I’d tried to write something, and the bit of it I managed was pretty bad and headed nowhere. I hadn’t been given that spark and push that I needed, didn’t have the passion and drive to write.

So after all of this, it comes down to two words. Thank you. Sometimes “thank you” is the only thing that needs to be said. There can be more weight in those two words than in the whole of the English language.

So thank you, readers, if you’ve stuck it out this far. Thank you for reading my words and allowing me to finally get them out of myself.

And, in the interest of finally coming to the ultimate point here and ending what turned out to be a much, much longer post than I ever expected, thank you, Joe Hill, whether you ever see this or not. Thank you for gracing the world with your work. Thank you most of all, though, for finally rekindling the flame that I thought was long dead. Thank you for allowing me to finally call myself a writer again. Thank you for helping me find the part of me that was missing for so very long. You’ve given me back something fundamental that I’d lost, and the only repayment I can give you is my humblest, sincerest thank you.

And, of course, a place of honor in the Acknowledgements should I ever finally publish my work.

Thank you

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