Three years of blogging, hundreds of stories, hundreds of thousands of words, but I’ve only mentioned Kiera once. This wasn’t intentional; she just never came up. I didn’t even notice this omission until I started assembling my book. Once I realize that she was nowhere to be found, I was shocked that I could write so many stories about the years we dated and never write a word about her.
Late last year, Kiera made her cameo in my story Belle. She only got a brief scene, and one sentence of dialogue; necessary to move the story along. It happens to be the most cynical sentence I’ve ever put in a story. But I didn’t write it, Kiera did.
I accept the challenge of selecting one night out of 1,500 to represent our relationship: We traveled to Buffalo, NY to attend a wedding. Her friends, not mine. People she had mentioned—college friends I’d never met. A nighttime party organized for convenience and drinking, the reception located in the same hotel as the guest-rooms. Mid-evening, Kiera disappeared. Heading back to our room, she said, to swap shoes.
An hour later, bored of small-talk with strangers, bored of drinks made with gin, I went looking for her. Not in our room, not at the reception, or the hotel bar, or in the bathroom. Nobody to ask, no one I knew. Eventually, I found her. She finally went to our room for her shoes—two hours after she left me on this errand. She was wired, rambunctious. She wanted to fight. She chased me around the room throwing karate kicks my way until I fought back. Eventually we went back out for more drinks.
But after four years, the fun times began to fade away. We dwindled down to below a simmer with Kiera pushing further and further away from me. She sometimes stayed out all night; she eventually moved out of our apartment, applied to far-flung graduate schools, and started dating guys from her new apartment building. It looked like our relationship would simply get smaller and smaller until I could no longer find it. But it didn’t. The ending itself was rather abrupt.
My father invited us to a picnic on the C&O Canal to spend some time getting to know his girlfriend and her two kids. The canal was once a 184-mile water passage spanning from Cumberland, MD to Washington, DC. Now it’s a long and skinny Federal Park. Close to DC, the canal is fully restored and operable as a living history destination. But starting twenty miles out into the suburbs, it simply becomes a dirt and gravel bike path.
As urban dwellers living in the heart of DC, Kiera, my brother Dana, and I were always looking for opportunities to bicycle outside the city, so before we drove out deep into Maryland for our picnic, we loaded up our mountain bikes on the roof of my car for a quick pre-picnic canal ride.
The riding wasn’t fantastic. Recent rain left large, muddy puddles all over the wide riding path. The three of us formed a natural triangle to allow conversation: Dana in the front, Kiera directly behind him, and I rode to the left of them both—a bit ahead of Kiera, and a bit behind Dana. Each time we approached a puddle, I slowed down. If the puddle was on the right side of the trail, I would drop back to avoid being splashed with muddy water. If it was on my side, I had to avoid splashing Kiera. We were wearing our picnic clothes after all. The constant breaking became tiresome.
In my mountain biking heyday, I was a bunny-hop monster. Bunny-hopping is the ability jump your bike into the air off of a flat surface. I could launch my bike high and long over most obstacles in my path. This is useful for riding over fallen trees and large rocks without slowing down. On this day, it was handy for hopping over puddles. When the puddle was on my side of the path, I no longer slowed down, I simply hopped into the air. And that’s why Kiera and I broke up.
One of the puddles was just too big to clear. I had plenty of height, but not enough speed. My back wheel landed squarely in the water; Kiera got splashed.
Kiera: ”That’s it!”
Me: “What’s it?”
Kiera: “We’re breaking-up!”
And that was, as Kiera put it, “it.” Minutes before a picnic with my father, his new girlfriend and her teenage kids. A couple of awkward hours of food and games, a silent forty-minutes in the car back to DC with Dana and Kiera. Me, trying to figure out how I could be unknowingly so close to a break up that a small splash of water could throw things over the edge. But before all that stuff happened, there was a real relationship—at least for a while.
During the years I dated Kiera, I developed a standard patter regarding my future employment. The question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was always answered with “I plan on being an ambassador’s husband.”
Kiera was connected. She worked for a big-deal political consulting firm where the employees uniformly believed they were each, one day, destined for greatness. I’m now completely out of touch with this group. I can’t say if anyone’s destiny came through. But one of the partners in the firm, a likable woman named Annie, seemed to have the best shot at becoming a star. I thought she might wind up as a senator, or a presidential chief of staff, or maybe even the president herself. Kiera was always by her side: helping her work out her technology problems, writing her correspondence, or fetching her meals. I envisioned Kiera one day landing an ambassador post as payback for performing all of these unappealing tasks for Annie. I was along for the ride. I was happy to be the “spouse”.
Other than some vague, general notions, I have no idea what a diplomat does on a daily basis. I simply saw the diplomatic corps as one of those cushy government jobs that people are rewarded with for being friends with the right people. My impression: once they scored the job, all that’s required of an ambassador is to dress nicely and act “all diplomatic.” But everyone knows what’s expected of the diplomat’s wife. Her job is to throw awesome parties. That’s a job description that I thought I could nail.
Anyone who knows me is wondering why I would ever want a job where I’m expected to entertain. I don’t like being around people, at least not in groups. Pen pals and correspondents are more my speed. I rarely go to parties. I certainly don’t host them. A perfect Saturday night for me entails reading a book and emailing the author. But as a young professional living in Washington, DC—the portion of my life when I drank too much and daily—parties were my way of life. I was confident, out-going, and when not slurring words, witty and charming.
Kiera ’s coworker, Annie, isn’t the president; and Kiera isn’t an ambassador. But I am. During the twenty-five years since Kiera dumped me, the usage of the word ambassador has morphed—at least in my circles. It’s more likely to be used as a synonym for advocate or spokesperson than a representative in a foreign country. It’s a title I’ve adopted for myself.
Mental illness is a medical condition most of us keep secret. Sure, from time to time I hear: “Oh, I’m seeing a therapist.” But I never hear: “I didn’t come to work yesterday because I was having anxiety attacks.” Or “I didn’t call you this weekend because I was afraid to talk with you.” Or “Wait, what? Go to a party? Mingle? With people?”
Mental Illness was my secret, too. It was such a huge secret, I even hid it from myself. I submerged it in alcohol. Drowned it in beer and wine. As long as I was drinking enough, I felt good; I felt normal—funny, capable, and in-control. People are naturally drawn towards coping mechanisms. Strategies to mask the pain of being awkward, or anxious, or sad. Constant and heavy alcohol intake was my strategy. And it worked… for a while.
Life moves quickly; I struggled to keep up. Marriage, home ownership and children altered my consumption. My alcohol intake dropped as a nod to my increased responsibilities. This change was unintended, as was the result. As I reduced my drinking, cracks appeared in my façade—small signs of weakness pointing to my structural deficiency. Clearer vision helped me see the faults in my foundation.
Going to therapy gave these faults a name. Tourettes Syndrome—present since childhood, but never acknowledged. OCD—my swirling thoughts and fears: disrupting my ability to sleep, to focus, to live a peaceful life. Social Anxiety—encouraging me to enter every situation with a drink in my hand.
Three years ago I began to write; I authored a blog. Anonymously at first, as I gained insight into my mental unhealth. Through my blog, I found confidence in telling my story. And that helped repair those foundation cracks. Therapeutic writing has changed my life, and possibly other lives as well. Just a year ago, I began blogging under my own name; I published a book chronicling my struggles with mental illness and substance abuse (and women). I publicized these stories and topics on my facebook page. I gave talks and readings. And I heard over and over that my stories help other people take a clearer look at themselves, at their own mental health.
As an ambassador for anxiety and OCD, I demystify these conditions. I let people see what these illnesses really look like. And as an ambassador, I’m building my embassy. Each story I write, each educational post on facebook and twitter, each discussion with a friend, a coworker or an acquaintance is another brick in the foundation—a foundation without cracks, that isn’t crumbling. I hope to build a refuge for those like me. A place where people can find others with the same problems.
By allowing myself to be the face of mental illness, people see that it looks just like everybody else. A husband, a father, an office worker, a homeowner. I’m a normal guy in a normal town in America. I’m a representative of everyone else. But I’m also the guy who’s mentally ill, who takes medications, who sees a therapist. I’m the guy who skipped the party because he didn’t want to be around people.
My life isn’t a series of well-planned parties. I doubt I would like it if it was. I’m not a naturally out-going person, only alcohol makes me that way. I like to think, to analyze, to write—not socialize in large groups. My ill-conceived future as an ambassador’s husband was misguided, as was at least half of my relationship with Kiera. But that part of my life helped prepare the landscape for embassy I would begin to build today.